by Linda Rodriguez
Friday saw Dylann Roof, who in 2015 murdered nine innocent people at a church prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, sentenced to death. This brings back the horror of that event and so many since.
It ties into a current situation where two teen brothers from the Mohawk Nation (Haudenosaunee) were pulled from a college tour by police, warned to keep their hands in sight, searched (probably illegally), and questioned because a white woman on the tour called the police, saying they were “too quiet,” “creepy,” she “knew” they were lying, and they made her “feel sick.” The police uniform-cam video shows how tense this confrontation was and how frightened the teens were, fearing they'd be shot for a false move—as has happened so many times recently. The tie-in between these two events is the irrational fear and hatred of the Other, as well as genuine ignorance about anyone other than “their own kind,” to quote West Side Story.
I've been trying to move past anger, thinking and thinking and trying to come at this whole situation and the vast rise in hate crimes, and now, above all again, the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston from a place of love and understanding and a sense of optimism I've had to struggle mightily to maintain. This is what I've come up with.
I’d like to focus on the nine people whose lives were cut short in Mother Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015. I think it's too easy for us to forget them, especially since there have been so many others killed in the ensuing years. I fear that they all start to blend together, and I refuse to let that happen. I’ve linked to an article about the nine citizens whose lives were cut short at historic Mother Emmanuel Church here.
I didn’t know any of these people personally. I live half a continent away from them. But I feel as if I do know them when I read about them—their hard work, their devotion to family, their community leadership, and especially their devout Christianity—because they sound just like my neighbors and friends. I’ve owned a a home and lived in a predominantly African American neighborhood in one of America’s most racially segregated cities for over 40 years (and yes, it was already almost entirely black when I moved in). These are the African American people I know, the ones I never see in books or on television or in the movies, the ones who sometimes work several jobs so they can send their kids to a good private school since our urban public schools have become a disaster, the ones who are teachers and librarians and nurses and bankers and managers and supervisors, the ones who go to work during the week and to church on Sunday (and often Wednesday night prayer group or university night classes) without fail, day after day, week after week.
I have seen the long double rows of black men standing up before a packed congregation to pledge themselves to mentor and help all the young boys of the area, not just their own. These are the men who coached my kids’ Little League teams and helped dig out our car when it slid into a snow-filled ditch. These are the men I pass mowing their lawns and trimming their bushes and, sometimes, playing their musical instruments on their lawns, always giving me a polite, friendly greeting and wave. These are the men I never see on the media with its focus on the idea of the African American man as scary, violent criminal.
These are the women I’ve had coffee with and traded recipes with and joked with about our men and worried with about our kids. These are the women who bring casseroles and pies when someone’s sick or someone’s died. These are the women who work in the church food pantry, serving white and black families alike. These are the women who are professionals out in a world that constantly disrespects them as African Americans and disrespects them as women, and these women still carry themselves with dignity and pride through all of it.
I’ve been to AME churches and other black churches quite a bit in my life, and I’ve always been made welcome in the warmest, most loving, and truly Christian way. My heart breaks every time I read that the murderer said he almost couldn’t go through with it because the people he killed were so nice to him. I know those people. I’ve lived with those people for over 40 years.
And what I want to say is not to the white supremacists and vicious racists out there—because they’re mostly not going to change—but to the news media and the writers and filmmakers and television show producers and directors. Why aren’t you showing us these people? Why can’t I ever see wonderful people like these nine beautiful human beings and my neighbors in any of your productions? Why do you persist in showing only a negative minority of the African American population over and over, so that all the white people who live in all-white suburbs and work in all-white workplaces think your stereotypes are what African American people are and all they are?
And to my white friends I say, don’t let them do this any longer. Demand to see the reality of African American life, which is full of humor and music and parties and laughter and love, as well as all the other stuff of all lives. They do this to Natives. They do this to Latinos. They do this to everyone “different.” So that those white people (an unfortunately ever-larger number) who live carefully segregated, all-white lives only know these negative stereotypes about people from other cultures than their own. Don’t let them do this any longer. More than anything else, more even than the disgusting hate speech, this eternal lopsided presentation is what feeds the ugly racism that underlies America. Demand that it stop.
As writers and readers, we have the power to change this terrible racist rot at the heart of our society. We simply have to muster the courage to insist on truthful, varied portrayals of real human beings, the courage to reach outside of segregated suburbs to learn about people who are not just like us, the courage to call out false, bigoted remarks and portrayals when we encounter them. Let us be part of the solution and no longer part of the problem, actively or passively. Let us bring our society closer to the ideals we claim for it.
Writers shape the way our nation sees the world. Let us shape that perspective with truth and empathy.
Linda Rodriguez's Dark Sister: Poems has just been released. Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, based on her popular workshop, and The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, an anthology she co-edited, were published to high praise in 2017. Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery novel featuring Cherokee campus police chief, Skeet Bannion, and Revising the Character-Driven Novel will be published in 2019. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, and Every Last Secret—and her books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart's Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in the anthology, Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.
Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International Thriller Writers, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Visit her at http://lindarodriguezwrites.blogspot.com