In the moment: grief and change

Julia Eichelberger

Julia Eichelberger

Vigils and prayer services and walks across a beautiful bridge have not magically made us whole, but they are a fitting show of respect which the dead and bereaved deserve, and they’re what we need now. While we must do more than mourn and congratulate ourselves for having the capacity to be grieved together, I’m not here to dismiss the gestures of the past week. I just want to record the moment we’re in right now.

One week ago, white supremacy was virtually unacknowledged in much public discourse. Even three days ago there seemed no prospect of removing the confederate flag from the SC statehouse grounds: too many white people saying how much the flag had meant to their poor suffering ancestors who never owned slaves and were loyal to their country. And then by yesterday afternoon, support for that position began to fall like the walls of Jericho. We’d been surprised to see Nikki Haley making her announcement standing with Tim Scott, two nonwhite Republicans who, three days before, had insisted on national television that they would not discuss the removal of the flag (the standard Republican position, the mantra insisting that this, like talk of gun control, would politicize a tragedy that, somehow, wasn’t already political). First our governor stands shoulder to shoulder with Jim Clyburn and Joe Riley. The next day it’s Charleston’s Republican state representatives, including Paul Thurmond, who lives near me on James Island. Tuesday I watched him on my computer screen, astonished to hear him say, “I am not proud of this part of my heritage,” because fighting a war to perpetuate slavery was “wrong, wrong, wrong.” While he was speaking, people on Josephine Humphreys’s facebook page were reporting that now Walmart, now Kmart, now Amazon have all announced they won’t sell Confederate flag materials anymore. Meanwhile Paul Thurmond was saying that taking the flag down is not enough, but it must be a beginning. The next speaker up was Chip Campsen, another white Republican, speaking about repentance and forgiveness and doing God’s will, his windup to explaining that the flag must come down. As Humphreys put it in her facebook post about this, “Holy smokes.”

I wanted to write something during this transitory moment, since the moment is always all we have, and since this moment’s mutability is particularly clear to us. What I say now will prove to have been incomplete, and may become unnecessary. Since last week I have learned several things that weren’t in my earlier post, like the fact that there was nothing in the least random about the terrorist’s choice of Emanuel AME as a target, and that our newspaper not only has been covering this story admirably but made me cry again with its Sunday cover, a white page with the names and nine palmetto roses. Sunday seems awhile back, now, with each day bringing new changes. We’re surprised even when they are easy changes like removing a flag.

Let’s remind ourselves that “easy” is a relative term; it’s been fifteen years since I participated in a march from Charleston to Columbia led by our mayor, a march calling for the confederate flag to stop flying over the capitol. It got moved off the dome, the place of sovereignty, but it didn’t go far; it went to a very high flagpole nearby on the statehouse grounds, and we saw this as a partial victory but at least progress. That was in the year 2000, shortly after people had decided that Y2K would not blow out the circuitry of the World Wide Web and all. So I want to record that in this moment it seems to us, in South Carolina, that things are moving pretty fast, even considering that folks are responding to the work of the high-profile champion of white supremacy who took that flag’s ideology very seriously. Since yesterday coworkers have been using our institution’s official listserv for an unofficial purpose, but not to sell used furniture or ask for names of a good dentist (the use to which every listserv must submit); folks are reporting that they’ve contacted their representatives to say that the confederate flag must come down. Some of these calls, it turns out, are no longer necessary—though they might help strengthen the resolve of those who’ve already changed their minds. Things are happening fast. Yesterday Larry Krasnoff posted an analysis of the C of C president’s “impossible centrism,” his loud silence on the flag, to this blog, and I hope Larry’s analysis will soon become obsolete. So far, it hasn’t. But soon, perhaps, even that will not matter, except to Mr. McConnell’s reputation (and, by extension, ours). The headlines may have moved somewhere else by the time I finish writing this.

