My childhood church was on Dylann Roof’s short list.
During his trial, it was revealed that Roof had conducted research about churches in South Carolina’s Richland County and identified five possible targets for his murderous rampage. He later selected Charleston, in part because he had heard that the city had a large Black population. The potential for mass bloodshed and the creation of a lasting sense of terror appealed to his depraved mind. So he traveled.
This personally stunning detail has taken on new force as President Trump’s administration — and an alarming portion of American citizens — refuse to acknowledge the enduring threat posed by domestic terrorists in the name of white supremacy. Recently, proponents of President Trump’s executive order to ban immigrants from certain countries touted the attack on the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec, a mosque in Quebec City, Canada, as evidence that increased restrictions were necessary. “Suspect…was of Moroccan origin, reports show” read the headline of a Fox News article long after it was confirmed by the Canadian government and various media sources that that particular detail regarding the terrorist’s identity was incorrect.
The suspect was, in fact, a young, white man. Yet, not until Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration sent an appeal to Fox News did they pull their initial story and issue a retraction. And since the attack, the U.S. government has remained willingly silent, failing to offer even the most anodyne statement rebuking far right racist extremism.
The brazen manner in which our elected officials misdirect and downplay the threat of (global) white supremacist violence is unnerving. During an interview with CNN, Wisconsin Representative Sean Duffy described the Quebec massacre as a “one off”, as if the rise of ISIS predates the white supremacist ideologies that actually undergirded the very founding of this nation. When pressed about Roof’s Charleston attack, Duffy peculiarly suggested that some good came out of it because the Confederate flag was removed from South Carolina’s state house grounds in the aftermath. Part of me wants to pose the question: what are we becoming as a nation? But that question presumes a past innocent of racist violence and white supremacy, which is a fantasy already foolishly embraced by too many American citizens.
In the days after Roof gunned down parishioners at Mother Emmanuel, newscasters and politicians alike applauded the surviving church members’ forgiving posture. Their Christ-like grace, talk of unity, and refusal to politicize matters or blame white people publicly endeared them to a bipartisan cadre of Americans. Soon, political leaders from across the South rushed to reconsider their states’ embrace of Civil War iconography.
We Americans, they insisted, are better than this. Southern politicians scrambled to approve and enforce new laws that saw to it that Confederate flags and other public memorials to slaveholders and the Lost Cause were removed and/or relocated to museums to prove that the myth of wholesale American progress was so. The mass murder of God-fearing Black church congregants had shamed those who had theretofore remained too silent about the dangerous, racialized rhetoric that has marked the political conversation for ages. In response, they guiltily and nervously moved.
We should know by now that expressions of white guilt will never function as sustainable foundations on which to mount a truly progressive future. Often, such self-serving and belated recognitions of our shared humanity only follow what might come off as a submissive posture in the tamping down of Black rage in mixed company. This continued dance of submission, forgiveness, and guilt isn’t getting Black Americans anywhere. Rather, collective and intentional striving for joy and a life that affirms human dignity are the only way to upend what feels like the inevitability of continued Black social alienation and death. Such collective striving, such joy, is what I first learned in church.
But my church life has also been witness to fight and rage. My stepfather passed away last summer. His funeral service was held at my childhood church—a place that had been a refuge and source of love and faith and strength for him, my mom, and me for years. He was a proud veteran of the U.S. Army and Air National Guard, and representatives from both branches of the military were in attendance at the service. The soldiers and airmen beautifully performed the traditional ceremonial rites, presented my mom with tightly folded flags, and whispered their condolences. A bugler played “Taps” and a gun salute followed.
Indeed, it was a patriotic scene: red and white roses and lovely peace lilies flanked the silver casket. During the service, I glanced often at the small American flag that was sewn into the pillowy satin lining of the vessel. Members of my stepdad’s veterans group—all white men—sat in the front of the other side of the church; they were all red-faced and broken up by his loss. They knew of my stepdad’s good nature despite his physical ailments, and they missed him.
I did, too, and I could not help but question for what he had really fought in the Vietnam and Gulf War conflicts. He had returned a changed man, one who struggled for decades with numerous illnesses, some after handling and being exposed to what were later revealed to be noxious substances during the wars. And he returned fighting to assert W.E.B. Du Bois’s unfortunately timely lamentation about the irony of Black participation in wartime efforts, given the community’s treatment as outsiders within American society.
