“I think there was a shooting in Charleston last night,” Jason, my boyfriend at the time, said to me as I rose on the morning of June 18th.
I was preparing to fly to Charleston, South Carolina, that afternoon for a 10-year reunion my line-sisters and I planned months prior. We were all proud alumni of the College of Charleston.
I immediately grabbed my phone, thinking of my father and family who lived there. I saw a flurry of text messages.
“Are you ok? Someone shot up Emanuel AME church last night.”
“Are we still having the reunion?”
I deeply wanted to remove myself from what was happening. As a journalist, you’re trained to be objective, neutral, and void of forcing an agenda.
But this story was different. I knew the people it affected. I walked on Calhoun Street numerous times, past the cold, leering tower of the man the street was named for, to where the church stood in abundant white stone, carved out from the hands of slaves.
I spent a great deal of my youth finding myself in the Holy City. A city only one generation away from Black people like my father who picked cotton, who 50 years ago, would not be allowed to walk on that side of the street.
Those thoughts were never lost on me as a student at CofC. There are overt reminders of the Antebellum South – such as the slave plantations that people frequently tour as if they are prized possessions, to the microaggressions – like being asked if you work at a store you are shopping at on King Street, because, why else would you be there?
But this story is not solely about me or my thoughts on the fractured remnants of the South that we stitch together on gold-plated platters to appease.
It is about what we as a country were left to face. It is about what happened to nine parishioners on the evening of June 17: Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, and pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney.
That night they gathered together under the roof of Mother Emanuel for bible study. Praise God and worship, they did. But then Dylann Roof casually entered the church, snatching the lives of those innocent worshipers, inevitably peeling back the “benevolent” cover on what many believed was post-racial America.
Then we heard the stories from inside. How Tywanza tried negotiating with Roof before his life was snuffed out like a light, how a grandmother urged her grandchild to “play dead” in a space specifically reserved to give the gift of eternal life. How Clementa’s wife barricaded herself and her two daughters in her husband’s office to escape what she thought was imminent death.
A few images remain from that week that I’d like to forget. There are people who teetered on the edge of faith, only to step away. There were those who used the moment for personal gain. I cannot deny there was anger and a feeling of powerlessness, scars from the lash of injustice.
But a hum of resiliency was there, in flashes all over the charmed city. I don’t want to forget the crowds of people gathered under the doorway of the church, swaying with grief, singing songs of faith and forgiveness. Even as the unforgiving heat bared down on all of us, we remained intact. We paid our respects in droves. The families of the victims may never be assured, but I hope they knew and still know that we remain with them.
No news camera of the hundreds stationed there could make it palpable; it was a transformative experience.
In the weeks that followed, we saw the first Black president eulogize Pastor Clementa, cementing an African-American church tradition by singing “Amazing Grace.” The Confederate flag, an archaic symbol that epitomizes violence, was taken down from the South Carolina State Capitol flagpole.
These moments of progression were soon nullified over the course of the year.
We witness our government take no action toward gun regulation. We see more Black bodies cut down. We watch as Muslims are persecuted. We witness more carnage through mass shootings abroad and at home. We observe people strain to legitimize the thought that love is love.
Next year on June 12, we will face another anniversary where we will reflect on 49 lives senselessly taken after Omar Mateen opened fire with a semi-automatic at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
The patrons of the club were gay, lesbian, queer, and transgender. Some were intersex, some were asexual. Some were straight allies. They were mothers and fathers. Some were there with their children, while others were there with their best friends. They gathered to celebrate love, to savor one night to be carefree in a world that vilifies them.
Mateen and Roof are homegrown terrorists; we should not ignore that. They were American citizens radicalized by opposing ideals, but yoked by a deep-seated hate. Hate for what was unknown to them, or what they may not have wanted to accept.
In May, the federal government announced that they would seek the death penalty against Roof. His trial by jury will begin November 7. I do not speak to what his punishment should be. We have mandated that a jury will decide his fate. The world will no doubt be watching.
I only hope that we become a country of progressive action. That we stop making excuses in comfortable silence and/or gleeful ignorance. That we finally take up the task and examine what a human life is worth.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty