I kinda feel bad… I feel like something is wrong with me. Why don’t I feel this? Where is my outrage? Everyone else seems to be feeling it. What the hell is wrong with me?
Oh, I think I’ve got it: I ain’t that moved… because I ain’t surprised.
That dreadful Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, will be etched in history, and rightfully so. A group of conservative right-wing demonstrators gathered and marched on the University of Virginia campus to protest the removal of statues honoring figures who fought for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Trumpeting the noble cause of preserving history, these demonstrators marched with the message that removing said statues was tantamount to erasing a part of American history worthy of preservation.
Truly — so goes the ploy — this group set out to exercise our constitutional right to peaceful assembly and protest. However, unlike other peaceful demonstrations, such as those under the humane cry “Black lives matter!” or those occurring on NFL football fields this season, this demonstration was anything but peaceful. Why? Because brandishing weapons, particularly military-grade assault firearms, makes violence an essential component of the event’s DNA. The guns in this rally were not symbols of defense and protection, just as they were not symbols of defense and protection in 2009 when individuals strapped with firearms showed up outside town halls and speeches of then-President Barack Obama. These guns are wielded as a threat; these are symbols of assault, violence, and fear. Add to this the lit tiki torches and the slur-ridden chanting and you have quite a demonstration — a violent one.
Surely — we assure ourselves — the police would be present at such a gathering. Surely, they would be in riot gear with their militarized weaponry (like they are as soon as the humane cry “Black lives matter!” is raised). Better yet, the National Guard would be present! Yes, of course! This is a college campus — a public one — so this is undeniably under their jurisdiction. They were dispatched to help de-segregate schools in Virginia and other places, coming forth to protect vulnerable students, so surely they must be dispatched to this situation, seeing as how students’ lives — young, promising students’ lives — could be endangered. Surely!
But there were no police. There was no National Guard. There was no militarized force at all attending to this inherently violent, definitely not peaceful, demonstration.
So let me get this straight: The presence of military-grade guns and fire-and hate-filled chanting is not enough to bring in police but one prophetic cry — “Black lives matter!” — is enough and then some?
To my great dismay, I was not surprised. Nor was I was enraged, shocked, or frankly, even appalled at the blatant displays of white supremacist ideology. How could I be surprised? Enraged? How could I feel a surge of such powerful emotion when this felt like nothin’ new under the sun?
Consider that for me anger — rage — has been a bosom buddy for my entire life. As a young Black man raised in a very socially — and racially — conscious household, church, and community, I have always been more than aware of my people’s troubles and the cries that have repeatedly been muffled, usually in an effort to protect white sensibilities. (“All lives matter.”) For as long as I can remember, it has made me angry. But I had to suppress it just enough to function, let alone succeed, in spaces dominated by whiteness. Thus, my anger and I learned to dance delicately. We have always danced in a manner reflective of a near-perfect symbiosis, we have danced a dance of energy and passion restrained just enough to be “tasteful” or “palatable” to onlookers. But the passion, the fire, was never lost; it was merely channeled. And as I matriculated in my manhood, my Blackness, and my discipleship of Jesus, I began to lay claim to righteous indignation, even to sanctify it in my own heart, as just as much an expression of God within me as the Holy Spirit and a love for my father’s grits on a Sunday morning. This rage is and always has been a part of me, and it is a part of my God as well.
So that day, when I didn’t feel it — any of it — I had to figure something was off.
I was curious, nagged, confused. But not shocked, not outraged. I had to take stock of what others were saying and doing.
Many of my friends seemed to feel what I was not feeling, at least according to multiple social media posts. Many of them articulated their feelings — their sorrow, their shock, their rage — so well, so powerfully. I felt strange and alienated not feeling any of the rage that I saw expressed by others. Perhaps I felt some sadness about the events, but not much. What did bother me, increasingly, was that a fire was raging and it seemed I could not feel any of the heat.
Then came the moment I realized that I had grown numb.
The lack of law enforcement in the face of an overtly threatening demonstration led by white supremacists felt familiar. It seemed that to be surprised would mean that you’d been lucky enough to be blind to what it’s like to be Black in this country, to carry and live the weight of Black history and Black present. Perhaps, well-meaning and justice-oriented though it may be, white shock and outrage at the happenings, the news coverage, the photos, the rhetoric, just made me think of another repetition without change. It made me think about the similar reaction from white allies when civil rights marchers were violently attacked on Edmund Pettus Bridge on that Bloody Sunday of 1965. Much has changed, sure, but much has remained the same.
Although initially it seemed the shock and horror reaction was pervasive, in the days that followed my Facebook feed began to reflect Black people (mostly my age, thirty-something or close to it) expressing the same thought that dominated my psyche: Now you are surprised?? Why?? Black people have been speaking this reality for generations (no, not years, generations)! Here is yet another instance that left me saying, “What if there were no video?” Those of you who acted or felt surprised, did you think we were making things up? For generations?! No, wait, I get it…you musta actually believed that all lives actually matter — why else would the prophet’s cry of “Black lives matter!” be so offensive to you? Somehow this event moved you, whereas the videos of Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, and others did not? Now you are moved?? Why?!?
The conclusion I came to is one of those that some folks might find “unpalatable” but it is too damned familiar to deny it, and it’s been denied and avoided and elided as many times as it’s been confirmed — more times than can be counted. Why did this demonstration incite such moral outrage on behalf of so many? Was it the affront to Black personhood? Was it the outright celebration of violent suppression of Black lives? No. What was it then?
