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"But I Forgive You?": Mother Emanuel, Black Pain and the Rhetoric of Forgiveness

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Abstract

On June 17, 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof walked into Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in Charleston, South Carolina with a .45 caliber Glock handgun while members conducted their Wednesday night bible study. After sitting through the mid-week bible study, near the close of the meeting and after praying with them, Roof shot and killed nine people who became known as the Emmanuel Nine. Black pain again was on full display in the media, and so were calls for forgiveness. In this essay, we examine the rhetoric of forgiveness and how forgiveness, as a trope, performs in public when expressed through black pain. Further, we maintain that the wider public not only expects a rhetoric of forgiveness when racial ghosts of the past (and present) manifest in ways that cause black pain but also those grief-stricken black families must offer the forgiveness in non-threatening and expeditiously ways that eases public consciences. This leads us to examine the rhetoric of (un)forgiveness and how it functions through black pain as well.
Andre E. Johnson, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Memphis where he
teaches classes in African American public address, rhetoric, race, and religion. Dr. Johnson is currently collecting
the writings of 19th century AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and directs the Digital Archive the Henry McNeal
Turner Project. He is the co-author (with Amanda Nell Edgar, Ph.D.) of The Struggle Over Black Lives Matter
and All Lives Matter (Lexington Books, 2018) and also the author of the forthcoming “No Future in this Country:
The Prophetic Pessimism of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner (University Press of Mississippi) Correspondence can
be sent to: Andre E. Johnson, Ph.D., University of Memphis, 212 Art and Communication Building, Memphis,
Tennessee 38152, USA. ajohnsn6@memphis.edu.
Earle J. Fisher, Ph.D. is the Rev. Dr. Henry Logan Starks Fellow at Memphis Theological Seminary. His research
focuses on rhetoric, race, and religion, Black prophetic rhetoric and the Black preaching tradition. Dr. Fisher is the
author of the forthcoming “The Negro Solider and Hollywood’s Rhetorics of Race” (Black Scholars Journal) and
“Brother Malcolm, Dr. King and Black Power: A Close (Complimentary) Reading (Black Theology Journal).
Correspondence can be sent to: Earle J. Fisher, Ph.D., Memphis Theological Seminary, 168 E. Parkway, Memphis,
Tennessee 38104, USA. efisher@memphisseminary.edu
“But, I Forgive You?”: Mother Emanuel, Black Pain and the Rhetoric of
Forgiveness
Andre E. Johnson and Earle J. Fisher
Abstract: On June 17, 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof walked into Mother Emanuel
African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in Charleston, South Carolina, with a .45 caliber
Glock handgun while members conducted their Wednesday night bible study. After sitting
through the mid-week bible study, near the close of the meeting and after praying with them,
Roof shot and killed nine people who became known as the Emanuel Nine. Black pain again was
on full display in the media and so were calls for forgiveness.
In this essay, we examine the rhetoric of forgiveness and how forgiveness, as a trope,
performs in public when expressed through black pain. Further, we maintain that the wider public
not only expects a rhetoric of forgiveness when racial ghosts of the past (and present) manifest
in ways that cause black pain but also those grief-stricken black families must offer the forgiveness
in non-threatening and expeditiously ways that ease public consciences. This leads us to examine
the rhetoric of (un)forgiveness and how it functions through black pain as well.
Keywords
: Forgiveness, Emanuel Nine, Black Pain, Race, Racism
On June 17, 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof walked into Mother Emanuel African
Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in Charleston, South Carolina, with a .45 caliber
Glock handgun while members were having their Wednesday night bible study. After
sitting through the mid-week bible study, near the close of the meeting and after praying
with them, Roof shot and killed Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee
Lance, Reverend Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Reverend Daniel
Simmons, Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Reverend Myra Thompson and the
church’s pastor and state senator Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney. The ages of the
victims ranged from 26 to 87. Early the next day, police apprehended and arrested Roof
in Shelby, North Carolina. During the interrogation, Roof confessed to the mass murder,
hoping to start what he called a “race war.”
1
Sadly, this was not the first time that tragedy found itself at Mother Emanuel’s
door.
2
After its founding in 1816, Mother Emanuel became a site for resistance and two
1
Polly Mosendz. Dylann Roof Confesses: Says He Wanted to Start ‘Race War.’ Newsweek, June
19, 2015. https://www.newsweek.com/dylann-roof-confesses-church-shooting-says-he-wanted-start-race-
war-344797.
2
For a more detailed history of Emanuel AME Church in the context of the shootings, see Herb
Frazier, Bernard Edwards Powers Jr., and Marjory Wentworth, We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at
Mother Emanuel (Nashville: W. Publishing Group, 2016).
6
years after its founding in 1818, authorities arrested Reverend Morris Brown and other
ministers for “facilitating black services without white supervision.”
3
Later, Denmark
Vesey began to hatch a plan that would free enslaved people. Grounded in a theology of
liberation and arguing that slavery was wrong in the eyesight of God, Vesey plan was to
liberate the enslaved through a violent revolt. When authorities discovered his plan, after
other enslaved people leaked the plot to their enslavers, they executed Vesey and his co-
conspirators and burned the church to the ground. Members rebuilt the church in 1834,
but South Carolina soon outlawed all black churches in response to the Nat Turner
insurrection. During this time, members continued to worship in secret, and the church
joined the famed Underground Railroad. In 1865, the church formerly reorganized with
the help of Denmark Vesey’s son, Robert. Tragedy would hit Mother Emanuel once
again in 1872 when an earthquake leveled the church. Members again rebuilt and, in
1886, the church moved to its current location on Calhoun Street.
