Charleston, Juneteenth and What It Means to be Black in America

06/19/2015 09:40 am ET | Updated Jun 19, 2016
MLADEN ANTONOV via Getty Images

My great, great, great, grandfather, who was given the name David Greer, was brought to this country after being stolen from the West Coast of Africa. The slave ship that brought him over the deadly Middle Passage landed in Charleston, South Carolina. The chains that bound him were made of iron. The chains that threaten to bind all of us are made of fear.

How do we respond in the wake of terror? Do we run and give up on a country that refuses to do anything about rampant gun violence? Do we arm ourselves and join in the madness of hate and fearful gun ownership? Do we give up and just resign ourselves to the reality that black people are endangered in this nation and that things won't soon change? Or do we resist and stand with faith, hope, love and a peace beyond all understanding -- like the nine martyrs of Emanuel AME Church?

During a week when what it means to black was debated, the beautiful souls of Emanuel AME showed us with a powerful clarity. Beyond the legal construction of blackness by courts and census, beyond the dangerous and inaccurate biological construction of blackness by racist scientists and ignorant scholars, beyond the social construction of blackness by media and popular culture, Emanuel showed us what history has proven. Blackness is not only about being of African descent/ascent. To be black is to stand strong in the face of terror. To resist the temptation to give in to fear. To march on, no matter how hard the struggle. To hold onto one's faith, even when hate is sitting right next to you.

A man with hate on his tongue walked armed with a gun he recently received as a birthday present into a mid-week Bible study. Bible studies like this one are places where far more than just the study of scripture happens. Testimonies are shared. Prayers are offered. Encouragement by way of fellowship is given to all who are present.

He entered this sacred space. Different from everyone else there. And amidst what must have surely been very real suspicions, they welcomed him anyway. No one said that the study was for black people only. No one got up and left because of the history of white on black violence in that state. No one profiled or attacked him because he looked suspicious or different. Instead, they stayed. They stood their ground (without the need of a gun or a racist law). They welcomed him. Loving in the face of fear and hatred. Praying for him even has he sat there, fingering his gun.

It is not easy to be black in America. In the late '70s, funk legends Parliament described us as an "Endangered Species" in their song "Bop Gun." And what black person hasn't felt that this year, going from incident to incident, being reminded of the terrible violence that threatens black bodies in the nation? Still reeling from the death of Trayvon just a few years ago, we suffered the deaths of Michael Brown, Erica Garner, Tamir Rice, Renisha McBride, Freddie Gray, Kalief Browder and literally hundreds of others to police violence. We endured the terror-inducing images of seeing black youth physically assaulted by a police officer in McKinny, Texas. We've tried to make sense of the cruel and inhumane treatment of our Haitian brothers and sisters in the Dominican Republic. And that doesn't even broach the subject of the way that institutional and structural racism are endangering people of African descent/ascent through unequal convictions and sentencing in our courts, ongoing housing discrimination, job discrimination, unequal school systems, portrayals in the media, violence against black women, voting rights and much more. Endangered species. It's hard to be black in America.

It is also hard to manifest blackness in America -- to resist the temptation to give way to terror. I had not planned to write anything about what happened in Charleston. I'm soul-tired after a most challenging year. So many of us have been fighting on various fronts by marching, teaching, writing, preaching, organizing and performing. And we are tired. Like many of us, I limped into the summer, praying for a respite from an intense several months. And when the news out of Charleston broke, my first reaction was to hold my children, retreat and unplug.

But then I got an email from one of my students. A brave young student activist who is a leader in the campus black community. He wrote about not knowing what to do and I could sense in his words the temptation to give up. I wrote back and in answering his question about what he should do in the face of hate like this, I found myself encouraging him to continue "to be." There is revolution in our being. Our not giving up is victory.

Terror attempts to induce an enslaving fear over its victims. A fear that causes one to give up. To stop struggling. The truest mark of blackness is the ability to critically refuse to be afraid -- even with the scars of 400 years of oppression on your back. Blackness is standing free, though the terror-bringers try to bind your ankles with chains of fear.

This is why naming what happened in South Carolina as terror is so important. In part, this combats a racist inconsistency in how violent acts are described and processed. Too often, Muslim violence is connected to words like "terrorist." Black violence brings forth words like "thugs." White violence is often explained by phrases like "mentally ill," but rarely "terror."

But it's important to describe this as terror, because it allows us to understand the potentially damaging ripples and aftershocks that an event like this can cause.

Terror manipulates through fear. It tempts us to give up and to end our struggle. But a lesson that many of our nation's leaders have not learned is that terror and fear are not defeated by violent strikes that cause fear in very much the same way those we label terrorist acts do. Terror is defeated by standing up and having the courage to live. Fear is overcome by love and hope. We win because we are. Black people, endangered as we are, have staved off extinction by the grace of God, because of our critical refusals and because of an our enduring hope.

I am writing this post on the eve of an often overlooked holiday called Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery or more accurately, the awareness of the end of slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation had been made more than two years before word got to the slaves in Galveston, Texas in 1865. Finally, they found out that they were free and they had a choice to make. They could remain under the dehumanizing controlling terror-driven institution of slavery, or they could walk in a courageous freedom and live.

This is my hope and prayer for people of African decent/ascent today: We need not succumb to the chains of terror, but rather remember that we are free. We need not be slaves to fear. We need not be drawn into a pitiful, fear-based gun culture and arm ourselves (it's difficult to imagine Jesus encouraging people to hold guns to defend themselves while in church). We need not be slaves to hating those who hate us. We need only to be free. Without freedom, we are not truly alive. To be black is to be free, although chains rattle at our doors.

When David Greer, my ancestor, arrived in Charleston in the late 1700s, family legend tells us that he was being examined by those who were readying him to be sold or auctioned off. Because of some marking on his body, it was discovered that he came from Mandika royalty. Apparently, there was a law in this young Brittish colony that forbid the enslavement of anyone with royal blood, thus David Greer was set free.

This story was passed down to his daughter, who shared it with her son, the future AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, who often shared this story as a way of encouraging black people to remember who they are. Enslaving chains of fear cause amnesia and lead us to forget that we are free. Let us not become enslaved again. Be free.