“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” – Marcus Garvey
On January 2, 2020, I published the report Understanding ADOS: The Movement to Hijack Black Identity and Fracture Black Unity in America. Since publication, the report has been read and downloaded by over 40,000 people from across the African Diaspora; an indication that this discussion was long overdue. The report was about the ADOS movement and their attempts to rename the Black American/African American community, “American Descendants of Slavery.”
In follow up discussions I’ve realized that we need to revisit how problematic it is to refer to ourselves as “descendants of slavery.” To be clear, no we do not and can not descend from “slavery.” This line of thinking is problematic, dehumanizing, and anti-Black for a number of reasons.
“But JAM, we need the term ‘ADOS’ for our justice claim!” say people missing the point.
And my reply is, you’re in luck! Yes, we have a specific claim, and we also have specific terms that predate “ADOS.” The term to address this need is “Descendants of Africans enslaved in the United States” (DAEUS). This term has been used by African American activists, scholars, and reparations advocates for years. DAEUS is extremely useful because it brings both a historical and cultural context to African American lives, while also addressing the condition of slavery and its impact on our collective being.
No matter how anyone tries to frame it, slavery and enslavement are not lineages. For African Americans, many of our ancestors were indeed enslaved. However, slavery is a condition. It’s not a bloodline. The idea of embracing enslavement as bloodline or lineage-based actually reinforces the racist lies told by proponents of eugenics that tried to use racial hierarchies, religion, and pseudoscience to justify the enslavement of our ancestors.
In the 1858 book, “The Testimony of Modern Science in the Unity of Mankind,” James Lawrence Cabell argued that people of African descent were genetically inferior, thereby excusing and rationalizing slavery.
Additionally, ADOS terminology buys into the Hamitic myth, the racist religious ideology used by European enslavers, colonizers, scientists, and religious institutions to justify the enslavement of African people. The Hamitic myth stated that Black people were cursed by God for being descendants of Ham (the son of Noah). Proponents of the Hamitic mythic thereby sought to permanently align Black identity with slavery through religion.
ADOS is essentially uplifting the racist ideology of eugenics and the Hamitic myth by getting African Americans to adopt internalized anti-Blackness, through having us call ourselves “descendants of slavery” in the name of a “justice claim.” Thus, it’s not surprising that ADOS leadership seeks to distance themselves from African identity or question whether or not African Americans have a culture.
But for argument’s sake, let’s discuss another condition.
Let’s say, for example, you had a grandmother that, at one time in her life, went to prison. Would you then proclaim yourself to be a “descendant of prison?” Absolutely not, because you understand that prison is a place of confinement and imprisonment is the condition of being confined. Rightfully so, you’d tell people that your grandmother was imprisoned, but you would never say “prison is my lineage.“
You would never wear t-shirts calling yourself a “descendant of prison.” Perhaps the closest thing you could call yourself to that is “descendant of prison laborers,” and even that term would never be sufficient because it still doesn’t tell you anything about your history, culture, bloodline, or heritage.
Thus, you still wouldn’t proclaim the “prison” or “imprisonment” itself as your lineage. It would sound ridiculous. It would be confusing. And most of all, that statement would be incredibly dehumanizing.
Because prison is not an ethnicity, it’s not a culture, and it’s not a bloodline.
Neither is slavery.
“But JAM, why are you being so difficult? It’s not that serious!” says another person missing the point.
My response is: Our collective fight for human rights starts internally. It starts with who we are.
Attempts to reduce African American lineage and heritage to enslavement (justice claim or not) is an attack on African American humanity. The root word of “reparations” is “repair.” If we were to use ADOS terminology, not only would we NOT REPAIR, we would cause further self-destruction and harm. Because a people can not be repaired or healed without a full acknowledgment of their history, humanity, experiences, and existence.
Since the past often influences the future, an erasure of our identity as African people before enslavement would only lead to more slavery, be it mental, spiritual, or physical. This is because we would then have no true framework or starting point for an identity that would continually demand freedom and liberation.
As Dr. Carter G. Woodson stated, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” Dr. Woodson recognized how dangerous erasure was to our mentality concerning Black identity. This is precisely why he founded Negro History Week, which later evolved into Black History Month, and this is why he wrote “The Miseducation of the Negro.”
Erasure is not repairing. Erasure is death.
Using slavery as a lineage is also a blatant insult to our ancestors and their lives. My ancestors were more than the confines of “slavery” and the descriptor of “slave.” They were human beings. They were mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents. They were scientists, farmers, artisans, preachers, etc.
They were Africans, both enslaved and free, with their own religions, customs, languages, and beliefs.
It is for this reason that we must never disconnect ourselves from our ancestors’ origins. With most of our ancestors originating from various cultures in Africa, we have to look at them in the context of where they came from to understand who they were. Because who they were and the lineage they’ve passed down to us is who WE are.
We are not the descendants of a downtrodden condition – land-less, culture-less, language-less. We are the descendants of enslaved and free Africans in the Americas – survivors, cultivators, innovators, visionaries, and revolutionaries – with a rich cultural heritage. Our cultural heritage is grounded in the merger of multiple African cultures – to create a blended Pan African identity that we now refer to as Black American or African American.
Thus, reducing our ancestors’ total identity to enslavement is a horrific erasure of who we are, where we came from, and the potential of our future generations.
We should never lose sight of this fact, or we will lose sight of ourselves. We have been born the descendants of a Pan-African collective in America that battled in the belly of the beast and survived to tell the story.
Slavery is one condition, among many that our ancestors born on the continent of Africa and in the Americas fought and defeated. They are our lineage, freedom is our birthright, and the struggle continues.
For additional context, listen to my recent interview on Class, Culture, and Consciousness with Jen Marie Pollard.
Jessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor