Hafizah Geter | Longreads | November 2018 | 32 minutes (8,050 words)
On Wednesday, October 24th, 2018, a white man who tried and failed to unleash his violent mission on a black church, fatally killed the next black people of convenience, Vickie Lee Jones, 67, and Maurice E. Stallard, 69, in a Jeffersontown, Kentucky Kroger. Today, I am thinking of the families and loved ones of Stallard and Jones, who the media reports, along with their grief, their anger, their lack of true recourse, have taken on the heavy work of forgiveness.
June 17, 2015, two hours outside my hometown, a sandy blonde-haired Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That night, Roof, surely looking like an injured wolf, someone already on fire, sat with an intimate group of churchgoers, and I have no doubt, was prayed for. If history repeats itself, then surely so does religion: the 12 churchgoers like Jesus’s 12 apostles in a 21st century fable. Roof the Judas at this last supper. As we know, Roof would wait a full hour until heads were bowed in prayer and God had filled every corner of the room before reaching into his fanny pack.
By June 19, 2015, two narrow days beyond the shooting, there would already be reports of absolution. “I forgive you,” Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old victim Ethel Lance, said to Roof at his bond-hearing. “I forgive you,” said Felicia Sanders, mother of one of the nine dead, her son, Tywanza Sanders, 26, not yet buried.
Intimately, I have been held by this wing of southern Black religiosity. My father is of Black southern Baptists who, originating in Georgia and Alabama, found themselves one day in Dayton, Ohio. Growing up, I was as curious about my Black American family’s white God as I was about my Nigerian mother’s African Allah. Much of my childhood was spent either at the foot of my mother’s prayer rug or beneath the nook of my paternal grandmother’s arm — grandma’s fingers pinching my thighs to keep me still, awake, and quiet in the church pews. At the church I attended with my Black American family, they were always praying to be gracious enough to receive forgiveness or humble enough to give it. A turn-the-other-cheek kind of church, it was full with products of the Great Migration and they were always trying to forgive white people.
As a child, though I could never quite name the offenses of white people, I could sense the wounds they had left all over the Black people who surrounded me. The wounds were in the lilt of Black women’s voices, in the stiffened swagger of our men; it was there in the sometimes ragged ways my boy cousins would be disciplined. And I knew this work of forgiving had somehow left bruises on my aunts so deep it made their skin shine. In church, we prayed and forgave white people like our prayers were the only thing between them, heaven, and damnation.
It’s left me wondering: Does forgiveness take advantage of my people?
Being Black in America means having a historical relationship to forgiveness. If the law of Audre Lorde holds true and “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Christian forgiveness was never designed to tackle white supremacy, only pardon it. Christianity emerged from our slave masters. We were forbidden to read, but could pray. In the face of this new, white god, our ancestors looked for solace and hope. Slaves were entitled to nothing, not even their anger. Performing forgiveness became a crucial aspect of slaves’ lives. They held forgiveness in their mouths as both salve and armor. But if Christianity is the master’s tool, then surely white supremacy is its house and the Christian ideal of forgiveness will never be able to address, dismantle, or truly forgive white supremacy. So what happens when the performance of Black forgiveness gets repeated through several generations until it becomes ritualized and transformed into tradition?
How, in the 21st century, do we escape the theatre of forgiveness?
If the law of Audre Lorde holds true and ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,’ Christian forgiveness was never designed to tackle white supremacy, only pardon it.
I am trying to trace the trickle-down effect of suppressing Black rage through forgiveness in my family. How my enslaved ancestors must have chewed on their rage like cud until it was unrecognizable enough to be called forgiveness. How that rage tumbled through our bloodstream, generation after generation. How it made our men mean and our women the only thing America would possibly let them get away with breaking. How our women raised other people’s children by themselves, and arrived home too tired or too shattered to save their daughters from the grown men they themselves loved. How rage has sent us imploding. How rage grips my father’s people, turning our men into tripwires until both our traumas and our resilience are passed down from generation to generation. Over and over, I see how white supremacy and altered expectations of justice have forever molded the Black American side of my family.
In 1990, I was standing in Aunt Sarah’s basement, her linoleum floor corners peeling beneath the damp, dim light, her basement a ghostly type of cold. Being in Aunt Sarah’s basement often felt like being in a bunker. It always smelled wet like old snow resisting thaw, the ceiling low enough to give a tall man a backache. Thin layers of dust glimmered beneath the Morse code of flickering fluorescent lights, gripping the wood lacquer of the entertainment console.
Aunt Sarah’s basement was filled with board games and decks of cards that neighborhood children would often come by to play with. Monopoly? Too vast in its pieces. The tiny colored discs of Connect Four? Too loud in their dropping clinks. Being 6, I trusted myself enough to accurately consider risk, weigh all options. It was simple, though. These games were not for me. Aunt Sarah and I both knew it. The contract between Aunt Sarah and me consisted of only two agreements: I would remain silent and invisible in her house.