4
Mother Emanuel has continued to be a site of resistance. President Obama
highlighted the past and continued role of the church’s legacy in his remarks after the
shooting:
Mother Emanuel is, in fact, more than a church. This is a place
of worship that was founded by African Americans seeking
liberty. This is a church that was burned to the ground because
its worshipers worked to end slavery. When there were laws
banning all-black church gatherings, they conducted church
services in secret. When there was a nonviolent movement to
bring our country in closer line with our highest ideals, some
of our brightest leaders spoke and led marches from this
church’s steps. This is a sacred place in the history of
Charleston and in the history of America.
5
Obama could have included that Mother Emanuel was also a sacred place in the history
of the Black Church; a church that has historically stood against the violence that had
been perpetrated by Dylan Roof.
Two days removed from this sacred space, Roof appeared via video link for his
bond hearing and court officials allowed family members of the victims to address him.
Surprisingly for many, what Roof and others in the courtroom heard that day from some
of the family members were words of forgiveness. Nadine Collier, the daughter of victim
Ethel Lance, said to Roof, “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from
me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I
forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If
3
Julia Glum, “Before Charleston Shooting, ‘Mother Emanuel’ AME Church Was Famous In
Black Community,” International Business Times, June 18, 2015, accessed March 9, 2017,
http://www.ibtimes.com/charleston-shooting-mother-emanuel-ame-church-was-famous-black-
community-1973764.
4
See also “History,” Emanuel AME Church, accessed December 12, 2017,
http://www.emanuelamechurch.org/pages/staff/; Denmark Vesey, This Far By Faith,
https://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/people/denmark_vesey.html
5
“Obama’s Remarks on fatal Shooting in Charleston, S.C.,” Washington Post, June 18, 2015,
accessed March 9, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/06/18/full-text-
obamas-remarks-on-fatal-shooting-in-charleston-s-c/?utm_term=.51b0b7c3f0e2.
7
God forgives you, I forgive you.” A relative of victim Myra Thompson said, “I forgive
him, and my family forgives him.”
6
When the families of the victims forgave Roof, many in the media were
astonished at the powerful display of faith. Michael Gerson of the Washington Post wrote,
“When many relatives of those cruelly murdered in Charleston by a man who talked
and prayed with his victims for an hour before systematically gunning them down
publicly offered their forgiveness, it was stunning and admirable in many ways.”
7
MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes took to Twitter on June 19, 2015, and posted the
following: “I was raised a Christian and what was just on display was the core of what I
still love about the faith & am thankful for being raised in it.”
8
In greater depth, David
Remnick of the New Yorker opined that:
It is an enduring mystery of life how the moral range of
humanity can stretch from a twisted young racist such as
Dylann Roof, who faces charges of slaughtering six women
and three men during a Bible-study class, to a woman such as
Nadine Collier, who is the daughter of one of the victims,
Ethel Lance, and who was able to find it in her heart to turn to
Roof at his bond hearing and say, “I forgive you.
9
After the families offered forgiveness, Aljazeera America carried the provocative headline
“Christian Forgiveness is Transforming the South.”
10
Testifying to the potential of this
transformation, Michael Daly wrote for the Daily Beast that, “Even the most cynical
atheist had to have been in awe as the family members of the murdered faithful rose one
after another in the Charleston courtroom and proved the power of their own faith in
the face of crushing loss.”
11
In the midst of the media’s praise for the families’ capacities to forgive, some
wondered what the forgiveness of Roof meant and the extent to which it obscured
persisting problems of racism. On Being writer Omid Safi was among those who
expressed concern that:
6
Elahe Izadi, “The Powerful Words of Forgiveness Delivered to Dylann Rook by Victims’
Relatives,” Washington Post, June 19, 2015, accessed March 9, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/
news/post-nation/wp/2015/06/19/hate-wont-win-the-powerful-words-delivered-to-dylann-roof-by-
victims-relatives/?utm_term=.4309d7ef2955.
7
Michael Gerson, “The Power of Forgiveness in Charleston,Washington Post, June 22, 2015,
accessed December 12, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-power-of-forgiveness
/2015/06/22/a331c77e-190d-11e5-bd7f-4611a60dd8e5_story.html?utm_term=.dd163e14be8c.
8
Chris Hayes. Twitter post, June 19, 2015, 11:32 a.m. <https://twitter.com/chrislhayes/status/
611964838542184448> Anthony Bradley. Christian Forgiveness is Transforming the South, Aljazeera
America, June 27, 2015, accessed December 12, 2017, http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/6/
christian-forgiveness-is-transforming-the-south.html.
9
David Remnick, “Mercy and a Manifesto in Charleston,” The New Yorker, June 20, 2015, accessed
December 12, 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/mercy-and-a-manifesto-in-charleston.
10
Anthony Bradley, “Christian Forgiveness is Transforming the South,” Aljazeera America, June
27, 2015, accessed December 12, 2017, http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/ 2015/6/christian-
forgiveness-is-transforming-the-south.html.
11
Michael Daly, “Charleston Shooting Families Proved Grace Wins Out Over Hate,” Daily Beast,
June 19, 2015, accessed March 9, 2017, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/ 2015/06/20/charleston-
shooting-families-proved-grace-wins-out-over-hate.html.
