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Healing Is Not Grieving: We Must Not “Move Forward” in the Wake of Massacre

Calls for premature healing are really appeals to return to the national status quo.

Scores of social media users, myself included, have taken to Twitter to express anger and grief over the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina. Despite the racist and dismissive trope of the angry Black woman, many Black women in my Twitter circle are affirming the political value of angry Black womanhood. Some of us are pushing back on calls for healing, because this is a moment for grieving, and not yet for healing.

It’s also a time to be angered by calls for us not to be angry. I am angry: at the entrenched system of white supremacy that, let’s face it, is a core value of our nation, and at the duplicitous vocabulary being used to discuss the Charleston massacre. Calls for “healing” and “moving forward as a nation,” injunctions against “anger” and applications of the trope of the “lone wolf” to Dylann Roof are complicit with right-wing attempts to maintain the racial status quo and postracial wishful thinking that refuses to name white supremacy.

Quick calls and premature pushes for healing enjoin us to transcend the act of racial terrorism by way of such Band-Aid solutions as community and national prayer vigils, peaceful marches and more calls for healing. We are steadfastly lulling ourselves into a collective healing trance.

The language of healing emerged instantaneously with news of the massacre. The head of the local NAACP called for healing on the noontime news, barely 12 hours after the shots were fired. President Obama declared the aftermath of the massacre a “time for mourning and healing.” Congregations in Charleston and throughout the United States have been praying for healing. The National Civil Rights Museum in Tennessee hosted a healing circle for Charleston on June 18. Presidential candidates and some Black civil rights leaders have also been calling for healing.

On MSNBC’s “The Ed Show,” Georgetown professor Michael Dyson called out Obama for his failure to name anti-Black racism as the cause of the Charleston massacre. It was a fair criticism: President Obama’s remarks were lackluster and dishonest. His statement that “communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times” was a case in point of our national tiptoeing around systemic white supremacy and structural racism.

When we allow ourselves to heal prematurely from acts of racist terrorism, we let the nation off the hook.

In the absence of an institutional commitment to confronting white supremacy and dismantling structural racism, we need to hold off on the language of healing. As communications professor Dana Cloud writes in Control and Consolation in American Culture and Politics, the language of healing in political and cultural discourses feeds into a conservative “rhetoric of therapy.” Such rhetoric preempts agendas of social reform by persuading aggrieved communities to cope with traumas caused by systemic hegemony. Healing, as a response to acts of white terrorism, soothes the pain but leaves the root of the wound untreated.

The “Pastoral Letter on Racism,” from a collective of ministers at the United Church of Christ, is worth reading and circulating. In response to police brutalities against Black men and women, the collective released a letter on January 16, 2015, that cautions against “rush[ing] to the language of healing before understanding the fullness of the injury and the depth of the wound” and “speak[ing] of reconciliation without speaking of how we can repair the breach and how we can restore the loss.” When we allow ourselves to heal prematurely from acts of racist terrorism, we let the nation off the hook. When we give the nation permission to move on before it has significantly tackled structural racism, we become unwitting participants in duplicitous postracial politics.

Calls for simultaneous grieving and healing cut short the grieving period and blur the different functions of the two processes. Grief is such a faraway precursor to the healing phase that grieving cannot contemplate healing or even hear the language of healing. Grieving serves both to anchor us in the moment of pain and to center the subject of our pain. Grieving is much-needed intimacy with ourselves and our pain. Calls for healing as soon as communities start mourning are not only intrusive; they are also a form of emotional bullying. The language of healing in the immediate aftermath of the Charleston massacre is pressuring the aggrieved community to get over it quickly so that the nation can return to normalcy.

At Roof’s bond hearing on June 19, the related language of forgiveness emerged. The different representatives of the families of the victims stated their forgiveness. This was an emotionally powerful moment for the families and the nation. The act of forgiveness took attention away from the murderer. The families focused the conversation on the victims, the horrific attack and the structures that made such an attack possible.

Danish philosopher Thomas Brudholm argues in Resentment’s Virtue that the public advocacy of healing not only fetishizes forgiveness and reconciliation, but also pathologizes refusals to forgive and heal. Brudholm contends that the refusal to heal can challenge the social and political consequences of healing. When the self-proclaimed angry Black women in my Twitter circle refuse to heal, they are refusing to participate in a system of structural racism, and are refusing to acquiesce to the normalcy of white supremacy. Calls for premature healing and a return to normalcy are calls to stop crying about the very real and often deadly effects of white supremacy, our national status quo. Let it be also said that grieving is an excruciating process. In a context of systemic racism, the impulse to heal quickly is also a defense mechanism and a healthy reflex. Fast recovery becomes a matter of survival.

The use of the framework of healing to organize our responses to racist episodes probably reflects the central role of the Black church in the fight against white supremacy in the United States. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has a long history of organizing Black resistance to slavery and racism. The accomplishments of anti-racist workers and Black churches notwithstanding, the evidence points to an ossification of structural racism underneath a veneer of racial progress.

The language used to describe the Charleston massacre reaffirms our fixation on healing, rather than on treating the sickness, and if we heed that language, we will be duped into returning to the status quo. The attempt to frame Roof as a lone wolf is a refusal to name the structure of white supremacy. We cannot act on what we cannot name, nor can we heal from what we cannot name. At stake is failing to realize that we have entered an era in which anti-Black racism is inescapably spreading.

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