Friday afternoon in July in Charleston, South Carolina and the heat is in the mid-90s. The black woman, whose name I never got, sweats in the sun, removing dead flowers, dried wreaths, and the other desiccated offerings at the foot of Mother Emanuel AME church, three weeks after Dylann Roof murdered nine of their worshippers at the conclusion of Bible study.
Emanuel means “God is with us.”
Mother God is With Us.
She stuffs the brittle stems in a white Glad bag while people place more flowers outside the wrought-iron gate. A young man twists palmetto fronds into roses on the sidewalk, selling them to the transient crowd. Pilgrims, gawkers, both. On the corner, a man sits behind a folding table with black #Emanuel9 t-shirts for sale.
“What do you need?” I ask her. “We came from Tampa, and we know a lot of people who want to do something for you, for your church. Tell me what you need and I can let our friends know how they can help.”
She stops stuffing the trash bag and rests her hand on the black iron fencing. “Prayers. We need your prayers. Keep praying. Any money people want to send to help us with our building. We got so many old people can’t get up the stairs. We were trying to get an elevator built before, you know, all this happened. Those of us can’t get up the stairs go in the annex, watch the sermon from closed circuit. Now we’re behind, we could use some help.”
A woman’s companion takes her photo in front of the stairs, surrounded by funeral wreaths, holy candles, homemade memorials. Others use the Sharpies by the plywood circle propped on an easel to write their names, sentiments, condolences, words of solidarity, the names of the fallen. A banner, affixed to the wrought iron gate, also bears these things in Sharpie. More people stop. More people write names.
“What about you?” I ask. “How are you holding up? How are the members of your church holding up?”
“We’re holding up,” she says. She shakes her head. “I just told another lady. He came here, and he wiped out almost our whole ministerial team. Clementa, our pastor. Reverend Daniel. Depayne. Ms. Sharonda Singleton.” She trails off. I don’t know what to say. I stand there, and I watch a wide bead of sweat form in her hair then fall along the slope of her face, slipping on the curve of her eye, bumping along the wrinkles there, skidding to a stop at the base of her cheek. I notice the name she does not speak.
In this moment, I am not reacting to a newspaper article. I am not protected by the comfort of my own intellectual understanding of the socio-politics involved. My opinions mean nothing. I am not playing Facebook with this tragedy. I can tell I am in some sort of shock because I feel like I just got hit in the head with a moving object. My brain is concussing, my spirit is here but my mind wants to fly away from this scene as fast as it can. I hold onto the fence. Do something. Say the right thing. But I have nothing.
I heard her speak the names of her people, of our countrymen and women, of the human beings who, three and one half weeks ago, walked up and down the stairs of this church. People who also rested their hands on this iron fence. I am witnessing and I do not like it, but it is necessary.
So, I stand.
Andy and I are on our way to North Carolina to adopt a dog. We stopped by Emanuel AME with flowers* to pay our respects en route to Sunset Beach, NC, to meet up with my friend Danielle who I haven’t seen in 20 years but who happened to read my last blog about racism and who happened to be vacationing in NC from San Fran off the exact highway Andy and I planned to take. Highway 17, the same highway that runs near downtown Charleston where the giant white facade of Mother Emanuel towers over Calhoun Street. So many roads but one road. This is how I feel inside this moment at the fence.
I am overpowered by history, overwhelmed with the senselessness of fear and hatred, outraged at how helpless I often feel in the politics of domination and bullying, uplifted by the outpouring of a massive demonstration of choosing the strength of love and unity as a proper response to the sickness of the racist American mind. It’s the same feeling I had when I went to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The same one I had at the Vietnam Memorial. The same one I had when this metaphysical trip began for me, in 1997, when I entered Ford’s Theater and witnessed, first hand, the space where John Wilkes Booth fired a bullet through Abraham Lincoln’s skull. It is the terrifying humility of recognizing that this is all real, when the myth of the good guys vs. the bad guys, my team beating your team turns into the horrifying reality of endless days of human suffering. History transforms when, in a flash, you’re given the perception of seeing it as other people’s pain. History transforms when, with a relatively minor amount of effort, you go places and understand, in the very root of your heart, that history isn’t a pile of tales, information for articles, bullet points for a test. History is a collection of other people’s lives. And all of their lives led to your life.
