I only got to see four of them before I had to close my browser window. Profiles of people who were spending their Wednesday night at Bible study and never got back in their cars or on the bus or the sidewalk again. Many had probably worked all day, dealing with the needs of others through phone calls, text messages and face-to-face conversations before heading to nurture their own souls. The librarian, 31 years of service behind her, had likely shared her smile with library patrons as they checked out materials or directed them in their quest to find books on their desired topics. The young man, a recent college graduate, may have connected with friends, continuing to face the transitions that come after donning one’s cap and gown. The mama whose son pleaded with his social media networks to pray even as his nightmare unfolded may have parted ways with her sons early that morning. And the Pastor/State Senator, whose even keel and commitment to justice made him a respected colleague across fields, may have, like my husband, had a long day of balancing the duties of both pastoring and civic leadership while reminding his wife and two daughters that he loved them. And now they had come to sit together, absorb God’s word, and hear ideas from their pastor and one another. Maybe they had seen the young man come in, said their own prayers for him.
My tears, salty like the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, came rolling and rolling.
“Hold on Old Soldiers.” Our faith has been our cornerstone. Places of worship have been where we can count on times of communal prayer, crying, releasing all the weight and pain and unresolved grief of our existence. We have had so little to hold onto. Children snatched away, husbands emasculated, women violated. But we held onto our God. We sang songs to communicate to each other even when we couldn’t read. Our bodies made rhythms when we had no coins to rub together. As a little girl in Fresno, California, I remember the sanctity, the sheer comfort provided by the space of our church with its purplish carpet, its metal folding chairs, the swinging front doors, even the columns that held up the building. Sometimes we’d lean on those when we got tired. After Sunday School and testimony time and ‘Victory Is Mine” and shouting. I remember how utterly welcome and comfortable and safe I felt in that place. It was made home by the presence of my grandma, the old saints, the tambourines, cracked Bibles, and yes, the building itself. Yet now, in Oakland, although over 2,000 miles away from Emanuel AME, the ripples of terror cause me to feel quite the opposite.
“Joy is coming in the morning.” It can be so hard to believe that in moments like this. It has seemed like we were living in that morning joy. One narrative of Black history is that we’ve moved, we’ve progressed. There are no more “colored” signs. We can vote and run for office and lead and invent. And for heaven’s sake, we are in the White House. We can choose: we can say yes, and we can say no. We have agency.
Yet our history also paints a different narrative. Charleston, in particular, is a place swollen with history. It is a port city — its ground is where the feet of thousands of our ancestors first touched American soil. It saw 40% of the Africans brought to the US as slaves, dubbed the “center of the Transatlantic Slave Trade” in Henry Louis Gates’ PBS project “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” Charleston is the home of two historic battles of Fort Sumter, now a historic monument run by the National Parks Service, but also the place where first shots of the Civil War were fired in 1861. 154 years later, the Confederacy’s banner still waves high at the South Carolina State House, just as its blue X and red background add a blazing emblem of color on license plate. Charleston is also the place where Walter Scott was shot — in the back eight times, no less — for running away from a police officer. We’ve heard the name before and will likely keep hearing it again.
I recognize my own privilege in that I am able to stop and think and write this Thursday morning; that my schedule is flexible, my mind and fingers dexterous. This is not a given for so many who must work, must keep moving. Yet, our silence does not indicate numbness. Sometimes staying on the treadmill is how we survive. And I recognize that my experience of faith and Black history is in many ways my own. It stretches from True Love Tabernacle Church with its purple carpet to the halls of Berkeley in Afro 5B (African American Life and Culture in the United States) where I studied Huggins’ Black Odyssey, Denmark Vessey and other South Carolinian markers of history. In many ways, South Carolina history is African-American history.
But, intellectual learnings aside, my retraumatization is happening now because of the ancestral blood running through my veins. There are days that I feel that — like Zora Neale Hurston in her essay How it Feels to Be Colored Me — “I am off to a flying start and I must not halt in the stretch to look behind and weep.” The past is behind, the future ahead.
And then there are days like today, when the triumph seems far off. I am jarred to an undeniable consciousness through this heart-rending reminder, that in spite of how far we’ve come, the soil of our nation is rich, and somehow tragically fertile. The roots of subjugation, replete with trauma and self-endowed supremacy, are still able to spring up fruit, even as we’re clacking along over hopefully-poured pavement.