In Church in Charleston




THE DAY of the funeral for Clementa Pinckney, who was shot and killed while leading a bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, in June, Jessica Lynne and I gathered online to mourn. That afternoon, at work, I put both earphones in my ears and tuned in to PBS Newshour to watch the funeral. I did not get to finish watching because work was calling. I did get to listen to the 10 minutes before the service began, when the choir was singing the church-song standards. We were taken there, and Jessica and I were having virtual Church.

Jessica and I first met in 2011 on the premise that we were both writers, NYU alums, and young Black women. We eventually bonded over our Southernness. When she asked about my Christianity, I told her I was trying to reconcile my understanding of God the destroyer — the Old Testament God, the God of plagues and floods and sacrifices — with the God of blessing and God of what I perceive as impossible to understand.

Two weeks after the shooting, I traveled down to Charleston, where I had once lived. I walked the streets, and walked by Mother Emmanuel Church. I went to another church and prayer circle. I prayed. Then, Jessica and I gathered again virtually, to meditate on our Blackness, the Black Church, our Southernness, and mourn together — to mourn for Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons, and DePayne Middleton-Doctor.

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DÉLANA R.A. DAMERON: How did you feel when the news broke that the mass murder occurred in a church, in the South, and that it was all Black men and women, again?

JESSICA LYNNE: Even before we started meditating on Black Southern life together, I found myself at the beginning of this year, attempting to reckon with the magnitude of it all — this particular intersectional identity. I think perhaps, as cliché as it may sound, the release of Ava Duvernay’s Selma, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, was the moment that truly forced me into reflection.

As a Black Southerner, with parents who are also Black Southerners and grandparents who are Black Southerners, I have always known intellectually what a violent place the South can be, what a violent place it has been for Black folks. When I saw Selma in January, somehow, the reality of this history — my history — hit me in a new way. I went to see the film by myself and when it was over I was overwhelmed. The tears would not stop. I thought to myself My God, this is just one story. A sliver of our time here in this country. My, God. And you know, the film opens with a jarring scene that reimagines the bombing of 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham in which four little girls were killed in church. In Church. I could not stop crying, and I know the rest of the moviegoers were looking at me as if I were a crazy woman.

So, on the night of the murders at Mother Emmanuel, I was transported back to that winter afternoon at the theater. I immediately broke down again knowing that these murders are not isolated events but rather, exist in a continuum. Black churches, regardless of how one feels about religion or more specifically Christianity in this case, have been a vital institution in the quest for Black liberation in this country. If we could go no where else, there was always the church. A space for shelter, for food, for teaching, for gathering, for strategizing, for plotting, for praying. But DéLana, the news of those murders hit me and I thought What are we supposed to pray for now? Where are we supposed to gather?

Folks are lauding the families of the victims for turning the other cheek. On this, I want to quote Kwame Dawes who said in his conversation with me, “‘Turning the other cheek’ is not an act of meekness, it is an act of defiance. It says that I will stay here, I am not going anywhere, and if you want to hit me again, you will have to contend with all the horror that allows you to try to hit me again.” I am tired and weary of wandering in this post-racial desert looking for someone to open the sea like a curtain so we can cross over into a world where we can be human and breathe and pray and live. How do you reconcile all of this?

Obviously, there is historical precedence for the effectiveness of this philosophy espoused by Christ enacted as political strategy. Yet, it is still a philosophy that I struggle with. That statement probably sounds like blasphemy, but I want to be honest about that. I am trying to hold all of these truths about a God in whom I believe in deeply, but that practice, the very act of turning my cheek, seems out of reach for me right now. How am I supposed to turn the other cheek when I am faced with the realities of generations of Black violence and trauma at the hands of white supremacy?

Recently, I have found myself turning to the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression” (Isaiah 1:17). I am not a biblical scholar. My faith practice could stand to be better, stronger, no doubt. However, when I think about that verse, I think about how active it is. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Correct oppression. How it implies some type of direct action. I want to confront white supremacy and its consequences head on.

The first Sunday after the massacre, in Brooklyn, I woke earlier than normal. A storm passed through the night before and the sidewalks were slick with rainwater and oil. I passed between the New York glance — quick eye contact, eyes shoot back to the ground or some neutral object just out of focus — and another look: a sadness, knowing. I was sad. I still do not have a church here yet to go to, so I walked to a café at 8:00 a.m. to be with people, and I see the faces of my church-dressed neighbors and we all carried the weight of the day with us. But some of us were brave, Jessica. They were walking into the space where they sought for solace, healing, redemption, salvation, community. The last place we thought we had. Now nowhere is safe. Nowhere.