A white woman was killed. A white female counter-demonstrator was struck and killed by a car that was driven by an enraged white man sympathetic to the original demonstrators (how quickly did the Mentally Ill Card get played in defense of white male terroristic behavior this time?). That’s right: the fire of public (white) outrage was quickly fanned into a blaze when a white woman was killed. Though not calloused about this young woman’s death, I cannot help but see the public outcry as representative of the long-tired truth that white bodies are regarded as intrinsically more valuable than black bodies.
I have lived long enough to know this narrative: The white woman (especially young and pretty) has a body — I mean, a life — considered more valuable than anything else, especially to white men. Leaving aside the deeply problematic elements of patriarchal ownership and control often inherent in the valuation of women’s bodies, these bodies and these lives are still regarded as most worthy of protection in the present system, dominated as it is by white male interests. Protecting white female personhood and progeny is paramount.
And then we have the perpetrator.
Though not surprised, I am constantly amazed by how strongly society protects white males and defends their behavior. Whether a brawl on the NASCAR track or a “good, Christian young man” slaying moviegoers in Colorado, we have perfected the craft of explaining away certain behaviors if a white male commits them. Hence, a situation of white men in open and armed defiance of the U.S. government in Oregon can end in peace but peaceful demonstrations of Black people are treated like there are “wars and rumors of wars” (Matthew 24:6) — yes, this is a peace that surpasses all understanding, because it doesn’t make any sense. Returning to Charlottesville, even the father of the deceased young woman spoke about the perpetrator as if he were merely a foolish, misled young man, not as a murderer and a terrorist. (Ey yo…did they play the Mentally Ill Card in defense of white male terroristic behavior yet?) I guess “(white) boys will be boys” is still, and will continue to be, more acceptable than “Black lives matter!”
I guess that is why prophets of the latter are forced to be the “voice crying in the wilderness” (John 1:23) while the pundit of the former gets to tweet comfortably from the White House.
I do wonder, though, did folks go out of the way to humanize this terrorist like they did the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooter? Remember how this young man was described as a quiet, humble, Christian young man, active in his church? Do you recall that this was mere days after he massacred twelve people watching a Batman movie in Aurora in 2012? Remember how many still designate this as a “mass murder” and not a terror attack, despite guns and bombs found in his home?
Oh? Charlottesville was different? They did not try to humanize the terroristic white male this time? Why not?
It is nearly impossible not to view it in the light of race, in light of whose bodies matter: a young white woman with no children was killed. This is paramount to everything else.
This song and dance is not new to any who are oppressed or marginalized: Labels are applied differently depending upon who is involved, depending upon who the perpetrator and the victim are. If there is anything that seems to irk white America enough to avoid sympathizing with awful, even terroristic, white male behavior, it is the killing of a (young) white woman. That seems to be the line, that seems to be what sparks the outrage, that seems to be the determining factor. It is not whether the alleged perpetrator had a gun or not — certainly, it isn’t whether there was a child in the car or not — it is whether or not white men, and certainly white women, are harmed.
I was not enraged by the happenings in Charlottesville because I was not surprised by the events in Charlottesville. Neither was I surprised by all of the outrage and explaining away that soon attended the whole fiasco. By now, I know very well how this society works. I did not need to preach on Charlottesville the next day because I had already preached on such things and I knew I would eventually preach on such matters again — likely sooner than I would prefer. Unlike some others, I did not feel an urgent need to cry out about this matter on my social media status, not because it is unimportant, but because like an ancient prophet I am perplexed about what words to use and what good they would be. Like Isaiah, perhaps, I was lost, asking, “What shall I cry?” (Isaiah 40:6). What have I to add? We already know well how Black voices are a threat but white voices are welcomed — even when brandishing guns, hiding behind flag idolatry, and voting in a 53% majority for the sitting U.S. president.
I get it, I done been got it a long time ago. I been knew that white liberal outrage is selectively fierce and fiercely selective — I learned that as a graduate student at Harvard. I knew before all the subsequent “peaceful demonstrations” that bastions of (white) liberalism would have folks squad up (i.e., rally together) to counter-demonstrate while continuing to comfortably abide in racist cities with an abysmal imbalance of power. I knew that as a nine-year resident of Boston, a city that is so racist and lopsided that its own paper pointed out in a recent series of articles that even though the city boasts a majority population of people of color, the power, access, and money still sits in white hands. I was not fooled in graduate school, I was not fooled in Boston, I am not fooled by much of anything. And I damn sure was not surprised by anything regarding that Saturday in Charlottesville. I may not have grown up in the Confederate Battle Flag South, but I have been in enough spaces, north, south, east, and west, to recognize when white supremacy merely enlists a new crop of soldiers.
So, no, I am not surprised. Why should I be? And if I am angry, it is more at the theatre of social outrage. Because all it did was put it right under my nose that people still don’t get it. All it did was remind me whose lives actually matter. (Big hint: it’s not all!) That fateful day was one of preaching to the choir, and the sermon was old, and the hearers continued to wallow in their sin. So I will let the prophet move me but not Charlottesville enrage me — it can’t.
I just ain’t surprised.
Reverend Marcus Toure B. McCullough is a pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He is a graduate Morehouse College, and has earned masters degrees in divinity and sacred theology from Harvard Divinity School and Boston University School of Theology.