If you’re from the South, you most likely grew up appreciating simple, blissful pleasures in life, such as a Sunday afternoon drive to the neighborhood Piggly Wiggly for a sweet potato pie. Or better yet, you may have beloved cooking traditions boiling sweet potatoes with your mother and grandmother for a delectable Sunday dessert with relatives.
Nadine Collier, the daughter of Emanuel AME Church shooting victim Ethel Lance, remembers her mother telling her that having a boiled sweet potato in her coat pocket would keep her warm while outside during the chilly Charleston, South Carolina, winter months. Nadine shares this precious memory in the beginning of “Emanuel,” the documentary that retells the tragic gun massacre carried out by Dylann Roof in 2015. Nine Emanuel AME church members lost their lives as Roof went on his killing spree impelled by racial hatred and fear. Nadine and Ethel can no longer boil sweet potatoes together. Roof heartlessly robbed them and the other victims’ family members of future treasured moments with their loved ones.
“Emanuel, ” whose producers include Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry and Academy Award winning actress Viola Davis, was only in theaters June 17 and 19. It is not a for-profit film and all proceeds will go to a trust fund for victims’ families. For those who were able to see this moving documentary, it was a somber reminder of the southern history of racist violence against African Americans and black churches, but its dominant theme is the healing virtue of forgiveness. The racial history of Charleston is always painful to revisit, especially its ties to the slave trade. “Emanuel” recounts that 40 percent of slaves came through this port city, and whites were always worried about slave rebellions. Deeply entrenched in the antebellum culture of racial oppression, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, but the Emanuel AME Church, founded in 1816, became a sanctuary of refuge.
Before watching Emanuel, I was familiar with Nadine’s story of immense sorrow due to viewing her impassioned statement to Roof in court, telling him that she had “mercy on his soul.” I was touched learning more about Chris Singleton, who was 18 and an aspiring professional baseball player when his mother, Shardona Coleman-Singleton, was murdered by Roof. Chris shares that he leaned on Proverbs 24:10, which states, “If thou faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small.”
Chris says he used this scripture as a stronghold to endure the trials he would face after his mother’s death. Both Chris and Nadine publically expressed their families’compassion for Roof, despite Roof being blatantly unrepentant and callous. “Emanuel” also featured some family members who have not gotten to the place of forgiveness yet, which is truly understandable, but it was heartening that much of Emanuel’s focus was on viewing forgiveness of Roof as a great act of love invigorated by faith. Soon after the Emanuel AME shooting, I remember the angry reactions of some black pundits and writers who claimed that forgiving Roof was a sign of weakness and submission. From their perspective, many in the black community who have suffered devastating loss and violence have been too willing to pardon their bigoted adversaries.
I will admit that it is often difficult to see the fruit of a forbearing spirit in a country with a racist past such as ours. Roof’s perverse ambition was to further deepen our divisions by starting a race war; however, as former President Barack Obama pointed out in his eulogy of Emanuel’s Pastor Clementa Pinckney, Roof chose the wrong place to carry out his plans. He unknowingly walked into a church where seeds of love had been sown for well over a century.
The Emanuel testimonies of the family members who have chosen to love and pray for Roof give us incessant hope as our nation still wrestles with the potency of racism. Roof may cleave to his hardened heart and never repent for his gruesome sins, but those who have forgiven him are determined not to be bound by bitterness and loathing as they grieve. Simply put, hate won’t win.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. @JjSmojc