8
Forgiving Dylann Roof means little, unless and until we are
also committed to confronting the system and structure that
produces racism, the easy access to guns that takes racism and
translates it to violence against black and brown bodies, and
props up the system of racism through enforcements of white
privilege all around were not so understanding.
12
Ericka Schiche similarly questioned the limits of forgiveness: “forgiveness, that element
of moral sanctity which facilitates assuaging of grief, has morphed into a barrier
obstructing the path to justice and accountability in the United States.”
13
Despite how we might feel about the families forgiving Roof of murdering their
loved ones, what was again on full display was the agony of Black pain. With the killings
of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, and Walter Scott still
fresh in the minds of many African Americans, the Charleston massacre cut deep.
Speaking of Black pain, Mo Barnes wrote, “Once again, Black pain was on full display
for all of America to see. Black lives taken by a White man deliberately letting all of Black
America know you are never safe from racial hatred.
14
In addition, what was also on display was what Debra Walker King calls
“blackpain.” She writes that blackpain “denotes the visual and verbal representation of
pained bodies that function as rhetorical devices, as instruments of socialization, and as
sociopolitical strategy in American popular culture and literature.” Further she notes that
“while black pain describes “whose pain,” the revised word signifies the textual function
and surplus value (supplemental function) of black bodies in pain… Blackpain then is a
symbolic and intrusive abstraction of black people as living beings.”
15
In this paper, we examine the rhetoric of forgiveness and how forgiveness, as a
trope, performs in public when expressed through blackpain. By “public,” we mean
spaces open for engagement and consumption by everyday people (not limited to social,
digital, and print media sources). A reexamination of the family statements, we argue,
reveals that not all family members sent representatives to the hearing and not all who
did attend expressed forgiveness during the bond hearing. As the authors of We Are
Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel note, “not every family had a
representative at the bond hearing, and not all the family members felt the same way
about forgiveness.”
16
Nevertheless, the overarching narrative from many of the stories
in the media was that (all) the families offered forgiveness.
Further, we maintain that the wider public not only expects a rhetoric of
forgiveness when racial ghosts of the past (and present) manifest in ways that cause black
pain but also those grief-stricken black families must offer the forgiveness in non-
12
Omid Safi, “Is America Possible: Forgiveness, Justice and Charleston?” On Being. June 25, 2015,
accessed December 12, 2017, http://www.onbeing.org/blog/is-america-possible-forgiveness-justice-and-
charleston/.
13
Ericka Schiche, “Why America Needs to Reject the Charleston Massacre’s Dangerous Narrative
of Forgiveness,” Salon, June 27, 2015, accessed December 12, 2017, http://www.salon.com/2015/06/27/
why_america_needs_to_reject_the_charleston_massacres_dangerous_narrative_of_forgiveness/.
14
Mo Barnes, “Black Pain in the Wake of the Charleston Church Massacre,” Rollingout, June 21,
2015, accessed December 12, 2017, http://rollingout.com/2015/06/21/black-pain-charleston/.
15
Debra Walker King. African American and the Culture of Pain. Charlottesville, VA: University of
Virginia Press, 2008, 16-17.
16
Frazier et al, We Are Charleston, 165.
9
threatening and expeditiously ways that eases public consciences. This leads us to
examine the rhetoric of (un)forgiveness and how it functions through black pain as well.
The Rhetoric of Forgiveness
Even a cursory examination of the communication literature on forgiveness reveals that
much of it centers on the context of family relationships,
17
dating or marital
relationships,
18
religion or spirituality,
19
or as part of apology discourses.
20
Most of these
studies focus on the communication of a person or group seeking forgiveness. In short,
much of the research focuses on the communicative role of the person or group asking
forgiveness. But what if the person or group participating in the rhetorics of forgiveness
is the one offering forgiveness? Moreover, what if the person or group offers this forgiveness
despite anyone asking for said forgiveness?
Our examination of the literature suggests that a person or group offering
forgiveness has not been a primary focus of forgiveness studies in our field. That is not
to say, however, that there has not been any scholarship on this subject. For example,
Gregory D. Paul studies forgiveness within the Amish community after the 2006 mass
murder that left five children dead.
21
Paul finds that “forgiveness is better understood as
the product of a confluence of multiple social expectations.” Moving away from
Waldron and Kelley’s
22
communicative model of forgiveness that “suggests that both
relational and individual factors likely shape a person’s willingness to forgive,” Paul
maintains that “other factors influence the practice of forgiveness.”
23
At the same time,
Paul calls upon researchers to “examine narratives of forgiveness within a specific
cultural context” to “understand the influence of specific norms on the practice of
forgiveness."
Further, he argues that researchers can “explore how forgiveness supports or
undermines other social norms and values, or is the result of an ideology of forgiveness
and reconciliation.” In offering comments for future studies on forgiveness and noticing
the speed in which the Amish offered forgiveness to an unrepentant mass murderer, he
17
Diana Breshears, “Forgiveness of Adult Children Toward Their Alcoholic Parents,” Qualitative
Research Reports in Communication 16 (2015): 3845; Becky L. DeGreeff, “The Process of Forgiveness in
Stepfamily Relationships: An Exploratory Examination,” Journal of the Communication, Speech & Theatre
Association of North Dakota 28 (2015): 12-24; Kristen Carr and Tiffany R. Wang, “Forgiveness Isn’t a Simple
Process: It’s a Vast Undertaking”: Negotiating and Communicating Forgiveness in Nonvoluntary Family
Relationships,” Journal of Family Communication 12 (2012): 40-56.
