Yet again the country has been witness to the particular spectacle of another Black victim’s family offering forgiveness to their deceased kin’s killer. In this case, the killer is Amber Guyger, a young white woman, who, at the time, was a police officer in Dallas, TX. In a case that the defense would want us to believe was a case of mistaken residence. She claims that she believed she shot and killed the man who had intruded into her domicile. In fact, she was the intruder. Botham Jean, the victim, was home watching TV in his underwear eating ice cream.
For this the jury returned a guilty verdict, and she was sentenced to 10 years. For some, a modicum of justice since it is rare that a police officer is ever convicted, let alone sentenced for killing a Black person in the United States. For others, it is yet another example of extreme white privilege in a country where it is routine for a Black person to be sentenced for a lifetime in prison for a nonviolent offense.
Within hours of the verdict, Jean’s 18 year-old younger brother took the stand and speaking to Guyger said the following: “If you truly are sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you. … I love you just like anyone else. … I don’t even want you to go to jail.”
And if that weren’t strange enough, he then pleads with the judge to permit him to give Guyger a hug. Which the judge, Tammy Kemp, allowed. She (a Black person herself) would later also embrace Jean’s murderer and gift her a Bible. This joint spectacle has been the take-away talk of this case rather than the menial sentence and how Black life remains devalued in the US judicial system. And even though there are pundits and preachers who would wish us to view these acts as deracialized expressions of aspirational Christian love, the specter of race and justice yet hangs over all of this.
What has been passed off as “individual” or “personal” on the part of the brother and the judge are actually the result of the collective conditioning Black folk in this country have undergone since our ancestors first set chained foot on these shores in what would become the United States of America. And this being the 400th year since, it is most fitting that this conversation come forth.
This spectacle has been called “Black forgiveness.” Black forgiveness can best be understood as an act of unrequited love from a Black victim to the white perpetrator. Actually, it is not love at all. It is more accurate to name it as a form of Black appeasement to white people, an offering made to whiteness in the hope of being recognized and embraced in return. Yet, that embrace never comes, personally nor collectively. It ends up being a form of spiritual exoneration that alleviates the white perpetrator of the guilt he or she should feel for wrongfully taking the life of another. In all the cases where this has occurred in the last several years, the white person is not seeking to be forgiven, nor has she or he made an apology or act of repentance that would give the act of forgiveness some meaning or actual value for the persons involved. What value it does contain has been utilized by the white supremacist system that has made it into a lurid litmus for future Black victims’ families. It is held up in all its gory disregard for Black grief as the expected appropriate Black response to white violence.
In this way, Black forgiveness has one performative function – to undermine the pursuit of racial justice. For Black people to unconditionally forgive the white killers of their kin is akin to negating the need for justice at all. No structural or social change can ever come in a system where the victims of that structure forgive the perpetrators of the violence that keeps them vulnerable and defenseless. This is especially concerning because the kind of violence we are discussing is a violence that is largely seen as generally acceptable by the majority of Americans and is even sanctioned and justified by the state. So, it is disturbing when we finally achieve a measure of justice in a state court to witness the family of the Black victim unwittingly undermine the entire process with grief-induced offerings of unconditional forgiveness to those who have been convicted and/or found guilty for murder. This in a judicial system that is most interested in taking full advantage of this disempowering performance of grace.
The day after the verdict the Dallas Police Department released this statement from their Twitter account: “Botham Jean’s brother’s request to hug Amber Guyger and Judge Kemp’s gift of her bible to Amber represent a spirit of forgiveness, faith and trust. In this same spirit, we want to move forward in a positive direction with the community.” The Dallas PD is in no place to determine how to move forward with a community that has never experienced a modicum of mercy or grace from them or any other police department across this country.
