President Barack Obama’s eulogy for Referend Clementa Pinckney was a moving tribute to the murdered pastor of Emanuel AME Church, who was also a South Carolina state senator. Obama assumed a dual role of president and preacher to an overwhelmingly appreciative “congregation,” even leading them, a cappella, in “Amazing Grace.”
President Obama: “Blinded by hatred (the killer) failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood—the power of God’s grace.” “For too long, we (the nation) were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many citizens. It is true, a flag did not cause these murders. But as people from all walks of life…….we have to acknowledge the flag has always represented more than ancestral pride.” For many, Black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation…. By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.”
“But I don’t think God wants us to stop there. For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can affect us even when we don’t realize it, so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs, but against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal.” President Obama then referred to the mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation and (implicitly) the need for gun control.
He said we should not expect a transformation in race relations overnight but also cautioned that we don’t need more talk about race. “It would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.”
The eulogy may have been Obama’s most straightforward statement about racism and race relations, but he offered no alternative to Black people’s taking on the burden for their oppression. Nor did he mention that white people, as the creators and beneficiaries of institutional racism, are primarily responsible for systemic change.
A more inclusive perspective of the massacre was written days before the President’s eulogy by Stacey Patton, a reporter for the Chronicle of higher Education and adjunct professor of American history at American University. Her article, “America Should Stop Forgiving White Racists,” appeared in The Washington Post, (June 22, 2015). The following excerpts from the article speak for themselves.
“The morgue tag was still on Sharonda Coleman-Singleton’s foot when her teenage children stood in front of news cameras and said they had forgiven Dylann Roof for murdering their mother in cold blood. “We already forgive him for what he’s done and there’s nothing but love from our side of the family,” her son Chris said. His sister Camryn added, “I just feel a lot of love. I’m a little bitter but I’m overwhelmed with love.”
The spirit of forgiveness would continue at Roof’s bond hearing. In a gut-wrenching display of pain and tears, more relatives of those slain in the attack spoke to Roof. While many people would have rightfully spoken of outrage and a yearning for revenge, the families offered words of comfort and redemption. “May God have mercy on you,” said Felecia Sanders. She survived the attack, but her son, Tywanza, died. Anthony Thompson, the grandson of victim Myra Thompson, told Roof, “I forgive you, my family forgives you.” Recognizing the agency in their words, and the different ways people grieve, the parade of forgiveness is disconcerting, to say the least.
While former Texas governor, Rick Perry, called the killings in Charleston “an accident,” Fox News and others have denied the racial implications and FBI director James Comey has questioned the veracity of describing the tragedy as “terrorism,” all seemingly affording Roof a level of forgiveness and innocence. And these families have offered salvation without any conditions or rewriting of reality.
Even in a slaughter of innocents, Black people have to fight to have their humanity recognized. The slain were not people of questionable repute, reportedly reaching for a gun or doing anything that could remotely justify, even lamely, the gunman’s behavior. People want to blame the killer’s mental stability, some external “they” or “society” or define what he did as an attack on Christianity rather than the racist terrorism that it is.
Forgiveness has become a requirement for those enduring the realities of Black death in America. Black families are expected to grieve as a public spectacle to offer comfort, redemption, and a pathway to a new day. Historically, Black churches have nurtured the politics of forgiveness so that Black people can anticipate divine justice and liberation in the next life. This sentiment shaped non-violent protest during the civil rights movement. A belief that displays a morality rooted in forgiveness would force white America would leave behind its racist assumptions. But Christian or non-Christian, Black people are not allowed to express unbridled grief or rage, even under the most horrific circumstances.
For Christians whose deep faith tradition holds forgiveness as a core principle, offering absolution to Roof is about relieving the burden of anger and pain of being victimized. In this regard, forgiveness functions as a kind of protest, a refusal to be reduced to victims. It sends a message to the killer that he may have hurt them, but they are the true victors because they have not been destroyed. Yet, the almost reflexive demand of forgiveness, especially for those dealing with death by racism, is about protecting whiteness and America as a whole. This is yet another burden for Black America.
Black pain is only heard after forgiveness is afforded to white perpetrators. Black rage is challenged as inappropriate and unhelpful, while the media and others celebrate the traumatized family members’ ability to respond to this latest heinous crime with compassion and love. When Black forgiveness is the means for white atonement, it enables white denial about the harms that racist violence creates. When Black redemption of white America is prioritized over justice and accountability, there is no chance of truth and reconciliation. It trivializes real Black suffering, grief, and the heavy lifting required for any possibility of societal progress.
If we really believe Black lives matter, we won’t devalue our reality and cheapen our forgiveness by giving it away so quickly and easily. Black people should learn to embrace our full range of human emotions, vocalize our rage, demand to be heard and expect accountability. White America needs to earn our forgiveness, as we practice legitimate preservation.
Black lives will never be safe, or truly matter, and we won’t break the centuries’ long cycle of racial violence if we keep making white salvation our responsibility.”