“The families,” she finally says. “We’re strengthening our faith. They already forgave that boy. We have to move on. If they can forgive then so can we. They strengthen us and we keep going. Life moves on.” So many roads but one road. She resumes removing the old offerings from the church ground, stuffing them in the plastic tall kitchen garbage bag. Andy and I leave, finding a deli at the visitors’ center. He reads a magazine. We drink flavored sweet tea and eat sandwiches. Then we leave that space, but I do not move on.
Sandra Bland got stopped for a traffic violation and ended up dead in a Texas jail. That happened this week.
Brit Bennett wrote this reflection of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest book Between the World and Me, Coates’ letter to his black son. It’s about the black male body. It’s a warning. A lamentation. That also happened this week.
I am happy to see the stunning images of Pluto with its ice mountains indicating water abounds under its young surface. That also happened this week. Pluto appears to be a body of interest, a body worth celebrating. A heavenly body, our celestial, misunderstood neighbor. How glad we are of that body.
But I am at the fence, contemplating the human body. Sandra Bland’s body. The Marines and young people inside the recruitment center in Tennessee. Their bodies. I want to know who cleaned up the Mother Emanuel AME church the day after, who is tending the Body of Christ, if Christ was to be believed, that he was the Truth. Those people also need flowers.
Most of the time I mask my despair, my anger. I wake, treating my mind with prayer before I get out of bed not because I value religion but because I need help functioning outside of this man-made senselessness other people accept as the way it is. No. I must examine. I must witness, and here it is:
This. Simple. Matter. Of. Respecting. Someone. Else’s. Body. Do not rape it. Do not slaughter it. Do not bury it alive. Do not invent stories about it and tell those stories to your children as if you know. Do not burn it, hang it, chase it down, fire bullets into it, hold it underwater. Do not criticize it. Do not mock it or defile it with comparisons. Do not take it as your possession because it makes you feel less hateful towards yourself, or makes you money, or makes other bodies fear you. This simple matter of all the bodies being parts of the One Body.
A few months ago Andy and I listened to a podcast interview of Christian Howes, one of the greatest jazz violinists in the world. Howse is also a convicted drug trafficker and spent several years in a maximum security prison during which time he gained some renown in The Warden’s Band, part of the Ross Correctional Vocational Music Program. All of that is interesting.
But not as interesting as the moment in the interview when he confessed that the most surprising revelation he had in prison was that being surrounded by men who were always trying to start something, of never being able to relax because he never knew when someone was going to try to dominate him psychologically or physically made him finally understand what the average life experience must be like for a woman. A woman anywhere. Always on the ready to fend somebody off, deflect a threat with a joke, navigate the day, the workplace, happy hour, married life, a hike in the woods, a board meeting, government lines, a routine traffic stop with the consistent high alert of “am I safe in this moment”?
“Goddamn,” I said to Andy. “He gets it. But that motherfucker had to go to prison before he could understand what it means to walk around the world as a normal woman.”
A woman’s life is akin to a man’s life in prison.
Just think about that for a second.
Christian Howes, please go tell everybody. Please go tell all the men what you learned.
I am at the fence. I am thinking about women’s bodies. I am wondering if black people wish white people understood they live in a social prison. I am wondering if black people wish white people would help them communicate their pain to other white people or if the last thing black people want is white people’s help. I am wondering if black people hate white people, if The Black Community Vs. White America isn’t just another badly written conjecture of racial narratives because we’re conditioned to not tell the truth about race, racism, and our feelings therein in this country.
In 1997, when I lived and worked in DC as a young person, I went to Ford’s Theater to see where Lincoln got shot. That experience pinpoints the moment I came to in the terror that makes up American history.
Yes, there was a waking-up period, my groggy conscious mind struggling to make sense of the mutilated and defiled images of black bodies I saw during my Southern studies classes in college, the pictures and letters detailing the removal and imprisonment of indigenous people in order to make the united states, the rioting kernel of my soul’s anger at the deadly double-standards for women, of the consistent messaging that whatever you do, make sure you don’t disturb, inconvenience, challenge, shock or upset the men. And whatever you do–with your clothes, your ideas, your mouthiness, your ambition, your desire for sexual freedom, your insistence that maybe some of the boy cousins should clean up after Thanksgiving, too–don’t let them suspect you may be threatening their egos. The tiniest glimpses outside the prison walls, even when (and even now) “smarter” people tried to convince me no, this isn’t a prison this is the real world, grew this awakening consciousness in me that came screaming into the world while I stood in the spot where Lincoln got his brains torn out.
