by Elliott Stonecipher
America last came together on these days of loss and self-examination just before Christmas 2012. Twenty 6- and 7-year-old children, babies really, had been massacred by the gunfire of 20-year-old Adam Lanza in Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Lanza killed six of the children’s adult educators and caregivers, too, just because he could.
This time, the killing field staring us down is an historic, almost two centuries old, black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine congregants of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, ranging in age from 26 to 87, were killed by the gunfire of white 21-year-old Dylann Roof. Another victim survived, and five others in the room were spared, at least from being shot.
The shooter of childish face and evil heart sat and participated in a Bible study with his soon-to-be victims for the better part of an hour before he started killing them. His insane rage was not easily sated. He found it necessary to reload his gun five times before he over-killed enough.
Dylann Roof has written a lot about his diseased view of the world. His website manifesto confirms his insanity and racism, or racist insanity. It is soul-shaking that he did his murdering in a church which had long welcomed those hard at work against evil.
I wrote “What Newtown Could Prove to be for America” two days after that American horror, and as I did, I realized the place seemed, in ways, foreign to me. Connecticut is a place of which, and a people of whom, I knew almost nothing. We shared America’s given connections, but very few others.
Charleston, South Carolina, is much more familiar. Distinctly southern, its population of 128,000 is just about that of my hometown’s neighbor, Bossier Parish. As in Charleston, black residents are a one-quarter minority.
The racial balance, or imbalance, of our population is known and lived by most southerners, I believe. It is the heart of what delivers Dylann Roof’s rampage to my cultural doorstep. Where it counts, I know people there, as they know me.
Here at home, our vital cultural statistics are very different than in most American places. I am among the 41% white minority in my Shreveport hometown and residence, blacks are our 55% majority, and all other races, combined, are the remaining 4%. In Louisiana, nearly one-in-three, 32%, are black. Nationally, blacks are 13% of our population.
Yes, our South is different. In our lives, race has long been a trait and fact not to be ignored, much less disrespected.
So, I was slapped by yesterday’s column in the New York Daily News by author Tim Parrish. An older than young white guy like me, now living in Connecticut, Parrish’s southern bona fides are being stressed by many who are now noting his work, if not using it for ill. He grew up in Baton Rouge, which I know well. Here is his article’s opening declaration:
“I grew up a Southern racist. I learned how to hate at home and at church. I drank from the same poisonous well as Dylann Roof.
I was raised in Baton Rouge during the 1960s and 1970s, and I believe that grappling with my own racism gives me some insight into how someone comes to loathe those of a different skin color.
Three times, Southern Baptist churches I belonged to voted not to allow in African Americans (“agitators”), despite the fact that no African Americans lived close to our church.“
Let no reader be mistaken: from this jump, Parrish’s words depict an early life with which I am totally unfamiliar.
Parrish grew up here in the 1960s and 1970s, as I did in the 1950s and 1960s. He earned two degrees from Louisiana State University, while I have one from there and another from Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, Louisiana. Those likenesses notwithstanding, in matters of race I grew up his opposite.
My race awareness kicked-in when, in 1966, my Shreveport high school, C. E. Byrd, was the first hereabouts to desegregate. That breaking of the “color barrier” was a non-event. There was no upset, and I heard no racist talk of it.
Tim Parrish also writes,
“So could Dylann Roof have been one of us? Yes. My best friend and guide in all things racist never shot anyone, but I saw him savage many young black men, throw a ninja star at a fleeing black stranger and wave his .44 Magnum with intent.”
I “grew up hard,” as such was then labeled. I saw and knew violence, but race had nothing to do with any of it. Clearly, regardless of race or just about anything else, Parrish’s “friend” was a criminal. No matter that our relative poverty brought me in ways to the edge of what breeds such a life, I did not know it, at all.
To me, what Parrish describes of his growing-up seems unbelievable.
As I think of last week’s rampage by an insane, racist young man, I think, too, of Newtown’s Adam Lanza, and Columbine High School’s Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and Aurora Theater’s James Holmes. In context, the subject is mass killings, of which there are many, many more than most of us know. A penetrating study by USA Today, “Behind the Bloodshed – The Untold Story of America’s Mass Killings,” is revealing.
In matters of race, we still have much to do. We can and should, however, note how President Obama yesterday detailed what we have thus far done:
“It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours …”
I recognize Charleston as Newtown, Columbine, Aurora and many others: places where human evil came one day and took a big part of life.
We live and list these many places, of which there can be no ranking. An elementary school full of tiny girls and boys taken as horribly as knowledge or reasoning or imagination allows. The high school of children somewhat older. A movie theater full of any and all of us. Now, last Wednesday, those in a famous place of worship in Charleston, South Carolina.
In all such matters of life, most hearts and souls know all such stories are one: Angels and demons.