#CallTheirNames: Lifting the Lives Lost in the Emanuel AME Church Massacre

by Danae Ross

Our news feeds and timelines have been inundated with articles lamenting the shooting in Charleston. Many reports emphasize the quantity of lives lost this Wednesday, without even a mere mention of the victims’ names. Their lives are barely acknowledged, while the shooter's entire existenc, both before and after the massacre, is detailed. Innumerable outlets are investing energy into analyzing—even rationalizing—his behavior, while no reference at all is allotted to the men and women of Emanuel A.M.E. They are not merely nine "people," "churchgoers," or even "African Americans.” Instead, they have become no more than a number: nine. As in 9 "dead," 9 "killed," 9 "slaughtered," 9 "shot." Nine. Period. End of story. Not only does this threaten to psychosocially sanitize these homicides by dehumanizing the men and women we lost last Wednesday, it allows the media to perpetually humanize the shooter while simultaneously pushing the victims—and us, as a community—to the back burner.

Though these men and women are the literal subjects of countless headlines, their stories have barely been told. We as a community, if not as a nation, must to shift the focus from the number of lives lost, to the actual people themselves whom we lost. We must call their names. Reducing entire lives to a mere quantity in exchange for spotlighting the shooter—a “lone” white man—essentially re-marginalizes the Black victims, their families, the #Charleston community, and our people. It re-emphasizes the assumed triviality of Black life, which was his intent, desire, and dream, after all.

But this is not about him.

And we must be careful not to corroborate with his intentions or become complacent in making this about him and his white supremacist agenda. We must be mindful, so as not to unconsciously reinforce that which we seek to dismantle. There is healing power in storytelling. And there is surely so much more to the story—their stories. It is our job to seek and to share them.

I, too, am "maladjusted to injustice" and beyond pissed. And, yes, there is a time and place for decrying such malice, such evil. But we must also make room for ourselves and our community, for our people. Before we attack him, let's at least check on our own. It's time that this became about our sisters and brothers in Charleston.

It's time this became about us.

They are more than the "nine." Their collective identity was framed intentionally; they were gathered purposefully before him. We must not allow the whole of their lives to be defined in our memories by mere seconds during which a bullet pierced their flesh, their hearts stopped beating, and they drew breath no more.

We must be the first to believe that #BlackLivesMatter more than quantified deaths and dollar signs, more than the moments in which they are lost to us. We cannot afford to regurgitate their hatred and venom at the expense of ourselves and our own well-being. We cannot forget to tend to our own open wounds again. We absolutely must heal our community because I assure you, they damn sure won't be doing it for us. We must uplift the stories and experiences of those who lost their lives—now our ancestors—and their families. We must lift them in love because if we don't, no one else will. Right now, we must pull together as a people.

Yes, without a doubt, we must unify, strategize, and act. We must demonstrate that we will not tolerate this any longer. Nevertheless, we must also know that they rightfully belong at the center, and then unapologetically place ourselves there, so as not to become implicit accomplices in external agendas. We must—by any means necessary—pray, pour libations, light candles, sing, run, meditate, dance, cook, embrace each other in their honor, send love offerings to the ministry and to the families. We are theirs and they are ours. These men and women are significant, not because of this national event, but because they were parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, husbands, wives, uncles, aunts, neighbors, prayer warriors, mentors, "songbirds," Eastern Stars, Christians. They are and will forever be if we commemorate their lives, tell their stories, amplify their voices, and #CallTheirNames.

Reverend Clementa Pinckney, 41, was a husband to his wife, Jennifer, and father of two young daughters. He was a South Carolina state senator and the Reverend of Emanuel AME Church. He was quite advanced in his leadership pursuits. Not only did he accept his first pastoral role at the age of 18, but he became the youngest member of the South Carolina State House of Representatives when he was elected at 23. Prior to being a reverend and elected official, he served as student body president and later senior class president while pursuing his undergraduate degree in business administration at Allen University. He later received a Master of Public Administration from the University of South Carolina. During his tenure as state senator, he worked tirelessly to pass a bill that would require police officers to wear body cameras in response to the murder of Walter Scott.

