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America is not ready to face the truth of racism

The murders at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church a year ago is a tragic reminder

This is not an anomaly. This is America.

I tightly held to this mantra as I learned of the massacre at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, one year ago. Once the macabre news broke, many faith leaders, political leaders, journalists and pundits all asked the same pedestrian, ahistorical question, “How could this happen at a church? How could this happen in America?”

These questions revealed the inebriated national memory, drunk on the propaganda of freedom, justice and equality, and ignorant of the sobering truth that the violence witnessed in Charleston was not aberrant, it was American.

What happened on June 17, 2015, is related to what happened at Mother Emanuel in the early 1820s. At that time, the white supremacist and slaveholding city leadership raided and harassed the church and eventually burned it down. Why? Because they were afraid of justice. They were afraid their empire of blood, lust and greed would be destroyed by African men and women organizing and fighting to be citizens upon the land they cultivated and from which they generated wealth.

A slave revolt was planned from Mother Emanuel by its leaders, including Denmark Vesey and Darin Miller, who were executed along with others. Many who were not executed were deported. Morris Brown, the pastor of Mother Emanuel, fled to Philadelphia after being imprisoned and was mentored and protected by Bishop Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the first man of African descent (along with Absalom Jones) to hold a copyright for written materials in the United States of America.

If we are serious about a new way forward, we cannot hide from historical truth in America. That history is painful, but for whom? The telling of these truths is not nearly as painful for us as it was for Africans to endure such callous inhumanity. Essayist James Baldwin wrote, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways and history is literally present in all that we do.”

White people hide from the great force of history because it lays bare their complicity in making a nation and world that unfairly advantages them and is enforced by violence and mendacity. Black people hide from the great force of history because we do not want to make white people uncomfortable and many of us would rather luxuriate in the national rhetoric of freedom, justice and equality than to fight for the real thing.

The events of the early 1820s and the events of 2015 are related. Beneath the placid beauty of the port of Charleston roils an angry racial past that will continue to boil over intermittently until truth is uncovered and justice, not tolerance, becomes the order of the day.

One of the many reasons these acts of violence persist is that our leaders and our scholars, be they Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, of African or European descent, Christian or Muslim, can hardly enter the public square unless they assent to the following orthodoxy: America is a good and moral nation; America is ordained by God for a special purpose; and any violence in America’s history, current or future, is the work of isolated individuals not to be woven into the tapestry of national memory (unless the perpetrators are black, brown, or Muslim).

David Rieff, author of In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies, says that, “History is about the past. Memory is about how we use the past for the present.” If the United States of America valued history as much as civil memory, the nation would make the ideological connection between accused Mother Emanuel killer Dylann Roof and the legacies of the white supremacist slaveholders whose names appear on Charleston street signs and whose images are preserved in the city’s Confederate statuary. If the statues must remain, please offer truth and not hagiography. Please supplement the Southern penchant for glorifying a cause that was possessed of no nobility with a hint of veracity.

Is there a possibility for something different? Not until a willingness to deal with the complexities of history infuses American theology, politics and economics. I do not detect such will. I see more American self-congratulation and little American self-reflection. Maybe calling the names of those who were murdered a year ago will help to break through the numbness:

Cynthia Marie, Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson.

This is not an anomaly. This is America.

William H. Lamar IV is pastor of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.