Some Find It Difficult To Heed Calls For Racial Healing After Charleston, S.C.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The calls for racial healing and reconciliation have come from many voices since the shooting, but at a prayer service in Charleston last week, commentator Chenjerai Kumanyika found it hard to heed the call.
CHENJERAI KUMANYIKA: I was at a vigil with 4,000 other mourners and a reverend led a prayer for the Emanuel AME victims. He asked everyone to take the hand of the person next to them and that's when I froze. I just couldn't bring myself to take this woman's hand and I knew exactly why. It's because she was white. Seriously, Chenjerai - the voice of one of my older black mentors boomed in my head. Get over your racial baggage and hold this white woman's hand - now. My arm didn't move, even though I know this woman was at the vigil because she cared and wanted to help. As a college professor and diversity activist, I know that there are many genuine, engaged and committed white people in this fight. I've marched with them. I've broken bread with them. I've had tough conversations with them. But I couldn't shake a paralyzing feeling left over from an encounter I had an evening before.
I was standing in front of Emanuel Church with three young black men from Charleston. We got to talking, uneasily sharing a space of recognition, helplessness and reverence. That's when a husky white police officer walked up to us. We all stiffened. He explained that he smelled marijuana and that if we were carrying we had better move along. One of the Charleston men said simply no, we're good. The officer shook his head and repeated his warning. Another man got irritated and asked, yeah, but how you smell weed when ain't nobody got no weed? A few minutes later, we could smell the marijuana coming from down the street where a group of white college students was gathered. When the officer circled back to us, we gave a look in that direction. He smiled bashfully. Then he said, now you guys smell it. You see how I could've made that mistake, right?
At that moment I had to fight two conflicting instincts. The first was to spit. I didn't. The other was to appease this white officer, to make sure he felt validated. That's what my parents told me to do whenever I was pulled over. Shrink down into yourself around white people in command and do whatever it takes to make them feel comfortable.
And this has a long history. Survival for black folk during slavery and Jim Crow necessitated thousands of small demonstrations of pleasant compliance toward white people. This didn't just mean crossing the street or stepping off a curb when a white person approached. It meant smiling as you did it.
Today, when I discuss these shootings with my white students and my heart is bursting with outrage and grief, I must keep my voice and gestures gentle and calm and tolerate some of their hurtful comments so they don't feel personally indicted. In the Charleston arena that night, I did finally take the hand of the white woman by my side. But still, I couldn't shake the feeling that when black people and white people clasp hands at these events the comfort isn't evenly distributed. A few moments after taking hold of my neighbor's hand, I let go again. That doesn't feel good, but maybe we're not all supposed to feel good right now - not yet.
MARTIN: Chenjerai Kumanyika is a professor of communications at Clemson University. This commentary is part of a broader essay, and you can read it at NPR's Code Switch blog. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.