On January 5, U.S. President Obama said that racial tensions haven’t gotten worse in recent years – they just seem to be more prevalent because of cell phones’ capacity to record and share everything.
“What we have seen as surfacing, I think,” he said, “are a lot of problems that have been there a long time,” citing the “Council Wars” of the 80s in his hometown of Chicago as one example.
In the first week in October, 2016, I attended a conference for “Pastoring to Missionaries in Situations of Suffering and Risk” in North Carolina. For the next two weeks, Rose and I travelled through what Paul Simon two decades ago in his peerless Graceland album called “the cradle of the Civil War.” Driving down highways and backroads, dozens of memorial plaques marked places and persons of once-memorable Confederate victories or defeats.
Though both U.S.-born, we’d never heard of most of those events or people from that divisive and decisive time in U.S. history. We also did not see a Clinton-Kane campaign sign until midway through our second week on the trip and eventually calculated that Trump-Pence signs outnumbered those tenfold. Another divisive and decisive time may again be in the offing.
We were travelling soon after Hurricane Matthew had roared up the Eastern Seaboard. It killed more people in its aftermath, flooding and scouring towns 100 kilometres inland – than it did during its dozen hours of direct onslaught on the coast. Hurricanes and wars slice through cultures and nations in relatively short times, yet they leave open wounds and painful scars that take years, decades or centuries to heal – if they ever really do.
Latin American and North American racism: Bloody brothers
Rose and I moved to Canada in 1986 after seven years of living in Latin America, rarely thinking about the U.S. Civil War since high school. We raised our children in Guatemala and Venezuela. Most of Latin America had been occupied by Spanish conquistadores, who enslaved indigenous tribes to mine gold and silver, shipping it back to Spanish royalty, leaving natives impoverished and deculturated.
With several notable exceptions, the conquistadores’ centuries-long plundering was blessed by the Roman Catholic Church. Mayans – majority population in Guatemala – inherited La Conquista’s tragic legacy. Though details and circumstances differ, they still writhe under the yoke of de facto racism that also plagues African-Americans. In the U.S. South, racism often wears hearty, thick, “Ya’ll come back soon” cosmetics. But it was hard to miss that the service staff at our Charleston hotel were completely African-American and more than merely polite.
For our part, we north-of-the-border Canadians have learned to mask our own racism towards First Nations peoples and certain immigrant populations. Yet Rose and I saw our own white privilege complicity revealed with a severe mercy that only a truly colour-blind God could illumine. Stirringly, almost achingly, that hard Grace also held out forgiveness and Hope that transcend borders and ethnicities.
Meeting history and racism in person
We arrived in Charleston, South Carolina on Monday, October 10. The town was empty; restaurant staff hawked us from doorways of the few open restaurants, begging us to have dinner. There we were, exploring in a place of annual hurricane risk and recent suffering, although civic workers had cleaned up the town remarkably up after Matthew slogged northeast. As tourists digging into history, we never anticipated encountering risk and suffering in the intensely personal way that unfolded in the following days.
Next morning in that still empty city, we were walking from the mainland Fort Sumter Museum back to our hotel. Across the street a man was cleaning up hurricane debris outside a brilliant white church building. The name tore open a memory we’d all like to forget: Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. On June 17, 2015 Dylann Roof attended the church’s Wednesday evening Bible study and was welcomed warmly, only to murder nine of his hosts within the hour.
We crossed the street and chatted with the custodian.
“Is the church open?”
“No, there’s water damage, but you’re welcome to attend tomorrow evening’s Bible Study.”
We were taken aback. Wouldn’t that be voyeuristic? We’d think hard about that in the next day and a half and for the rest of our trip.
Relearning our own history
Our entire two weeks through the U.S. South stimulated all kinds of thinking, much of it new, some dredged up in unfamiliar guise from long-forgotten high school U.S. History classes. One morning, we took the boat trip to Fort Sumter itself, a former island garrison, now national park, six kilometres outside the entrance to Charleston Harbor. A ruin since the Civil War ended, that fort marked the start of hostilities between Union and Confederate Armies. After the Confederates captured the fort in April, 1860, slaves did more than harvest cotton; they fortified walls and ramparts that were later all but levelled.
