Angela Davis attends the Women's March in Washington.

Angela Davis’ Reaction to Finding Out She is A Mayflower Descendant? “No No No No No”

The implications are not great

POV: You’re a famous civil rights activist and professor who was a key power player in the 1970s Black Power movement, the ongoing women’s rights movement, and the prison abolition movement, among others, over the last 60-ish years. You go on a genealogy-themed TV show, and the host tells you, on national TV, that you are descended from people who came over on the Mayflower. How the F do you react? 

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Well, here’s what happened in that exact and very real scenario that recently played out on Camera when Dr. Angela Davis—the esteemed mother of contemporary civil rights activists—recently filmed an appearance on Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s genealogy show, “Finding Your Roots” which airs on PBS this week. Apparently, their professional genealogists tested her DNA and researched her family going back several generations. Her first reaction to Gates handing her the evidence on paper? “I can’t believe this, no. My ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower. No no no no no no no no. Oof. That’s a little bit too much to deal with right now.”

Okay, no one’s missing the initial shock comedy inherent in the sheer irony here. A famous Black civil rights activist finds out she’s qualified to join the uber-whitewashed Mayflower Society. And if you watch the video, you can see she’s laughing through her surprise, even while her words reject the news. But who you are and what race you are as makes all the difference here. 

For a Caucasian person in the United States who still idolizes the freaking founding fathers roughly 250 years after they wrote a lot of stuff that no longer applies to modern life (much of it racist garbage), being a Mayflower descendant may be good news to you. For a Black woman like Dr. Davis, this news points specifically to enslaved family members and almost definitely to rape. 

When Gates asks Dr. Davis how she feels to be descended from people who “laid the foundation for this country,” it’s hard not to cringe at everything that’s implied in those words. Yes, the roughly 100 colonizers who traveled to North America on the Mayflower did figuratively build the earliest pieces of our country. But so much of the U.S.’s early infrastructure was literally built by enslaved people that it’s likely Dr. Davis already considered her ancestry in this way.

One Twitter user actually commented, “Dr. Gates, wouldn’t we say she descended from people who laid the foundation for this country, w/ or w/o the mayflower ancestor?” 

Later on in the show, which is streaming on PBS, Davis, who has had more time to process her reaction, explained, “I always imagined my ancestors as the people who were enslaved. It makes me even more committed to struggling for a better world.” Davis’ 10th great-grandfather, William Brewster, sailed on the Mayflower. Genealogists also discovered another of her distant ancestors was a slave owner in the 1700s, according to reporting from AI.

(featured image: Noam Galai/WireImage)

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Cammy Pedroja
Author and independent journalist since 2015. Frequent contributor of news and commentary on social justice, politics, culture, and lifestyle to publications including The Mary Sue, Newsweek, Business Insider, Slate, Women, USA Today, and Huffington Post. Lover of forests, poetry, books, champagne, and trashy TV.