On Charleston and spirit murder

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As I reflect on and grieve over the recent terrorist attack on the congregants of The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, what comes to my mind over and over again is “spirit murder,” a term Columbia University law professor Patricia J. Williams coined some years back to describe a particularly gruesome murder committed by a white man in the 1960s. Thirty nine times he stabbed his victim, an African American man who was engaged in civil rights work.

“I wondered for a long time,” Williams wrote, “what it was that would not die, what could not be killed by the fourth, fifth, or even tenth knife blow; what sort of thing would not die with the body but lived on in the mind of the murderer.” Williams realized that, whatever lived in this man’s mind, his act was not “merely” an act of “body murder”; it was also “spirit murder.”

When Dylann Storm Roof stood up and announced, before killing nine African American women and men, that “you’re taking over our country and you have to go,” what he announced in no uncertain terms was that he intended to kill not only as many black bodies as he could; he also intended to murder our hopes, our aspirations, our dreams, and thus our spirits. For what he saw before and after he walked through the doors of Emanuel, was not a people cowed, subjugated, colonized, and segregated (as his racist paraphernalia taught we should be), but instead the intolerable vision of a people who had taken over, a people of power who were expressing as well as affirming it in a sacred place, a “spiritual refuge” that for centuries often nurtured our souls and reminded us that – regardless of the narratives and systems that were in place to confine, control and even kill us – we were and are always something more, something boundless and unbossed.

Of course, powerful though we may be, the material realities under which most of us live (increasing economic inequality, an oppressive criminal justice system, segregation, miseducation, etc.) make clear that we have not taken over anything – the presidency notwithstanding. Nevertheless, usurpation is what many of our countrymen and women – aching with nostalgia for slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, apartheid, colonialism – see when they look at us through lenses distorted by their hatred, generally, and hatred specifically for Barack Obama and all that he represents.

Or perhaps what they see and what they hate – what lives in their minds – is our hope, particularly the hope that Obama’s 2008 and 2012 elections rekindled in us and that they have tried to kill over and over again through public policies, policing, and propaganda wars waged from the halls of universities to AM radio stations to courts of law.

They see, in other words, the same kind of hope that that civil rights worker no doubt held for the future and which his murderer found absolutely intolerable.

But it is a thing that will not die, this spirit, this hope of ours. “Could we not argue that America is about freedom whether we live it or not?” asked Rev. Clementa Pinckney in 2013. “Freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness. And that is what church is all about: freedom to worship and freedom from sin, freedom to be full of what God intends us to be, and to have equality in the sight of God. And sometimes you got to make noise to do that. Sometimes you have to march, struggle and be unpopular to do that.”

Though among the men and women Roof murdered on Wednesday, Rev. Pinckney lives on in spirit, and we will speak his words as we march, struggle, make noise, and move out of our way anything that stands between us and freedom, equality and happiness. And there’s not a bullet in the world that can stop us.

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