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Life During Wartime

The first anniversary of the Charleston shooting and the unfulfilled promise of Juneteenth

Last year, on June 16, the Golden State Warriors won an NBA title. The Warriors' bravura season, capped with the franchise's first championship in 40 years, was as unexpected as they come. Many fans and analysts thought the team could be a play-off nuisance, but few thought the Warriors could contend for a championship, let alone actually win one. I watched their last game of the season in an Oakland sports bar, surrounded by lifelong fans who lived and died with every fateful shot.

This is a trivial way of beginning an essay about surviving black death. But I have learned that the trivial can become a refuge and a solace — that the mundane can be the sacred.

I love basketball because it's aesthetically pleasing, but also because it provides me with a place to experience the range of human emotion — joy and anger and sadness and fear — without being reminded of real life, of the seriousness of struggle. And watching basketball, played by black people who are free and joyful, unconstrained and carefree, is an escape from a world in which we are rarely allowed to be any of these things for long. During the past two years, which have been marked for me by repeated killings of black people at the hands of the state, I've watched more basketball than I ever have in my life.

Last summer, the day after the Warriors won the title, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, held a Bible study in the basement. Emanuel AME is extraordinary even among the constellation of storied black churches that dot the South. It’s the oldest church of the first independent black denomination in the United States. It was cofounded by a former slave, Denmark Vesey, and was a staging ground of black resistance from its establishment in 1816 through every phase of the black struggle for freedom, from antebellum slave revolts through Black Lives Matter.

A church's common room — often located in the basement, as it was in Emanuel AME — is in its way as sacred as the sanctuary itself. It is the holiness of the everyday, rather than the sanctity of the consecrated. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus summarized the heart of what would later become Christianity in two commandments: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind," and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." If a church’s sanctuary is dedicated to the first commandment, then the common room is dedicated to the second.

The Bible's definition of "neighbor" is a generous and expansive one. Your neighbor is not just your friend, or just those you share a community with, but also the strangers who come across your path. So the common room must be a generous and expansive place, and in the black church, it is especially so. It's the site of youth group meetings, potlucks, receptions for weddings and funerals, soup kitchens, scout groups, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and community organizing. It is a place to love friend and outsider alike.

So Emanuel AME welcomed in a white kid with sandy blond hair into that place, because that is what Christians are commanded to do. He sat next to Pastor Clementa Pinckney through the hour-long Bible study, waited until everyone had closed their eyes in prayer, then pulled out a handgun and opened fire. When he was done shooting, he asked a woman hiding on the floor whether any of his bullets had found their mark in her body. When Felicia Sanders answered no, he told her that he was leaving her alive to tell the story of what had happened there.

I learned this story, as I have every recent story of black men and women murdered, on Twitter. These deaths have happened enough times now that I have a variety of habitual coping mechanisms I use to keep myself from becoming overwhelmed. I try to make sure I don't overdose on each breaking detail. I try to keep my thoughts and spirit buoyed, usually by immersing myself in some kind of absorbing distraction — watching TV, tracking down art online, making mixtapes. That night last June, I alternated between watching the whimsical BBC adaptation of the Victorian fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and trying, unsuccessfully, to sleep.

Eventually, though, I ran out of episodes to watch and checked the news again. After a lifetime of bearing witness to the destruction of black flesh, a litany of names and a parade of bodies — perforated and crumpled, strangled and still, I thought I had long since numbed myself to the death of my kin. Until that moment, I did not know there was anything whole left in me to break, but there was, and it broke. I cried — huge, chest-heaving sobs — until I had no more strength and fell asleep.

Two days after the Emanuel AME murders marked the 150th anniversary of the day slavery was abolished in Texas, ending its legal practice in the United States. Over the years, June 19 has become the date on which black people celebrate freedom. We call it Juneteenth. That Juneteenth, I went to the Warriors' victory parade in Oakland, glad to have basketball to distract me, if only for a moment, from the fact that we are still not quite free. Freedom without safety is no freedom at all, as America has been teaching black people living within its borders for the past 400 years.

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It's often the case with vicious crimes that not understanding what motivated them makes them even even more horrifying. But what is so awful about Dylann Roof's mass murder is precisely the fact that his reasoning was neither inscrutable nor unfathomable. To anyone who knows this country's character, it should be familiar.

"Niggers are stupid and violent," Roof wrote on his website. This is perhaps the purest and most concise expression of American anti-black racism I've ever read, shorn of woolly obfuscations of science and sociology. "Niggers are stupid and violent" is a fundamental axiom in this country, and its implications shape the American landscape. From this ground sprung the misery of slavery and the brutal repression which followed; housing discrimination and the white flight that followed when it failed; formal school segregation and the informal resegregation that followed when that failed; the philosophy of heavily punishing minor offenses and lightly investigating major crimes that fuels the twin machines of police brutality and mass incarceration — from this rotten ground sprung Roof and his lynchings.

Roof understood that lynching — here I refer to the practice of extrajudicial execution, which in this country is almost always enacted upon black people — is a symbolic form of killing. Unlike killings done on battlefields, in self-defense, or in passion, the lynching is primarily a means of communicating a message. This is why Roof intentionally left someone alive to spread the story. This is the same reason lynch mobs were infamously indifferent as to whether the people they tortured and killed were actually guilty, and the reason that lynchings were often done as publicly as possible. By choosing a location that was both a place of safety and a site of black resistance, Roof was reminding black people that they are under permanent threat, that their bodies are forfeit and their lives ransomed. He was trying to deliver a message of death, inevitable and imminent.

Federal prosecutors have announced that they intend to seek the death penalty for Roof, who surely does not deserve to live. Whether that means that we should kill him, though, is another question.

An execution, whether performed by the state or extralegally, whether the condemned is guilty or not, is another kind of symbolic killing. I'm not attempting to create some kind of false equivalency between Roof and the people he killed, or between Roof and those who believe that his death would be justice. I say this to mean that to execute him would be to attempt to send a message that life is sacred. The problem is that human hands cannot twist death into a symbol of life. Death can only speak death, and nothing else. This is why the cross is such a powerful mystery in Christianity, because for Christians it is the only time an execution was transformed into a symbol of life. It is not for us to do.

What is for us to do, one year on from Charleston? I spent most of Sunday afternoon, June 19, thinking about this question. I realized, eventually, that Juneteenth itself was the answer.

Juneteenth is the closest thing that black Americans have to an independence day, and so it is appropriately bittersweet that the holiday is about the gap between when freedom was declared and when freedom was realized. This is the black experience in America. The national anthem of black America, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and "We Shall Overcome," the "God Bless America" to its "Star-Spangled Banner," are both about that same gap, between the promise and the realization of the promise. What is left for us to do is simple: to endure and live, and wherever we can, to try to pull that gap closed, come what may. That was the work of Emanuel AME, and that is my work.

And so on Sunday, I watched another NBA championship final, watched the Warriors lose and the Cavaliers win, and was grateful, again, for the chance to breathe free. I took a walk. And I got back to work.