I knew the danger of the wrong game.
I don’t know how cruelty finds us, but cruelty I incited in my Aunt. It seemed that every little thing I did set her off. I the flint, she the firecracker. If I spoke, her eyes would beat me like a switch pulled from a backyard tree. If Aunt Sarah wanted to teach me anything in this world, it would be my place.
Easter breaks, when we were released from our Catholic school uniforms into the ether of our lives for two weeks, my parents would load my sister and me in the car and drive to Dayton to drop us off at my Aunt Sarah and Uncle Rodge’s. On those trips, I’d sit in the back, the synthetic velvet curtains of our Dodge Caravan windows splayed open as I considered escape routes, what it would take to disappear, anxiously rubbing my fingers against the curtain’s grain.
Throughout our childhood, these drives from Akron to Dayton were a regular occurrence. My father’s mother and both his sisters lived there. Strife and the years my grandmother spent trying to get her children out of Alabama had banded the four of them together like cement. During my father’s and aunts’ youths, the extended family and community around them had been filled with men who found relief in the bruises they left on women, who forwent water for whisky, who worked but spent all the rent money, who slid like lovers from the rooms of their granddaughters, nieces, sometimes their own children, zippers barely closed, pants sagging and unbuckled, their shadows leaving an oily grief slick that the women in my family would never be rid of. My father, being the youngest and the only boy, and of the softest temperament, was doted on and adored. Protected. On our visits to Dayton, I often looked from my Aunt Sarah to my father, wishing her love for him could translate to me.
After word of Charleston broke, my father called me in Brooklyn to say, “Best to stay in the house,” afraid, despite the hundreds of miles that protected me. Charleston rose like a sickness in my father’s throat, the old rages crawling out. At 73, my father is disgusted by the institution of whiteness. Born to a mother with a third grade education, in Anniston, Alabama, quite possibly one of the most dangerous places to live in under the reign of George Wallace, my father quite literally entered the world in the mouth of American racism. My father’s disgust, so old, so precise he could balance it on the head of a needle. He has just watched Roof, finally captured, but hungry, get taken through the drive-thru of a Burger King. It is an extraordinary image to watch, the police going out of their way to feed Roof, this murderer of nine, this good ol’ boy.
My father is angry Dylann Roof isn’t dead.
“I don’t want to hear anyone talking about forgiveness,” he says sucking his teeth. “Black people need to spend time on something else.” Having spent so much of his life in the south and so many of his formative years in southern Black churches, my father anticipates, with dread, the tradition of Black forgiveness, especially in the face of anti-Black hate crimes. Clearing his throat, he prepares for his lecture and I imagine being a student in one of his Life Drawing classes.
Though he has told me many times before, on the phone my father begins to warn me, “Child, be careful with forgiveness.” I know forgiveness cannot always be two-sided, the person you are trying to forgive sometimes dead or unable to concede to repair. But for my father, part of being Black and free means withholding white forgiveness without it being a mortal or spiritual offense.
My father is convinced that our legacy of trauma has altered the kind of justice we’ve come to expect. How else, in the absence of justice or true racial reform, could we forgive our oppressors with their boots still on our necks, he asks, expecting me to fill the silence and answer the question.
Having finally settled on the safest game, I slowly inched out a deck of Old Maid cards. I don’t know if it was the penny taste of the blood warning in my stomach or if it was Aunt Sarah’s footsteps that came first. But I do know that quite suddenly she was upon me, her eyes cutting like razors, her mouth a snake’s hiss, her dark Black hair in tight Medusa curls. Aunt Sarah’s skin was perfect and caramel but with the menace of quicksand — one touch and she could make me disappear. A thin but sturdy woman, Aunt Sarah was a mountain that blocked all sun and her sudden approach enough to set my fear on fire. Her nearing footsteps like a sizzle warning a bomb’s lit fuse. My fear sending cards flying to every corner of the room. I looked around, suddenly overwhelmed by the small enormity of my situation. I had made a mess and messes made me visible, heard. A mess broke Aunt Sarah’s and my agreement.
Aunt Sarah looked at the cards flayed around me like a can of red paint had exploded in a white room. Her rage true, compact, when she said, “You come upstairs, and I’ll beat you blind.” Beyond the spill, what upset Aunt Sarah most was that I had dared to play, that I had dared to touch in a house where she had made clear nothing belonged to me. Eventually, like always, night fell. My sister coaxed me back upstairs, to the guarantee of a clear coast. But there was something primal in Aunt Sarah’s need to be listened to — like she had spent her entire life saying “no” in a world where her agency didn’t matter. How many people had crossed her line?
