Remembering 2015: Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, Doctors Without Borders, Freddie Gray, PBS on Race, and Ta-Nehisi Coates

It’s hard to summarize a year. Obviously, each calendar year carries its own joys and burdens, sadnesses and hopes. Still, there is a desire to look back. For me, the desire is not to summarize. It’s a look back. A pondering. Mostly, I wonder what I learned in 2015. I want to focus this reflection on five “events” from 2015. They aren’t all events exactly, but they provided moments of learning, for me. They mattered to me during 2015.

They include the Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, the bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, a survey on PBS indicating the poor state of race relations in America, and the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant memoir, Between The World and Me.

On June 17, 2015, a shooter murdered 9 people in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This violence stunned me. A mass killing in a church. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been stunned — our country is known for mass killings. But this– in a church, a very historic Black church, nearly caused me to despair. Mother Emanuel, as the church is sometimes called, was founded in 1816. It is the oldest AME church in the South. One of its founders was Denmark Vesey. Its very name, Emanuel, is often translated as “God-with-us.” A young man, obviously troubled and broken, entered the church during a prayer meeting and when it ended, he murdered 9 people: Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Showanda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson.

This violence shocked me. Its location, the number of victims, it all shocked me. This violence made me realize, in a deeper way than before, that we are all responsible for the state of race relations in America. We have to confront our own attitudes. To be honest, we have to confront the attitudes of those around us. Complacency is now violence. This is what happens when we raise young people with hatred– or when we let them bounce aimlessly through life. This violence has settled in me and, I hope, will give birth to some new efforts to understand my role in my own country– especially as a poet and teacher. How can I urge deeper reflection among my own students? How can I stand beside them more compassionately when they see the world breaking before them? How can I assist them better in their growth as honest and kind citizens?

On October 3, 2015, the United States bombed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, Afghanistan. In this bombing, 23 people died, all civilians, several were doctors, 3 were children, nearly 40 more were wounded.  There are still investigations pending but the U.S. military has apologized saying it was an error in communications. Regardless of what actually caused this bombing, I have once more, to deal with the truth of my own country’s incompetence and savagery overseas. The U.S. has supported dictators and tyrants in many places over many centuries. But this is a personal and human sadness which will affect many people for decades to come. We– and the we is honest and hard to admit– bombed a hospital. Even during the bombing, the U.S. military was called and told they were bombing a hospital. The bombing continued. Every American, including me, has responsibility for this. We are all complicit.

On April 12, 2015, Freddie Gray was arrested in Baltimore, Maryland and placed in a police van. He was handcuffed but not put in a seat belt. On April 19, 2015, he died of spinal cord injuries. His death resulted in three days of unrest and fires in Baltimore. While the police officers will face trial, it will be hard to ever know exactly what happened to Freddie Gray. But the end of his life came– as it often does for African-American men at the hands of police. Once again, we must confront the ways our police departments work across the country, especially in communities of color. We must face our own lives of privilege and find ways to reject those privileges. We must radically re-think policing in America. Surely it’s time to consider disarming our police. It’s to consider re-training them with more social work and conflict-resolution skills.

On September 21, 2015, PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, posted a report on race relations in America.  This report concluded what everyone knew but few were saying aloud. Race relations are not better in America. A common white/institutional response to questions about race in America is a plea to look at the progress. The “We’re doing so much better” response. This report proved that response wrong. In their research, PBS discovered that 60% of whites think race relations are worse than they were one year ago. 56% of Black people think race relations are worse. The report dug into several important areas of American life, including employment. When asked if “African Americans and whites have the same opportunity in getting a job,” 52% of whites said yes– 76% of Blacks said no. This report makes plain that we see the world around us very differently– depending on race.

On July 14, 2015, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir, Between The World and Me was published. This book is important. I wrote a blog post about it on July 27, 2015, titled Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between The World and Me – Honesty and Struggle. This book takes the form of a letter written from Coates to his 15 year-old son. He reflects on the crushing power of racism in the world his son will have to grow up in and negotiate. For me, this book still offers many ideas on which to reflect. Coates discusses the falsehood of race distinctions– referring to white people as “People who believe they are white…” Even the honesty of this wording disarms me. Coates offers plain talk here. It’s honest and sad.

I find Coates’ book– the only moment of hope in a difficult year. In some ways, Between The World and Me provides a kind of backdrop for the year. So much violence, so much separation, so much ignorance of others. We cling to our own, what we know, what we think we know. In that clinging, we miss so many chances to see others, to know others’ suffering, to love others.

My hope, and I am almost always hopeful, is that we can learn something from these dreadful events of 2015. I wonder if we will. I hope I will.

Photo Credit: Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, 6/23/2015.

Published by josephrossnet

Poet & Teacher. Author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020) Ache (2017) Gospel of Dust (2013) Meeting Bone Man (2012)

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