I find it difficult to make sense of the long-held, paradoxical Western belief in Black pathology that renders us subhuman yet is tied to the superhuman demand that we endure pain, abuse, and the vulnerability to premature death with a smile and the reassurance to what effectively feels like a mob that slow progress is okay because a better day is coming…by and by. As a scholar of American cultural studies, I am not exactly surprised by the some of the turns that our nation has taken recently, but I am saddened. I am not defeated, but I feel something on the horizon. How might we quell the brewing tempest?
In “The Negro in American Culture,” a discussion that included the authors James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and Langston Hughes, Baldwin famously asserted, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. Part of the rage is this: it isn’t only what is happening to you, but it’s what’s happening all around you all of the time, in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, the indifference and ignorance of most white people in this country.”
I wonder often about Black rage. It is not a subject thought proper to discuss in polite company. How dare the violently injured with physical and mental abuse respond in kind, the train of thought goes. Yet, we hear a great deal these days about white middle and working-class disgust and anger at being “forgotten” in part because many believe that ethnic minority and immigrant populations have supposedly received handouts at the former’s expense. And we are chastised for not noticing.
There is a moment in Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon in which the protagonist, Milkman Dead, converses with his childhood friend, Guitar Bains, about what an appropriate response is to the unpunished, seemingly perpetual murders of Black people in their contemporary 1960s moment. While Milkman laments the crimes and the general state of the Black community, Guitar goes further by assuredly listing his political reasons for joining The Seven Days, a militant group that consists of seven men who, on their assigned day, murder a white person to avenge the murder of a Black person. The men argue about the Seven Days’ radical justifications with Guitar articulating what the group feels is the “necessity” of heaping brutal violence back onto white bodies:
“I just told you. It’s necessary; it’s got to be done. To keep the ratio the same.”
“And if it isn’t done? If it just goes on the way it has?”
“Then the world is a zoo, and I can’t live in it.”
“Why don’t you just hunt down the ones who did the killing? Why kill innocent people? Why not just those who did it?”
“It doesn’t matter who did it. Each and every one of them could do it. So you just get any one of them. There are no innocent white people, because every one of them is a potential nigger-killer, if not an actual one. You think Hitler surprised them? You think just because they went to war they thought he was a freak? Hitler’s the most natural white man in the world. He killed Jews and Gypsies because he didn’t have us. Can you see those Klansmen shocked by him? No, you can’t.”
Though spoken in a matter-of-fact manner and vis-a-vis the language of logic, Guitar offers an inane, hypermasculine rationale for human slaughter—one that is steeped in a real sense of hurt and even love for his community, but overwhelmed by the same misguided, dangerous indifference and cold-blooded philosophies embraced by the unknown white murderers and their silent enablers.
The men agree to disagree and the conversation ends thusly:
“I’m scared for you, man.”
“That’s funny. I’m scared for you too.”
When our humanity is forgotten and also in those moments in which we are suddenly rendered hyper-visible, aware that we are prone yet startled by the far-reach of senseless hatred, we often convene with simmering fury. In a lesser-cited portion of his reflection on Black rage, Baldwin goes on to suggest that eventually, “You have to decide that you can’t spend the rest of your life cursing out everybody that gets in your way.”
This is a lesson for our times. To subvert the forces that compel our rage, we would do well to remember that while some might find that “Our freedom is sweet. It will be sweeter when we are all free.” If we are to truly live, then, we certainly must call out supremacism at every turn, and we also must channel our energies into constantly creating new, inclusive and communal spaces of joy even in the midst of fanatic intolerance.
During my formative years, I found such comfort in my church’s recurrent messages of hope, love, and liberation in which I took solace and gained inspiration to carry on. Since moving away from home many years ago, I have established a similar spiritual and secular community of loving family, friends, and colleagues with whom I commiserate and laugh as well as write and teach against injustice. But I first learned the significance of a kind of collective catharsis in religion. In that worship space, my stepdad often led songs for the mass choir. I can hear him now:
–Michelle Commander is an associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee. She is the author of Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic, which is forthcoming from Duke University Press. Follow her on Twitter: @professormdc and check out her website: michelle-commander.com
Image: Mother Emmanuel Church, in Charleston SC