Years of terror-filled days with my Aunt, and this is the one I return to. The simplicity of it. How, young as I was, I realized then, whatever my Aunt and I were inside of, I would never get clear. How her rage for me could be both spectacular and plain — how every single cell in my body seemed to make her feel robbed of something. The look on my face, how I ate my food at her table, any love or positive attention I received from another adult, were enough to send her into deep sorrowful rages. With my parents around, her anger simmered like collards. As a child, it seemed to me she found pleasure in the wait — that moment my parents’ minivan would disappear from her driveway and her contempt would surface unabashedly like a belly from a belt after a big meal. For much of my childhood, my school years were demarcated by when and for how long we had to see Aunt Sarah. I could never, as the poet Galway Kinnell advised, “trust the hours,” but with Aunt Sarah they felt mighty long. Like a righteous woman who glows in the labor of punishing sinners, the moment my parents left, Aunt Sarah found her joy in shaming me; loved to look me in the eyes as she told her church friends that she’d have to keep her thumb on this one. Her deep-voiced niece who didn’t know how to sit or behave like a lady. My Aunt Sarah’s disgust for me is the first secret my body ever kept.
On TV, in news articles, and think pieces, I followed as white media marveled at Black forgiveness like children dancing in the sun, the sugar rush of absolution.
In the theatre of forgiveness, Act I is transgression. It is Roof’s bullets through the air and the culture required to make the man who loaded the gun. Act II, the culture of fear that forbids, vilifies, and punishes the victim that dares to express or expel their rage. Inside Act II is the compulsive requirement to forgive. Act III is the fatal finale — the forced complicity of the victim coerced into forgiving before the transgression has been given voice or name, and the subsequent internalization of rage that follows.
Perhaps there is no greater example of what psychology calls repetition compulsion — the habit of repeating traumatic events in order to cope with them — than the relationship between Black forgiveness and white America. After centuries spent learning how to make a home inside the unmerciful and unrelenting terror of white supremacy, the act of repetition compulsion is a defense mechanism against the past.
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In an unconscious attempt to rewrite history, with repetition compulsion the injured resist the reality of their predicament, necessitating the burying of well-earned rage, sadness, and despair. In Act III, Black people, condemned for marching in the streets, kneeling in a ball field, or daring to publicly declare our lives matter, are forced by white culture to wear forgiveness as a kind of blackface, forced to paint conciliatory smiles on centuries-sized pain. In the theatre of forgiveness, respectability politics is the encore. We bury our dead, leash our rage, never able to satisfactorily prove to white America that we are worthy of the long awaited recognition of our humanity.
Having spent so much of his life in the south and so many of his formative years in southern Black churches, my father has learned to anticipate, with dread, the tradition of Black forgiveness, especially in the face of anti-Black hate crimes.
Even though I want to understand forgiveness, want to believe that it balms even the deepest wounds, I have to wonder, has forgiving whiteness ever set a Black soul free? In Christianity, forgiveness is supposed to follow not precede repentance. Repentance, step one. Forgiveness, two. In different ways, I have been told not to hold on to my anger — to forgive — by well meaning white friends and church going black friends. Each of them concerned for my soul. As a writer and as a Black person, I have a double consciousness for the soul. My craft tries to find it, and my people try to save it in the absence of our daily bodily autonomy. And, yes, in my life, I have been deeply forgiven in nourishing ways. And it is in this forgiveness that I have seen that my responsibility is to look not just at the injury, but too, to look at, honor, and make amends with the history of the pain.
The many ways Aunt Sarah’s house was suffocating made my head spin. From the moment the garage door opened, potpourri flushed every corner. It stained the plastic covers on her couch yellow, wrapped around my sister’s and my polyester sneakers. Potpourri drenched the bed sheets, the blankets, the stench so blaring you couldn’t sleep at night. It seeped into her porcelain Jesus and his porcelain white apostles. A pious woman, Aunt Sarah was at church morning, noon, and night. She had a fever for Jesus. On our visits, I would watch the eyes of the woman who hated me so much light up as she taught Sunday school to a room of children not much older than me who weren’t kin. In God’s house my Aunt appeared full of light and kindness, but with the quiet desperation of someone always a hair’s breadth away from salvation. I would watch her kindness spill out over the congregation before she returned home, where she stockpiled bags of scent-dipped flowers like someone anticipating the end of times, but determined to mask the smell of it.
From all my years spent with Aunt Sarah, I’ve learned that people often mistake anger for rage. Anger is wind thin; rage roots you. Where anger is the pinprick, rage is the thousand needles in your haystack. While anger makes you see red, every rage I’ve known is Black like me.