I discovered markers directing me to the house Lincoln died in, so I crossed the street and went in there, too. The Petersen House. I stood over the bed. The bed is short, a twin. No place for a long body.
I went home and probably got very drunk. For the next several years, I fixated on Abraham Lincoln, a road that led, inevitably, to studying the Civil War. Growing up white in the South, I got the romantic view of Our Team of Heroes valiantly defending our honest, hard-working homeland against Northern aggressors, and commonly, white folks of a certain social regard traced themselves back to some important Confederate general. My dad’s mother claims we are related to J.E.B. Stuart on her side–although the blood tie has, to my knowledge, never been confirmed. And our personal family history is not of plantation owners but of farmers, alcoholics, lay preachers, and Southern folk who figured out how to provide for their families with not very much to go on, so our stake in The War was never built on reality but, like a lot of white Southerners, we sure loved the idea of being in a story cast with stout-hearted rebels and good-looking heroes. And you know what would really mess up that version? Terrified, brutalized black folks. Knowing that perhaps somebody in your family fought and died for the right to own other humans for economic reasons. Let’s just not talk about that part. REBEL YELL, let’s go to the fishin’ hole! You can’t tell me what to do!
So, there is an entire white oral fabrication of the Civil War (beautifully captured in Tony Horowitz’s book Confederates in the Attic), supported by the current Southern Pride movement of Don’t-Tread-On-Me-ers who honestly make no connection between the Confederate flag and black people’s American experience in slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights struggles because those parts get edited out of the retelling. It is mind-boggling. It is as mind-boggling to me as people who turn to the Bible for information regarding science.
I needed to go see with my own eyes, so I did. I went to the grounds, the battlefields of this romantic war, because I had to reconcile my own self. I started at Manassas/Bull Run, at sunrise. The morning fog lifted off the canons in the new light, and it was not glorious. It was creepy as fuck. As romantic as guillotines.
Chancellorsville. Vicksburg. Gettysburg. Shiloh. The Wilderness Campaign. Seven Pines. Fort Fisher. You don’t see the blood on the ground anymore, of course, like you don’t in the carpets of churches, recruitment centers, elementary schools, jail sheets. But it’s there.
Rights. My rights. My right to keep my head on my own body. It’s an outrage when the Taliban takes a head from a body. ISIS. Al-Qaeda. As it should be. This should not stand. We understand the rights of the body. We are civilized. We understand, right? Right?
I stood in front of Lincoln’s skull fragments at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. That museum, to this day, holds many American body parts. Some on display, but most in storage. Legs. Arms. Heads. Eisenhower’s gallstones.
I stood over the grave for Stonewall Jackson’s left arm in Chancellorsville. I was the only one there. Stonewall’s arm rests in a private cemetery while the rest of his body, when it died from pneumonia after the amputation, went to Lexington, VA. Stonewall’s own men shot him. Accident.
Burial trenches full of unknown soldiers line the battlegrounds in Shiloh, TN. I stood there, too, with a friend, on our way back to DC from a wedding. The trenches contain hundreds of American bodies.
I do remember, very clearly, drinking all the way back to the capitol. I sipped Budweiser tall boys from a brown paper bag and watched the auburn blur of autumn scenery whiz through the passenger side window.
The American Civil War is a four-year murder scene of mostly starving boys and men stumbling for miles knowing if they changed their minds about the cause and deserted, they would get shot. The American Civil War tore families apart, turned them against each other. Women did not know where their sons and husbands were buried. A generation of women literally lost their families’ bodies. The entire generational history of African-Americans in 1861 was one long story of lost bodies of family members, yet black men also went to this war. The American Civil War holds within it the lives of millions of Americans–slaves and white people, free people of color–all slaughtered in the ugly business that gives us the key to understanding the deformation of the current body of this country.
It was easy to identify the Germans as evil. The pictures of the bodies from that calculated terror: skin-dressed skeletons, the black-and-white photographs of trains toting the still plump bodies to a place they knew not where but, as students in high school history, we knew where they were going. Imprisoned in camps. Gassed. Murdered. For what? Their physical attributes? Their beliefs? Their race?
