The eighteenth-century English poet, Alexander Pope, said: “to err is human, to forgive is divine.” It seems Black America has been seeking divinity for centuries. From the earliest days I can remember, my grandmother and the ‘saints’ in the Pentecostal church I grew up in taught us the importance of forgiveness. One of the most emphasized verses in the venerated Lord’s prayer was, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). We were taught that it is our Christian duty to forgive people, regardless of how they have wronged us. After all, Jesus forgave those who murdered Him. Thus, we’re supposed to love and forgive the most vile, racist white person because “they know not what they do.” Life has taught me that they know exactly what they’re doing.
As a minister, I believe in biblical teachings regarding forgiveness, however, I also believe they have been misunderstood and taught in a manner that makes Black folks believe that unless we immediately forgive those who have invested in our terror, murder, and dehumanization, we risk becoming the same heartless, immoral creatures they are. There is a need to comprehend and rationalize trauma before we can jump knee deep into forgiveness, which psychologists say is a five-step process. One important step in that process, according to clinical psychologist Dr. Roya R. Rad, is to “let the feeling be felt.” In other words, feelings attached to the damaging behavior must be brought to the surface and processed. This includes dealing with anger, grief, anxiety, frustration, and trauma. Remember, this is only step two.
Yet, somehow, Black people are expected to immediately forgive violence done to them by the state, government, or individual white people. America disallows the full humanity and emotions of Black people and demands that our suffering be done phlegmatically so the expression of our despair does neither offends the sensibilities of white folks nor sparks their guilt or fragility. Our instantaneous forgiveness of racial violence perpetrated against us is white America’s unearned expectation. To do anything less would be callous and victimizing to our oppressors.
When Denmark Vesey planned a major slave revolt in the city of Charleston, SC in 1822, he and his co-conspirators were tortured and executed. A white mob burned down the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Vesey was a member. In 2015, after white supremacist Dylan Roof murdered 9 people in that same church, the victims' families were asked to forgive the white racist terrorist. The ritual of instant declarations of forgiveness for racial violence and injustice only serves the interest of white supremacy. Black rage is warranted, justified, and needed to express the full humanity of Black people and to shock a system of anti-black bigotry coasting along on cruise control.
After 9-year-old Jeremiah Harvey was falsely accused of sexual assault by Teresa Klein, a white woman, she offered a half-hearted ‘apology’ because video evidence proved that Harvey’s book bag grazed her in a corner store in Brooklyn as opposed to him grabbing her buttocks as she feloniously reported to the police. Klein neither bothered to learn Harvey’s name nor apologize directly to him, stating in a television interview, “Young man, I don’t know your name, but I’m sorry.” Yeah right.
When asked if he accepted her apology, Harvey boldly declared, “I don’t forgive this woman, and she needs help.” After mounting pressure, young Jeremiah, seemingly being coached by his mother, had a change of heart two days later, answering, “Yes. Yes I do” after being asked if he forgave Klein on Good Morning America. How shameful that Jeremiah was forced to declare forgiveness a mere five days after being falsely labeled as a sexual predator, one of the most traumatic experiences in his young life.
Forgiveness, as taught by the Black church should include all the time needed to endure the difficult process from the moment of trauma to the moment of healing. It should be a meaningful and genuine expression of restoration on the terns of the aggrieved and not a cheap means of self medication to cope with the commonplace struggles of Black life in racist America. It most certainly should never be used to foster passivity and dilute a justified expression of righteous indignation in the face of white supremacy and injustice. Malcolm X said, “The greatest miracle Christianity has achieved in America is that the Black man in white Christian hands has not grown violent. It is a miracle that 22 million Black people have not risen up against their oppressors in which they would have been justified by all moral criteria and even by the democratic traditions.”
Forgiveness should never be used to salve white fears that justified Black anger will hold them accountable for their long and treacherous history of beating, raping, murdering, burning, imprisoning, dehumanizing, and denying basic rights to generations of Black Americans. I’m looking forward to the day when an aggrieved Black person suffering unjust pain and loss at the hands of a racist cop or white supremacist slaps the microphone out of their face and walks out when a reporter is dispassionate enough to ask them the asinine question they wouldn’t dare ask a white person in the immediate hours after a traumatic experience, “do you forgive.”