18
Pavica Sheldon, Eletra Gilchrist-Petty, and James Adam Lessley, “You Did What? The
Relationship Between Forgiveness Tendency, Communication of Forgiveness, and Relationship Satisfaction
in Married and Dating Couples,” Communication Reports 27 (2014): 78-90; Andy J. Merolla, “Communicating
Forgiveness in Friendships and Dating Relationships,” Communication Studies 59 (2008): 114131.
19
Pavica Sheldon, “Religiosity as a Predictor of Forgiveness, Revenge, and Avoidance among
Married and Dating Adults,” Journal of Communication & Religion 37 (2014): 20-29.
20
Zohar Kampf, “The Pragmatics of Forgiveness: Judgments of Apologies in the Israeli Political
Arena,” Discourse & Society, 19 (2008): 577-598; Daniel A. Grano, “Michael Vick’s ‘Genuine Remorse’ and
Problems of Public Forgiveness,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 100 (2014): 81104.
21
Gregory D. Paul. “‘We Must Not Think Evil of This Man’: A Case Study of Amish and English
Forgiveness,” Communication Quarterly 60 (2012): 424444.
22
Vincent R. Waldron and Douglas L. Kelly. Communicating Forgiveness. Thousand Oaks, CA:
Sage. 2007.
23
We Must Not Think Evil of This Man,” 438.
10
asks, “What factors contribute to the speed with which people decide to forgive and
work through the process of forgiveness?”
24
In this essay, we take seriously the suggestions that Paul offers and apply them
to the case of the Charleston Massacre. While we note the similar circumstances
surrounding both the Amish and Charleston massacres – both communities suffered an
atrocity of hate that ended with the death of loved ones, and some of the victims quickly
offered forgiveness, we also note there is a huge difference between the two. The victims
of the Amish massacre along with their murder were white, and the victims of the
Charleston massacre were black. Their murderer was an unrepentant white supremacist.
In short, the major difference between the two is the role that race and racism played in
the public's understanding of the massacres. It is here that we argue that when atrocities
grounded within a racist socio-historical framework explode upon our collective
consciousness that causes Black pain and suffering, there is an expectation that those
victims forgive their perpetrators.
Heeding Paul’s suggestions, we examine narratives of forgiveness within the
African American context. For us, this would also include a re-examination of the
“forgiveness narratives” from the victims’ family members as well as narratives of
(un)forgiveness since, as we have already mentioned, the majority of people who spoke
the day of the bond hearing did not offer forgiveness. Moreover, and especially because
these victims were Christians, we maintain religious narratives of forgiveness especially
within the traditional ways of Christianity dominate African Americans’ understanding
of forgiveness. Thus we also consider the swiftness with which the victims of the
Emanuel Nine forgave. While we do not question the validity and sincerity of their
forgiveness, we do offer suggestions as to the factors that may have contributed to the
haste in which they offered forgiveness. In so doing, we maintain that the embedded
narrative of forgiveness within black communities is fraught with issues and problems
that undermine presupposed norms and values that give rise to an inept, indecent, and
immoral ideology of forgiveness. Moreover, we believe that this understanding of
forgiveness sets almost inhumane expectations on African Americans and limits them
from authentically grieving. This, we argue, hurts their chances for authentic growth and
development that continue to perpetrate systematic oppression, marginalization,
disenfranchisement, and violence against black bodies.
Narratives of Forgiveness within the African American Context
According to Nadine V. Wedderburn and Robert Carey, American society continues to
expect African Americans to forgive “racial wrongdoings carried out against them.” They
write that the “habit of expecting almost-immediate forgiveness from African-
Americans for historic and contemporary injustices meted out against them presents as
a perverse product of internalized oppression and internalized domination.” For them,
these forgiveness narratives lead to potentially two outcomes. They write, “African-
Americans are seen habitually turning to a brand of Christianity, taught to them by white
24
“We Must Not Think Evil of This Man,” 438.
11
Europeans, as a source of empowerment and hope, while, whites retain a sense of
entitlement to forgiveness lacking empathy.”
25
Therefore, when African Americans offer forgiveness in the face of an atrocity
such as the one in Charleston, whites may interpret the offer of forgiveness differently
than African Americans. Wedderburn and Carey suggest that for whites, “forgiveness
seems to imply that it is an act that wipes clean all previous sin as if it had never happened
an act that, when carried out, is good for the oppressor and the oppressed."
Further to this point, they write:
As an outgrowth of the Methodist tradition, it would be safe
to say that AME adherents retain this white Protestant view of
forgiveness; and Christianity, it could be argued, has been used
to co-opt African-Americans into participating in their own
oppression. The habit of expecting African-Americans’ quick
conferral of unearned forgiveness on whites in times of
degradation and cruelty perpetuates a twisted societal norm
that perniciously straddles the color line.
26
We see this type of misunderstanding of forgiveness in the many articles written
after the massacre. Writing for CBN News, Efrem Graham opened his article with, “If
the Confederate flag is a symbol of hate, then the families of those killed in last week’s
Charleston church massacre are symbols of love.”
