On the Charleston Massacre and the Burden of Grief for Black America


A seemingly ever-present cloud of grief burdens the souls of black folk in America. Wednesday evening, according to evolving reports, a 21-year-old white male named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine individuals at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church's pastor and a South Carolina state senator, was among the dead. 

Grief in this instance is an affective and political act. It's a simmering anger and anguished contemplation about the harm imposed on black communities — inadvertently, individually and institutionally — by a culture and political economy that prioritizes and protects whiteness. 

Six women and three men lost their lives Wednesday night. In lament, we remember their names: Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lee Lance, Myra Thompson, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Mourning, unutterable frustration and outrage are all appropriate responses. 

As executive director of the Drum Major Institute and an ordained minister of social justice at the Greater Allen AME Cathedral of New York (one of the most influential churches within Emanuel's denomination), I confess a pronounced measure of public grief. Grief for the families who lost loved ones. Grief for a congregation that lost its members and its pastor to gun violence. Grief for a community beleaguered by a massacre as they still mourn the unjustifiable force used to kill Walter Scott, who was shot in by the back nearly two months ago by a white North Charleston police officer. While the officer has been indicted for the murder of Mr. Scott, the heaviness of yet another unarmed man of color being killed by the police continues to evoke a kind of sustained trauma, a bone-deep agony in black communities across the country.

Details are still emerging, but what's clear is that Wednesday night's shooting exists within a stream of white violence against black lives in black churches. The most prominent example, though by no means the sole one, is also a Southern hate crime: the bombing of four little girls at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. Yet we need look no further than Emanuel to identify violence against black congregations. Denmark Vesey, the famous leader of slave rebellions, helped to establish the church around 1817. In 1822, Emanuel both "was investigated for its involvement with a planned slave revolt" and "burned down" for its subversive role, according to its website.

The heaviness of yet another unarmed man of color being killed by the police continues to evoke a kind of sustained trauma, a bone-deep agony in black communities across the country.

Rev. Pinckney, as both pastor and politician, worked within that subversive tradition by helping to lead local efforts to mandate body camera requirements for police and participating in an April prayer vigil to mourn the killing of Mr. Scott. During a 2013 address to civil rights rights activists, Pinckney narrated a freeing story of America and captured the subversive texture of the black church, at its best: 

"Could we not argue that America is about freedom, whether we live it out or not? Freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness. And that is what church is all about: freedom to worship and freedom from sin, freedom to be full of what God intends us to be and to have equality in the sight of God. And sometimes you got to make noise to do that. Sometimes you may have to die like Denmark Vesey to do that. Sometimes you have to march, struggle and be unpopular to do that."

Freedom is a — perhaps the — dominant motif of American democracy. It is the object of our imaginations, however varied; the subject of our greatest public addresses, however unfulfilled in statute and daily life. And it is the bitter, unfulfilled nature of that freedom that issues in a perpetual groaning. To be black in America is to grieve too frequently for preventable matters. It is to strain under the weight of structural racism. Too often, it is to buckle beneath the public health burdens of hypertension, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other identifiable pressures on the mental health of people of color. Today we grieve. But if we are brave enough to follow Rev. Pinckney's example, tomorrow we fight again for an America freed from the death-dealing stigmatization of anti-black racism.