I’ve been following, with great interest, the debates that followed a grieving woman’s forgiveness
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in a courtroom in Charleston, South Carolina.
“I forgive you,” Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, said at the hearing, her voice breaking with emotion. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
Ms. Collier and members of the other families who spoke up forgave a young man whose unspeakable acts, borne out of white supremacist hatred, caused them horrific losses. They forgave him even before he expressed any remorse or asked for their forgiveness. They forgave a man who is just starting out in the system of justice by which he will be judged for his crimes.
In this day and age, is forgiveness virtuous or does it clash with progress? Some well-known public intellectuals asked precisely this question in social media:
Still a lot of talk about how moved folks are by victims sense of "forgiveness." One way to reflect this is by taking down the flag.
— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) June 22, 2015
@tanehisicoates Is the instinct to forgive also a product of racism? Bc, say, anger is only acceptable if yur a white victim of terrorists?
— Hanna Rosin (@HannaRosin) June 22, 2015
— Jo March (@matsalways) June 22, 2015
Why is it always the victims who are expected to by magnanimous and forgive those who where vile in their offense?
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) June 24, 2015
Again from Frederick Douglass: "Power concede nothing without a demand…" pic.twitter.com/ZQX16XYwKx
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) June 24, 2015
Last thought: The marginalized and oppressed developed enormous capacity for forgiven to avoid the alternative: a consuming rage… 1/2
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) June 24, 2015
But at some point, that very capacity for forgiven become a placation and works again, not in favor of, one's own interest. 2/2
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) June 24, 2015
Why forgive? How? A serious discussion cannot be had without taking, at least, a very foreshortened tour of the history of African American religious thought:
From C. Eric Lincoln’s essay, The Racial Factor in the Shaping of Religion in America:
The Great Awakening
So, what is it about this tradition of forgiveness that these grieving relatives felt compelled to bestow such a gift? Professor Anthea Butler offers her insight in The Guardian:
In the 20th Century, the non-violent “soul force” that Martin Luther King Jr taught was a combination of Hinduism and Christianity. Forgiveness became a big part of the civil rights movement, juxtaposed against the violence of protesters and law enforcement. King described forgiveness in one of his early sermons as a pardon, a process of life and the Christian weapon of social redemption. In MLK’s words, “forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude””
Professor Butler’s analysis, is countered, to a degree, by Eugene Genovese in his essay, Religious Foundations of the Black Nation. The counter is not in the nature of the phenomenon, but in the placement of the origin of its roots in history.
“These contradictions propelled black religion forward to the creation of collective identity and pride. The black variant of Christianity laid the foundations of protonational consciousness and at the same time stretched a universalist offer of forgiveness and ultimate reconciliation to white America; and it gave the individual slave the wherewithal to hold himself intact and to love his brothers and sisters in the quarters, even as it blocked the emergence of political consciousness and a willingness to create a legitimate black authority. The synthesis that became black Christianity offered profound spiritual strength to people at bay, but it also imparted a political weakness which however, necessarily and realistically, acceptance of the hegemony of the oppressor. It enabled the slaves to do battle against the slaveholders’ ideology, but defensively within the system, it opposed; defensively, offensively, it proved a poor instrument. The accomplishment soared heroically to great heights, but so did the price, which even now has not been fully paid.”
Whereas Professor Butler, in her concluding paragraphs, is right to state that no amount of apologizing can ever provide absolution for racism – it cannot – she does not clearly point to a cycle of cause and effect whereby white supremacists and racists’ actions are followed with forgiveness which, in turn, provides a new springboard from which new acts are perpetrated, justifying a lack of need to change attitudes, or the policies that will move us out of the rut of this vicious cycle. Professor Butler further states:
“Forgiveness unfortunately, can birth forgetting: by the time the arraignment ended, the ritual forgetfulness had already begun. Politicians like Jeb Bush claimed not to understand why the shooter would want to kill black people and conservatives claimed that the shooting “was an attack against Christians”. “
I respectfully disagree that forgiveness can birth brutality. It is too generous and understated a view. Forgiveness of the kind we witnessed in the aftermath of the Charleston Massacre perpetuates it.
