Friday was an emotional typhoon. I awoke to news of hate-filled killings in France, Kuwait, and Tunisia.
Tunisia. The dismay I felt since I heard news of the Charleston killings crashed to a new low. My historian’s heart beat doom for humanity’s capacity to avoid menace acted out with ever-more elaborate weaponry upon the innocent.
History may not repeat itself, but it permutates in frighteningly familiar forms.
Nine African-Americans shot dead while at prayer remind this historian not only of the girls killed in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, but also a Pennsylvania militia’s 1782 Massacre of Lenape Indians at prayer in the Gnadenhuetten Moravian Mission. A head on a pike outside a gas plant in Lyon harkened back to those that lined London Bridge when Europe’s Reformation fueled as much religious hatred between Catholics and Protestants as among Sunnis as Shiites in parts of the Middle East today.
I feared my desolation would drain my advisees of their youthful optimism, but glimmers of hope sparkled in my existential gloom. The Supreme Court ruled that “Obamacare” would endure attack by those who side with the Ancien Régime and think health is a privilege reserved for the lucky few. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley saw fit to remove the so-called “Confederate Flag” with its legacy of racial oppression from the state capitol grounds. Amazon and Walmart followed suit with announcements that they would purge Confederate regalia from their overwhelming stock of merchandise.
I began to believe the worldview that intoxicated the Charleston shooter might at long last have its proselytizing symbols removed from view. I feared, however, that the removal of the symbolic flag would merely distract the body politic from the endemic racism and pervasive guns that respectively motivated and enabled Dylan Roof to act.
Then, I logged into Facebook as I ate a salad at my desk early Friday afternoon. A former advisee posted that he broke down weeping on the New York Subway. I dared to hope, and the posts kept coming. The Supreme Court had made good on Americans’ symbolic acceptance of same-sex marriage in popular culture from HGTV to Modern Family. Ironically, Antonin Scalia and the other “Originalists” on the Supreme Court constituted (pun intended) the dissenters unable to accept the Amicus Curiae brief signed by the Council of the American Historical Association on the “original” meanings of marriage. Nonetheless, we historians can rejoice that good history won the day.
My mood buoyed, I reminded myself of the sad task facing President Obama and those gathered to mourn in Charleston. Appropriately for a Christian memorial, I saw the last first. President Obama stood in the pulpit and instigated a rendition of Amazing Grace as smiles washed over the faces of the pastors who stood behind him. That capstone to the eulogy I later heard in full captured the possibility of love despite loss and demonstrated that how a nation grieves has the capacity to give hope.
George Washington would never have thought to eulogize the dead of Gnaddenhuetten. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. not President John Fitzgerald Kennedy eulogized the girls in Birmingham. President Obama’s presence reminded me that for all the hate and horror that persist and for all the “steps back,” sometimes love wins; and we make two steps forward in a single day. That thought can sustain me, my advisees, and all of us who struggle to improve the world in our individual increments.
Read more by
Opinions on Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading