My mama is 79. Wednesday night is her bible study. Just like Ms. Ethel Lee Lance, mama has her circle of church going elders—black women in their 60s, 70s, and 80s for whom church is home. Maybe even safer than home. Their pain was safe in the hands of this particular Jesus. Unshed tears from the Middle Passage were here. Friendships decades deep were here. Sanctuary was here. Comfort, too. Prayers unheard by a black community too often deaf to the pain of black girls and women were heard here, by this Jesus. Or so they thought.
Mama goes to Roman Ridge Church in Accra, Ghana, is proudly Ashanti and deeply Christian. Ms. Ethel went to AME in Charleston, South Carolina. She was one of six black women, two of them elders, killed by a white terrorist doing the work of white supremacy: attack, destroy, bury black bodies, dreams, and lives.
“I forgive you”; “We forgive you”; “My family forgives you”; we heard these pardons again and again as family members of the massacred lined up and spoke during the first court hearing of Dylann Roof. That outpouring prompted swift reaction. Their words of forgiveness were both praised and criticized. The last time I heard that kind of outpouring on forgiveness was during my trip to South Africa in 1997. It was at the height of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Hearings led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. A global white media watched in awe, relief, and approval as Nelson Mandela said, speaking to the black South African majority of the white minority, “Let us forgive them.”
Mandela turned into a global hero. His heroism was rooted in that moment, rooted in those words. He became a leader by which the rest of Africa should follow. Forgive white atrocities. Forgive white supremacy. Tutu held press conferences, face wet with tears telling the assorted camera, mics, and print journalists that black South Africans just wanted to know who to forgive. They just needed the killers of their children, the torturers of their bodies, the executioners of their dignity, to tell the truth. Some told it. Others didn’t. Still, Tutu asked that black South Africans continue to forgive.
I traveled to Alexandria, South Africa’s second biggest township, and sat with black South African women. These women spoke of rage, pain, and powerlessness. They spoke of this soil, grave to their children, and still home to unspoken and unspeakable horrors. One woman, a Xhosa woman, who was mother to a girl not yet 12, talked about her daughter going to protests with her father. She was mad, scared, and proud of her daughter. “I raised her that way,” she told me. “Why would I forgive them? I am here, my child is not. She is dead, buried by their hate. Forgive them? Who are they? I cannot forgive my husband. He let her leave that morning. She was in school uniform. And still they brought the dogs, the sticks, the guns. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there.”
Women and men, one after another, shared moments of Apartheid atrocity. This was, they said, a calculated cruelty, a designed destruction legislated by a white government and supported by global corporations and governments. One woman spoke of the morning raids. Those family moments were interrupted, desecrated by the boots, truncheons, and shouting voices of police breaking down doors and dragging women in headscarves and nightdresses from bed. All this to be interrogated and assaulted. Why? Reasonable suspicion. Forgive them? “I want them to suffer as we have,” she told me. “But no, they tell us to forgive them.”
I thought about them as I was ushered into Desmond Tutu’s office in Cape Town days later during that same trip. This man led the TRC. His demeanor, language, speeches, and tone spoke only of forgiveness. The global media was still here, seeking and telling stories of white atrocities, white terrorism, and black South Africans offering forgiveness for the most heinous of acts. I sat opposite the architect of this white economy of black forgiveness. I shared my interview time with a white Swiss journalist. Archbishop Tutu told us that “South Africa would be a Mecca for whites, as Kenya was.” I asked why he was so worried about how white people felt, since they were not the targets, but the beneficiaries of Apartheid. I asked how many of their children had been buried, and why South Africa was so focused on their feelings and fears.
I asked why he could support and direct the black majority of this nation to forgive legislated hate, the killing of black children, and the torture of the innocent, but was unwilling to forgive Winnie Mandela, a black woman, an activist, a mama who like the women in Alexandria was subject to morning raids where police constantly terrorized the community. They would not and did not forgive Winnie. They castigated, humiliated, exposed, denied, and rejected her. My interview was over.
