What occurred at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday, June 17, 2015 shook the nation to its core because it occurred among innocent people in pursuit of the very best in themselves in a sacred place. We were yet again confronted with the stark and persistent reality of racial hatred where we least expected it to manifest. We can only conjecture about the intentions of this misguided, tortured and hate-filled young man. What we do know is that his dastardly, violent act unleashed a groundswell of goodwill, communal love and defiance as black and white Americans alike locked arms and spirits to bear witness to his horror and declare another kind of existence for this nation. His brand of rank, odious and unadulterated hatred was repudiated and in the process unbound the President of this great nation.
Walking into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, no doubt the solemnity of the occasion and the task ahead confirmed for Barack Obama that he must speak in a voice previously unheard. I imagine that he could no longer bear in silence his response to the cumulative events that had befallen black Americans most recently. As he rose to celebrate the life and work of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, he was reminded, I am sure, of the other eight lives taken as well. He could not ignore the enormity of the moment and the weight he has carried for six years, that of his position and his race, were too much to continue to bear. The heinous act that brought him to this place also brought into bold focus his place at the intersection of presidential power, race and racial tensions that seem perdurable. His words could no longer ignore that. He came to deliver a eulogy and deliver a eulogy he did. He spoke movingly of this good man and acknowledged the full and ample life he lived. His words lifted Clementa Pinckney, this most gentle man, to the heights his noble and accomplished life deserved as he remembered a man who stepped into the pulpit at 13, became a pastor at 18 and a public servant at 23 and whose commitment to his God, family, church, state and nation defined an honorable life of service and sacrifice. Sorrow framed his words. He spoke the names of the eight members of Mother Emanuel who perished with their beloved pastor, good people, decent people, God-fearing people, Cynthia Hurd. Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance. DePayne Middleton-Doctor. Tywanza Sanders. Daniel L. Simmons. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Myra Thompson. people of good faith.
Then, standing in this majestic AME church, one of the oldest in the African Methodist Episcopal tradition, the first African-American religious denomination established in the United States in direct response to racial discrimination and animus, he eloquently recounted, for those who did not know, the rich history of the Black church and its centrality to Black life and liberty. Our churches, he noted, were hush harbors where we worshipped in safety and freely and triumphantly shouted, hallelujah. These rest stops for the weary and bunkers for the foot soldiers provided the escape from the brutal reality of racism in America. Our churches were a sanctuary from so many hardships where we praised God and gave thanks for the many blessings we did have. In these sacred and venerated spaces we stood in God’s Grace and drew the strength needed to carry on. That our brothers and sisters would be taken from us in the church was not lost on Barack Obama. He proudly uttered the inclusive, our, as he telegraphed, this is my history, this is my truth, these are my people. Finally, this man, constrained by the requirements of his position as the most powerful man on the planet and the president of all Americans, unbound the trappings of privilege that define his life and the expectations placed on him, and stood in his blackness. Finally, he talked openly about what he has always known privately about being a black man in modern America. On this day, in Mother Emanuel Church, the power of his word, the rhythm of his delivery and the profound significance of his message unbound Barack Obama.
Unbound Barack Obama was for a precious time, at once, the President of the United States and a black man in America who stood in this historic AME church and called on everything he ever felt as a black man to unpack 50 years of slights and insults. There was a fervor and passion about the reality of race that we had not heard heretofore from this President. He was free of the restraint of his ivy-league education, the expectations of white Americans or a politician needing to be reelected; he seemed to reach into the wellspring of collective pain, pride and irrepressible magnificence of black folks. This was particularly noteworthy given his oft cited coolness, reserve and perceived reluctance to forcefully insert race into the national conversation. As one newscaster crassly but accurately noted, this was a president who “didn’t give a damn anymore”
The reaction to his eulogy was swift and stunning especially among African-Americans. If ever there was a reticence to fully embrace Barack Obama as a true black man, his words and the depth of his soulful delivery left no doubt that he was a brother. As this man, the president of these United States, stood in his truth as a black man, we were reminded of the significance of this moment in history and although we gathered to celebrate nine black lives horrifically yanked from us, we knew that they were appropriately acknowledged and cherished by America’s first black president, Barack Obama. Surely, I imagined, they would be pleased. Then, in a gravelly, pain-soaked voice to an astonished but delighted church, President Barack Obama sang a song that for generations has defined resilience and grace when all looked hopeless. Church was over! And, Barack Obama, in expressing his authentic voice, created a defining moment in his presidency.
note: italicized words are those of President Barack Obama.