HomeAsian AmericansCivil rights activist Valerie Kaur: your ancestors know

Civil rights activist Valerie Kaur: your ancestors know

What Asian Americans arguably have in common is a love and respect for our ancestors . Valerie Kaur, a fourth generational Sikh American, civil rights activist, and filmmaker, urged an audience of mostly Chinese Americans to listen to their hearts for the voice of our “intergenerational ancestral wisdom.”

“This ancestor has something they’re longing to tell you,” she said Thursday at the virtual Celebration of Justice for the civil rights group, Chinese for Affirmative Action. “Something that’s unique, to be brave with your life at this moment. This is how we are going to make it through this time of terror and transition with our ancestors at our backs and their wisdom in our hearts and linking arms in solidarity with one another.”

15 years ago, Hyphen, an Asian American magazine sponsored by CAA, featured Kaur at a time her career had just launched. She called that a touching gesture which told her Chinese Americans had her community’s back.

Her appearance at the gala came at a time when Asian Americans are dealing with the rampant rise of anti-Asian hate. CAA, now in its 51st year, is one of three groups which established the hate incident reporting center, StopAAPIHate, which has collected more than 2,500 incidents.

Kaur thought back to her grandfather, Kehar Singh, who too faced racism and xenophobia. He arrived in California in 1913. Immigration officials threw him behind bars at Angel Island, what she called a “symbol of exclusion and of hate, a place where White nationalists were trying to deport as many of us as possible.

“My grandfather was interrogated and behind bars with Chinese immigrants, Japanese immigrants, Filipino immigrants. I wonder what conversations they had. What looks they had to give each other. The way they had to lock arms just to make it through those squalid conditions.

“My grandfather was released on Christmas Eve, 1913 and I have to believe that something he experienced behind those bars taught him what solidarity could look like.”

She said decades later he would look after the farms of Japanese Americans who were rounded up into concentration camps during World War II. He went to visit his friends at the camp when no one else would. He made sure they had a home to return to.

She says he joined Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese Americans to fight for decades for the rights to become citizens and the ability to vote. He never missed an election. Even in his 90’s, Singh asked his son and Kaur’s father to carry him to the polls.

She wonders what her grandfather would think about the pandemic today because he himself survived a pandemic in 1918-the Spanish Flu. She wondered what he would think about seeing the wilderness he enjoyed as a young immigrant burned to the ground. She also wondered what he would think about seeing video of George Floyd “gasping for breath beneath the knee of an officer.

“Would his eyes have floated over like mine did to the Asian American officer standing next to the White officer, Tou Thao. He’s doing his job. He’s following the script. How many times have we been like Officer Thao? she asked.

“Just dong the right thing, keeping our heads down, not making waves while the Black people in our lives are gasping for breath.”

She recalls going for a drive in Los Angeles with her 5-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter shortly after the killing and the unrest in the street that followed. She sees police with rifles on patrol and wonders if she’s going to have to explain to her children about white supremacists, hate violence and police killings.

Instead her five-year-old look around in amazement with his eyes wide and his smile full of wonderment.

“He looked at me and he said Mommy, did you do this? fixated on a large mural. “He saw BLMs and hearts. Hearts everywhere. He knows all that mommy talks about day and night is revolutionary love. I said, ‘No, We did this. We did this. There are millions of people right now. You can’t see them, but they are here. They’re showing up. They’re rising up. They’re flooding the streets in our grief , in our rage and fighting for justice and a global uprising for Black Lives and racial solidarity that I never thought we would see in my life time. Millions of us linking arms together in a multi-racial movement for justice that honors the ancestral solidarity that our ancestors taught us.”

She concluded with these stirring words.

“You are the community leaders, you are the artists and activists, you are the innovators. You are the healers. You are the ones that not only have the trauma of our ancestors in our bodies but you have their wisdom flowing through your vains too and that means you are the midwives in this time of great transition in our nation. Is this the darkness of the tomb or the darkness of the womb. We got to breath. We got to push. You have to hold on to that wisdom that your ancestors gave you. Keep it in your heart. Let it put your next breath in your body so you can link arms like they did. Keep showing up.”

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