27
Todd Brady, in an article published
in the Baptist Press, wrote, “Their testimony of forgiveness shows us that followers of
Christ are committed to doing what He commands regardless of how they might feel.”
28
President Obama “marveled at the statements the family members of the victims made”
and called the act “an expression of faith that is unimaginable,”
29
while the leaders of the
South Carolina Christian Action wrote in their Pastoral Letter:
Seldom in our history has the purity of love and the innocence
of faith been so completely offered in the face of such
intentional hatred in the very sanctuary of God. It is as though
history itself focused its lens specifically upon the most
appropriate place in the Deep South by which the generations
of racial injustice could begin to reverse themselves by
receiving the message of reconciliation. We stand before the
universal and eternal truth of the Cross of Christ: unmerited
suffering is redemptive.
30
25
Nadine V. Wedderburn and Robert E Carey, “Forgiveness in the Face of Hate” in
Multiculturalism and the Convergence of Faith and Practical Wisdom in Modern Society, ed. Ana-Maria Pascal (IGB
Global, 2017), 315-330, 322.
26
Wedderburn and Carey, “Forgiveness in the Face of Hate,” 322.
27
Efrem Graham, “Powerful Witness: Forgiveness in Charleston,” CBN News, June 25, 2015,
accessed December 12, 2017, http://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2015/June/Powerful-Witness-
Forgiveness-in-Charleston.
28
Todd Brady, “Why I Must Forgive Dylann Roof,” Baptist Press, June 26, 2015, accessed
December 12, 2017, http://www.bpnews.net/45043/firstperson-why-i-must-forgive-dylann-roof.
29
David Nakamura, “In San Francisco, Obama Reaffirms Fight on Gun Control: ‘I’m Not
Resigned,’” Washington Post, June 19, 2015, accessed December 12, 2017,
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/06/19/obama-addresses-charleston-
shootings-at-mayors-conference/?utm_term=.647595ba7800.
30
South Carolina Christian Action Council, accessed December 12, 2017,
https://www.sccouncil.net/?page_id=645.
12
Much of this expectation is of course rooted in a particular Christian
understanding of forgiveness. In short, society expects Christians to forgive because
forgiveness is an important part of their faith. However, we agree with Wedderburn and
Carey that a traditional understanding of this type of forgiveness leads to an “enduring
preservation” of “White Fragility."
Further, they write, “when African-Americans do not forgive racist acts
immediately or outrightly, it raises ideas of ‘White Fear,’ a contrived dread that African-
Americans will assert ‘righteous indignation’ and revolt collectively against white
America.”
31
In both cases, we argue, white emotion usurps the affirmation of black
humanity. This is why African Americans in times of such tragedy cannot express “black
rage” or anger. “While in the media African-American rage is challenged as inappropriate
and unhelpful,” Wedderburn and Carey argue, “the same media and others glorify
traumatized family members’ ability to respond to the heinous crime against them with
compassion and love.”
32
This helps explain the frame of forgiveness many have in
understanding family members’ response to Roof's terroristic activities.
Narratives of Black (Un)Forgiveness
Remember, though, that not all family members of the Charleston nine offered
forgiveness that led to a privileging of particular expressions offered by family members
that oversimplified their collective responses. We also found a lack of interest in the
silence or lack of vocal response by other family members as well. Moreover, for those
who spoke, we suggest that many interpreted the responses given by the Charleston
families through a “default” lens of forgiveness. In short, we contend that many pundits
interpreted forgiveness in the families’ responses because of their use of religious
rhetorical appeals coupled with the presuppositions above about how people of color
ought to respond when victimized by racism.
While some lauded the forgiveness narratives, others did not. Cultural critic
Awesomely Luvvie took to Twitter to share her frustrations on black forgiveness,
writing, “The families of those killed do not owe that monster forgiveness. They do not
owe him mercy. They do not owe him kind words.”
33
Xolela Mangcu, writing for the
Root, wondered aloud if Dylan Roof deserved forgiveness. On forgiveness, he worried
about the “expectation of instant forgiveness” and wondered if it “reproduces racism in
the white community and places a denialist salve over the wound in the black
community.”
34
Julie Craven, a reporter for the Huffington Post, lamented in “It’s Not Black
Folks’ Burden to Forgive Racist Killers” that “if you want to silence a black person’s pain, ask
for forgiveness. We’re accustomed to our screams being hushed in the wake of tragedy.
We’re accustomed to our grief being shoved aside in the rush to find mercy for those
31
“Forgiveness in the Face of Hate” in Multiculturalism and the Convergence of Faith and Practical
Wisdom in Modern Society, ed. Ana-Maria Pascal (IGB Global, 2017) 322.
32
“Forgiveness in the Face of Hate” in Multiculturalism and the Convergence of Faith and Practical
Wisdom in Modern Society, ed. Ana-Maria Pascal (IGB Global, 2017) 323.
33
Awesomely Luuvie, “About Charleston, Forgiveness and Black Pain,” Awesomely Luuvie, June
20, 2015, accessed December 12, 2017, http://www.awesomelyluvvie.com/ 2015/06/charleston-
forgiveness-and-black-pain.html.
34
Xolela Mangcu, “Should We Forgive the Charleston Killer?” The Root, June 21, 2015, accessed
December 12, 2017, http://www.theroot.com/should-we-forgive-the-charleston-killer-1790860248.
13
who have trespassed against us.”
