We Lean Towards Joy-Josie Helen
My soul lives below the Mason-Dixon line. I was born on Georgia soil, and, God willing, will die there. There is nothing like driving down the street that leads to my childhood home, where the road is lined not with streetlights or sidewalks, but countless trees that loom almost ceremoniously. It gives rise to an ache in my heart just thinking about it. I’ve been up here a decade now, but I am not a Northerner and I never will be.
I’m not alone. Over half of the country’s black population lives in the South. Compare that to those places we consider to be bastions of progressivism. For example, Vermont – long considered the most liberal state in the nation — has the second-smallest black population, accounting for less than 1%. Meanwhile eight of the top ten blackest states are in the South, where white supremacy’s vitriol is most vocal.
The church is part of the reason we’ve stuck around so long. Where there are black people, there are black churches. Growing up I went to my own black church, founded in 1867. White parishioners were warmly welcomed but rare. It was a blockish stone building downtown, with deep red carpeting and low-roofed ceilings. My mother, Assistant Superintendent of the Sunday school, dragged us there at 9 AM every Sunday. Our parents pushed us into everything – we were acolytes, in the Easter and Christmas plays, the youth choir, the handbell group, at bible study camp. The same faces were in the pews each week– the Cheeses with their four young boys, Ms. Simon, the somber Sunday school teacher who taught my mother college P.E. way back when, the Paschals and the Jordans and the Alstons and on and on and on.
We were all black, Southerners, worshippers.
My sister and I did not particularly like going to church. We would have rather been sleeping in, our parents always forced us to wear stockings, and more importantly we both lacked religious fervor. But there was no doubting that we were in the presence of a reverent and strong community. Even my mother, a constant fretter, did not worry about us in church. In church, we were safe.
Black people are believers. We’ve had to be. The persistence of injustice has eroded many a hope for earthly peace, and what has kept us joyful is our belief that we’ll be vindicated after death. Even during slavery, slaves would meet in secret to worship, which made slave owners especially paranoid. They knew that political action is often fermented in church, and they feared insurrection. “The white folks would come in when the colored people would have prayer meeting and whip every one of them,” one slave said. “Most of them thought that when colored people were praying it was against them.”
Churches have housed us, soothed us, fed us. Churches are where our masses huddled. They have been a place to rest the weariest feet. They have kept us joyful, and if not joyful then at peace, and if not at peace then they’ve at least kept us alive. We have, for decades, lifted our voices to sing. We have worn through bibles. We have tithed our last few dollars. We have found a couple breaths of solace. We have found a few square feet of safety.
Three of the victims that were killed at Emanuel AME Church on Wednesday were over seventy years old. One, Susie, was 87. I didn’t know her, but I know a few things. I know she didn’t have it easy. Almost ninety years of being Black and female in South Carolina means decades of degradation, belittling, devaluing. If she didn’t attend Emanuel AME, she may be alive right now. But I’m more inclined to believe that if she didn’t go, she wouldn’t have lived this long.
You may think I speak of God. I don’t. What I speak of is faith. Your personal belief in God’s existence is beside the point, as is my own. What awes me about black faith is not the higher power, it is the black power.
If you are not a black southerner, I imagine it is hard to understand why we live there and why we stay. Yes, resentment runs thick. Yes, racism looms heavy, though I’m keen to believe that is the same in every state in the nation. And yes, too many remain dedicated to the Confederacy, that government of traitors run by arrogant and ignorant men, a pathetic display of cowardice that failed within just four years. They are dangerous, these people that idealize such failure. They fantasize about the South rising again.
Yet we stay. And it’s not about the weather, nor the low property taxes. In part, it is out of love and belonging. The South understands me somehow, takes me for who I am with neither demand nor question.
But we also stay because we believe. And in our belief, we define our space. We draw strength. We build history and community. We fight. We own the South, too. It is my land. It is my soil. I would not trade it.
Racism and hatred that flow this deep require training and indoctrination. The depravity required to kill nine black people in a church at Wednesday bible study, even after they have invited you into the sanctuary to worship with them, is more vicious than I can comprehend. It is also reminiscent of a different time – a time where four little girls in their best Sunday dresses are murdered in a Birmingham church, a time when thousands of bodies hung from tree branches while faces below looked up at the body and grinned.
The result of killing nine people in a church is not just death, fear, and loss. The result is also a further constraining of the southern black experience. A black experience that, to the rest of the world, continues to be defined in part by white violence. Acts like this make it virtually impossible for Blacks in the South and across the nation to be known by more than the acts of their oppressors. As long as white violence continues to terrorize the innocent, as long as crazed racial hatred persists, such tethering of Black life and white hostility is expected.
It is still hard for the world to talk about us without talking about them. That is its own injustice.
How does a place of worship repair itself? Are they made whole more quickly, through the sheer power of belief in a higher being? Or does the betrayal – such evil sins on such sacred ground – make the wound deeper? Those who do not think that there is reason or guiding force behind our existence may process such evil more quickly. But those who do believe in more – those who have been kept safe by one of the many black churches in the South – may need stronger sutures.
Or, perhaps the question is whether Emanuel AME can be repaired at all. Will that community – or my community, or the countless other black church communities– ever submit to the fruitlessness of hope?
The answer is no. We are relentless, we are tough, we lean towards joy. We continue on. Our South will always rise again.