The other thing happening in this moment is the important work of grieving. My little grief feels huge to me but I know that it’s nothing, a tiny speck of sorrow compared with those who are personally bereaved, a microscopic particle in the sea of suffering caused by white supremacy and greed and etcetera (more on that later, I have been reading an incredible article in the Atlantic on this subject that shocks me, shocks me to learn and also to realize that I had no idea just how bad and systematic these things were, I who thought I knew a lot about this topic). My city’s sadness is also personal. Many of us are discovering more and more connections between ourselves and the bereaved: my physical therapist tearfully realizing that one of her patients was among the dead; friends and colleagues who worked with Cynthia Hurd in our library or in public library book discussion groups; another friend’s tribute to her friend and co-worker DePayne Middleton Doctor. “I just can’t stop thinking about it, none of us can,” says my daughter of her old high school classmates, a close-knit bunch of nerds and idealists that included several members of Emanuel AME.

This past Friday afternoon I went to the prayer vigil that the city sponsored and the College hosted, and there were too many people there for me to see them all. Didn’t see one of my students, for example, whose picture showed up in a collection of photos posted on facebook. She was standing in the crowd that had walked to Emanuel after the service, holding a sign that says “We Want Peace.” She attended the service, she told me later, with her mother and a friend who had lost two family members in the massacre. My student, who graduated this year, was one of many people I knew but hadn’t spotted as we made our way to Calhoun Street, solemn and forlorn among the crowd walking through the magic-hour Charleston evening light. There were too many people to even see who was there, a sea of impromptu prayer circles and hugs and children in strollers and people walking alone, TV cameras greatly outnumbered by all of us taking pictures with our own phones: pictures of notes addressed in children’s handwriting, of teddy bears; of mounds of cut flowers, formal arrangements from Tiger Lily Florist with AME Emanuel’s address typed on the attached envelope, balloons, candles; pictures of a black t-shirt that reads “Do You Believe Us Now?”

I haven’t gone to everything. After going to prayer services both Thursday and Friday, I felt sort of overwhelmed. Some of our graduates were among the organizers of another march on Saturday that sounded worthy of support (people on that march’s facebook page were asking if anyone needed a ride to Charleston from, for example, Nashville). The organizers wouldn’t say where that march was supposed to end, but our son sent us pictures when it concluded, near where he works, on Market Street; people read poems and prayers standing on the steps of the United Daughters of the Confederacy building. I’m assuming they didn’t get any official approval from the owners.

Then on Sunday we missed the demonstration on the Cooper River bridge. As we were driving back from a Father’s Day visit to Roy’s parents in North Carolina, my phone showed me more and more pictures being posted of the interracial crowds that streamed into the pedestrian/bike lane on either side of the bridge, not enough room for them all, the evening sky splendid in orange and periwinkle, just as it is most evenings. People who wouldn’t have made eye contact on another day were hugging and holding hands.

Sorry we missed that, but hoping we can make some kind of appearance at the Reverend Pinckney’s service here Friday. With the President coming, it is unclear how hard it will be to get inside. Westboro Baptist “Church” has announced they plan to picket the funeral (reasoning: the bible study class that got shot up was promoting a bad understanding of the bible). Folks are now talking about how to join in a human buffer zone to keep them at a distance from the arena. Some of these plans, too, may be moot by tomorrow, even by this afternoon.

So I just wanted to record, for myself, that I am glad there are so many cameras here, that I am glad so many people are watching us, glad that Strom Thurmond’s son realized that a window in history was opening, giving him an opportunity to say “It was wrong, wrong, wrong” and to add that taking down the flag “will not be enough.” He doesn’t deserve a medal, but we can certainly give thanks whenever one of our number, one of our too-fallible species, realizes they can repent; we can’t have too much repentance right now. Simple as this shall be to accomplish, costing nothing but a little crow-eating, let us remember today that the removal of the flag seemed impossible a week ago and that it now seems possible. The Citadel trustees voted to take theirs down this morning, and while I was writing this, it was removed from the Alabama capitol. Soon and very soon, as if everyone had agreed on this all along, the whole conversation may be obsolete.

Which would, which will, give us more to do than our grieving hearts can envision right now, at two p.m. on the 24th of June in the year of our Lord two thousand and fifteen. It’s starting to seem possible that we could begin to accord our grief its proper weight. Grief could spur us to make things better, to undertake the much more confusing, much more uncertain work of justice and fairness, of a social infrastructure worthy of the name “community.” We’re succeeding, in this moment, at expressing our wish for that, and that is a start.

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