Since news broke on Thursday that a young white man had killed nine black men and women in a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina, I have struggled to make sense of this tragedy. I have pored over articles in my preferred news outlets, including Slate, Salon, and The Atlantic. While those pieces were helpful in collecting and concretizing my thoughts and helping me to make sense of my tangled and raw emotions, I also found myself still struggling, as if something, some crucial bit of understanding, hovered just out of reach.
Part of this, I think, has to do with the overwhelming weight of history that this incident represents, centuries of exploitation and terrorism, in which the lives of people of color have been systematically devalued and rendered invisible. How can one person contend with, let alone psychologically and emotionally process, such a mountain of misery?
While I do not, in any way, want to diminish the importance of the ongoing, if still stilted, discussion of mental illness in this country, I want to emphasize my firm and profound belief in the absolute necessity of contending with the terror of this country’s history. I mean this in multiple (and interconnected senses): the well-documented terror that white culture has inflicted on people of color, whether it be the Ku Klux Klan or The Birth of a Nation, police brutality and use of unnecessary force or the matter-of-fact slaughter of innocents in a place of worship.
Yet what troubles me the most about this whole incident in Charleston is precisely how unexceptional it is. This is a state, after all, that has refused to take down the Confederate flag (which is, no matter how you spin it, a signifier of racial violence and oppression) from the grounds of its state house, as well as a region of the country that fought tooth and nail to keep people of colour from equal access to everything from education to elected government, and in many cases continues to do so (though largely through more obfuscated means).
Further, the American South is a region that continues to fetishize and enshrine the vestiges of its antebellum past, often either without acknowledging the ways in which the glories of that past were built on the back of ruthless exploitation or ensuring that that exploitation is rendered quaint or somehow excusable. What remains understated, however, was the way that the romanticizing of that past was in large part responsible for the terrors that were unleashed after Reconstruction was abandoned. Thus, while the South is the place where this all comes to a head, it is important to not commit the equally grievous sin of writing the North a blank check, for it was precisely those in the North who turned a blind eye to the horrors unfolding in their southern neighbors, with white northerners more interested in rapprochement with their racial counterparts than helping or aiding the afflicted people of color.
And yet, one might wonder: why, in the face of so much violence, does mainstream, white American culture still find it difficult, if not impossible, to contend with that past? Why is it so much easier to pretend that we live in an eternal present, where atrocities committed by people with racial hatred worn proudly on their sleeve can be explained by anti-religious animus or by mental illness rather than by an acknowledgment of the systems of power and the weight of history? Well, it is precisely because really engaging with history is, indeed, terrifying. To confront the terror of history face to face is to recognize so much else: complicity in oppression, an acknowledgment that the American dream is a myth and a lie, that sometimes the acts of an individual are circumscribed and embedded within systems of power that are hard to comprehend in their totality. It is far easier, then, to simply boil things down to the actions of a lone wolf, an entity that can be locked up with any deeper, more probing questions shunted aside.
This is one of the many reasons that I take my social justice-inflected pedagogy so seriously. If I can allow at least one student to gain a more nuanced understanding of how race, gender, sexuality, class, disability, etc. have complicated and violent histories, then I can hopefully do my part to ensure that the horrible events that have At the same time, however, I also recognize that many of my students, and my colleagues, will probably remain in the bastions of progressive thought and relative safety (the Northeast, the West Coast, and the larger cities in the South and Midwest). However, it is precisely the not-safe spaces, the South, Appalachia, the rural reaches of the Midwest and the Northeast, that desperately need the presence of critical thinkers and educators.
Only by forcing an acknowledgment of the deep problems and terrors of history can we ever hope, however faintly, for a better, more just, more peaceful world.