35
Jamilah Lemieux likewise criticized the media for
framing a “healing” narrative for Black Americans. In an article for The Nation, Lemieux
wrote:
As much as I desperately want to affirm and support those
most directly impacted by this horrific crime, I was horrified
by how the families’ words transformed the media narrative
into one of healing for black Americans, as opposed to
examining and identifying the Dylann Roof who lives in the
hearts of far too many white Americans, even if their hatred
may never compel them to go as far as Roof took his. At a
moment when our entire race had cause to be angry, we were
reminded that we are loving, forgiving people a people that
are required to be hyper-moral and superhuman in our
tolerance of abuse.
36
An examination of the responses above helps to construct a narrative of
unforgiveness. In the first two, Luvvie, expressing disbelief that the families somehow
“owe” forgiveness and Mangcu suggesting that the killer does not “deserve forgiveness,
speaks of unforgiveness within the particular context of the massacre. The latter, Craven,
writing on the muting of black voices articulating black pain and Lemieux, emphasizing
the special burden that expectations for forgiveness yield, speaks of unforgiveness within
a broader context that has broader implications. What these narratives do, both from the
particular to the broader context, is to produce a counter-narrative that challenges the
public's expectations.
Two scathing critiques of the rhetoric of forgiveness narrative merit close
attention here. The first is by Stacey Patton in an op-ed published in the Washington Post
titled, “Black America Should Stop Forgiving White Racists.” After recounting the
forgiveness narratives presented by the families and demonstrating how some in the
media attempted to frame Roof as worthy of “forgiveness and innocence,” Patton writes,
“Even in a slaughter of innocents, black people have to fight to have their humanity
recognized.” For her, “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.”
37
Where does this type of forgiveness find its beginnings? For Patton, the Black
Church has “nurtured the politics of forgiveness so that black people can anticipate
divine justice and liberation in the next life.”
Further yet, she suggests that it is a “belief that displays of morality rooted in
forgiveness would force white America to leave behind its racist assumptions.” While
Patton may understand Christians “whose deep faith tradition holds forgiveness as a
35
Julie Craven, “It’s Not Black Folks’ Burden To Forgive Racist Killers,” Huffington Post, July 1,
2015, accessed December 12, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/01/ forgiveness-
charleston-shooting_n_7690772.html.
36
Jamilah Lemieux, “Trying to Forgive the Black Church,” The Nation, July 2, 2015, accessed
December 12, 2017, https://www.thenation.com/article/trying-to-forgive-the-black-church/.
37
Stacey Patton, “Black America Should Stop Forgiving White Racists,” Washington Post, June 22,
2015, accessed December 12, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/
posteverything/wp/2015/06/22/black-america-should-stop-forgiving-white-racists/?utm_
term=.77b2417b53a6.
14
core principle,” and can see how some may even argue that forgiveness functions as a
“kind of protest,” she strongly argues that the “reflexive demand of forgiveness,
especially for those dealing with death by racism, is about protecting whiteness, and
America as a whole.” She calls this “yet another burden for black America.”
38
After reminding us “there was no talk about forgiving al-Qaeda, Saddam
Hussein or Osama bin Laden” after 9/11 and that no one “expects Jewish people to
forgive the Nazis or contemporary anti-Semitic acts, black people,she argues, “are held
to an impossibly higher standard. This rush to forgive before grieving, healing,
processing or even waiting for the legal or judicial systems to process these crimes and
the expectations of black empathy for those who do great harm is deeply problematic.”
39
Patton’s comparative analyses of the responses of different groups following
violent tragedies point out some clear inconsistencies in expectation. Why is the burden
of forgiveness placed upon the victims of horrific activity when those victims are those
with black skin? Patton’s observation functions rhetorically as a means of claiming space
to affirm the humanity of Black people. She contends that since Black people are human
too, responses to tragedy can be as textured, complicated, and rage-filled as anyone
else’s.
Patton then shifts in her op-ed piece to Black Pain and Black Forgiveness.
Black pain is only heard after forgiveness is afforded to these
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.
40
She then closes her piece challenging African Americans to view their humanity
differently.
If we really believe that 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 self-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 racial salvation our responsibility.
41
A close reading of Patton’s op-ed unearths three key points about forgiveness.
First, Patton is concerned with how black people view themselves in their moments of
38
Patton, “Black America Should Stop Forgiving.”
39
Patton, “Black America Should Stop Forgiving.”
40
Patton, “Black America Should Stop Forgiving.”
41
Patton, “Black America Should Stop Forgiving.”
15
grief and pain, rather than how whites or anyone else views them. For her, (black)
forgiveness especially for the crime of racism, is not necessarily for the person offering
it thus moving away from the predominate Christian understanding of forgiveness
but it is for white people’s comfort and “white atonement.” Second, though she
understands the tradition of forgiveness for the families, she still questions its timing. To
forgive too quickly is to render the act null and void. For Patton, it only trivializes “real
black suffering and grief.” Finally, she argues that the primary understanding of
forgiveness within the African-American tradition sometimes does not allow black
people their full range of human emotions. Black people should be allowed to express
anger, sadness, range or any other emotion they feel and still be heard.
