Home The Op-Eds On Black Humanity

On Black Humanity

by Erika Nicole Kendall
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. credit: Wikipedia Commons

I chose to postpone my #scalefreesummer celebration because I truly needed to think about what happened in Charleston, this past week.

As a group of people came together to study, pray, and fellowship with one another, a grown man came into their place of worship and sat with them for an hour prior to getting up, drawing his weapon, and beginning to empty his clip – plus four more – as he committed mass murder.

He was white; those 9 victims of his heinous treachery were black.

I lamented on Twitter, that morning, that this reminded me far too much of what transpired in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 at the 16th Street Baptist Church. The long-standing tradition of cowardice — of admitting that you were too afraid to fight for what you believe in face to face and eye to eye, so you instead attack a place of prayer, vulnerability and worship — in desecrating a place of worship has long served as a tool of oppression, of dominance, of supremacy. Many Black families fled the southern U.S. out of fear – their little girls could no longer enjoy Sunday School safely inside the church; their sons were constant threats to the sanctity of white women and were frequently lynched because of it. Their businesses were constantly burned to the ground and, when they weren’t, they were denied the right to walk through the front door of their own establishments. They were free in name only. And it was so prevalent and common and heinous that it caused The Great Migration to the North.

Prayer is a space where people come to lay their burdens down. It is where people search inside of themselves – their knowledge of their religion, their beliefs, what they’ve learned through their studies – to find answers to questions and challenges in life that feel insurmountable. It is a space whose success is built upon how vulnerable it allows its congregants to be. To attack that space isn’t merely an attack on black lives – it’s an attack on our right to our humanity.

As I’ve always written and firmly believe, vulnerability is restorative to humanity. We come together in times of pain and grief because it helps to know that we are not hurting alone. It restores our humanity, something that we as black Americans are rarely granted.

When this heinous mass murder was committed, people waited with baited breath for the calls for calm, peace, and – most importantly – no rioting. Some of the families, no less than 48 hours after the violence made national headlines, were on camera asking for mercy on this murderer’s soul. There were no calls for apology from the murderer – merely demands made on the black population, their feelings and emotions be damned. Unsurprisingly, I felt like these demands on the emotions of black people were less about the healing that comes from an honest “I forgive you,” and more about the country’s collective desire to move on, as if public forgiveness is the pass people need in order to stop caring.

There’s something about all this that is nagging at me, though.

Prior to Charleston and that charlatan dominating the news, we had the case of McKinney, TX where a young bikini-clad girl was slammed to the ground by a power-drunk police officer. Prior to the aforementioned body-slam, two young girls reached out to the girl – while she was still being manhandled – to see if she was okay, and the officer shoved them back. Two young boys, however, ran over to make sure she was okay, and the officer drew his service weapon on them.

The story of one of the victims – God, it is so hard to type that word – of Charleston also stood out to me. Tywanza Sanders, a 26-year-old recent college graduate, actually stood in-between the shooter and his 87-year-old aunt, trying to convince the shooter to spare her life.

[…] Mr Sanders tried to calmly talk the gunman down, saying: “You don’t have to do this.”

But the shooter replied by saying black people were “raping our women and taking over the country”.

When the gunman aimed at Mrs Jackson, Ms Washington said Mr Sanders told him to point the weapon at him instead. “It doesn’t matter. I’m going to shoot all of you,” the attacker allegedly told him before opening fire. [source]

He stood in front of his aunt, in an attempt to save her life. The murderer didn’t care, though. He killed them both anyway.

And, while in search of news articles to help explain the story better, I ran across a “Conservative” website – their words, not mine – that attempted to laud the young man for his attempt to save his aunt’s life, only for the comments to be full of “Well, so few of his kind ever do anything other than robbing, murdering, and having kids that when we see a story like this, we don’t know what to say.”

Except, you and I both know that isn’t the case.

You and I both know that there are good men and troubled men, troubled men who used to be good men, and men who are good today who, once upon a time, were troubled… but were touched in a way that allowed them to change. I know we both know that. But for some reason, we don’t see that when we look at black men. By and large, we don’t see that when we look at black women, either.

Why is that?

Dylann Roof entered a sanctuary – a facility that has been an embodiment of black power for over two hundred years. When Denmark Vesey was a part of founding the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, he, too, was murdered for trying to organize a slave revolt in 1822 like none seen since Haiti fought for her freedom in 1804. Black churches were places where people came, laid their burdens down, and allowed themselves to be vulnerable – for there, among the collective vulnerability and humanity, lie the answers. In 1822, the answers led to the planning of a slave revolt. In 2015, whatever the answers were, Roof feared them.

To be vulnerable, is to be human. Where there is humanity, there is space for understanding. We understand that some of our brothers have fallen short, that some of our sisters struggle, but we are linked by that humanity. We come together, we love, we hug, we embrace, we pray, and we share that hopeful and determined energy – determined to be better, and do better. In those spaces, we are human, and inextricably bound.

The repeated attacks on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church – before in 1822 when white supremacists burned it to the ground, fearing the consequences of allowing us to learn to read, and again in 2015 when a white supremacist murdered bible students in cold blood – seek to serve as a constant denial of our humanity and the right to experience it.

The refusal to acknowledge that we are more than the pathology people ascribe to us… serves as a constant denial of our humanity and the right to experience it.

The insistence on refusing us the right to a trial by a jury of our peers in favor of us being murdered for even the potential to appear to be guilty… serves as a constant denial of our humanity and the right to experience it.

This is not how you treat human beings. No one deserves this.

Alas, when you deny someone their humanity, it becomes quite easy to turn your head and look away when bad things happen.

I desperately want us to stop turning our heads. Stop looking away.

Look directly at what plagues us, what divides us, what ruins us – so many people see some of us as human and others of us as “problems to be fixed… or eradicated.” Take a stand.

These are human beings we are talking about. Nine of them. Their families, left behind to engage in the very humane art of forgiveness to someone who, quite frankly, may not deserve it.

In the face of constant denial of their humanity, there they stand, proving us wrong.

Protect their humanity. Take a stand of your own. No more racism, no more hatred, no more violence, no more. No more.

You may also like


Tammy Stewart June 29, 2015 - 1:46 PM

Your words were comforting and expressed what many of us who can’t find the words or ways to express the anguish, hurt and confusion caused by this event.

Erika Nicole Kendall June 30, 2015 - 7:40 PM

<3 <3 <3

Danielle July 4, 2015 - 10:04 PM

I am from Charleston and I am glad you wrote this.

I am still in shock from what happened. ..I feel so defeated. This country does not care about people of color. I used to feel that progress was being made but it is all a sham

Erika Nicole Kendall July 5, 2015 - 10:46 AM

*big hugs*

Please take care of yourself, sis. I think many of us are still in shock, but it pales in comparison to what locals are feeling right now, I can imagine.

Offering a little support from Brooklyn. <3

Comments are closed.