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The Ancestor You Will Be

To the people who find this many years later, long enough that I’ve been forgotten, this is for you all. I hope I did things right.

By Tajrean Rahman, Contributing Opinion Writer
Tajrean Rahman ’20 is a History and Science concentrator in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

Critics will say that there is no power in protesting. They will walk by a rally or strike and scoff, remaining unfeeling even as crowds of students and alumni take to the football field to call divestment in the name of climate change. They like to write it all off as inconveniences when the Ethnic Studies Coalition stages a sit-down for faculty denied tenure, or when the Harvard Graduate Student Union vote to go on strike for a better contract.

But even these cynics have to recognize the power behind these actions: how a cause can be enough for hundreds and thousands of people to come together, united because the only option is to take a stand, especially when it is hard.

I felt this same power when I attended the San Francisco Never Again Action protest this past July. Though I was only interning in the area for the summer and did not know anyone in the crowd, I found myself amongst company that was comforting, strangers who felt familiar through the convictions we all shared. See, in our shared goal of calling out the injustice of the “concentration camps” for detained migrants at the border, I did not have to know these people in order to trust their commitment to the cause we all stood behind — their decision to stand with me was enough in that moment.

In the closing of the protest, one of the organizers took to the stage with the microphone and looked at all of us for a long moment. His voice was steady as he told us some wise words a mentor had once shared with him: “Think deeply: What kind of ancestor do you want to be?”

I’ve thought a lot about this question since hearing it. The concept of ancestors is always something that I had not given much attention to before college: The circle of my family has always been confined to my parents and siblings. Though the rest of my extended relatives live an ocean away, the distance has always left me feeling detached from the motherland. It is not a surprise then that my ancestral ties feel even fainter, but the absence feels heavy for some reason — especially with the recent loss of my final grandparent.

To some respect, we all crave a desire to know where we came from and who was here before us. It’s why historians scour through archives and scientists work out countless theories. I am not immune to this pull, having always envied people who are able to trace back their family lineages, easily connecting the dots from great-grandparent, to second-aunt, to third cousin twice removed — mapping out their history from generation to generation. With the death of my grandparents, I was suddenly struck with a sensation of feeling unmoored by yet another generation of people who once shared my blood. The disconnect is like being alone at sea, knowing that there were others before you but not having access to their charts and maps in the pursuit of your own journey.

So I have chosen my own ancestors. I read through the biographies of activists like Malcolm X, who worked tirelessly to organize and advocate during the civil rights era. I turn to people like Rosalind Franklin, English chemist and X-ray crystallographer specialist, whose work was key in determining the structure of the DNA molecule. I find inspiration with figures like Lalla Fatma N’Soumer, a woman who rallied her indigenous people against the French invasion in Algeria. I follow in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him, a leader who was driven out of his own community for preaching for justice and change, unfaltering in his faith even when it would have been so much easier to just quit.

And yet, we learn about them today because they chose to take that stand, whether in choosing a career that women were encouraged against, or facing a stronger opposition that tried to intimidate them to surrender. These ancestors go down as having been on the right side of history.

In the age of today, we have a choice in how we will join the ranks of tomorrow — as members of an imperfect world, where people are denied rights in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, you and I are tasked with the responsibility to protest. As our ancestors have done before us, we must demand change for every instance of injustice, establishing a legacy that teach our future generation to accept nothing but what is right. Because even when we are forgotten, the record of our deeds and the choices we made will serve as a testament to the people we were and the causes we fought for. Will that person be someone who chose to be narrow minded and selfish? Someone who turned a blind eye to atrocities like the Uighur re-education camps and mindless exploitation of immigrant laborers?

It is the people who don’t know how to dream or how to fight, who choose to criticize and condescend because they are the easier options, asserting that no real change will come about because they fear the process of change will be hard — it will be, but at the promise of something so much better. The question then remains: Will you be remembered for being on the wrong side of history?

Tajrean Rahman ’20 is a History and Science concentrator in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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