My Jewish high school AP History teacher first taught me that the Civil War wasn’t actually about slavery. It was about state’s rights. AP means Advanced Placement, as in the gifted class. “But wasn’t the right the right to own slaves?” went unanswered. We liked her class because we got a lot of free time so we let the question evaporate on the ceiling somewhere. My world history teacher, a man I admired very much and who taught me far more than what would be expected of a public high school history education, also let it slip–as a footnote–that the Africans themselves sold their own people to European slavers during the transatlantic slave trade. I guess that means black people brought it on themselves? Great! Now white people are off the hook and can return to our regularly scheduled play-pretend of the indomitable Southern spirit of independence.
What are these messages? How could anybody have a healthy mind with good thoughts in this environment we’ve created after the fact of slavery, of regional resistance to integration, of a brain-numbing dumbing-down of the complicated, complex, extraordinary and African-dependent history that is ours?
After WWII, America–and Germany–acknowledged that the war was, in large part, about the horror to the Jewish body. The Jewish Body. The names of the concentration camps are equal in historical stature to the names of the American battles. There was a sympathy, a human compassion, that imbedded in the horror of uncovering the Holocaust in Europe that was a part of reconciling the world after the war. American history can not face its own terrorism of the black body, The Black Body, and women’s bodies–much less speak to it intelligently, compassionately, non-judgmentally in our classrooms as a part of our natural curriculum. After Charleston, we have talked a lot about slavery, the roots of this madness, but the truth is that while unspeakably brave young American men left home to stop Hitler, white boys in the South gathered in packs, singled out black men, and strung them from trees. America did not exercise compassion or reconciliation after slavery, after the Civil War, after the violence of the fight for civil rights.
I don’t ever remember a conversation I’ve had with anyone about WWII in which people defended Hitler’s economic plan/way of life that just happened to include the eradication of Jews, gypsies, and other darkish people. I don’t ever remember looking at a photograph from the mid-century American South where gangs of well-dressed black men in hats and cigars stood hatefully and righteously underneath the swinging feet of a lone white boy. And yet we exist in this cognitive dissonance, this denial of the ongoing trauma of terror to American bodies that galvanized in our Civil War, a denial of the trauma to black people, the secondary trauma to white people who witnessed or who as children had to participate in systems of racism out of fear and wanted to talk about it but didn’t know how.
All lives led to this life. So many roads but one road.
This is what I’m telling you: when the body absorbs trauma, when part of the body is mutilated or ripped from the rest of the body, there is no forgetting that. Witnessing the mutilation of another’s body–there is no forgetting that, either. History is not a thing in the past but the body. Earth is a body. We are a body.
All bodies belong to the One Body. We live not with this wound, but in it. And we will stay here until we reconcile the body.
This work is personal. When the personal part is complete, it moves outward.
I am at the fence until I finish this blog, at which time I will move on. But only from the fence, that moment of freezing in time when she said to me “life moves on.” I found it a strange platitude given the circumstances, and I wanted to ask her “do you really believe that?,” but I deferred to my own need to respect whatever she said. Perhaps she said it as a phrase for when you don’t know what else to say, or you are ready to leave a conversation. Maybe she really believes that’s the best road to take from the massacre in her church by a terrorist, in a national history shadowed by its own unacknowledged holocaust. I do not know.
Andy and I continued on the road.
Some years after my obsession with the Civil War and Lincoln subsided, I wrote a short story published in Louisiana Literature about a widow with alcoholism called “Sleeping with Books about Lincoln.” In it, the narrator mentions that, on any Lincoln biography, will be cover art of his head and chest. Usually just his head, in tact, unwounded.
* night night beloveds. To the roads. To the body.
*The Flower Cottage at 31 Elizabeth Street in Charleston, 3 blocks down and around the corner from Emanuel AME, donated the money we spent for our flower arrangement to the church, and they have been doing so for people since the shooting. If you make your pilgrimage to the church, please stop in for flowers with them, and say hello to LadyBelle, their Labradoodle who serves as the shop greeter.
**If you would like to make a donation to the church for their elevator or for whatever, follow this link: http://www.charleston-sc.gov/index.aspx?NID=1330. There’s also a link to the Reverend Pinckney Fund.
***If you don’t trust the Charleston government to allocate the funds, here’s the link for the Mother Emanuel AME website, and you can donate directly from the main page: http://www.emanuelamechurch.org/