Tutu invoked Kenya as a Mecca for whites, an example South Africa wanted to follow. I traveled to Kenya in 2003. It is the birthplace of President Obama’s father and his father’s people, the Luo tribe. The president’s grandfather had been accused of supporting the Mau Mau, and been tortured by the British. The Mau Mau were a group of Kikuyu-tribe dominated Kenyans, described by British colonialists as “rebellious.” They were freedom fighters; demanding, organizing, and fighting for Kenya’s independence. The height of the conflict was known as the Mau Mau Uprising and the Kenyan Emergency, from 1952 to 1960, which was the same time the civil rights movement was gaining momentum in the US. President Obama’s paternal grandfather—Hussein Onyango Obama—was a cook for a British army officer. He was arrested and tortured, his testicles crushed by the British in a high security prison. Kenyan freedom fighters spoke of being castrated, raped, and whipped while imprisoned by the British colonial authority. The treatment of the Mau Mau by the British was similar to the violence enslaved Africans endured in the antebellum South. The obsession with black bodies mirrored that of plantation overseers. Onyango Obama denied he had done anything wrong when he was arrested. The British media sought the perspective of a British historian about Onyango Obama’s detention. Reasonable suspicion, the Brit historian confirmed.
Reasonable suspicion. First South Africa, then Kenya. It is a term known by black boys who are stopped and frisked by police on New York City streets. The British media downplayed the violence suffered by Kenyans in those prisons. In 2013, the British government paid 14 million pounds as a settlement to Mau Mau veterans after 8,000 documents from 37 former British colonies were released, revealing details of torture, castration, and rape. In one memo sent out during the height of these atrocities, Kenya’s then Attorney General Eric Griffith-Jones wrote: “If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly.”
Tutu told me this country, with this history, was a Mecca for whites.
Tribe is to Africa, what race is to America. It is complicated. We are complicated. Tutu’s celebration at the hands of the white media didn’t stop him from telling me during that same interview how “whites are beginning to take this offer of forgiveness for granted.” Under that forgiving smile, he was angry. I was shocked. I think about Tutu wanting to get chosen by white South Africa, but his unwillingness to forgive Winnie Mandela—a black South African woman—for an alleged crime for which she was eventually acquitted. Worse, the willingness to use Winnie’s black woman body, to lay it out at the feet of white South Africa and stand on it, in order to achieve that choosing.
Debate continues about Charleston, that moment in court, forgiveness, black folk, white terrorism, and white supremacy. White America, so much of Black America, applauded this forgiveness outpouring, was soothed and calmed by it. As white South Africa was soothed and calmed by Mandela and Tutu’s call for forgiveness, and the outpouring that followed.
Charleston, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya: we have a global black inheritance of white supremacist terrorism. It has left a legacy of untreated trauma. That inheritance has trained us to pour our pain into our own bodies. And then turn away when that pain manifests. Particularly when it comes to black girls and women. Our bodies are vehicles for rage, rejection, resentment, and denial to acknowledge the depth of our hurt. Instead, we are judgmental of each other in our pain. We are unkind, we replace empathy with analysis and invite an audience to engage the strength of our intellect. Our pain goes unheard and so instead it finds sanctuary in the intimate violence we subject ourselves and our bodies to. What, now, can we do with our pain? What forgiveness process might we create for ourselves, for all the ways we hurt and harm each other? Will we ever be able to trust each other with our pain?
Black folk are globally committed to notions of justice, due to our intimate relationships with injustice. Our emotionality must be part of that justice project. Emotional justice is crucial to our collective and individual healing. How is our emotionality not profoundly fucked up when every part of our history, the pain inflicted on us still requires that you centralize whiteness? How do we heal when there is no respite from the violence? Who do we become when white supremacy’s manufactured fear matters more than our bruised, battered, and bloodied black bodies?
Apartheid was white terrorism. What the British did during the Kenyan Mau Mau was white terrorism. Dylann Roof was a white terrorist, supported by state sanctioned institutions of white terrorism. We do not negotiate with terrorists. That’s what America teaches. Except white terrorism. Then we don’t negotiate; we privilege; we prioritize; we centralize. Then we spit up that privilege via white Jesus, heart disease, fibroids, violence, obesity and a soft, slow, sure killing. White supremacy does not worship our God. It prays at the altar of coffins filled with black bodies. It tithes in the blood of black folks. Its hymn is the sound of our tears and screams. Its amen is the stillness of our stolen breath.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]