There’s a good article on race in this country in the current (9-28-15) New Yorker magazine. Titled “Blood at the Root,” by David Remnick, it assesses the mood in Charleston, South Carolina three months after nine black people were gunned down at a church meeting. In particular, it interrogates the way many black churchgoers in the city have forgiven the shooter, young white supremacist Dylann Roof. Reverend Darby, a former pastor, is quoted as saying, “This courtesy is hardwired into the American South, but it’s hypocritical. It’s a tradition draped in the antebellum lost cause stuff, the old Southern chivalrous tradition, and depends on an African-American population that has to go along to get along. We have never worked through the modern civil rights era. Laws were passed, but the relationships behind those laws haven’t fully formed. It’s legal to go anywhere, but if you can’t get a job and haven’t been to the right schools, you are still nowhere.
Remember, there was not a trace of ambiguity about what happened here. They couldn’t pull out a rap sheet – these were nine people of impeccable character – and they were killed in church by a white man who wanted to kill black people to start a race war, and said so. It flies in the face of post-racial America, an America proud of itself because it elected an African-American president. Some of the reaction is driven by the need to say, ‘It’s not me. I’m not like that.’ Dylann Roof is not extraordinary. He’s kind of typical – extreme, but typical. If you build a politic, as we have done in America since Nixon and Reagan, in which election strategies are based on distrust of the other, well, some folks will react on a political level and vote on racial fear. The truly unbalanced will do what this kid did.”
Remnick says Darby, “like others I talked with, was moved and encouraged by Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, which represented a greater willingness to condemn racial injustice, both historical and present-day…The speech, though, will do little to change the political arrangements of Charleston.” Remnick quotes Darby again: “South Carolina has never done the right thing on its own. Slavery ended by federal intervention. Civil-rights laws passed by federal intervention. People change grudgingly.” The fact that less than a month after the church killings the two houses of the South Carolina state legislature voted by large majorities to stop flying the Confederate flag over the capitol building isn’t mentioned in the article.
Remnick gives some interesting historical background on Mother Emanuel Church, where the killings took place, saying that six years after its founding in 1816, one of its leaders, Denmark Vesey, a carpenter who bought his freedom with lottery winnings, organized the most elaborate and well-planned slave revolt in the history of the United States. Some historians “say that he secretly recruited thousands of slaves to kill the slave owners of Charleston, seize the arsenal in the city and the ships in port, and escape to Haiti, where bondage had been outlawed.” The plot was betrayed by several slaves loyal to their masters, however, and Vesey, “along with 34 co-conspirators, was hanged. Emanuel was burned to the ground by whites and was later banned until the end of the Civil War. An earthquake brought it down again in 1886; Grover Cleveland donated $10 toward its rebuilding. Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr. preached” there.
Muhiyidin d’Baha, an organizer for Black Lives Matter Charleston, told Remnick that the “voices of forgiveness at Dylann Roof’s hearing were both understandable in the context of the black church and the legacy of the civil-rights movement and a form of political masochism.
‘That was Charleston,’ he said. ‘That was accommodating white feelings and white superiority. It was “Yes, Massa, can I have another?” But, at the same time, it was spiritual fortitude forged in a crucible of terrorism. It speaks of a spiritual level I haven’t attained…When the families give these signals, and the pastors instill in these families a sense of grace and forgiveness, the anger never reverberates. No leadership arose asking to have this pain recognized…There has been an arrangement here, created over generations, to be able to endure terrorism…We endure. We don’t ask for more.’”
James Campbell, a 90-year-old activist who grew up in segregated Charleston, “sees the massacre as a dark chapter in the late stages of a civilizational struggle, from oppression to liberation. When he was a boy, his grandmother took him to a ‘serious Baptist shouting church’ in rural South Carolina, where nearly everyone in the pews had been born in bondage. She would tell him about life on the cotton plantation, the hideous work under the sun and the lash, the sundering of families, the humiliation and the fear. ‘That memory is almost genetic, and I don’t think it manifests itself as rage,’ Campbell said. ‘It manifests itself in the resolute patience of a long-suffering people, whose determination is expressed in the permanency of the church.’” Campbell thinks younger activists around the country, who lack these memories and this conservatism, “are helping ‘to fulfill’ the American Revolution.”
I’ll be posting again on this subject, as soon as I finish reading Ta-Neheisi Coates’s book, Between the World and Me, a letter to his teenaged son about the precariousness of living in the US in a black body.