The last few days have seen a media furore over the murder, in an historic Charleston church, of nine Black parishioners in attendance at a Bible study by a young White man who allegedly claimed race as his motive.
Concurrently, I have been working on my PhD dissertation, and this week specifically, reading and writing about how the United States became the epitome of ‘White Christian Civilisation’ – a designation built upon invented assumptions about inherited, immutable, ‘racial’ characteristics that made the genocide of America’s indigenous peoples and the subjugation of African peoples appear both justifiable and in their own ultimate good.
Some of the justifications were religious, based on scriptural exegesis by both Muslim and Christian scholars. Despite their religious differences, Christians readily absorbed Islamic racialist views vis-à-vis African people which had developed in the course of the brutal trans-Saharan slave trade. Some of the justifications were cultural, rooted in long-standing associations of blackness with evil and sin. Some were scientific, based on supposedly objective observation and interpretation of different people. All of them came together to support the assumption that the peoples of Africa were inferior, degraded beings, and unworthy of consideration or respect as fellow humans.
Over the last weeks and months, I have read and engaged with political conservatives and watched as many struggle to reconcile the mythology of American exceptionalism and racial progress with the realities of persistent ongoing White supremacy. Who raise issues of how the ‘Black community’ is responsible to deal with Black intra-racial violence, high crime rates, and paternal absence when police brutality is raised as an issue, but who insist on distancing themselves from the actions of ‘lone shooter’ White men. White people are always individuals.
When news of the shooting broke, I thought of my father pastoring a not-so-significant-nor-historic Black Pentecostal church and what it would be like to have an unexpected visitor show up at Bible study, sit through, and then open fire on him. I thought of my other family members – safe for now, yes, but are they ever really safe? Will the next shooting be at my Dad’s church? My brother’s? My uncle’s? Will the next killing by police of an innocent Black man be my cousin? My nephew? My gut tightened to think of it.
I thought of President Obama raising the issue of guns, even though gun control was initially a tool in the hands of White supremacists to keep Blacks unarmed and vulnerable.
I thought of the inability of our national leaders to ever honestly face the reality of the United States as a settler colonial state, founded on genocide and theft, all the while proclaiming itself as the beacon of freedom for the world.
I thought of my ancestors, bound and shackled, naked and humiliated whilst undergoing inspection like cattle – their bodies not their own, the basics of human decency denied them. Men and women alike used for the sexual pleasure of men who called those they abused animals.
I thought of my now deceased grandmother who, on the sole occasion I asked about life in ‘those days’, simply said, “White people were mean. They were so mean”, and added nothing else to it – her silence speaking volumes that words could not express.
I thought of the South – the place of my nativity – which has long been the scapegoat for American racial politics, the whipping boy of American White guilt. I thought of how such scapegoating allowed and allows the rest of the country to rest easily – look at how wicked and racists those Southerners are! – all the while taking secret solace in the South doing actively what the rest of the nation passively endorsed.
Here in Africa, the place from which some people would suggest I should be glad my ancestors were ‘rescued from’, we’ve had power outages. We’ve had flooding due to incompetent and inattentive leaders. We’ve got all kinds of problems. More than the 99 problems of the now famous song. But this isn’t one of them.