African Americans will continue soldiering on to the pews in the wake of the Charleston massacre. But if we’re serious about preventing future tragedies, we must confront some very old demons.
“Clementa was a very, very, very good friend. Joshua, I just don’t have the words…”
My dad’s voice broke open when I spoke with him yesterday. And my father, a strong African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) preacher, doesn’t tend to crack. He knew Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the murdered pastor of Emanuel A.M.E., well. They were friends.
I grew up sitting in A.M.E. pews, a proud preacher’s kid. We had choir rehearsal, Sunday school, vacation Bible School. Quarterly, Annual and General Conferences. Sunday service and, of course, Wednesday night bible study, much like the one in Charleston that was attacked this week.
Like many Black folks, and surely like many of the deceased at Emanuel, our lives were anchored in our congregations. It didn’t matter what we were dealing with at school or work, whether the bank account was stable or declining. When we had nothing else – when the outer world was confusing or even seemed aligned against us – we always had the sanctuary that was our church. In my case, the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
That sanctuary has been violated in Charleston in the most brutal of ways. Black folks are mourning, and angry. And you have to know the history to fully understand why.
The A.M.E. Church is a denomination built on a foundation of holy defiance. In 1787, its founder, Richard Allen, grew tired of the segregated services at St. George’s United Methodist Church in Philadelphia and marched his fellow Black members out to form a church of their own, one that became the African Methodist Episcopal Church. From the very beginning, A.M.E.’s have had Jesus and justice running through their bones.
And Mother Emanuel A.M.E., the site of Wednesday’s carnage, was founded by Denmark Vessey. He led “The Rising,” a great slave revolt plot that nearly set Blacks in Charleston free.
This is a church that was already burnt to the ground by white supremacists once, in that revolt’s aftermath. And now it has been attacked by perhaps the same forces again. As Bishop Vashti McKenzie, the first woman Bishop of the A.M.E. church said to me yesterday, “if we can’t be safe in the church – then where can we be safe?”
It would be disproportionate to the magnitude of this tragedy to reach pat conclusions and then move along. We need to mourn first. We need to sit with the rage and pain, and mourn.
But then we have to come back to this…sickness. That’s what it feels like to me: a sickness. Not just the one-off malady of an insane individual. But a pervasive, gnawing illness that affects him and others in our country in varying, curious ways.
It’s a sickness that clouds the eyes of a police officer in McKinney, Texas – a fearful mania that causes him to see visions of children as armed criminals requiring disproportionate force.
A sickness that choked the life out of a man screaming that he couldn’t breathe – Eric Garner – because that man’s blackness and bigness and humanity were just too threatening to treat gently.
A sickness that allowed a police officer to see a 12-year-old child in Cleveland – Tamir Rice – and assume that the pellet gun this kid was holding was a deadly weapon, and then shoot him dead.
This sickness is the cancer of unacknowledged bias and supremacy. It has been with us since our founding, and civil rights laws, personal achievements and trappings of success for a fortunate few African Americans have not made us well.
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SOURCE: The Daily Beast