The biggest thing the “goodness of the Black heart” cancels out completely is the perfectly human emotion of rage. Blacks are not allowed to rage. They’re expected to be orderly in the expression of their anguish and anger at the indignities and injustices they suffer, from walking while Black, shopping while Black, biking while Black, driving while Black, to Stop and Frisk and the ultimate, being shot to death while being stopped for reasons no white man would be stopped for. Any expression of emotion by Blacks, in response to adverse events, is immediately either brushed aside as overly emotional, labeled a thug, or discounted with an admonition to stop living in the past.
In New York City, all of the momentum gained by the Black Lives Matter movement was lost after the senseless murder of two police officers by a Black man with a documented history of mental illness. The police union milked that event for all it was worth and what the Fraternal Order of Police got out of it was an order by Mayor Bill de Blasio for protests to stop until after the officers’ funerals, and a work slow-down was subsequently applied by police officers while union negotiations resumed. The end result that was announced after the New Year was that two new police units, with 350 officers, were being created to police protests, specifically. There hasn’t been a major Black Lives Matter protest in New York since. Police killings, on the other hand, continue.
White privilege benefits from the preemptive suppression of Black rage. White privilege assumes Blacks will one day awaken and rage out of control. White consciousness – such a thing exists – has no outlet, no avenue or infrastructure through which it might fulfill its desire to join Blacks in making the fundamental changes our society needs and finally address America’s original sin.
Whereas America’s Blacks, throughout the centuries, have had to cope with the conditions they were placed in by striving for what I term “the goodness of the Black heart,” that quality has become a liability. Goodness of the Black heart is that quality which has served the dual purpose of being able to move past some of the most terrible chapters of history while appeasing white tormentors through the placation that is forgiveness. But reactions such as Jeb Bush’ traditionally have been used to falsely and very cynically give the impression that forgetfulness is at play, when everyone on the white side of events knows, on at least some level, the truth behind the excuse. This is the heartbreaking way that brutality has been followed by forgiveness, which was then followed either by a lull or more brutality, which has then been followed by forgiveness; rinse, lather, repeat.
A recent twist to this cycle is a relentless police brutality that is now nationwide. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement seems to have been met successfully by police unions by obtaining even more resources with which to neutralize protests. The addition of new anti-protest units in New York City materialized immediately following a period of work slow-downs by the NYPD.
Again I ask, in this day and age, is forgiveness virtuous or does it clash with progress?
As one who wasn’t brought up in the Christian faith but was schooled in Catholic institutions of learning during her formative years, I too was curious about processes that enable such an act of forgiveness to come about in a packed courtroom at the defendant’s first court appearance. When the Boston Bomber was arraigned, none of the victims’ family members rose to grant him their forgiveness.
As I scanned my news timelines, I came upon scores of posts by white and Black people marveling at the beauty of the act of forgiving. Each time, I couldn’t help but be disturbed by how easily whites were being given an undeserved way out. Little by little, though, I began to notice a growing number of people who questioned forgiveness and theorized as to its origin.
People who are oppressed for long periods of time develop coping mechanisms. Church is at the core of the Black tradition. Negro spirituals, composed during slavery, served many purposes, especially providing emotional comfort in times of hopelessness. What can possibly be more hopeless than enslavement? What can possibly be starker than knowing what every slave knew about their human condition? What coping mechanisms, over hundreds of years, did a people develop in order to survive? What of those coping mechanisms does that same people still use?
While forgiveness is a value that is rooted in all religions, few groups of people find a need to apply it so consistently than do African Americans, even after centuries of tragic hate crimes against Black humanity.
If, during Slavery, Reconstruction and, later, Jim Crow, an African American was expected to forgive, does that expectation continue 50 years after Civil Rights? Does continued public forgiveness of the most horrific crimes, as we witnessed at the arraignment in Charleston, hinder the transition in mindset away from the coping mechanisms of the past, as has happened in other oppressed groups? Does it perpetuate the expectation of a greater pain tolerance? Is it an expression of what Dr. Sheena Howard writes about in “The Pathology of the Magical Negro Narrative in Mike Brown Ruling,” with respect to white expectations of Blacks in the context of Ferguson, but one must widen this discussion a bit to include the effect of Blacks. We are all infected by Racism. Whether our bias is conscious or subconscious, our beliefs, perceptions, reactions – all are tainted by some degree and variety of it. Hence, it would make sense that Blacks are affected too and that the eagerness with which forgiveness was granted stems, in part, from a form of this superhumanization.