What struck us more than anything was the long-unacknowledged complicity of the North in that fratricidal conflict. The North never opposed slavery until industrialization, mechanization, factories and mills made it monetarily cheaper to process the South’s cotton than slave labour could. Liberating slaves came by accidental default cum bragging rights: Cruel economics demanded employing freed slaves in factories – albeit at what we should still call slave wages. Yet the South could not yet mechanize cotton growing. They needed field hands, who were by that time African slaves and their descendants, comprising large minority populations of southern states.
Slaves: More than bricks in the wall
That afternoon we visited Boone Hall, a former plantation outside Charleston. The contrast between the opulence of the owner’s mansion and the rough, yet remarkably strong shop, chapel and homes of the slaves shocked us still. The slaves’ village, separated 200 meters from the mansion, paralleled the driveway lined by 270-year-old, luxuriantly foliaged live oaks. Memories just as old and scarred were clearly visible in the mismatched, different-sized bricks with which those small houses were built.
The slaves were allowed to claim rejected bricks, unfit for selling, to build their village. A meticulously informed guide pointed out one clearly visible fingerprint marring – or memorializing? – a brick in one wall. After that, it was easy to find many such defective bricks.
Did the slaves working the molds and kilns intentionally blemish their work? Or might they have dreamed, “Will someone someday see the prints of these enslaved fingers, whose owners’ minds were bold, free and hopeful?” Partly from necessity, partly from necessary self-protective pride, those people developed the Gullah culture and dialect still alive in pockets of the U.S. South.
(Top left) The owner's mansion of Boone Hall Plantation in Charleston, S.C. (Top right) Slave homes in Boone Hall, with (bottom left) a visible fingerprint in the brick wall.
(Bottom right) The interior ramparts of Fort Sumter. Photos – J. Dekker.
Courage and hope after unspeakable violence
That evening we did return to Mother Emanuel, welcomed as warmly, I’m sure, as was Dylann Roof 16 months earlier, the only visitors of about 25 other regular attendees. An integrated group, we met in the same room where the murders took place. Among the victims was senior pastor and state senator, Clementa C. Pinkney. The terror is modestly, powerfully commemorated by a framed picture of the victims in a corner of the room.
The woman who welcomed introduced us as visitors from Canada.
Rev. Eric Manning, opened the evening by listing prayer requests. Chief among them were prayers for jury selection starting that week for “the trial” – no need to mention Dylann Roof’s name. The tone was somber, worshipful, with petitions for justice, compassion and forgiveness without vengeance.
After welcome and prayers, Rev. Manning led a group reflection on Psalms 93 and 8 – in that order: Psalm 93 reminds us of God’s majesty, which is rooted in the Genesis creation accounts. Human strife and dissension occur because we forget God’s majesty. When we do that, we must remember who God really is and who we are because of God’s creative work. Manning then led us to Psalm 8, calling it an “alarm clock.” We are little lower than the angels simply because – for no good reason but love – God regards us so highly. That “nullifies racism, prejudice, classism, maltreatment of all others who are creations of God,” even if not all of us are always receptive to that gift of God’s high regard.
Sometime during that inspired riff, tears started dripping down my cheeks and chills ran up and down my back. Rev. Manning wasn’t talking about maltreatment only of African-Americans, but also of Dylann Roof. The study ended with us reciting the Lord’s Prayer. In leaving, we passed an armed city policeman who had entered soon after the session began. Jesus’ words “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” sprang to mind.
That evening became a spiritual catalyst, birthing an unexpected and deeply sanctifying blessing for a trip back into our own history. Here were God’s people, descendants of slaves, living in continuing grief, praying for compassion, justice and forgiveness without vengeance. They were consciously and boldly maintaining a small ecosystem of Grace in a city, state and nation that would soon elect as President a man whose campaign championed racist slogans and xenophobia. Though they are living in a climate long stained and potentially enflamed with racism, they preach and practice lives lived with faith in a just God who forgives and gives courage never to fear.