I am in a place that I had not anticipated and certainly could not have prepared for. It is the same feeling that I had after the shooting of nine bowed heads at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, 2015. Dylann Roof, the alleged shooter, had hoped to start a race war between socially colored black and white people. It is an old word and fight documented throughout American history. It is the fight for supremacy, the title of undisputed champion culture of the world and the very best that God created.
Before their funerals were planned, there was talk that their deaths could bring about some good. I was enraged. Who makes such a call? Did anyone ask the victims if they wanted to be a part of such work? And what of their dead bodies riddled with bullets, their helpless cries and their last breath shared with a deranged killer is required for the making of good? Who is in charge of the production of such good?
Mine is an all too familiar feeling. It was talked about in the past tense, the daily murder of African Americans unprotected by the law, of mob justice and lynching without due process of law. I had hoped to share it with my son in story form and based on books that I had read like At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America or Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. But, I can’t now, as it is a part of the daily news. I need only turn on the television.
It is painfully familiar because it sounds like the same incidents surrounding the civil rights movement. And it’s not history. The murders at Mother Emmanuel AME Church wounded me deeply because it reminded me of those four little girls murdered at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. What did they march for if we are marching again? What of signs held reading, “I am a man,” if we now must say, “Black lives matter?” What did they die for if African-American men and women are unlawfully dying again?
The words of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel rendered me silent. I thought that the release of the dash cam footage of the shocking murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald would have said enough. It is frightening, horrific and absurdly inhumane.
In a press conference after the shooting death of Laquan, Mayor Emmanuel said, “I believe this is a moment that can build bridges of understanding.” Why is the tragic loss of his life seen as good and quality material for such a bridge? And who wants to walk across a bridge made of the dead bodies of African-American men and women? Clearly, I have missed his understanding of the death of Laquan McDonald.
And we cannot move so quickly to building bridges when there is no understanding of the needed material required for its structural soundness and safety. Let’s take the appropriate steps toward walking together, toward mutual understanding and reconciliation. Let’s acknowledge and accept fully in our bodies what has happened to Laquan’s body. Let’s look at the medical examiner’s report and into the face of his family. Let’s look at least 16 times.
Before we make public statements, let’s go into public mourning. Is the period of mourning one news cycle? I mean, how long do we give ourselves to grieve? Is it for as long as the topic trends on Twitter? Let’s give it two, three or maybe 16 days.
Before we talk about “one bad apple,” let’s acknowledge that Officer Jason Van Dyke was a member of the police force and fellow officers stood by as he shot McDonald. Before we talk about what we will not allow after the release of the dash cam video — the breaking of windows and the destruction of public property — let’s talk about how we allow the public destruction of African-American bodies.
This has happened more times than I count, more times than fingers, more than two hands held up saying, “Don’t shoot.” This is too familiar. Eerily reminiscent of a group that terrorized African-American communities in cooperation with law enforcement and some times as members of law enforcement. Before we dismiss well-placed anger, fall back into the habit of blame-shifting or hurry to forgiveness, let’s talk about what happened to Laquan’s body.
Let’s walk in his shoes, running away, scraping concrete and then lying in the middle of the street, before we walk over said bridge of understanding. Let’s say his name, “Laquan McDonald.” Let’s talk about what happened to his 17-year-old body. Let’s talk about the dehumanization, devaluation and stereotyping of his body before we prep it to be used as building material.
To be sure, I am not angry, but I am really, really disappointed in a society that prides itself on being liberal but exerts little energy to change the relationships (not to be confused with the laws) that perpetuate this reality. I have been let down in ways unimaginable by a society that defines itself as progressive but feels very comfortable not making any progress on the race problem.
So, before we say, “I forgive you,” let’s talk about history’s repetition. Before we say, “I forgive you,” let’s acknowledge what’s wrong.
Before we say, “I forgive you,” let’s talk about this human condition called race. To be sure, it is a social construct that privileges some and oppresses others based on the social coloring of skin. Let’s really see each other and not what race suggests as there are no physically colored beige, black, brown, red, yellow or white people. Neither God nor our sciences agree with this cultural rating system.
Forgiveness begins with the awareness and the acknowledgement that something is wrong. Let’s talk about what’s wrong with our relationship before we say, “I forgive you.”
* This article was originally published by Baptist News Global under the same title on December 3, 2015.