Cynthia Hurd, 54, was born and raised in Charleston and joined Emanuel AME at a very young age. She and her siblings grew up sitting in the church’s pews, listening to her mother sing in the choir on Sunday mornings. It was a place she knew well and loved—a second home. Hurd always possessed a passion for literature and attended local Charleston schools before graduating from Clark Atlanta University. She became a branch manager for the St. Andrews Regional Library in 2011. She was also a mentor, nurturing youth by cheering on new readers and helping high school students complete and submit college applications. She had a passion for improving educational opportunities in her community, having served the Charleston County Library System for 31 years. The branch where Hurd invested so much of her time, her life, and herself will be renamed the Cynthia Hurd Regional Library in her honor.

Known for lending her soprano voice to the church choir for more than 60 years, Susie Jackson, 87, was also a mother, grandmother, and longtime member of Emanuel AME. Jackson’s son speaks most fondly of his mother as a “loving” person. She was a community mother who, after her own son moved out, took in a couple of youth who had nowhere to go. She was also a member of the Eastern Star Light Chapter No. 360, Order of the Eastern Star. In her spare time, she enjoyed playing the slot machines and was excited about leaving for the church’s planned trip to Chicago that Sunday evening.

Jackson’s cousin, Ethel Lance, 70, was a mother of five, grandmother, and lifelong member and employee of Emanuel AME Church for over 30 years. She had recently retired from her work as a housekeeper and accepted the role of sexton at the historic church. In the words of her grandson, Jon Quil Lance: “She’s a Christian, hardworking; I could call my granny for anything. I don’t have anyone else like that. [She was] the heart of the family.”

Jackson’s great-nephew, Tywanza Sanders, 26, was also participating in the Bible study session on Wednesday at Emanuel AME. During the massacre, he jumped in front of Susie Jackson in an attempt to protect her from the bullet the murderer intended for her. Only one year ago, he had earned his business administration degree from Allen University. According to the University President, Lady June Cole, Sanders was “well-known” during his undergraduate career. She described him as “committed to his education,” and having “a warm and helpful spirit.” He was employed as a barber, but was also a poet. Sanders demonstrated race consciousness and his concern for his fellow members of the African Diasporic community through the messages he chose to publicly promote and uplift.

Even as a busy mother (of four daughters) who had just been hired as an admission counselor for Southern Wesleyan University, Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, was unwavering in her deep commitment to serving her Lord and his people. Each week, she made time to lead the Bible study classes at Emanuel AME after joining in January. Wednesday had been an exceptional hallmark in her spiritual journey. Before the class began, a special meeting was held during which Doctor became a licensed minister at the church.

Reverend Daniel Simmons Sr., 74, was a retired pastor from another church who attended Sunday services and Wednesday night Bible study each week at Emanuel AME. He died at the hospital in an operating room Wednesday night.

Myra Thompson, 59, was the wife to Reverend Anthony Thompson, the vicar of Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church, and was visiting Emanuel AME to worship and study the Bible with the other members during the Wednesday night session.

Reverend Sharonda Singleton, 45, was a high school track coach at Goose Creek High School and a pastor at Emanuel AME. Singleton was also a speech therapist and an “incredible” mother of three children. Her son, Chris, is a member of the University’s baseball team and Singleton was an active and involved parent, offering an “immeasurable” contribution to the program and to the team.

Photo: CNN

Danae Ross is a Detroit native and McNair Scholar with an affinity for engaging in both qualitative and quantitative sociocultural research and a heart for serving her community through her work with various nonprofits and organizations. She will begin graduate studies in the fall of 2015 at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. She is a proud mother of two beautiful babies around whom her passion for social justice and all she does is rooted and revolves. Feel free to follow her on Instagram or Twitter: @sunshinengravy and on Tumblr at dustroots.tumblr.com.

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