When I try to imagine the amount of rage Black people of my father’s and aunts’ generations and the generations before them have accumulated, it’s breathtaking. I can see it everywhere, even in the whites of their eyes. At family reunions, my father’s living uncles slap him on the back, wrapping their arms around his shoulders, holding him close as they laugh, retelling the same memories. My father recalls sneaking on to whites-only golf courses as a boy to play rounds with his friends, and the groundskeepers who would cock their loaded shotguns at them, pulling the trigger, over and over again. Their aim not a warning shot, their desire to hit their target deep and precise. Whenever they tell these stories my father and my great uncles belly-laugh before staring off into some abyss that is both in the distance and inside of them. “Grown men shooting at children. This is how much they hate us,” one of them inevitably says, my father and great uncles sucking their teeth like they’re trying to suck poison from a snakebite.
“We were slaves and then we were sharecroppers, which was the same brand of life under a different name,” my father says. “The white men that were our slave masters became our landlords, and they kept after the girls and the women.”
I know that along with guilt, self-loathing, anger, helplessness, shame and fear, one impact of what psychology calls “complex trauma” — trauma that occurs repeatedly and over long periods of time — is that victims sometimes mirror their abusers.* But still, I can’t stop myself from asking my father how the men of our family could see the abuse and repeat it — a new rage being born in my throat.
Wanting to know more of what my father thinks about this business of forgiving and the heritability of rage, I am prodding him for our origin stories. A visual artist, he has spent his life carefully considering his people and his surroundings, carefully insisting his daughters see context.
For the hundreds of years of slavery, the decades that followed disguised as sharecropping, on into Jim Crow, to today, the one thing that all Black people have had in common is living under the constant threat of annihilation. My father reminds me that from slavery to Jim Crow being Black in America has meant preparing Black children to expect and hold their tongue in the face of abuse and exploitation; it has meant teaching our children to ignore the absence of dignity in their lives. And it has also meant the psychological trauma of witnessing the daily humiliations and degradations of their parents’ physical, spiritual, and sexual exploitation on plantations, in sharecropping fields, and in white people’s homes.
“After slavery, our fathers and grandfathers became the slave masters of the house,” my father says so matter-of-factly it becomes the perfect snapshot of what history has unleashed in my blood. Was it watching their wives and daughters be assaulted over and over through the generations and not being able to stop it that destroyed our men? Did they so deeply internalize their helplessness that when they were freed they mimicked the only version of “master of the house” they had ever seen? Or were the men I come from simply born mean?
After slavery, in my family tree, some fathers continued this legacy of abuse, but with no one to execute it on other than their own kin. My grandmother, the oldest of thirteen children, spent her life being assaulted by men that claimed to love her, including her own father—a fact she would confess to her own son, my father, years after I’d been born. By the time her own children came along, any strength she had, she saved and summoned for them, leaving her own self to the wolves she knew so well. I have no framework for understanding how the women I come from survived inside the heart of the unimaginable. Which, I suppose is exactly what they wanted. For their children and their grandchildren to live as actual children, to live untouched. Were my grandmother still alive, she would find a glimmer of God, a solace in the fact that I can’t imagine the horrors of her life.
“Because you couldn’t stop or punish the slave master for anything, we talked about and performed forgiveness,” my father says, speaking from the hole his pain has gutted in him. “We performed forgiveness without naming, repentance, or justice for so long that we ended up repeating the slave master’s crimes in our own family.” He says “we” as though we’re still there, trapped in the wrong century. “Eventually, you have generation after generation who grow up watching Black girls and women get raped by white men, including their white fathers,” mine says, reminding me of the lightness of my skin.
My father reminds me that even if a child escapes incest and rape, it is simply enough to be surrounded by it, says that history teaches that being assaulted is simply the lot for Black girls and women. My father warns: rage, it can be inherited.
Aunt Sarah relished the Black Auntie’s leeway in wringing your arm from its socket, and though, beyond that, she never laid a hand on me, when I think of her rage, I imagine it man-shaped. A whip in hand. The winding up. The snap down. Snap, snap. Again, again. The exhaustion from the beating given, welcomed, waited for. I don’t know how else to describe it, but the way Aunt Sarah hated me cleaned her. The older I get, the more often I wonder, had she the freedom to hit me, if it might have healed something deep within her. When I share this thought with a friend over text, she simply says, “No, it wouldn’t have.” When I tell my therapist, she looks at me like I’m the saddest thought in the world. That nothing could have taken away my Aunt’s pain, not even my own, injures me like a blade. A rage like Aunt Sarah’s, do only Black people have?