Drawing from Patton, what is at stake here is the denial of black humanity. In
short, Patton argues that when people do not allow African Americans to grieve, get
angry, or mad in public, it strips them from being human. Also, it could also lead victims
and others to question her or his own humanity. For instance, in forgiving too quickly,
one may even begin to question if she or he truly loved the victim. We argue that when
a white supremacist attends Bible Study and, before leaving, shoots and kills nine people
who you may love dearly, being angry, sad, and unforgiving is a human response. In
moving ahead towards reconciliation, one may, in denying the hurt and forgiving too
quick, do more damage to one's self and self-esteem.
The second article is an op-ed published in the New York Times by Roxane Gay
titled “Why I Can't Forgive Dylann Roof.” She starts her op-ed telling her readers that
“I DO NOT forgive Dylann Roof, a racist terrorist whose name I hate saying or
knowing” and that she is “wholly at ease with that choice.” She notes, “My lack of
forgiveness serves as a reminder that there are some acts that are so terrible that we
should recognize them as such. We should recognize them as beyond forgiving.”
Admittedly, Gay writes that she “struggles with her faith” and while she believes in a
“God of love,” she cannot “understand how that love is not powerful enough to save us
from ourselves.” Raised as a Catholic, she understands that “forgiveness requires
reconciliation by way of confession and penance. We must admit our sins. We must
atone for our sins.”
42
For Gay, forgiveness does not come easy, and she writes that she is “fine with
this failing.” Additionally, she is “particularly unwilling to forgive those who show no
remorse, who don’t demonstrate any interest in reconciliation.” While arguing that not
enough time has elapsed since the terror attack to forgive anyone, she respects the
“families of the nine slain who are able to forgive this terrorist and his murderous
racism.”
Calling the murders an act of terror and noticing how the “dominant media
narrative vigorously embraced that notion of forgiveness,” Gay argues, “We are
reminded of the power of whiteness.” Additionally, she maintains, “Alongside the
forgiveness story, the media has tried to humanize this terrorist. They have tried to
understand Dylann Roof’s hatred because surely, there must be an explanation for so
42
Roxane Gay, “Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof,New York Times, June 23, 2015, accessed
December 12, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/24/opinion/why-i-cant-forgive-dylann-
roof.html?_r=0.
16
heinous an act...There are no limits to the power of whiteness when it comes to calls for
mercy.”
43
However, despite her critiques of forgiveness, she understands why many black
people forgive survival. She writes, “Black people forgive because we need to survive.
We have to forgive time and time again while racism or white silence in the face of racism
continues to thrive... We forgive and forgive and forgive, and those who trespass against
us continue to trespass against us.” She then closes her op-ed suggesting what white
people are asking for when they demand forgiveness:
What white people are really asking for when they demand
forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution. They
want absolution from the racism that infects us all even though
forgiveness cannot reconcile America’s racist sins. They want
absolution from their silence in the face of all manner of
racism, great and small. They want to believe it is possible to
heal from such profound and malingering trauma because to
face the openness of the wounds racism has created in our
society is too much. I, for one, am done forgiving.
44
A close reading of Gays op-ed also uncovers three points about forgiveness.
First, Gay is honest with her feelings about forgiveness she cannot bring herself to
forgive Dylann Roof. This (un)forgiveness grounds itself in an understanding of penance
and the perpetrator asking for forgiveness. She feels if there is forgiveness at all, it must
come after the perpetrator confesses and atones for those sins. Second, while respecting
anyone who could actually forgive that fast, Gay argues that not enough time has passed
for forgiveness to be truly authentic. When this happens, she argues that while it may or
may not help the family, it does demonstrate the power of whiteness. However, unlike
Patton, who maintains that quick forgiveness in situations such as this one helps white
people atone and find comfort, Gay argues that it helps whites figure out what exactly
went wrongwith Dylann Roof! Therefore, instead of focusing on the horrific crime of
murder that happened, many whites, for Gay, try to ascertain what happened to Roof to
make him act the way he did. Finally, for Gay, when black people forgive race-based
crimes and injustices, this leads to absolution for white people. In other words, when
white people hear forgiveness from black people without repentance or even asking for
forgiveness, white people can assume that their sins are absolved.
A reading of African-American (un)forgiveness rhetoric can help shed some
new light on the forgiveness rhetoric that is attributed to the family. While some of the
family members were quick to forgive, others withheld their forgiveness grounded in
their own self-agency to determine when they should offer forgiveness, if at all.
Moreover, with black pain at the center of (un)forgiveness, we remind our readers that
not all family members offered forgiveness. Instead, we argue that what we find is a
privileging of particular expressions offered by the family members that oversimplified
their collective responses. Drawing from Patton, Gay, and others, we also find a lack of
interest in the silence or lack of vocal response by family members as well. Additionally,
for those who spoke, we suggest that many interpreted the responses given by the
Charleston families through a “default” lens of forgiveness.
43
Gay, “Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof.”
44
Gay, “Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof.”
17
For example, a rereading of Felicia Sanders’ comments to Roof offered words
that appeal to religious sentiment, but not outright forgiveness. As reported in the
Washington Post, Sanders said to Roof:
We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with
welcome arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful
people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts and I’ll, I’ll
never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my son. But Tywanza
Sanders was my hero. Tywanza was my hero…. (But as we said
in Bible study, we enjoyed you) May God have mercy on you.
45
Sanders’s statement is not necessarily an expression of forgiveness. If anything, her
statement functions as an execution of judgment. It implies guilt while simultaneously
asking God to do what, possibly, the courts ought not to do have mercy.
