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Angela Davis had People on the Mayflower and Twitter is Disgusted


McGee Media LLC

Angela Davis was featured on a recent episode of “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.” You’re likely familiar with the show. Celebrities and public figures are featured in each episode learning about their ancestry. Most of the time, the familial tidbits revealed are interesting to the general audience in that they expose and provide an everyday life in context to history, but generally the information learned is more meaningful to the person whose heritage is being revealed. Sometimes the information revealed has to be handled delicately, like when Ben Affleck found out one of his ancestors was a slave owner, and he wanted it to be left out of the show.


Davis’ episode is interesting on it's own, but the upset is behind a 49-second clip that was uploaded to social media. In it, Gates presents Davis with a document. He asks her if she knows what she’s looking at and goes on to reveal her ancestors were among the 101 people on the Mayflower. Davis laughs and immediately shakes her head no. She looks baffled underneath the uncomfortable laughter. After a few moments, she shakes her head a final time and takes a deep breath. “That’s a little bit too much to deal with right now,” Davis says.


That’s right, political activist, philosopher, academic, author, and former Black Panther Angela Davis is the descendent of someone on the Mayflower.


When I saw the clip, I thought “oh, that sucks,” and went on with my day. But for some reason, this clip has caused a weird kind of outrage online.


It seems the timing of this episode, during Black History Month, is of particular contention. Commenters have called it diabolical and asked for emotional compensation for having to know this info; they’ve trotted out Gates white wife; and even insinuated that Davis didn’t really have an understanding about slavery because she’s “light skinned” and therefore shouldn’t have been surprised that her ancestry went back to that set of colonizers. People are also using this as an opportunity to share their dislike of Gates and call him a coon while they’re at it.


It’s all very … weird.


If anyone understands what it means to be Black in America, Angela Davis does, so her response isn’t the problem. As for Gates, he’s doing a show and has a long career of brining Black history to PBS. I don’t see how 49 seconds of a show he’s done for years now discounts his entire contribution to teaching Black history.


Ultimately, there is no problem. People on the internet love hyperbole. Twitter especially has become the land of Henny Penny; the sky is falling if something big is happening and when nothing is happening at all. Being angry about something relatively banal can boost engagement. However, as I thought more about these strange responses from Black folks, I realized maybe there’s something else going on.


It's hard to face the horrors of chattel slavery and its effects on your family—those known and unknown. The desire to know as a Black person, can confirm some of our worst fears. To assume the worst happened to a distant ancestor is one thing, but to have it confirmed might feel like the reverberation of the crime crossing space and time. And perhaps that’s what all these reactions are. The deep fear that one day they too will sit across from someone or in front of a computer screen and learn of a thing too horrible to speak aloud. That they too will have to carry that complicated and terrible knowledge and somehow make peace with it.

 

Perdita Patrice is a Texas-based writer and documentary filmmaker. She enjoys live music, reading, and watching TV. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @perditapatrice


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