Oddly, Aunt Sarah happened to be married to the sweetest man I’ve ever known outside of my father. Uncle Rodge’s skin was dark and thick like leather. The kind of man who would laugh from his belly and let us tug at his bristled face. His laugh was something you could swim through, a laugh that connected the dots. And even though we weren’t related by blood, we had the same pinky toes. My uncle could sense my persistent shyness, and the fear and isolation laced through my Aunt’s and my dynamic. Uncle Rodge stayed in his lane, but he always made it clear that he loved me deeply, much to my Aunt’s chagrin. That he lived in that house with Aunt Sarah every day truly baffled me. That a kind man could love a cruel woman made me pay attention. One Easter visit, when I was still young enough to practice keeping my lettering balanced between a paper’s ruled lines, I bounded into my uncle’s arms upon arrival. A big man, when we were kids Uncle Rodge loved to pick us up and twirl us in the air before bouncing us on his lap. When my parents left, I remember the shape of my Aunt’s words, then her fingers yanking me off his lap like a mother snatching her child from an aisle full of toys she’s angry she can’t afford. As an adult, I’ve often returned to this incident. The dirtiness that stayed with me for so long after. It occurs to me that beyond fear, both her own and mine, Aunt Sarah bequeathed me her shame.
Perhaps Aunt Sarah truly could not control herself and the accusations in her eyes, but there she was, eyes snatching my child body, as I giddly laughed on Uncle Rodge’s lap. Her face accusing me of some dark seduction. Or was it that the hurt hidden in her had activated, crawled out to save me. Her lost girlhood, warning me the best it could, “Never sit on your uncle’s lap,” even if that uncle happened to be her husband. But I do know, even though I was far too young to name it, that what I felt was shame and the shame had everything to do with my body and what it might possibly incite in a grown man. “Didn’t I know better?” her face seemed to say. After that, I knew exactly what Aunt Sarah meant when she told her church friends, “This one doesn’t know how to be a lady.”
As an adult, I think of these moment with increasing frequency. My aunt is old, my uncle long dead, and her mind slipping so much I fear she might not have enough of it left to remember the things my uncle loved about her. This moment on my uncle’s lap often plays in a loop in my head. Without meaning to, I am trying to bring my forgiveness home. My aunt who snatched me from my uncle’s lap because as a girl, for her, a grown man leaking from your bedroom always followed. My aunt, who would never have children of her own. Some holidays when my father and I are together, he hangs his head weepily at the distance I still keep from his dying sister. And sometimes he tries to apologize for the cold Easters he delivered me to by saying, “Your sister just looked so much like your Aunt Sarah.” And I wonder if, perhaps, this means I might look too much like a man who harmed her deeply. Or maybe my father is wrong completely. Did I remind Aunt Sarah of herself? And in doing so was I a constant reminder of a deep shame?
As an adult, I’ve often returned to this incident. The dirtiness that stayed with me for so long after. It occurs to me that beyond fear, both her own and mine, Aunt Sarah bequeathed me her shame.
Nothing can ever truly explain the ways we are broken into or the ways our wounds convince us only another sharp edge will leave us clean. But the story of me and my Aunt Sarah is now a shame my father carries. I hear it in his voice, his embarrassment that he can come up with neither an explanation nor a solution. What shame tugs at him most, I sometimes wonder? That he could not protect his child, or that the injurer was his sister? And now, I wear the shame of my father’s shame, of being the one to lift the veil off of his sister.
By sixth grade I couldn’t take it anymore. I wore a grown woman’s anxiety that I still lingers to this day. At some point Aunt Sarah had convinced me that I had earned her shapeless contempt. Surely, there was an evil in me. I was 11 and beginning to be aware of my body, a body I could not separate from Aunt Sarah’s cutting look as she yanked me from Uncle Rodge’s lap. My anxieties were compounding like pennies in a jar. Every time I heard Aunt Sarah’s name another coin inside of me dropped.
Because I could not give my rage for Aunt Sarah directly to her, as the years passed, I would deliver my rage both inwardly toward myself and outwardly, unleashing it like a broken and cornered animal upon my family. A shy, sensitive child, my sensitivities grew their own insecurities and their own temper. Even though Aunt Sarah’s treatment of me was my secret, the words I never told, I thought, didn’t my parents’ have eyes? My big sister, who witnessed virtually every verbal and emotional lashing, was vividly loved and adored by Aunt Sarah. I felt like the only victim in a category 5 storm, my sister watching from the edges, never calling for help. Never calling my name. Outside of Aunt Sarah’s house, I became the quiet of the storm’s eye, my anger a danger perpetually looming inside me. I would rage and rage and rage. And like Aunt Sarah’s, my rage would be specific to the wrong people in our family. Like my Aunt Sarah’s, my rage would be my only agency, and it would have a hair-trigger.