I think more than anything we are all seeking spaces where we can be whole. For me, that place is still church. I was not able to attend service the Sunday after the massacre but in these times, I think healing spaces are also manifesting themselves in our living rooms, in the beauty salons and barbershops, in the student centers of campuses across the country. In spaces where we can grieve together without qualifications or explanations. In spaces where we can celebrate ourselves in a world that does not want to recognize our humanity.

I am planning on working in two Malcolm X quotes into our conversation. I think it’s interesting that I feel that he is the voice of reason in my head full of questions right now. That my hurt is slipping somewhere past nonviolence but I am not sure where to locate it yet. At any rate, Malcolm X said: “I believe in a religion that believes in freedom. Any time I have to accept a religion that won’t let me fight a battle for my people, I say to hell with that religion.” How do you feel about this statement? How do you feel about this time in the context of your beliefs?

Malcolm is speaking some very important truth here and I share his sentiment (and here we find ourselves in the year of another important anniversary, the 50th anniversary of Malcolm’s assassination). I am a firm believer that Christ was a freedom fighter. He acted from a place of radical love, but he was indeed a freedom fighter.

I think immediately of Christ’s constant and unapologetic care for and advocacy for those peoples who were largely ignored by the religious zealots of the time, labeled as outcasts and shamed — the woman who suffered from excessive bleeding in the gospel of Mark or Mary Magdalene for example. However, it is not lost on me that the Christian church has been responsible for so much oppression. I mean, slavery and colonization were purported to be the will of God! To that end, I wonder how much of what we know about and understand to be the modern church actually reflects the teachings of Christ? That’s why I am so troubled by the belief that the only thing Black people should do is simply pray for our enemies. How many times have you heard that one?

I believe in prayer. I am a praying woman. I do not believe that prayer works in isolation. My faith is a waste if I am not actively working against the oppression and exploitation of the poor and the downtrodden, the widow and children. Christ taught these things. In this country, we know that so often at the intersection of exploitation and oppression are Black folks: Black women, Black men, Black children, members of the LGBTQ community. I don’t want a Christianity that ignores that, which is why I’ll say again, that the quote from Isaiah is so important to me.

I love that quote from Isaiah. I love that it does take the introspection of prayer, and turns it towards acts. It seems very — catechismic. That we can heed the instructions: do some type of work to get the desires for which we might pray. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Correct oppression. But how do we correct oppression when the enemy is in uniform, is in plain clothes, is in our churches, is out — again, always? — now for cold blood?

Well, I definitely think any effort is a multi-tiered effort. It is a collective effort. But the specifics? I don’t know, girl. Nonviolent Direct Action, a strategy that you mention earlier, is a tactic. These days though, I’m thinking often about dissolving the police and community-based alternatives. Mariame Kaba wrote poignantly about this in a recent essay for The New Inquiry. I’m thinking about the continued organizing by young people that we have witnessed throughout the past few months — the women of Black Lives Matter, The Dream Defenders. I’m wondering about the economic components of this fight. Where do I spend my money? Am I frequenting Black businesses as often as possible?

I want to turn back to the idea of sacred spaces and violence, though. How important or different is this attack, that it happened in a church? That it was multiple Black men and women? That it was elders of a community — the ones who held all the stories, at 80–90 years old, the ones who held such history? That it happened in the deep South?

I don’t think this attack is different than the hundreds of other attacks on Black spaces and Black life that have occurred in America. There is a real fear of Black organizing and gathering in whatever form on the part of white people invested in maintaining and upholding the status quo (hello slave codes).

The murderer embodied this fear in his deliberateness and intentionality behind his targeting of Mother Emanuel, a church that was founded by free Black man Denmark Vesey. But I am interested in your point about the murder of the elders. I had not made that distinction previously but when we lose elders we lose crucial access points to our collective memories. Losing the elders of a community hurts because documentation, or lack thereof, has been wielded as a weapon against Black people in this country. So often, our stories over time are transmitted orally through our elders who remind us of what has been and help us to imagine what could be. To lose them, particularly in such a violent manner, is devastating.

