“On Charleston” by La’Ron Williams

My friend La’Ron’s thoughts have made me think about my own family experiences—and how different they are from the long reach of terror and trauma in his family. I am just home from a family reunion. Our large and loving extended family gets together every three years, and we all appreciate our rich family history. We’ve had our pain and losses like every family, but none of us could possibly imagine being targeted with terror and violence for who we are or what we look like.

I am writing this the day after the confederate flag was taken down in South Carolina and know there is concern that many people will think this action is enough. What is badly needed is for white people to try to get out of our safe white skins and listen hard to the harsh reality so many black people endure. We need to go beyond one perpetrator and flags coming down to see the historical context in order to understand systemic present-day injustices. To use La’Ron’s words, we need to understand “a societal arrangement that regularly and routinely demonizes, criminalizes and dehumanizes Black lives while simultaneously normalizing, ignoring and making excuses for the social arrangements of White supremacy. See his post, “On Charleston,” below.

–Judy Patterson Wenzel

On Charleston

by La’Ron Williams

I want to share a few of my thoughts regarding Wednesday night’s murder of the 9 worshipers in Emmanuel AME Church.

First, it’s hard for me to comment without becoming emotional. My mother’s father was a lynching victim, and my entire family remains wounded because of it. I know from firsthand experience the far-reaching ramifications acts of terror can sow. My heart goes out to the families of Wednesday’s victims, as well as to the church of which they were a part, and to their local community.

At the same time, I harbor a tremendous sadness for what this event may portend – not only for African-Americans, but also for the nation.

This morning, when I learned the news about Charleston, four names immediately came to mind: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denice McNair.

I was 12 years old in the summer of 1963, when those four little girls, while attending a session at the 16th street Baptist Church, became the victims of a brutal bombing attack. In the aftermath, television brought the news into thousands of living rooms across the country. That was a relatively new thing back then. There had been no TV coverage during the heyday of lynching, and many Americans were directly witnessing this level of brutality for the first time. Many Americans expressed disbelief at the callous nature of the attack on such innocent children.

But there was very little disbelief in the African American community. The deaths of those girls came as no surprise to us. For nearly a century, following the end of slavery, we had lived with the soul-destroying reality of Jim Crow segregation, and the massive culture of fear that was a constant feature of our normal, everyday lives. Fear was the weapon of choice for White Supremacists seeking tomaintain the hierarchy of race that had existed under slavery, and fear was everywhere, supported both by an ideology of Black inferiority/dependence as well as by the physical weaponry to enforce the nation’s racially linked, tremendous social disparities. We strengthened our course as a country awash in guns and violence.

African-Americans may have been disturbed by the 1963 bombing, but we certainly were notsurprised. And while many American families outside of the Black community were caught unawares, there were thousands who were not – not only in the South, but throughout the nation. Racial terrorism was no secret to them, either. They are the ones who can be seen in the photos of the large-scale public celebrations that accompanied lynching — the ones collecting souvenir body parts, enjoying refreshments, laughing and smiling. They are the State and Federal officials and prominent citizens who condoned such acts and allowed such acts to thrive.

I never want to see a return to those days.

Yesterday morning, Joe Riley, Charleston’s 72 year old White mayor, called Wednesday night’s event “unfathomable.” Listening to his words, I wondered where he’d been hiding all his life.

He is a Charleston native, living in a state that has a history of anti-Black race hatred that ranks among the worst in the nation. At age 72, he had to have lived through much of that history. One would think that, to him, what happened Wednesday night would be completely believable – and very immediate. How can he speak of that event without placing it within its proper historical context?

Far too many Americans have very little awareness of the racial context of our society. We know little of the specifics of the thousands of race-related laws, rules, and practices that at one time were consciously put into place to ensure the supremacy of Whites and to lock others out of assertive participation in the nation. It is the existence of those laws, rules, and practices that, over time, allowed to accrue the enormous racial disparities of wealth and social status that we currently live with.

Although many of those laws have been stricken from the books, the landscape of structural racial inequality persists.  When we talk about “racism”, every conversation should include a discussion of that real racial history.

Sadly, we don’t do that. When we do (rarely) acknowledge “racism,” we think about it as it appeared in 1963, or on Wednesday night – as personal, obvious, malicious, and intentional acts of ill will. And when we find examples of that malicious brand of “racism,” we jump all over it in an effort to “prove” that, apart from the actions of a few “deranged” individuals, it (racism) is a thing of the past.  A result of that approach is that the millions of Americans who are trained to believe racism is over also come to think that the nation’s millions of structurally disadvantaged African-Americans have no one but themselves to blame for their presence at the bottom of the American hierarchy.

The news coverage since Wednesday’s shootings have placed heavy focus on the perpetrator. He has been called “deranged”, “mentally ill”, and “sick.” It is very hard for me to listen to FOX News as they repeatedly attempt to let society off the hook, and locate these murders only in the actions of a single individual.

In 1963, shortly after the girls were killed, Dr. M.L. King said, “We’re not concerned with who killed these girls, but with what killed these girls.”

What killed those girls is the same thing that killed the 9 worshippers at Emmanuel AME: a culture and a social arrangement that regularly and routinely demonizes, criminalizes, and dehumanizes Black lives while simultaneously normalizing, ignoring, and making excuses for the social arrangements of White supremacy.