At 14, it was a family reunion that took me to my father’s birthplace for the first time, where inevitably, the talk would always circle back to my great grandfather, who, even in death ran the family. A hundred or so Geters, Phillipses, and Simons, spread across five generations. Collards, hamhocks, cornbread, and not a drop of liquor for any man to find. (In my family, we don’t have booze at family reunions because so many of the men have been recovering alcoholics, and historically when our men drank our women paid the price with their bodies or their children.) I’d eavesdrop, listening to see who could tell the meanest Gus Phillips story. When the reunion programs started, the relative in charge of the reunion committee would begin the family tradition of going through a roll call of who we sprung from. At every family reunion I’ve been to, it happens this way. When the program arrives at Gus Phillips, they always say something like, “He was mean but he brought us here and being family means we love him.” Upon hearing this, did the other wolves of our family relax their shoulders knowing they too would be protected this way?
As a child, I did not know that my middle name, Augustus, was the heirloom passed down from a monster of a broken man. That though I might have been named after my grandmother, Gussie Mae, my grandmother was named after the father who raped her. I did not know I was sitting in rooms where women fetched plates for their abusers. I did not know I came from daughters who were taught not to flinch. Was it easier to make forgiveness the story of Gus Phillips than assess the damage he’d done?
March of sixth grade, a week before Easter break, one evening my sister and I congregated in my parents’ bedroom. The two of us leaning against their waterbed, still in our plaid polyester uniforms, intoxicated with the mania of children who have their parents’ full attention. When finally my sister and I had grown tongue-tired from recalling our days, our parents told us we’d be leaving the following weekend to be dropped off in Dayton.
The moment I heard the words “Easter” and “Dayton,” I burst into tears. Wild tears. Wails the length of sirens. My parents stared, truly dumbfounded. I managed to sneak out, “She hates me,” before throwing my head into their mattress, the waves of the waterbed rocking my shame and tears out of me. My sister stared at the pennies in her loafers, before looking up and saying, “Yeah, she really does. Aunt Sarah, is really mean to her,” my sister said, “and I don’t know why,” the truth spilling like caramel from chocolate eggs. Though, I felt too old for this type of tears, I folded into it like I had seen women at church do when after trying so long to catch the spirit, they finally had him in their hands.
The details of what happened after are fuzzy. We were in bed shortly after. The weekend came and went and no luggage was packed in our Caravan. Even though, after my confession my parents would never speak of it again, my sister and I would never get dropped off at Aunt Sarah’s. We still made family trips there, and sure enough, Aunt Sarah still hated me, maybe even more now, but my parents would never again leave me alone with her. And just like that, my parents continued the family tradition of forgiving without naming or apology.
I think this is how shame works, in that it makes everyone else’s stories about you the only ones you believe and know how to tell. After years of holding my breath in Dayton, years spent listening to her whisper admonishments, building my fear with never fulfilled threats, I suspected Aunt Sarah was right about whatever evil she saw in me. As children, it had been ingrained in us that family was everything, and I had done thing girls in my family never do. I told — told my father that the woman who’d protected him from monsters, was mine.
I will never know what it was that made Aunt Sarah resent me so much, or what kind of ghosts make a grown woman psychologically target or emotionally assault a child. Even though my time with her still sometimes spins my head, I try to imagine not the woman whose eyes wailed in the basement over spilt cards, but the woman fierce and willing to rip my arm from my socket in an effort to save me. Even if I was the wrong girl, my Uncle the wrong man.
As proof that Aunt Sarah loves me, my father likes to tell the story of when we first moved to America from Nigeria. I was 3, my sister 6, my father taking his wife and children to the New World. We arrived, no work. My father sent my mother, and sister, and me to Dayton, the plan for us to stay with my grandmother and her third no-good husband, my father’s stepfather Henry. My father says the moment my aunts found out, my Aunt Sarah drove over, and because the wolf was already in the house, she waited outside her mother’s door for us to arrive. According to my father, my aunt looked at my mother and said, “No one is sleeping here.” This is how my father found out that beyond the physical and emotional beatings he’d received from Henry growing up, his stepfather was constantly trying to rape my aunts, who fled their mother’s house the first moment they were able — that when the women in my family leave it’s because they are trying to outrun a man. That they build their lives while under constant attack. At 73, when my father tells this story, he is still able to slip, so easily, into the fears of his past. Though, he never actually says, “See, Aunt Sarah, loves you.” Like many Black folks of his generation, he believes stories can be proof enough.
I think often about the families of Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. Daniel Simmons, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson, all of whom were murdered by 22-year-old Dylann Roof. I think about how, Roof, being one cultural product of America, became exactly the person he was supposed to be: our slave master’s legacy. It is not lost on me that while the victims’ families stood there offering forgiveness to Roof, they stood in an American courtroom, a place that continues to be merciless and unforgiving toward the lives and futures of our living Black daughters and sons.
