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With Dylann Roof Sentenced to Death, Black People Are Expected to Forgive

Lessons from Mother Emanuel after the Roof trial.

By Brandon Tensley


A woman helps fix the memorial in front of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, after a mass shooting at the church killed nine people on June 25th, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In August of 2015 — just two months after avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof gunned down nine black members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, affectionately known as Mother Emanuel, in Charleston, South Carolina — Governor Nikki Haley celebrated that, in South Carolina, “we didn’t have riots, we had vigils” following the murders. “We didn’t have yelling, we had hugs and prayers.” This, Haley’s yarn suggests, is how people ought to grieve.

Well, some people.

For many black Americans, the past few years have been defined by vicious, unwavering episodes of anti-black violence that have sliced our lives down the center. From the routine traffic stop that ultimately claimed Walter Scott’s life to Sandra Bland’s mysterious prison death to Alton Sterling and the tussle over selling CDs that turned lethal, it’s dizzying simply to count the black lives lost to a violent alchemy of police use of force and racial prejudice. In 2016 alone, the Washington Post recently documented, law enforcement officers shot and killed 957 people, with black men being three times as likely to be killed as their white counterparts. Yet, as ever, white assumptions about how black people should respond to this sort of suffering have been stifling — look at how merely affirming that Black Lives Matter will set off a tinderbox of white anxiety.

There’s a toxic expectation for black people to grieve as if this sort of racial hatred is inevitable — as if violence against black bodies doesn’t have roots. It isn’t only Roof who’s on trial. It’s also America’s sense of itself.

Policing black pain is older than Mother Emanuel, with its rich, 200-year history of civil rights activism. As Kat Chow wrote for NPR last year, Morris Brown, a black pastor, founded the church in 1816. In only a few years, it became associated with Denmark Vesey, a former slave who bought his freedom in 1799 and, in 1822, secretly recruited some 9,000 slaves, many of whom were themselves Emanuel congregants, to launch the largest slave rebellion on American soil — or it would’ve been, anyway. It all unraveled when a slave revealed the plot to his master. Vesey was hanged, and the church was later burned to the ground. It wasn’t rebuilt until after the Civil War.

There’s a warning in this tale of violence, and you don’t have to read between the lines to see it: The black citizenry’s actions, and very thoughts, need to be checked, kept in line — tamed.

What we’ve seen since the shooting at Mother Emanuel — and throughout Roof’s emotional trial, which on Tuesday saw a jury condemn the unapologetic 22-year-old to death — is another instance where whites seek to set the terms of black trauma. It’s not only that politicians and pundits focus on the grace and magnanimity shown by the survivors of Mother Emanuel; it’s that they expect it and then shower pious praise on the only reaction that would’ve been acceptable to begin with. It’s a clear signal that there’s a right way to process a story so steeped in brutality — and that there’s no room for outrage in the narrative.

There’s also a toxic expectation to grieve as if this sort of racial hatred is inevitable — as if violence against black bodies doesn’t have roots. Indeed, one of the key lessons from the Charleston shooting is that it’s impossible to understand what fueled Roof’s murderous rampage at the South’s oldest African Methodist Episcopal church without also looking to the knotty legacy of white power and racial turmoil born out of slavery. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out before, Roof isn’t some sort of historical anomaly — his act “stood in a long and lethal tradition of homegrown American terrorism stretching back to the Civil War.” When we fail, or refuse, to see that the horror of Roof is in how very ordinary his white supremacy is, and we instead tiptoe around history while clinging to public displays of forgiveness and mercy, we leave very little room for the full scope of black humanity, that black emotions are vast, nuanced, sometimes angry, often contradictory. Just like yours.

The victims’ families are split in their responses to the slayings, and in their reactions to the death sentence that’s been handed to Roof. The Reverend Sharon Risher, whose mother Ethel Lee Lance was one of Roof’s victims, said in an interview on Monday: “I don’t believe in the death penalty, but I’m my mother’s child and with everything that’s happened sometimes I want him to die.” She added: “It’s like, you know what, this fool continues to just be evil. I’m just glad that they didn’t leave that decision to me. I just reconciled myself that whatever they decided he will never see the light of day again.”

I heard similar expressions during a recent return to my South Carolina hometown, only a couple of hours from Mother Emanuel. Like Risher, many black Americans in my community reject the death penalty — at least in part because of downright distrust toward a criminal justice system that continues to find unfair fault with black lives — even if there’s also a sense of comfort in the fact that the jury wasted no time in concluding that Roof is guilty for his federal hate crimes.

This range of emotion — grief, horror, rage, forgiveness given or withheld — ought to be woven into how we tell the story of one of America’s darkest days in living memory. It isn’t only Roof who’s on trial. It’s also America’s sense of itself. We can’t afford to write off this crime as an unfortunate but exceptional incident. History has taught us that this isn’t that — that it’s never been that.