Black forgiveness absolves white society from the guilt they should experience for the violence that is meted upon Black people. A guilt that would provoke them to reform the criminal justice system that is woefully unjust towards us. Yet isn’t it interesting that Black forgiveness never waits for or expects white remorse or repentance? It doesn’t even require white acknowledgement that a wrong has been committed. It doesn’t expect the confession that forgiveness normally necessitates. This is the most telling feature. For it exposes Black forgiveness for the spiritual prop that is used to hold in place the social arrangement that is Black/white relations in America. So interred in the pathology that is white supremacy, it does not seek justice or parity, but accepts a default status of inferiority as ordained.
Rather than foster the space for grieving that leads to eventual healing, it undermines it, disrupts it because it does not require justice to be served. And healing cannot be whole without justice. Its sole purpose then is to provide for white absolution, a spiritual exoneration that alleviates the guilty of needing to atone. That is its ultimate purpose and use. As one can now decipher, this is not a Black creation. Its origins lie in the religious indoctrination that was force-fed to Africans from the trough of their enslavement.
Black forgiveness emerges out of a consciously misinterpreted concoction of Christianity in an America that questioned whether Black people had souls. Its purpose then was to condition the enslaved into a people that would not only accept their state and status as slaves, but also cause them to embrace their enslavers as beloved guardians, to the point of godly devotion. This indoctrination worked as the spiritual adhesive that sought for those Africans view their chains as though tethered to God.
This is what we see in the expression of Botham’s younger brother and many other Black Christians across this country that shouted hallelujah when they saw him rush to embrace the woman that killed his brother. To be so mired down in the muck of white supremacist socialization, that you can’t even stand to see the very white person that killed your brother held accountable for that crime. That is more than telling. It is evidence of a spirituality so corrupted that such self-hatred is seen as striving for godliness and views whiteness as close to God as one gets in this world.
The fundamental teachings that laid the foundation for Black forgiveness can still be heard echoing the walls of Black churches today. “Obey your master as unto the Lord.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Love your enemy and do good to those that hate you.” Those teachings combine into an indoctrination perfectly concocted for a people meant to remain oppressed: “Obey and love your white oppressors as they materially benefit from your oppression. Submit to and passively accept their violence. Love and care for them even and especially when their hatred of you is evident. And view all of this as your God-ordained duty.” That slave teaching has morphed into a sordid altar call from a considerable number of Black preachers for their congregants to aspire to a supposed moral superiority based on their capacity to suffer through a socially inferior reality. To accept this premise as God-ordained is to suggest that slavery, segregation and the discrimination of today is blessed by the Divine. Rendered down through the generations in the hooping homilies of Black preachers who seek to curry favor from their former enslavers, this spiritual malnourishment has become a disease on our souls. Rather than a sign of our spiritual resilience, it is an expression of our political weakness. A weakness we have been conditioned to accept and foster within ourselves.
These grieving Black persons we have seen over the last several years were in most cases coached and counselled by their ministers to put on this performance for “God’s glory.” For Black Christians to collectively be healed from this sickness will require a confrontation with the leadership of these Black churches that finds it politically expedient to feed their congregations this ol’ time religion. It will mean challenging them to change or be exposed as the functionaries of a flawed religion in service to white supremacy and not the God they proclaim. They must be expected to reject the traditions inherited from a slave past and establish new traditions that liberate us from that past so that we may take on the responsibilities of a present order that is hell-bent on keeping us oppressed. This will call for a reparations of the Black soul, which is something we can only give back to ourselves as a people. The fundamental slave indoctrination of love your enemy which motivates Black Christians to engage in these empty public gestures will be replaced with the spiritual assertion of loving ourselves and engaging in the task of holding this system accountable to treat us as children of God. Otherwise, we risk these acts becoming a kind of judicial precedent that will cause future judges and juries to anticipate Black forgiveness in the verdicts they render.
No better explanation can be given for this condition than that which was said by the great South African activist and insurgent philosopher, Steve Biko. “The greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” I consider it the first verse in the Genesis of my people’s spiritual emancipation.
Ewuare X. Osayande is a poet, essayist and anti-racist educator. The author of several books including Whose America?: New and Selected Poems. One of his forthcoming books is entitled Blessed are Black Lives. Learn more about his work at Osayande.org.