The morgue tag was still on Sharonda Coleman-Singleton’s toe when her teenage children stood in front of news cameras and said they had forgiven Dylann Roof for murdering their mother in cold blood.
The grieving teens’ absolution of Roof came not more than 72 hours after a white terrorist sat inside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church for an hour watching their mother pray to God. Instead of accepting the welcoming arms and love offered by the community, the gunman shot her and eight others to death.
“We already forgive him for what he’s done, and there’s nothing but love from our side of the family,” her son Chris said.
His sister Camryn added: “I just feel a lot of love. I’m a little bitter, but I’m overwhelmed with love.”
The spirit of forgiveness would continue at Roof’s bond hearing. In a gut-wrenching display of pain and tears, more relatives of those slain in the attack spoke to Roof, something that is not unusual in South Carolina’s courts. While many people would have rightfully spoken of outrage and a yearning for revenge, the families offered words of comfort and redemption.
“May God have mercy on you,” said Felecia Sanders. She survived the attack, but her son Tywanza died.
Anthony Thompson, the grandson of victim Myra Thompson, told Roof, “I forgive you, my family forgives you.”
A woman who identified herself as the daughter of Ethel Lance said, “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never hold her ever again. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you. I forgive you.”
Recognizing the agency in their words, and the different ways people grieve, the parade of forgiveness is disconcerting to say the least.
While former Texas governor Rick Perry has called the killings in Charleston an “accident,” Fox News and others have denied the racial implications, and FBI Director James Comey has questioned the veracity of describing the tragedy as “terrorism,” all seemingly affording Roof a level of forgiveness and innocence, these families have offered salvation without any conditions or rewriting of reality. The message of grace and love was echoed on the Sunday morning news coverage of Emanuel AME’s first church service since the attack.
Even in a slaughter of innocents, black people have to fight to have their humanity recognized. This is a case that should not be parsed to death. These were not people of questionable repute, reportedly reaching for a gun or doing anything that could remotely be described in the greatest stretches as doing anything that could justify – even lamely – the gunman’s behavior. People want to blame the killer’s mental stability, some external “they” or “society” or define what he did as an attack on Christianity rather than the racist terrorism that it is.
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. The parents of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Mike Brown and the widow of Eric Garner were all asked in interviews if they’d forgive the white men who killed their loved one.
Historically, black churches have nurtured the politics of forgiveness so that black people can anticipate divine justice and liberation in the next life. This sentiment shaped non-violent protest during the civil rights movement. A belief that displays of morality rooted in forgiveness would force white America to leave behind its racist assumptions. But Christian or non-Christian, black people are not allowed to express unbridled grief or rage, even under the most horrific circumstances.
For these Christians whose deep faith tradition holds forgiveness as a core principle, offering absolution to Roof is about relieving the burden of anger and pain of being victimized. In this regard, forgiveness functions as a kind of protest, a refusal to be reduced to victims. It sends the message to the killer that he may have hurt them, but they are the true victors because they have not been destroyed.
Yet, the almost reflexive demand of forgiveness, especially for those dealing with death by racism, is about protecting whiteness, and America as a whole. This is yet another burden for black America.
After 9/11, there was no talk about forgiving al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. America declared war, sought blood and revenge, and rushed protective measures into place to prevent future attacks.
As the Atlantic Monthly, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates noted on Twitter: “Can’t remember any campaign to ‘love’ and ‘forgive’ in the wake of ISIS beheadings.”
No one expects Jewish people to forgive the Nazis or contemporary anti-Semitic acts. But black people 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.
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.
“Many people mistake black forgiveness for absolution of America’s racial sins,” says Chad Williams, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University. “I think the expectation that blacks are always willing to forgive makes it harder to engage in radical transformative social justice work.”
Our constant forgiveness perpetuates the cycle of attacks and abuse, a form of “survivorship” that is numbing our cognitive and emotional clarity. It’s really a distorted response to living under the constant terror and trauma of being black in America. Repeatedly forgiving the people who keep murdering us is a desperate preemptive move to try to prevent more white harm to black persons, and it doesn’t necessarily translate to acceptance.
Matthew P. Guteral, an historian of race at Brown University, says: “For all the public talk about supposedly absent black fathers and derelict black culture, the extraordinary act of forgiveness might remind us that the nation’s most historically oppressed group does a better job of doing what we all say we want most: being decent and human. Even when it seems impossible. We cannot say the same thing about whiteness or what we should call white culture, which insists it is superior, expects this kind of forgiveness, and isn’t equipped to understand it as anything but a sign of weakness.”
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.