Knowing the little I do of Aunt Sarah’s history, it’s almost unbearable to imagine all the times she must have had to be docile and compliant in the face of vicious authority, whether it was whiteness, or another man. Her life about suppressing anger, her god insisting on forgiveness.
More and more, I am coming to understand my Aunt Sarah as a child ruined by the specific nature of Black poverty and the Alabama south, the threat of men’s unrelenting hands, and a turn-the-other-cheek-forgiveness-without-repentance religious philosophy. I am old enough to understand the number of times my aunt must have had to stand in a room laughing at the jokes of her mother’s rapists. I can see my great grandfather as the man too many women in my family had in common.
The older I get, the more removed I am from those Easter vacations and the more my rage towards Aunt Sarah extinguishes, but how clearly I can see the rope of rage that leads from my enslaved ancestors, to my great grandfather to my Aunt Sarah to me.
I do not know what it does to a child to be raised in a house of intimate violence, a world almost singularly defined by women who will never have the resources to protect themselves or their children, but knowing my Aunt Sarah, I can see one version of the woman that child becomes.
The other day my father called me, more scared than he’s ever been. He’d just gotten off the phone with my aunt, her mind slipping so hard it’s almost left her body. “I know it’s Friday night and you’re busy,” he says, his voice revealing his desperation to talk to someone. “I just got off the phone with your Aunt Sarah. She isn’t making any sense. She keeps talking in a high-pitched baby voice. It creeped me out,” he says imitating her voice in a way that makes my skin crawl, the strangeness of my father using the phrase creeped out.
“What is she saying?” I have to ask repeatedly, my voice grabbing him by the shoulders through the phone line.
“It was nonsense. Talking about men breaking in. It’s so strange, talking in this baby voice, talking about men trying to get her. Either that or she’s telling your cousin Reggie — you know he’s checking on her — that she’s going to marry him and have a baby. Next thing I know she’s talking about how she’s going to marry your 7-year-old nephew! It’s nonsense,” he says as though he truly believes he can outrun this heartbreak. “She’s doing this more and more, you know. Her mind slipping like this. Either it’s men trying to get at her or she’s asking about you. She’s always asking about you. Hafizah this, Hafizah that. That’s that guilt coming up, because she knows what she’s done.”
Aunt Sarah is reliving her trauma.
When I say this to my father, he takes what sounds like the longest pause of his life.
Of course, Aunt Sarah’s cruelty does not equal the assault of white supremacy, but her pain is historical. Its origin story is in the centuries of internalized pain of Black people in a sharply white world. As an adult, I’ve found my love for my aunt inside the context of her life. Her Black, Black life. Ringing in my ears, I hear all the hurt she has been forced to endure and forgive. Beyond that, if I leave my eyes open through the beatings, the whiskey, the incest, the rape, the seething anger, I can see, in my blood, a line of Black men roaming the cotton-king south, their heads sweeping the floor because its lethal to look whiteness in the eye. I can see their humiliations stacked higher than the little money the world allow them to accumulate in their pockets. I see them bringing this humiliation home until they had all but conjured up the “rage of the perpetrator, whose victims they came to be.**
No, we should not abandon the work of forgiveness, but I do believe we should honor our forgiveness by raising the price on it. I do not want to live with a hard heart, but I do want limits on turning the other cheek. I want us to stop offering our injurers unconditional salvation and offer that to our children and ourselves instead. I want us to unmangle what religious white supremacy has done to our sense of justice and self-worth.
No, we should not abandon the work of forgiveness, but I do believe we should honor our forgiveness by raising the price on it.
One of the numerous traumas of slavery was having to seek in oneself the daily forgiveness and graciousness my enslaved ancestors were expected to grant their captors. It is inhumane to dispossess an entire group of people of their rage, and certainly the performance of forgiveness is one way Black people have been dispossessed of it.
A true exchange of forgiveness and repentance requires that the offender and the offended agree on the sin. Until then, I want us to be fueled by our rage at the injustices we suffer, to remind each other that we can hold onto our anger without being destroyed by it. That surely a people strong enough to survive centuries of slavery are strong enough to be angry at our oppressors and keep our souls intact. I want us to make white salvation whiteness’ responsibility. I want us to stop forgiving institutions that can’t rise to the challenge of repentance and reparations. I want us to exit this theatre of forgiveness — to forget everything white supremacy has taught us about it.
