I still remember that day, the day that we said goodbye to my grandmother. I remember standing graveside and sharing with all those in attendance the powerful words of When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou

When great trees fall,

rocks on distant hills shudder,

lions hunker down in tall grasses,

and even elephants

lumber after safety.

I had just turned 11-years-old a few days before my grandmother's funeral. It was my first birthday without her. As I spoke the powerful words of Maya Angelou, I felt connected to all the powerful Black women in my family who had come before me. I understood at that very moment that I was not walking on earth alone. I understood that although this great tree had left us, I was still surrounded by other great trees that would help me navigate life. As my life has continued, I have used the great trees around me to learn and grow.

These great trees, the Black women who helped create a world where a young Black Generation Z girl like myself could break free of the shackles made of White supremacy and negative stereotypes, helped me overtly and covertly. Honestly, without them, I would not have been able to even dream of the life I am fortunate to live.

Last week, I watched a Twitter discussion between a great tree and another emerging great tree that I both admire. This exchange of a few short tweets captured the thoughts I had been having about our inability as younger Black women to learn, acknowledge, and engage those amazing Black women who came before us and gave their all to fight to ensure that we would have the opportunities we had today.

The Twitter exchange that made me stop, and honestly moved me to write this column, was between the successful journalist Jemele Hill and one of the greatest Black women leaders of the Civil Rights movement and lifelong human rights activist Denise Oliver-Velez. 

Ms. Hill had taken a moment on Twitter to vent her frustration with United States Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona for their efforts to derail important parts of President Biden's economic and social safety net proposals. Miss Hill went on to close her tweet with a threat that because of this Black voters will be "checked out" in the next election.

Ms. Oliver-Velez responded to the Tweet with the blunt wisdom that only our elders could provide of the political realities of the current makeup of the United States Senate and how we as Americans should understand what a 50 to 50 split in the United States Senate means in moving any policy agenda forward. 

It was at this moment that Miss Hill demonstrated her lack of understanding of our own HERstory and who our great trees are by responding with a blatantly disrespectful Tweet that dared to attack Ms. Oliver-Velez. Of course, what makes great trees great is that they never shy away from their roots. Ms. Oliver-Velez's response of, "I'll continue to call your tfiflin ass out when you are wrongheaded. Like my mama, aunties and grands did to me" to the attack made me think of my grandmother Carolyn. In all honesty, reading that tweet by Ms. Oliver-Velez made me feel my grandmother's presence as if her energy was sharing the space with me in my room at the very moment. I was in her shadow again, standing on the strength of her deep roots.

I watched over the next few hours as Hill received Tweets from those who had taken time to learn about the great trees around us and shared with Hill her ignorance of who she was talking to through Tweets.  Oliver-Velez is no unknown figure. She was a member of the Young Lords and the Black Panthers. She fought for equality, against toxic masculinity, and educated on the intersection of gender and ethnicity long before anyone and many others started engaging in it. 

The audacity of Ms. Hill to feel comfortable enough to ignorantly attack and dismiss one of the greatest trees in our collective forest on a global social media platform. To then offer, in all honesty, a tepid apology that seemed more like an effort to soothe your ego instead of being sincerely sorry for standing in the shadow of a great tree and thinking that you were in your own shadow.

For Gen Z, there is a true lesson to learn here. It is not enough for us to be the amazing and impactful generation of outspoken leaders on the issues we are currently engaging on. As we stand up and push back on the new wave of white supremacy attacks on our mere existence in this nation, we must remember that we are not the first generation to experience this fight. Our ability to stand in public and engage in these fights lies on the foundation of those great trees and the roots they laid for us. 

If we as Gen Z understand that the Twitter exchange between Ms. Hill and Ms. Oliver-Velez demonstrated generational ignorance and lack of understanding of our own HERstory, we should make sure that we take moments in our own lives to ensure we do not enter adulthood also ignorant and unaware. We should be careful to understand our HERstory and be willing to humble ourselves with the great trees that surround us.

As the attacks to protect White supremacy continue to ramp up into 2022 and beyond, we should be mindful that those attacks are meant to disconnect us from the great trees. Recent attacks in Texas on books and the announcement that Texas House of Representative Member Matt Krause to challenge 850 books in school libraries across Texas is not only meant to advance White supremacy but to deny us the ability to learn our own history. 

Even if Republicans like Texas House of Representatives member Matt Krause are successful, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves on our history and to protect the works and actions of every great tree that has come before us. We cannot allow ourselves to become a generation of uninformed leaders that Miss Hill demonstrated with her clueless tweet. We can't wear a Good Trouble or I Am My Ancestors' Wildest Dreams t-shirt and not be able to understand what those words truly mean. We can't just be mad and yell on social media platforms, we must listen to the words of Ms. Oliver-Velez and follow the roots of the great trees and use our power to vote. 

I also hope that Ms. Hill will take the time to use what happened on Twitter to engage her followers on this very issue. I know I am going to do that with my own platforms. We all have a responsibility to understand where we came from and why the actions we are taking today in important movements like Black Lives Matter and Black Voters Matter are so rooted in the HERstory of those who came before us.

To the great trees like Ms. Oliver-Velez and my grandmother Carolyn, please know that we do appreciate your life struggles and dedication to helping create the world we now navigate. We will promise to do better and understand our deep connection to the timeline of great trees we stand amongst. Your branches and deep roots provide us with the protection and encouragement to move forward. It is our hope that someday we can as a generation join the forest of great trees and share in the contribution of those generations who came before us in this fight to ensure that our nation lives up to its full potential. Gen Z, "we can be. Be and be better. For they existed"


Haley Taylor Schlitz is 19 years old and in her third year of law school at SMU Dedman School of Law. In May of 2019, she became Texas Woman's University's youngest graduate in history when she graduated with honors with a Bachelor of Science degree from Texas Woman's University College of Professional Education. She is also the host of the online show Zooming In w/Gen Z. Follow all of her endeavors on Instagram and Twitter.