(Content note: This article contains descriptions of anti-Black white terrorism, including a racist slur.)
When my mother was stalking me, she had a man assisting her in her efforts. Prior to me getting a restraining order against her, he called several times saying, “You need to forgive your mother.”
My mother has never admitted any brutality or abuse against me. She has never apologized or acknowledged wrongdoing, never made any amends for her spiritual, emotional, physical, sexual and financial abuse towards me. But I was the one who needed to forgive.
For many years I gave premature forgiveness to maintain the illusion of having a relationship with her. I mastered the art of the spiritual bypass. I twisted myself to conform to her abusive ways. I swallowed my fear, terror and rage with a smile, because I believed doing so would make me righteous and gain favor with God. I forgave and forgave again. It wasn’t until I let go of religion and got angry that I truly started to live. I had to stop forgiving and get mad as hell to find my own life.
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When I was working on my MFA in creative writing, I did a long form poem comparing the rendition of Muslims and Middle Eastern men by the Bush Administration to that of the lynching of Blacks. I read Ralph Ginzburg’s 100 Years of Lynching, which is a collection on newspaper articles about lynchings throughout the United States — yes, all 50 states. I also studied Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. I first became aware that lynching photographs existed when they were exhibited at the newly remodeled King Center in Atlanta, Georgia in 1999. These lynching postcards were sent by white people to their family and friends to celebrate the destruction of black male and female bodies. On the back of one card, a white person wrote, “You should have heard that nigger scream.”
I spent a lot of time with these black and white photographs. I studied the brutalized bodies of those murdered for pleasure by white hands, and read the accompanying accounts. Then my eye shifted to look at the white faces in the crowd. There were white men and women wearing their Sunday best with smiles and looks of accomplishment. I looked at the children. In one photo, a white woman holds what appears to be a two-year old white child in her arms. The mother is clearly jockeying for a place next to the body of a dead black man. The child’s face is frozen in time, mouth wide and tears running down his face. I imagined that the child was not fully aware of the horror it had just witnessed but knew something was terribly wrong. In other photos, the children were older, their expressions had changed. Those who looked to be around four or five years old, had a look of disassociation. The eldest children, had made the shift. They were laughing and smiling in triumph with their parents.
Like many Black folks, I cringed when the families of the victims of the Charleston massacre stood up, less than 24 hours after the bloodshed, and proclaimed that they forgave Dylann Roof, who murdered their loved ones. But I understood the rush to forgiveness. I can’t help but compare my relationship with my mother to that of Black folks’ relationship with white America and white supremacy. Black folks are the battered children of the relationship, and white supremacy and all those who prop it up are the abusive parents. Just like my mother, the systems of white supremacy demands forgiveness from Blacks even though white supremacists have done nothing to make amends nor have they even promised to stop their bad behavior. The abusers require submission and compliance.
Not every white person is a cop gunning down black folks. But it does seem telling that more whites expressed outrage over the death of Cecil the Lion then they did for the five Black women killed in police custody the weeks before Cecil’s death. Most of the time white cops who kill are not even charged and when they are, there are plenty of white people in the wings willing to send money for their legal defense. Go onto any social media page where these police killings of innocent Black people are discussed: apologists abound, demanding Black people and their allies stop using ‘the race card’ and forgive.
When the Civil Rights Act was passed, Dr. King said about the new legislation, “It may be true that the law can’t change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.” Blacks are suppose to deal with the daily cruelties of racism and still hold onto a forgiving heart. What is the place of forgiveness when one is attempting to live in a world that is structured and propped up by the heartless?
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Recently, I saw the film Atanarjaut: The Fast Runner. It was voted as one of the best Canadian films of all time and is set in the ancient Inuit past. In one of the last scenes the elder mother of the group, Panikpak, calls for a time of forgiveness. I actually groaned aloud in response. The people she is calling to forgive are her granddaughter, whose lies resulted in the destruction of a marriage and a murder, and her grandson, who is a rapist and who murdered two men, including his own father. But then Pankipak said, “I forgive you but you have to leave.” She banished her grandchildren for the greater good of the community. She recognized them for what they were — people who were devoid of humanity. She forgave AND there were consequences.
Sandra Bland’s mother Geneva Reed-Veal said the following in a statement about her daughter’s murder: “Once I put this baby in the ground, I’m ready. This means war.” Hers was a rallying cry for justice for her daughter. Dylann Roof said he wanted to ‘start’ a race war, but the truth is, the race war has been going on since Africans were brought to this land in chains by whites. The race war has never stopped and the systems that bolster it remain stronger than ever.
Forgiveness is a choice. I have chosen not to forgive my mother while I am still in the process of recovering from the abuse I experienced at her hands. I understand that she will never change and that she perpetuated what she learned as a child — her mother was abusive towards her and her sisters. While I am still unearthing the damage she caused, I don’t forgive her. I feel absolutely no guilt or remorse about that fact.
Panikpak chose to forgive, but her forgiveness was rooted in a clear understanding of the damage that her grandchildren had done. She recognized she was dealing with people who were devoid of empathy, and the only solution in that culture was banishment.
We can’t banish white cops or civilians who use murder as means to perpetuate white supremacy. We can’t banish the system that perpetuates their worldview. But premature forgiveness is dangerous; it is rooted in weakness and fear. Premature forgiveness, like respectability politics, hasn’t worked for Black folk. Appeasing the beast of white supremacy has not protected us.
We have the right to express our grief and pain and yes, anger and rage. We have the right to demand justice and amends whether we choose to forgive or not. This is where true strength and dignity resides.
[Headline Image: photograph of a person with brown skin and straight black hair looking somberly into the distance. Their hand is on their chin as they think. Behind them the sun can be seen streaming, though blurred, casting a glow over the scene. Source: Flickr.com/DioburtoPhotography]