I’ve been thinking daily about the massacre that occurred in a South Carolina church where a young white supremacist gunned down nine African Americans after sitting with them for an hour of Bible study. What a nightmarish event that I can barely comprehend.

This past weekend, I participated in a vigil, a gathering to remember these nine slain women and men. One of the local activists asked the participants to honor the grieving by African Americans. To “let black people do their grieving.” There was an exhaustion as well as a sadness in her voice. And I’ve been thinking about those emotional words ever since. The crowd was very diverse in terms of age, race, and gender, and there were more than a few queer persons present. It was a beautiful group brought together by such a horrific incident. But the grief and mourning was immense.

I left the gathering even more committed to talking about racism and the structural manifestations of racism that make up the status quo. As a gay man, this touched my own life recently in the form of the white privilege that invited and then defended the invitation of Iggy Azalea to be a part of Pittsburgh Pride.

But tonight I gained a glimpse at how deeply hurtful this recent mass shooting is to every African American. The devastating damage goes well beyond the families and loved ones of the nine who died in the church. Some of this is common sense. Black churches are a space of hope, love, and community. They have been organizing spaces for the black civil rights efforts of the past half century. They have been battle sites before when white supremacists have sought to spew hatred and spread terror with bombs as well as fire. But I think it goes even far deeper than that.

I’ve now heard a few times, the sentiment that our country was built upon racism, and we must, in my opinion, really grapple with what that means. The first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia in 1619. My own ancestors didn’t come to the Americas until 1623, arriving in Plymouth colony. The economy across the whole of the Americas depended greatly on slave labor, and we are kidding ourselves as Americans, if we think slavery was ‘only a southern thing,’ even if we can cite efforts in parts of the early country to be more equitable. We all have to own a history of slavery, regardless of how connected to The South we are.

Slavery itself was never widespread in the North, though many of the region’s businessmen grew rich on the slave trade and investments in southern plantations. Between 1774 and 1804, all of the northern states abolished slavery, but the so-called “peculiar institution” remained absolutely vital to the South. Though the U.S. Congress outlawed the African slave trade in 1808, the domestic trade flourished, and the slave population in the U.S. nearly tripled over the next 50 years. By 1860 it had reached nearly 4 million, with more than half living in the cotton-producing states of the South.

The South has and still inflicts immense harm on African Americans. You only have to look as far as the confederate flag flying on the grounds of the capital in Charleston, and listen to white males like Lindsey Graham explain the flag is merely a symbol of heritage.
But this is so far from any real truth. The Confederacy and Confederate flag which still flies triumphantly in far too many places, has always been a sign of hatred towards and power over those who are not white. Consider this quote by the Vice President of the Confederacy, from what is known as the Cornerstone Speech:

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.[1]

It is within this history we have to understand and see the structural and overt racism that continues in our modern world. It is against this history that people exclaim “black lives matter.” And it is within this history, it becomes easier to comprehend the pain and anguish so many are feeling as they deal with this trauma.

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