Our nation has a gaping ache -- and we don't even know it. It's not unlike someone who goes to the doctor with mild complaints, only to be diagnosed with terminal cancer and dead in a few months. Though our nation will be chugging along a few months from now, we will not allow ourselves to be altered by the death of the nine martyrs in Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C. We want to say we will -- but we won't.
Twenty children and six adults were annihilated with gunfire in Newtown, Conn. -- and very few laws changed. A few miles from Newtown on the day after the massacre in Charleston, Rev. Anthony Bennett preached the funeral sermon for Savonie McNeil, a father of six children who worked hard at his job for years. Nine people were shot a week prior in their town of Bridgeport, Conn. -- and Mr. McNeil died.
But in the midst of these horrific deaths, there are times in our nation where people are killed for no other reason than the color of their skin. Trayvon Martin's mother Sybrina Fulton names this quite simply when she speaks to students: "I can change these boots. I can change these jeans. I can change this top. I cannot change the color of my skin."
We live in a nation where black life too often is dispensable. We pretend that isn't true -- "all life is valuable" we proclaim when we're talking about unborn life or elder life or someone is in a coma. But when we see a 14-year-old girl in a bikini slammed to the ground by police, we hear a national reporter observe of the girl, "She was no saint." In Charleston, a 5-year-old cherub was reportedly told by her grandmother to "play dead" so that she could live.
It seems that a lot of us want invisibility to happen when it comes to black lives. That even if black lives aren't dead -- that they, in essence, play dead. That demands aren't made. Back in the day our forebears would caution children and black lives to "mind your place." We are grateful for those who make our lives easier. But we don't recognize the worth of black lives. I offer this observation as I see what we invest in the education of black lives, the incarceration of black lives, the medical access of black lives, the access to grocery stores for black lives. For much of our culture, if we use these measures as markers, black lives do NOT matter.
So when a church -- a Bible study -- is interrupted and nine lives are evaporated, we have to ask: when will the death of Black Lives matter? For my white friends, could you imagine if an African-American man and came in and shot nine people when Benny Hinn was preaching? Joyce Meyer? John Hagee? Pat Robertson? Joel Osteen? Andy Stanley? The outcry would be enormous. And yet, judging from the lack of so many white folks' post regarding the martyrdom of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the silence is deafening. Also, consider this: The day after the murders, churches gathered for prayer services. But two churches had to be cleared because of bomb threats.
When I see the vacuous look in the photos of the shooter Dylann Roof I grieve, too, for him. What happened to him that surged the hate into his actions? When he spoke the words -- "'I have to do it. You rape our women and you are taking over our country. And you have to go." -- where were these notions bred and fed?
And this is the tough work for our nation -- it would be great to treat this as an "isolated incident." But it isn't. Yes -- the carnage of nine dead bodies in one church is not common. But the death of black lives is common. And the hate that was spewed from Dylann's mouth is substantiated by irresponsible bloggers and sometimes even major news outlets. We're too sophisticated to say these words. But we hint at the centuries old tropes that fueled the torture of Emmett Till and the lynching of thousands (quite literally) before him.
So if the death of black lives DOES matter to you, here are two things you can do:
- Do not act like the one black person you know is supposed to educate you on 400 years of racialized violence. For right now, read about Denmark Vesey, one of the founders of Emanuel AME Church. Learn why his name is important. (For extra credit, learn about Absalom Jones and Richard Allen.)
Finally, Emanuel means "God with Us." God IS with us -- ALL of us. It's time we remember -- and live like it.