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Born in Zaria, Nigeria, Hafizah Geter's poems 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 for Little A and co-curates the reading series EMPIRE in Brooklyn, NY with Ricardo Maldonado. www.hafizahgeter.com @RhetoricAndThis

Theater of Forgiveness

Illustration by Buff Ross

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?

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