“Dear Racism, I am not my grandparents. Sincerely, these hands.”
The T-shirt with this inscription has recently sparked a bit of controversy on social media. “These hands” is slang for using fists for fighting. Following the controversial election of Donald Trump, and during a time when racist acts have reached unprecedented levels, the T-shirt resonates with many who are motivated to resist racism “by any means necessary.”
On the surface, the audacity of the message has shades of the Black Power Movement, when activists like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael openly eschewed nonviolent restraint, in favor of self-defense and tactical resistance. Ironically, the full message of the shirt suggests that the use of “hands” to deal with racism is contrary to the methods used by our “grandparents.”
The shirt, made by a company called Thrift Element, has no relevance to me on a personal level. My maternal grandfather, John Henry Scott, spent nights staking out his home and church with a shotgun because racists constantly threaten him and his family for being voting rights activists. My paternal grandfather, Henry Toldson, told a story of arming himself to confront racists who threaten to lynch his son for cursing at a White boy who called him a nigger. Both of my grandparents were born on plantations and managed to escape the exploitative system of sharecropping.
My stepfather, Imari Obadele, who is old enough to be my grandfather, served five years in prison, because his organization, the Republic of New Africa — while defending themselves against a COINTELPRO-instigated raid — killed a police officer in Jackson, MS. I also learned, from the book Witness to the Truth, that my great, great grandfather fought in the Civil War in a colored brigade for the Union Army to end slavery.
I shared details of my lineage, while criticizing the message on the shirt, on social media, and Black people immediately noted that my family history is unique. While this is true, it is important to acknowledge that none of my forefathers acted alone; they were a part of larger Black movements with no modern-day equivalents.
Arguably, Black militancy was much more prominent in the 1960s and 1970s. The original Black Panther Party, Deacons for Defense and Justice, The Republic of New Africa, and The Black Liberation Army are organizations that used self-defense methods that were so advanced and threatening that they led the FBI to start “COINTELPRO–Black Hate” to neutralize and disrupt them.
However, beyond the Black Power Movement, armed resistance has been central to fighting against White supremacy in the Western Hemisphere; from slavery to Jim Crow. The NAACP, which is often mischaracterized as a pacifist organization, spawned self-defense advocates like Robert F. Williams and Dr. Robert B. Hayling. Williams obtained a charter from the National Rifle Association to arm the NAACP and wrote “Negroes with Guns.” Dr. Hayling, the founder of the St. Augustine Movement in Florida famously said, "I and the others have armed. We will shoot first and answer questions later. We are not going to die like Medgar Evers."
A white-washing of history causes many to see Black liberation as passive, one-dimensional and isolated. When we learn about the American Revolution, we do not learn about “Black Patriots” and “Black Loyalist” who fought with opposing views of how to end slavery. When we learn about the period of slavery, we do not learn about the rapidly expanding maroon colonial settlements of Black people who escaped to sovereign American territories, like the “Negro Fort” in Florida, which engaged in war against the U.S. Government.
We also do not learn about free Black abolitionists who were preparing for armed conflict against slave states in the decades preceding the Civil War. When we learn about the Civil War, we do not learn about the Black men who attacked Harpers Ferry with John Brown, or the colored brigades in the Union Army which were primarily comprised of Black people who escaped slavery. True to the African Proverb, “Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be the hero.”
Overall, the shirt reflects flaws in the way Black people are taught about themselves. Mainstream education subconsciously and deliberately omits aspects of Black history that make white people feel uneasy, resulting in Black children receiving an uninspiring education that reduces their ancestors to the casual pedestrians of American history.
Of the more than 135 comments on my Facebook posts, my favorite was from Rafiah Muhammad who stated:
“Without your grandparents fighting, defending and dying you wouldn't be here or have any rights. How about ‘Dear Racism, my grandparents were badass, so you really don't want this.'"
In other words, whoever made this shirt, and whoever wears this shirt, should stop dishonoring our grandparents, and use “these hands” to pick up a book.
Fight ignorance, instead of fighting ignorantly.
Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of the QEM Network, a professor at Howard University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education. Previously, Toldson served as the executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities and senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.