What we have looked upon as safety

Rebecca Carroll yesterday at Comment is Free.

Six black women were shot to death during a community prayer service by a young white man who allegedly declared: “You rape our women.”

These women and men welcomed a white man into their close-knit church, and likely encouraged others in their community to join and listen and pray and let God into their hearts.

I read somewhere else yesterday that during the hour discussion that preceded the terrorist attack, while the terrorist sat at the back of the church, people at the front several times urged him to join them. That fact breaks my heart.

And think of it. He sat there for an hour, staring ahead at a group of kind, warm people who tried to welcome him…and then he went ahead and took out his gun and shot them.

There is something inconsistent with the Charleston shooter’s alleged evocation of the historical myth of black man as beast and rapist of white women, and the fact that he killed mostly black women. Did he only shoot black women because there were no more black men to kill? Because black women birth, care for and love black men? Or because he didn’t see black women as women at all, and, as something less than women (and certainly lesser than white women), felt us undeserving of the same valiance he conjured on behalf of the women he claim to be protecting?

I can’t even begin to imagine why he did that. Why, or how; I can’t imagine how he did it, after that hour.

In the opening scene from Ava DuVerney’s film Selma, she captured the innocence of four black girls detonated in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Four black girls were just walking down the wooden steps to the basement for prayer meeting; DuVerney showed the light trickling through the stained glass window, let us listen to them talk about their hair and how they do it and how they like it, showed us their Sunday clothes pressed and colorful. And then, in the movie as in our history, they were just dead.

The girls killed in Birmingham in 1963 are the child forebearers of the grown women killed in Charleston in 2015, in a country where our ancestors keep getting younger and younger because violence too often prevents us from getting older, from growing fully into our lives. Somehow, protecting the world from black men has, far too often, meant killing, beating and raping black women and girls. So we have prayed in solidarity and what we have looked upon as safety. On Wednesday, a white man took that from us, too. What remains to be seen is whether the law and this country will recognize that there is now nothing left to take from us.

Nowhere is safe.


  1. Blanche Quizno says

    Dr. George Tiller was likewise killed in church. Bigots who are willing to kill others don’t really care where it happens, other than this being a place they can sure their victim(s) will be at the time they’ve chosen.

  2. jenniferphillips says

    Coincidentally, I just watched the film Selma for the first time a few days ago. The depiction of the Birmingham church bombing left me gasping, and I pretty much bawled my eyes out through the rest of the movie. As graphic and shocking as the depictions of violence against black people and their allies were in this film, the historical reality was even more so. To keep realizing that this film, as violent as it was, was comparatively toned down, really shook me.

    White people just don’t know. We can’t seem to grok that the reality of black people in America has always been worse than we can imagine. We have to do better than this.

  3. monad says

    Since it isn’t what the post was about, it is somewhat off-topic, and if it is too much I apologize.

    But Blanche Quizno made me wonder if it’s really true that the church is a just a convenient place to find victims. The church shootout is a movie trope because of the symbolism it gives the violence. It may be confirmation bias, but it feels like mass shootings have an unusual tendency toward churches and temples of various sorts, second only to schools.

    It seems to me that shooting people in these places is a cultural trope ready-made for shooters like this to adopt. Churches may not afford any physical protection, but our culture still instinctively treats them as a symbol of sanctuary, from long before it was our culture. Is looking to sacrifice people there really be incidental, or does it play into what Rebecca Carroll is talking about, trying to display the victims as disposable and without any hope of refuge?

    I don’t know, but remember, the people killed in a hate crime are not its only targets; it’s meant to ruin the lives of as many others as it can too.

  4. says

    Yes, I’ve gathered that the opening of Selma is very gut-wrenching. Eyes on the Prize is another source for some small fraction of the violence.

    monad, no, it’s fine. I suppose I think it was meant to be another turn of the screw…Not a place where people were shopping or eating lunch or watching a ball game, but doing something more…several things I guess: other-directed, vulnerable, special, communitarian, and more. Shooting up a soup kitchen or food bank would be similar.

  5. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    This part of it really gets me. I’ve been a guest at black churches many times. Sometimes as a journalist covering a speaker, sometimes as a guest of a friend. Every single time the welcome has been warm to the point of making me squirm (being totally white, not a believer, and not knowing the songs or the right times to sit and stand, etc.). Women grabbed my hands and called me brother, urged me to sing along, hugged me, etc. That I squirmed isn’t the point. The point is that the welcome was unconditional and well beyond gracious. It always seemed so warm and genuine. From talking to other people it seems this is a common feature of black churches.

    To take that, to accept it, and then. . . .I don’t know what words to use. It’s so horrible, so evil.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *