A Year After Emanuel, Healing Cannot Happen Without Embracing Intersectionality

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by Ari C. Johnson

 I remember the night of the Mother Emanuel shooting, and the week after. My family and I experienced and processed the grief from every angle—as Black residents of the South Carolina lowcountry, as African Methodists (AMEs) who knew too well the spiritual and historical significance of Emanuel to AME culture and tradition, and as friends of Rev. Clementa Pinckney and two of the women slaughtered. On the night of the shooting and in the weeks that followed, my mother and I also processed the most poignant grief as women. Black femininity and the matriarchal undercurrents of the AME Church and Gullah-Geechee culture radically impacted the way we experienced grief and healing. The Emanuel massacre should have spotlighted the complex relationship between Black women, Black men, the church, and systemic oppression, but those complexities have still yet to be engaged a year later. 

 Of those slaughtered last year when Dylan Roof attended opened fire during a Wednesday night bible study, six of the victims were Black women, two of whom were pastors. And yet, Roof’s ‘justification’ for the murder was the sexual predation of Black men on white women. But anyone who knows the Black church, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church in particular, knows that it is not men who fill the pews, attend the bible studies, and participate in the love feasts en masse. Like that night at Mother Emanuel, Black women usually outnumber their counterparts in the church, taking on the vast majority of the work and serving as the primary source of ‘manpower’ and mobilization. While pastors, elders, and bishops in the AME church are overwhelmingly male, women dominate the organizations and auxiliaries that minister to surrounding communities and stimulate church revenue. Groups like the Women’s Missionary Society (exclusively female) and the Lay organization are the links between church and community, while Women in Ministry is a space for strategizing and empowerment for female pastors, who are often marginalized within the church’s higher realms of power. 

    And of course, the church itself is feminine identifying. Emanuel AME is ‘mother’. Not only is it the oldest AME Church in the South, but it also exudes Black motherhood as a space for fellowship, healing, joy, and returning to one’s roots. I remember countless Saturdays when I would casually visit Mother Emanuel while I waited for my mom to finish her ministerial classes there or at one of the neighboring AME Churches nearby. Her doors were always open. In the sanctuary, women scurried about draping the altar and pulpit in white dressings for the next day’s Communion service. One or more of the women would warmly greet a curious visitor and offer a tour of the building or a drive-by history lesson. And to AMEs walking into Mother Emanuel, it was like coming home both literally and figuratively. The lowcountry AME church is a large spiritual and familial kin network; all roads lead back to Emanuel because it is the birthplace of South Carolina African Methodist Episcopalism and because there is somehow always a family connection to the congregation. 

But in the weeks following the massacre, the church and those connected with it also suffered all the abuses associated with Black womanhood—consumption, erasure, and dismissal perpetrated by white Americans from the outside and by the denomination’s predominantly male leadership from within. The voices of the church’s women and the Women in Ministry auxiliary were silenced by Black men, white men, and white women who used every service, vigil, and news outlet to center their own opinions and perspectives. The first two services commemorating the victims failed to include any female congregants or pastors on the program. My mother and I shared lunch with high-ranking women in the church who expressed their frustrations with the intentional and unintentional stifling of their voices. In the midst of a terrorist attack on a matriarchal church and Black culture, the grief and healing of Black women was relegated to the margins of mainstream discourse. The sexual politics of the terrorist attack were not spotlighted, and the integral role of women in the Black church and their particular needs in the grieving and healing process were never considered. 

* * * * *

Two weeks later, I participated in the Women in Ministry revival. Poorly attended and occupied entirely by women, the service was a catharsis—the first chance lowcountry AME women had since the massacre to be amongst each other to celebrate the women, weep over the women, and love and comfort each other as women. 

I had gone to the revival begrudgingly when my mother asked; I was tired of vigils and funerals. I needed a break, and so did she, but the events of the week impressed me with the truth that Black women don’t get the benefit of breaks, attention, or healing. I entered the revival secretly ruminating on the fact that we are the silent burden carriers, literally “the mules of the world.” 

But then the speaker asked that we all come to the altar. “I want to anoint each of you,” she said softly. In the AME church, the altar is a small area where congregants kneel to pray, join the church, or seek a special prayer or blessing from the pastor. On this day, the women all crowded around it solemnly with weakness and weariness on their faces. 

As the oil was tenderly applied to her forehead, the first woman started weeping aloud. Usually stoic and controlled, I had never seen her so expressive; now she kneeled clinging to the altar, tears streaming down her face and frantic prayers flowing from her lips.  

“We ask you God for healing!” The speaker exclaimed as she anointed another forehead. Each woman she touched began to cry, as if they could no longer resist releasing the pain, grief, and frustration that had plagued them since the night of June seventeenth. Some wept silently, others spoke in tongues, and others jumped and danced and disassociated themselves from their bodies. And my mother—usually calm and grounded—was sobbing. 

As I stepped forward to receive the blessing, my tears also began to flow, not only because of the loss that I felt and the pain of the past week, but also because there was something so beautiful about being in the presence of Black women who carried the same unspoken burden of personal loss, overwhelming oppression, and abandonment. We couldn’t vocalize it, but this was our first step toward healing together and sharing our collective vulnerability. As we hugged and kissed one another and the sorrow turned to a melancholy happiness, I felt alive for the first time since the shooting.

* * * * *

Behind the news cameras, the ‘fanfare’, and the false narrative of forgiveness pushed by the media and even the AME church itself, lowcountry and AME Black women were struggling to be heard. Soon enough the cameras departed and they went back to business as usual: enduring misogyny within the church, receiving minimal support from leadership, and silently carrying the church on their backs as they always have. A year later, the wounds opened by the massacre have not healed, and they will not heal until the church and the country at large begins to address the importance of Black femininity to church history, oppression, and resistance. 

Too often, Black women are the revolutionaries and nurses for everyone but ourselves, receiving little to no support in return. We place our bodies and spirits on the line for justice, fighting to protect ourselves and the men connected to us from systemic oppression and enduring the disdain and disregard of a society that declares our very existence illegitimate. We carry the will of women who came before us, and we always manage to reach inside ourselves and produce more love, more strength, and more healing. We are truly magical. Yet, when the time comes for us to heal—whether in church, in the movement for Black lives, or in our day-to-day experiences—we are often left forgotten and unsupported. This must change if we are to break the cycle of harm and temporary recovery. We must resume the conversation about Emanuel with a feminist lens and allow Black women their fully humanity and vulnerability, subverting the prevailing notions that place the onus for rebuilding on Black women alone. If not, the Emanuel shooting will be just another missed opportunity to discuss and examine real intersectionality. 

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Ari C. Johnson is a student of Religion and International Studies at the University of Miami, an activist, and a walking contradiction. A Southern 'preacher's kid', she is passionate about the intersection of anti-gentrification efforts and the preservation of historic Black churches. Her other interests include Black feminism, British literature, unrevised history, abandoned buildings, nature, escapism, and Southern food.

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