Other family members’ responses on that day were similar to Sanders, devoid
of any explicit mention of forgiveness. For example, Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of
Daniel Simmons, said, “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands
of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul, is proof that they lived in love and
their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win. And I just want to thank the court for
making sure that hate doesn’t win.”
46
It is interesting to note Simmons’ use of pronouns. Although saying that
“everyone” pleaded for Roof’s soul is proof of love and legacies of love, she then
switches to say “they.” “They live in love” and “their legacies will live in love,” implies
that the families of the other victims are the ones demonstrating love while Simmons
still struggles.
Moreover, hate will not win, not because she has forgiven Roof, but because
the court is making sure that hate does not win. Her thinking here could point to her
appreciation that Roof is facing a judge. In the context of the Black Lives Matter
movement and the noted frequency that white perpetrators seem to get away with
murdering black people, Simmons thanking the court could be an appreciation that black
lives doe in fact matter.
Then there is the multi-layered, psychological, and spiritually sophisticated
rhetoric of Bethane Middleton-Brown, the sister of DePayne Middleton-Doctor.
Middleton-Brown declared:
That was my sister, and I’d like to thank you on behalf of my
family for not allowing hate to win. For me, I’m a work in
progress. And I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one
thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family is that she
taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no
room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your
45
Elahe Izadi. “The Powerful Words of Forgiveness Delivered to Dylann Roof by Victims’
Relatives.” Washington Post, June 19, 2015, accessed December 12, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/
news/post-nation/wp/2015/06/19/hate-wont-win-the-powerful-words-delivered-to-dylann-roof-by-
victims-relatives/?utm_term=.960a62a8df01. Note: Words in parenthesis are not in the original newspaper
text.
46
Izadi, “The Powerful Words of Forgiveness.”
18
soul. (And I also thank God that I won’t be around when your
Judgment Day comes with him.)
47
Importantly, we have to forgive” is not consistent with “we forgive you.” The former is
an appeal to an idea that, possibly, has not been actualized. The latter is a statement of
affirmation of what has already been achieved.
Other family members were absent from the bond hearing and were upset that
a narrative of forgiveness became the major trope as they grieved. For example, Malcolm
Graham, brother of victim Cynthia Graham Hurd recalled driving home when he heard
the bond hearing on the radio. “When I heard the first person say, ‘I forgive,’ I said,
‘That’s a sound bite. The media jumped on it and spread that forgive thing across nine
families,’ which is not true.” Nadine Collier’s sister Sharon Riser simply said when talking
about forgiveness, that she was “not there yet. The God I believe in is patting me on the
back, saying, ‘You take your time.’”
48
Then there are those who did not speak at the
hearing and this is important to note. Many in the media did not give much attention to
those family members who decided against making public statements such as Jennifer
Pinckney, the wife of Reverend Clementa Pinckney.
If we are to engage the families’ responses and the reception of these responses,
we are best served by situating them within the framework of black rhetoric more
broadly and African-American religious rhetoric more specifically. Black rhetorics, even
those of justice, redemption, and reconciliation are so hyper-regulated and restricted by
white supremacist gazes that the psychological pressure yields to premature dialectics of
forgiveness to ease the strain of black subjectivity in times of pain, grief, and trauma. In
short, it may make white people feel better, but it can do great harm to grieving loved
ones.
Conclusion
After Dylann Roof walked into Mother Emanuel AME Church and killed nine people,
many people in America were heartbroken and mourned alongside the victim’s families.
Three days later, media accounts of the tragedy shifted to the amazing acts of forgiveness
that some in the family offered. However, these media accounts of the tragedy erased
those family members who openly struggled to forgive or simply were not ready to
forgive.
Wedderburn and Carey suggest that there is something worth noting about not
forgiving too quickly or simply withholding one’s forgiveness. They argue that the rush
to forgive is “unhealthy and partly explains the vicious cycle of hate that persists and
manifests into racial violence across the country’s landscape.” Quick forgiveness, they
assert, “trivializes real African-American anguish and misery.” They further maintain
that:
To stifle rage through premature forgiveness is to diminish the
human-ness of the oppressed in the eyes of the oppressor, and
perpetuate the cycle of attacks and abuse that numbs cognitive
and emotional clarity. Victims’ families may forgive on their
terms, but it does not serve the country well to be quick to
47
Izadi, “The Powerful Words of Forgiveness.” Note: Comments in parenthesis were not
published in the article.
48
We Are Charleston, 166.
19
forgive! Premature forgiveness breeds denial. Premature
forgiveness promotes silence not addressing the truth about
the scourge that is racism. Premature forgiveness suppresses
justifiable outrage open rage that is just as vital to healing as
forgiveness.
49
Maybe the other family members who were not so ready to forgive or least to
forgive that quickly, were offering another way towards healing. In this way, those family
members withheld their forgiveness to process their pain and suffering. It is only in
recognizing and feeling the hurt and remembering why one hurts that forgiveness
eventually can become part of the overall healing process. Indeed, we submit that the
only way to heal, to move forward and eventually get to an adequate understanding of
how these types of traumas affect us all, is sometimes to allow black pain and hurt its
full manifestation and full range of human emotion. Instead of pushing past the pain,
we suggest to sit with it and affirm the agony and suffering when it becomes public.
49
“Forgiveness in the Face of Hate” in Multiculturalism and the Convergence of Faith and Practical
Wisdom in Modern Society, ed. Ana-Maria Pascal (IGB Global, 2017) 323.
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