Say Their Names

18915472726_2a2f63b57c_zI’m still reeling from the shock of the massacre that occurred at Emanuel A.M.E Church in Charleston, South Carolina. One of the oldest Black churches in this nation, its history is one of resistance and solace. And this history continues to bear witness to the horrors of white supremacy with the recent murders of nine African American churchgoers, including its pastor and state Senator Clementa Pinckney (age 41), Cynthia Hurd (age 54), Tywanza Sanders (age 26), Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton (age 45), Myra Thompson (age 59), Ethel Lee Lance (age 70), Rev. Daniel Simmons (age 74), Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor (age 49) and Susie Jackson (the eldest at age 87).

I’ve been shedding tears because I recognize them. They’re the type of churchgoers who raised women like myself, who kept me on the straight and narrow, who celebrated my educational success, who helped amplify my voice, who reminded me to be humble, to always give God the glory, to always leave the pain and struggles behind at the altar. I recognize these beautiful and generous souls, who I believe were as “nice” to their killer as he said they were, as my late great-aunt would have been. She was a devout churchgoer when she was alive and a pillar of her community who regularly attended Wednesday Bible Study meetings. She would have welcomed him with open arms and sincerely prayed for him—especially if she knew of the evil that lurked within.

So, I speak the names of the victims because their own stories and their own spirits need to be magnified, especially as the noise of the media shifts to the murderer: 21-year-old Dylann Roof, a self-confessed white supremacist who allegedly stated that he killed these innocents because they were Black, even though others with access to larger platforms are bombarding the public with other motives, such as targeting them because they were “Christians,” or blaming Roof’s evil actions on “mental illness” or “drugs.” There are no limits to the ways that some will spin the tale to absolve white people of their sins, to preserve the myth of White Innocence. There are also no limits to the ways that many of us are invested in erasing and rendering the invisibility of Blackness—not just with recent cases of racial violence here in the U.S. but also with the egregious plans of the government of the Dominican Republic to deport those of Haitian descent.

Specifically, when addressing issues of gender, we are reminded of the vulnerabilities of Black women— the majority of the victims—which is no surprise since, as Rebecca Carroll already pointed out, Black women are the pillars of the Black church but “disposable” in a white supremacist and misogynistic society. The killer “defends” white womanhood, from supposed rapes by Black men, by targeting Black womanhood (because who else would he have most likely encountered in a Black church?).

This month, we have already seen attacks on Black women—from teenaged Dajerria Becton, who was viciously assaulted by a police officer in McKinney, Texas to Arnesha Bowers, who was sexually assaulted and then set on fire in Baltimore, where crimes have increased in the wake of the protests against police brutality. Even the racial distraction of Rachel Dolezal is another example of our erasure through appropriation and reductive symbolism (as if Black womanhood is achievable through hairstyles and tanning, and not through genetics, struggle, heritage and cultural ties that bind). The A.M.E Church shooting, in which most of the victims are women—including an elderly Susie Jackson who most likely witnessed the brutalities of Jim Crow Southern segregation—is the latest in a raced and gendered war.

The #SayHerName campaign seeks to resist the silence that refuses to call out evil, the silence that erases our existence.

I speak their names, and I call on all of us to resist the silence. Women like my great-aunt always raised their voice in praise and song, but they also raised their voice in the presence of evil. We as a people have always had to be ready for spiritual warfare. Some relied on their Christian faith, and some of my ancestors wrapped that Christian faith around other practices indigenous to the African continent. If they ever named the evil and called Satan by his name, they did so to rebuke his presence.

Let’s call a thing a thing. Racism. Misogyny. These are the evils that motivated Dylann Roof, and the kind of evil that devout believers would have tried to exorcise out of his soul. If he “almost didn’t kill” them because of their grace and goodness, imagine the fading power of the devil if he were immediately recognizable when he first entered the door and they called on higher powers to stop evil in its tracks.

Regardless of one’s belief (or non-belief), how many of us can name evil when we see it? More than the Dylann Roofs of the world, I fear those who would continue to deny its existence or misname it as something else. I have more fear of people who would rather remain in silence than speak out and condemn evil when they bear witness to its destructive force.

I will speak the names of the victims, but I will also name evil when it makes an appearance, in order to exorcise it from our midst.

Get Ms. in your inbox! Click here to sign up for the Ms. newsletter.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Stephen Melkisethian licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.