After Charleston

By now we all know the basic details of the story: More than a week ago, Dylann Storm Roof entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and joined a small Bible study. He prayed with the assembled group. After an hour, he started shooting, even though he later admitted that everyone was “so nice” that he almost didn’t go through with his planned massacre. He reloaded his gun five times and murdered nine people: Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Lee Simmons Sr., and Myra Thompson. Felicia Sanders told her five-year old granddaughter to play dead; they survived.

A white shooter killed nine black church members. The shooting was the consequence of a firm belief in white supremacy.

Roof said, “You are raping our women and taking over the country.” His supposed manifesto was recovered online along with pictures of him holding a Confederate flag. In the manifesto, Roof claims that he “had no choice” in his actions:

We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.

This white man was dissatisfied with the lack of action by other white supremacists, so he committed murder. His actions were not brave, but they were an example of an ideology of racial supremacy taken to the violent extreme. He’s now in police custody.

It didn’t take long for media outlets to seek to explain Roof’s motivations, to place this latest shooting in the context of attacks on historically black churches, and to publish as many hot takes as they could. Some people claimed this was a “senseless” act. Others demanded that the media treat this as an instance of terrorism, which it clearly is. Fox News even attempted to claim the attack was not about racism, but religious liberty. (They’re wrong).

The day after the shooting, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart refused to tell jokes in his opening monologue, but instead focused on the “racial wound” that the shooting illuminated. He pointed to the legacy of the Confederacy in street signs and monuments in South Carolina, a state that still flies the Confederate flag at the state capitol. Even after the murder of nine African Americans in a church, Stewart pessimistically noted, “We still won’t do jack shit.”

Like so many other people, I cried in anguish over this shooting. I can’t stop thinking about each victim and what their deaths mean to their families, their friends, and their communities.

I can’t stop thinking about the five-year-old girl who had to play dead to survive. She’s only a year younger than my oldest child.

My sadness about the death of nine people is no longer enough. My tears have no power on their own. My grief does nothing.

I’m haunted by visions of blood, gunshot wounds, death, and playing dead. I’m also haunted by Stewart’s fatalism that the Charleston shooting won’t elicit change.

The last line of Saeed Jones’ poem “Anthracite” echoes in my head: “in this town everything born black also burns.” My brain keeps changing town into country. I clench my teeth, ball my fists, and cry in frustration and sadness. Please, God, we must do so much more than jack shit.

My sadness about the death of nine people is no longer enough. My tears have no power on their own. My grief does nothing. Stewart’s monologue makes me angrier and angrier. His fatalism burrows into my skin.

Will we really do nothing? Will we again ignore the fact that racism is embedded in our society? Will we claim that the shooter is a lone individual rather than a symptom of our white supremacist culture? Will we cluck our tongues in sympathy while ignoring the patterns of violence and death inflicted on black people by white people? Will we avoid the labels of terrorism and hate because we seek a story that will keep our own hands clean? Will white people, once again, ignore what this shooting tells us about whiteness, history, and our nation?

In the aftermath of last Wednesday’s shooting, I picked up James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. In that crucial work, Cone notes the connectedness of the cross and the lynching tree. Both are locations of trauma and suffering. But in our current moment, the cross, Cone argues, is emptied of suffering and sanitized to make us more comfortable. Even as we acknowledge the horror of the lynching tree, many of us seek a less threatening version of the cross.

We can no longer gentle the cross—especially if we want to understand the long history of violence toward African Americans. If that truly is our goal, we have to reckon with not only the lynching tree but also its counterpart . . . and it can’t be a nice, sanitized, feel-good version of the crucifixion. Why? Because throughout American history, terrorists have attacked black churches, as a recent piece in The Atlantic recalled.

The reality is that African Americans have been murdered at the foot of the cross—in sanctuaries, and Sunday School rooms, and church halls across this nation. Out of respect for their lives and deaths, white Americans must force ourselves to acknowledge that such violence is not an artifact of the past. It is also alive and well in the present. The Charleston shooting shows us that this particular form of suffering is with us still. In response, we must look closely at how our society treats black lives. We must affirm that black lives matter.

White Americans avoid the specter of the lynching tree because it forces us to admit that white supremacy is woven into the very fabric of our nation, and not just occasional stitches.

The cross might be complex and difficult, but so is the lynching tree—especially for those who have never faced the distressing prospect of hanging from it. Like John Stewart, I don’t think white people have actually confronted the nation’s racial wounds, both past and present. We historicize them. We distance ourselves from them. We refuse to admit the loss of life happening right now. We avoid the specter of the lynching tree because it forces us to admit that white supremacy is woven into the very fabric of our nation, and not just occasional stitches.

I want us to confront the wounds of white supremacy.

I think of Cheryl Strayed’s advice: “Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you up.” I want all of us to consider the racial wounds of the Charleston shooting. To think carefully about how white supremacy motivates a white man to gun down a Bible study group. To let ourselves be hurt, and to open ourselves up to change. What can we do? What can we do to make our world better? What is our obligation to those who died at the hands of a terrorist? How do we understand the suffering and move ourselves beyond apathy and fatalism?

I’m so weary of tacit acceptance of violence and death. I cannot bear any more fatalistic views. I’m over all the useless handwringing.

None of our hands are clean. It is beyond time to realize that white supremacy is a danger to lives, bodies, and minds, in both its extreme and ordinary forms. White people must act against white supremacy.

What, then, should churches do in these moments of massacre? What obligation do white churches, in particular, have to this terrible event? Tears must transform into action and accountability. The task, now, is to confront the systems of white supremacy in our lives and figure out how to raze them to the ground.

"My Hand"

None of our hands are clean. It is beyond time to realize that white supremacy is a danger to lives, bodies, and minds, in both its extreme and ordinary forms. White people must act against white supremacy.

We need to understand how Roof could shoot nine black people in a church. We need to realize that his beliefs about race are not uncommon, but appear in tweets, Facebook messages, emails, and in casual conversations among white people. I’ve quit counting the times that a white person has said to me, “I’m not a racist, but” before uttering racist ideas. It is beyond time to give up on visions of post-racial America that obscure the violence and harm committed against black people.

We have to make ourselves see what we don’t want to: racism is alive and well in America. Whiteness offers privilege, but also becomes a peril in ways big and small. The work that lies ahead is not easy. Over half of all white people see no racism around them. Sunday remains one of the most segregated days of the week. White people must educate ourselves about racism, or these wounds will never heal, and the violence faced by our black brothers and sisters will never cease.

Photo credits:

Cover photo: “We’re All In This Together,” by Greg Lilly, December 2014. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0  / Desaturated and cropped from original.

Inside photo: “My Hand,” by Jakub, August 2004. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 / Cropped from original.

Kelly J. Baker

Kelly J. Baker is a freelance writer with a religious studies PhD who covers higher education, gender, labor, motherhood, American religions, and popular culture. She has regular columns at the Chronicle for Higher Education’s Vitae project, Women in Higher Education, Killing the Buddha, and Sacred Matters. She’s written for The Atlantic, The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Washington Post’s “Faith Street”, and Brain, Child. She is the author of the award-winning book The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 and The Zombies Are Coming!: The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture. When she’s not writing essays or wrangling two children, two dogs, and a seriously mean cat, she’s hacking away at a collection of essays on apocalypses in America tentatively titled The End of Us. You can find her on TwitterFacebook, or her blog.

 

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