What is the legacy of slavery in my family? Is it enslaved men born too powerless to protect themselves, their wives, their children? Is it powerlessness that destroys us? Was it powerlessness that tangled itself inside my male ancestors until it looked like a woman’s fault? Was it powerlessness that convinced the women of my family it didn’t matter if they were on their master’s plantation, in their landlord’s sharecropping fields, or freed and asleep in their father’s house, that being raped was both a woman’s lot and family heirloom?
I want to travel back in time to my all of my father’s fathers, from enslaved to freed men, beg them not to make our women wear their pain. I want to travel back in time to each of the women in my family’s youths, grab them by the shoulders, look them in the eyes, and tell them that their bodies are theirs. Their lives are theirs.
And if I cannot find them before the ruin, I want to meet them squarely after it. To tell them to hold on to their anger, to let their rage draw their line, but to have that line be drawn in the appropriate direction.
I want to tell my Aunt Sarah I’m sorry that her rage was swallowed instead of heard — and though I did not deserve her vitriol, my Aunt’s pain deserved a proper container. I want to tell her, freshly out of one of her episodes, that she did not make an angry woman out of me, that I am finally becoming a woman who draws unerasable lines. That I am beginning to understand there is a limit on how much forgiveness should cost me and the direction my anger should go.
Who would my Aunt Sarah be if her rage had been honored?
Two years after the fact, I arrive at the doors of Emmanuel AME. Its white façade stretches high as a woman yawning, stretches long like legs in early morning. It is a blue day for the sky. Were there clouds, I imagine the white steeple of the church bleeding indistinguishably into the heavens. The church is different than I expected, but still familiar in that way all Black churches are to anyone who’s ever spent time under their blessings. It takes three pushes at three doors before I find my way inside. Immediately, in the foyer of the church two Black women sit in shadows, their faces lined like rings of a tree. Dressed in black, my abrupt entrance does not startle them. They are women immune to surprise. Looking ahead, beyond the pews, the stained glass, the ornateness of God, I see the half-moon of a Black man’s body peaking from a casket.
God help me, I am the third to arrive at a stranger’s wake.
I have not been in the room with someone deceased since the 15 years before, when I buried my mother in Muslim ground. The suddenness snatches my breath and I pray they cannot see the whites of my eyes growing big enough to illuminate their private shadows. Though the women do not flinch at my presence, sure as they feel history in every footstep, they know why I am here.
Even though South Carolina has long been a kind of home for me, I cannot help but feel guilty for needing to see this, for needing to stand in this moment. This place where, now, everything that could have possibly happened, has happened. Though Black women are deceptive agers, I know these women have arrived on the other side of 90. I want to ask them, who have they forgiven and what did it cost them? And now that they’ve arrived so close to the other side that they can peer in, does forgiving the unrepentant get us anywhere?
Behind them, in the shadows, I can practically see my Aunt Sarah standing in the pews — neither of us knowing she will be dead in just one year. But in this moment, I know, were she here, she would pray for this stranger’s afterlife so earnestly it would come out in song.
And here is Aunt Sarah again, leaning against my mind’s eye, her dusty Buick behind her, waiting for my young mother to arrive with my sister and me at each hip. Aunt Sarah is listening for the huff and puff of her step-father blowing her mother’s house down from the inside. I see can Aunt Sarah patiently waiting to save us from a danger so great we will never be able to adequately thank her. Aunt Sarah creating for us what she never had: our very own narrow escape. And I see her, all those years later, watching me on my Uncle’s lap. I think of how, despite all the damage and hurt that had claimed their lives, my father’s and aunts’ generations fought for their lives and the future of our family with their teeth bared. How my aunt, even if she had to wear her rage like a sandbag around her neck, even if she would fail me in so many ways to come, was determined to stop the beatings, the molestations, the rape. My father says, in our family, the job of every generation is to take the whole lot further. Perhaps my generation’s task is not to put our rage away, but see it in context, to honor it, and in doing so, point our rage in the right direction.
Rushing back outside the doors of Emmanuel AME, my eyes search for air. I imagine all the Black souls that have entered quivering like cotton from the fields for hundreds of years, their rage coded in a slave’s song for freedom, a hum so low and strong it would cling to generations, so that when my Aunt Sarah opened her mouth in song, not even she could stop herself from singing its beautiful, rageful, freedom melody back to me. The song of our inheritance whispering in every note she sang, “Go, child, go get free.” I think of her cruelty. I sing my forgiveness back.
*Slavery And The Intergenerational Transmission Of Trauma In Inner City African American Male Youth: A Model Program — From The Cotton Fields To The Concrete Jungle, by Jennifer Mullan-Gonzalez
Born in Zaria, Nigeria, Hafizah Geter‘s poetry and prose have appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, McSweeney’s and Longreads, among others. She is an editor and author of the poetry collection Un-American from Wesleyan University Press.
Editor: Sari Botton