It is incumbent upon us to double and redouble our effort to create places where we can come to understand and transform the structures of American racism. In the absence of such an effort, Dylann Roof’s actions may trigger the wrong kind of response. We’ve already seen it in the aftermath of Ferguson and other locations, where individual Police have been targeted for “revenge” against what Police forces represent as a whole. I don’t want to see in the news where a Black gun(man) has targeted an all-White church. I don’t want Roof to have his “race war.”

This is not a time to talk about “punishing” one individual, “healing” one city, and quickly returning to the status quo. For a huge segment of our population, the status quo is palpably intolerable. For the rest of us then, it is unsustainable.

This post first appeared in the newsletter of Ann Arbor’s Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice (ICPJ). La’Ron Williams is a member of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice Board of Directors, an anti-racist educator, and an award-winning storyteller.

No Man’s Land

Two compelling stories have my focus this holiday season. One contains hope; the other anguish. The hopeful one is about the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in WW I, celebrating its 100th anniversary this Christmas Eve. It was one of my favorite historical stories to teach, especially in December when my prison students were lonely for home and distracted in the classroom. They loved hearing about it, and I still love reading about it—how the British soldiers heard the German troops singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve across No Man’s Land; how a German soldier lifted a Christmas tree, sparkling with candles on its branches, and moved out of his trench to approach enemy lines. How the British soldiers withheld their fire, how they crawled out of their trenches to reach out and shake hands with the enemy. Later, they traded treats from home, played soccer, and sang along with the Germans. Both sides were able to bury their dead. The truce was a mere blip in the four years of horror that spread across the world during WW I, but it has remained a symbol of hope and courage ever since.

The other story is about the lack of compassion as more black people are killed by white policemen. Instead of trying to understand what it means to be black in the this country, what the challenges are about raising black children, what I’m hearing more about is their “criminal behavior,” their “bad decisions” and that they “did it to themselves,” as if these killings are somehow justified. Unless people are living within the confines of fear, degradation, and economic oppression like so many people of color are, it is difficult to recognize their pain and fear, especially for those of us who live in the midst of white privilege. Many of us mourn the country we are becoming. It feels like No Man’s Land.

It feels like we are at war. We were discussing a foreign war in my prison classroom one day when a man asked,  “Why are we talking about that war when we have one right here—my city is a war zone.”

Thousands and thousands of people are behind bars because of our War on Drugs, its Black Hawk helicopters and war-like tactics used in our inner cities, almost always against people of color. In Ferguson, Cleveland, New York City and across the country—even in my own neighborhood, unarmed black people have been gunned down by white policemen—and so far, with impunity. The images of police in riot gear are seared into our brains. Recently I saw a huge army tank in my town with the name of my county—not my country– painted on its side. The police are scared—and often say so. Guns—and/or the fear of them–are omnipresent.

One of my students keeps walking around in my head. Mr. Bridgman was a tall, good-looking, young African American man, who carried himself well and was always neatly dressed. Like many of the men I taught, Mr. Bridgman needed a while to get used to being in school. When he joined my history class, I knew only that he had grown up in foster homes and dropped out early in high school. When he showed up for class the first time, he greeted me respectfully, then sat down and did almost nothing. Any written work proved that he was very capable, but he looked like he was zoning out and seemed to hear nothing, including my warnings that he was not earning credit. “I’m just not feelin’ it,” he told me.

The year I had Mr. Bridgman in history, we were studying WWI at the end of the fall semester. I handed out a page of statistics listing the countries that fought in the Great War, the amount of people engaged in the fighting, the war dead and the number of casualties. Mr. Bridgman liked math and asked for a calculator when he got the hand-out. He figured and figured, then burst out, “Mrs. Wenzel, more than eight and a half million people died! Later he figured out that they weren’t all soldiers. “Mrs. Wenzel, so many civilians died too!”

He was having a hard week, but he was waking up. Courageously, he did some more reading, discovering the devastation of the Spanish flu in 1918. He asked, “Mrs. Wenzel, how could this happen on top of all the people who died in the war. 20-40 million more people died from the flu! What about their families?” As I fumbled around, answering his questions inadequately, I saw that he was finally engaged in what he could learn. I saw some of his innocence peel away from his eyes, and I’m still amazed that it was the carnage of WW I that woke him up that semester. I don’t think it was just the overwhelming numbers, however, that so shocked him. I think it was his innate compassion that changed him. He was finally “feelin’ it.”

The Western Front in 1914 was the deadliest place on earth, but on Christmas Eve, soldiers on both sides, who endured life in the trenches and aimed their rifles at ordinary people they did not know, needed a respite—just to feel human again. America needs far more than a quick truce. We need truth, and we need reconciliation. In order to get there, white people need to summon the courage to look back at our history and understand our long and complicated struggles of both personal and structural racism, the injustice, the anguish, and the raw fear that so many black people experience. We can start by at least recognizing that Black America is not lived or experienced like White America. We can wake up, ask and listen carefully, trying to understand and feel it as much as possible. Compassion humanizes. Its expressions, reaching across our great divides, could be a first step in the long, hard process of healing our old and open wounds. It could at least get us out of the trench.