It’s not lost on me that during Clementa Pinckney’s eulogy, Obama slipped into Black (Southern?) preacher-speak during his eulogy. It was endearing at first, and then, he said things like, “alleged killer” and that reminded me that he was (is still, is firstly?) a politician. What a line he must toe daily, but you know, the church has almost always been somewhere in his platform. Do you think that’s because it is, as he said, so closely related to the Black community that to not allude to, reference, mimic the church is to disconnect himself from us?

Obama’s public political relationship to Black folks and Black institutions makes for a very interesting case study doesn’t it? I too watched the funeral (almost in tears, I might add) but was quite underwhelmed by the president’s speech. It wasn’t until he began to lead the mourners in singing “Amazing Grace” that a sort of comfort settled over me and for a brief moment, I released some of my political disappointment in a man who seems to have difficulty publicly acknowledging, even uttering the phrase “white supremacy.” His tone, demeanor, and body language throughout his entire time at the pulpit reminded me that he too is a man influenced by the Black church. Despite his complicated political relationship to the Black community, he is still a man who knows what it means to enter into a place of worship, to be nurtured by that place, to find a home in that place. Lest we forget that he was (maybe still is) a member of the historic Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Do you feel hopeless? I do. I feel that there is nothing I can do anymore. That I am just walking around waiting for the moment in which I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time in which someone enacts out their hatred towards me. Nearing the end of his life, Malcolm X felt it. He said, “Every morning when I wake up, now, I regard it as having another borrowed day.” How do you feel these days?

James Baldwin said that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all of the time.” These days, I’m full of a kind of righteous rage and I think that is just fine.

And now they’re burning churches.

But they have been burning churches. They have been killing us.

So what do we do, Jessica? I am asking so many people this question. What do we do? Our refrain: where do we go to get free? Where do we go to live?

I knew this question was coming. I’m so glad you are insistent about asking it, too, because obviously, I would not dare say I know the right answer or that there is even such a thing as a right answer. Yet, part of me thinks that we have to run fiercely towards those healing spaces I talked about earlier. You know, I used to say that I would become an expat and leave the States and leave the baggage behind. I don’t feel that way anymore. If I leave, what happens to my mom? My dad? My brother? My sister? The many people who don’t have the means to leave. Where do we go to get free? Maybe we go Home.

Home. The sweet refrain. I took the first flight I could to Charleston. I went to the neighborhood of my grandmother’s house, not knowing what I would see, but the bullfrogs and cicadas welcomed me as soon as I opened the door, and the 100 percent humidity hugged me, and in some weird way I felt comforted. My grandmother’s neighbor for three decades, Mr. Green flagged me down on his bike — I want to be 80 and riding a bike, still! — I sat in his kitchen with his wife of 50 years and got my own dose of Southern, elderly wisdom. I listened to how he had lived to tell me the tale of his first cousin being lynched in front of his eyes because someone else lied and said he was a perpetrator. I sat in Mr. Green’s kitchen, and he gave me ice water, and turned on the fan. His wife gave me ginger snaps, and while he ate his oatmeal, he told me stories about my family, about his family. Those two hours restored me in a way that I have hungered for since I heard about the shooting in Charleston. Mr. Green sent me on my way with a bag full of okra and tomatoes from his garden. Jessica, I want to close out with a question I have been asking friends closer to my age — the ones who, supposedly, are the ones filled with the most hope. What does the world look like in 5 years? 2020. Clearer vision? Where is art in it?

It seems that we are part of a community of young people who are rising up and speaking truth to power. Yes, we are coming to this movement from different vantage points and finding various ways to engage but we are rising up nonetheless.

Now, I am looking back to the Black Arts Movement to help inform the role of art in contemporary resistance and interventionist movements because I believe art to be essential to liberation. Perhaps Larry Neal said it best:

A cultureless revolution is a bullcrap tip. It means in the process of making revolution we lose our vision. We lose the soft, undulating side of ourselves — those unknown beauties lurking rhythmically below the level of material needs. In short, a revolution without culture would destroy the very thing that unites us; the very thing we are trying to save along with our lives.[1]

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[1] Larry Neal, “Any Day Now: Black Art and Black Liberation,” Ebony, 1969.

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DéLana R.A. Dameron is the author of How God Ends Us, a collection of poems selected by Elizabeth Alexander for the 2008 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize.

 

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