Resources for Leaders

Reflections on the Real A.I.: Ancestral Intelligence

This commentary was inspired by a dear friend and brother in the work of creating safe, hope-filled, culturally centered educational ecosystems for boys and young men of color. These spaces would be free from the germs of bias and inequity that still infect the learning and living environments for too many of this population, as well as their families and communities of reference.

Baba Chris Chatmon has committed his life to liberating schools and communities from the societal shackles of discrimination that damage and kill the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of too many boys and young men of color. Chris Chatmon’s organization, Kingmakers of Oakland (KOO), has imagined and implemented a dynamic success blueprint that works! It is built on a strong foundation replete with innumerable supports and anchors that guide boys and young men of color to destination success for their education, career, and life.

In one of our conversations, Chris used the now ubiquitous initials AI to illuminate and give homage to what he termed Ancestral Intelligence. As an OG often called Baba Ron, the reference and imagery immediately ensnared me. So, it is with gratitude to The Most High for connecting Chris’s thoughts to my spirit. They have ignited these thoughts which I present freely to whomever reads them. These are my reflections about Ancestral Intelligence, which I consider to be the original AI.

With love, gratitude and remembrance, I lift the following names, Grandmother Lillie Pearl; Aunts Eula, Loreen, and Myrtle; Uncles Donald and Bailey, Cousins Geraldine and Tiny; Mother-in-Law Ruth; and of course my father Solomon and mother Delores. These beloved ancestors were the names of just a few of my relatives who played essential roles in my life’s development. There were others who I call my fictive kin. While they bore no biological relationship to me, their encouragement was manifested consistently.

All of these dear family members and family friends now reside with the ancestral family. Each gifted me with what I shall call wisdom threads. Each held a thread firmly and passed it on to me to hold firmly in turn. These threads were woven together over my life to form a strong rope of hope. This rope of hope has carried me over troubled waters, through valleys of disappointment, and allowed me to scale mountains of success.

Here are some of their threads:

The first and strongest was the thread of faith. All my ancestral family members believed in a power greater than their individual and collective selves. Each ancestor believed in the power of prayer. That same faith was firmly instilled in me at an early age. And faith continues to be my keystone today.

The next ancestral thread was love. The love thread was given unconditionally. Sometimes, it was tough love. But even in those cases, I knew that I was loved.

Another essential thread was that of discipline. The majority of my ancestors’ journeys in their life were shaped by the impact of Jim Crow laws, discrimination, and limited job opportunities. Though the harshness of the Jim Crow era often restricted access to opportunities, their determination “to make a way out of no way” never wavered. It created a disciplined mindset.

The work ethic thread was intertwined with the thread of discipline. My father Solomon introduced this thread to me when I was 16. He asked me if I wanted to go to college. I said yes. He said son, then you will have to work with me to earn your college money. He was a construction worker. He took me to his work site and in his role as Labor Foremen assigned me to work with a group of seasoned construction workers. He told me emphatically and clearly to follow their instructions. I hated every minute and hour of the hard labor life: carrying lumber, stepping on nails, and being out in the hot summer sun while my peers were enjoying summer fun. However, by watching his and the other men’s work ethic, I came to appreciate and understand why my father did what he did. He had a plan. The plan was to expose me to the rigors of a tough work situation that would hopefully increase my appreciation of my life and the opportunities before me. It did. I also was able to pay my college fees every year and graduated debt-free. His ancestral wisdom will never be forgotten.

The education thread was a vibrant and visible one. My aunt Eula called me “professor” as I grew in my understanding of the value of education. Cousin Tiny regularly would call me and ask, “Hey, Cuz, how you doing in school?” My dear mother Delores, however, was the queen of all things related to education. It was her advocacy on my behalf that challenged a school counselor who didn’t believe that I was college ready. After her interaction with Mr. Murray, his mindset changed. I was able to apply and be admitted to Lincoln University, the first degree-granting HBCU. For Mom, the education thread was strong and unbreakable.

While the thread count received from my ancestors was numerous, I shall close with my deep appreciation for the thread that honored culture. The knowledge of who I am and whose shoulders that I stand on were implanted in my mind, body, and soul by ancestors who both knew and made Black History. It was my mother Delores Walker who nightly would recite Langston Hughes iconic poem “Mother to Son” before I went to bed. It was my dear cousin Tiny who introduced me to the vocals of Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte, and other singers and musicians who were also social justice warriors. And last but not least, it was Aunt Eula who was the catalyst for my love of baseball by taking me to see Jackie Robinson play in the 1955 World Series. She also shared that my grandfather Willie Silas Elmore played for the early Birmingham Barons in the Negro Baseball League.

I am a man who daily thanks my ancestors for all of their wisdom threads that they freely gave to me. I am thankful for the determination and resolve that they modeled that brought me from boy to man. They know, as the lyrics from the New Edition song, “Boys to Men” states, that “growing up can be a pain.” But my ancestors helped me to keep on learning my responsibilities. And because of the gift of Ancestral Intelligence, I have also become a man who values RI, Relational Intelligence.

Dr. Geoffrey Hinton, also known as the Godfather of AI, discusses this topic in a “60 Minutes” interview from June 16, 2024. He believes that while AI may do enormous good, there is a chance that the machines may take over. Here are some of his comments:

“For the first time ever, we may be confronted by machines more intelligent than us…. Human beings could be the second most intelligent beings on earth.”

“These systems will be able to manipulate people.”

“I can’t see a path with AI that guarantees safety.”

I conclude my thoughts with this firm reminder: while AI (artificial intelligence) may be helpful in aspects of our lives such as medical cures or designing drugs, I strongly suggest that it will, or should, never replace the critical importance of the real AI, our ancestors’ intelligence. The gift of their wisdom threads can never be replicated by machines. I encourage everyone who reads this to investigate and appreciate the lessons taught by those who came before us.

With Respect,
Ron Walker
Retired-Founding Executive Director- Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color

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