All throughout his writings, James Baldwin examined his relationship with humankind; white humankind and Black humankind. Baldwin captured the dynamic of the relationship between the Blacks and whites all throughout his writings and public speaking, in exquisite prose and brutally honest detail.
In “Black churches taught us to forgive white people. We learned to shame ourselves,” excerpted from his upcoming book “A Fat Black Memoir (Scribner 2016)”, Professor Kiese Laymon illustrates very poignantly the high cost of having a good Black heart:
“Many of us have made a life of hoping to get chosen for jobs, chosen for awards, chosen for acceptance from people, structures and corporations bred on white supremacy. We’re hoping to get chosen by people who can not see us. Knowing that they hate and terrorize us doesn’t stop us from wanting to get chosen. That’s the crazy thing. Everything about this country told Grandma, a black woman born in Central Mississippi in 1920s, to love, honor and forgive white folks. And this country still tells me, a black boy born in Mississippi in the 1970s, to titillate and tend to the emotional, psychological and spiritual needs of white people in my work.
I told my Grandma that we should have chosen ourselves. I tell her that we should have let us in. We should have held each other, and fallen in healthy love with each other, instead of watching shame make parts of us disappear.”
It’s been fifty years since the passage of Civil Rights legislation, fifty four years since Affirmative Action was first signed into law by executive order, and forty six years since the Fair Housing Act. It’s been seven years since the ascent of America’s first Black president. With that ascent, has come brutal push-back, in all imaginable and unimaginable ways, verbal, non-verbal, passive, active and passive-aggressive, violent and non-violent.
It’s been forty seven years since the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and that long since we picked up where he left off and resumed the work of The Poor People’s Campaign, joining America’s poor: whites, Blacks, Native Americans, Mexicans with the goal to secure economic justice.
So many decades later, as our societal problems have deepened and taken on a desperate urgency after a period of improvement, I can imagine Dr. King would have been pleased by the emergence of a movement joining relatively conscious Blacks and whites in a cross-racial movement for social justice. At the same time, I can also imagine that Dr. King would be disappointed by the seeming lack of support by the largest civil rights organizations in tending to that organization and ensuring its nationwide growth. That is what the “radical King” of latter days envisioned for all of us.
The civil rights movement cannot be allowed to fail. It needs a second wind and that wind must carry as many of us as there are – the conscious, semiconscious, and as many as can be stirred – within its embrace. I’ve written much about cross-racial harmony and the need for a movements such as Moral Monday to be grown with special care from all of us, under the leadership and existing infrastructure of flagship religious and secular organizations. Reverend William Barber‘s effort in North Carolina is a shining example of cross-racial unity and cooperation that can be replicated in every state.
The movement, among its many goals, must make way for a transition from forgiveness as a coping mechanism, to a cross-racial call for “Truth and Reconciliation.” That call must be heard from the grassroots, in every city, county, and state. While there are Moral Mondays in a few other states, it doesn’t exist in every state, when it needs to. There is no moving forward until we resolve the past. There is no moving forward until we lift the fog that is the deliberate mis-education of our children. Allowing for the continued ignorance of our country’s past is perpetuating a white privilege that needs to come to an end. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin each left us with all of the answers we need to push forward, together.
From James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time:
“I was just as black as I had been the day that I was born. Therefore, when I faced a congregation, it began to take all the strength I had not to stammer, not to curse, not to tell them to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize, for example, a rent strike. When I watched all the children, their copper, brown, and beige faces staring up at me as I taught Sunday school, I felt that I was committing a crime in talking about the gentle Jesus, in telling them to reconcile themselves to their misery on earth in order to gain the crown of eternal life. Were only Negroes to gain this crown? Was Heaven, then, to be merely another ghetto?”
It isn’t a crime not to forgive. It isn’t a crime to be angry. It isn’t a crime to command the respect that one is due. It isn’t a crime to demand one’s share of the patrimony. To paraphrase James Baldwin, it isn’t a crime to love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, to insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.
Video and Nadine Collier quote curated from The Washington Post
African American Religious Thought: An Anthology, edited by Cornel West, Eddie S. Glaude via GoogleBooks
Bill Moyers & Company: James Cone on the Cross and the Lynching Tree (2007)