The Mysoginoir of Burning Down Black Churches

four young girls
 by chrislande dorcilus

It is no coincidence that seven of the nine victims of Dylan Roof’s violent and racist attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church were black women.  Approximately 62% of black women in America consider themselves part of the Black Christian family. Every Sunday black women (even more so than black men) fill the pews of historically black churches–upholding a tradition as old as the American South itself; older even than the confederate flag.They congregate to worship, socialize, and do the much needed community outreach and political organizing that supports black American families. This group of devoted American congregants includes all three of my sisters, my devout grandmother, my best friend’s mother, and most of the women that make up the colorful patchwork of my life.

When I first moved to Brooklyn I lived with my aunt. Her apartment sat atop the church where she worshiped every Sunday. On Sundays she could be found catering meals for church events, or helping to manage the church’s budget, while taking expert care of the aging founder. My aunt is not a special case, black women around me cover and protect the black church from coast to coast. Though Brooklyn – the most diverse borough in the melting pot of NYC- is considered less likely to breed racial intolerance than a “Dixie State” like South Carolina,  I’ve seen MTA workers flying confederate colors. I’ve heard the whispers of racist ideology in the curt speech of women on the train. I can imagine the grief that has invaded the neighborhoods of the women I love as this wave of church burning engulfs them.

Dylan Roof wrote in his manifesto that the attack on Emmanuel AME was partly about rebuilding the purity of white women. Black women were once again paying for white purity with their lives–and this glaring gendered aspect of the crime washed over our nation. This is not to say that the lives of Rev. Clementa Pinkney and Tywanza Sanders matter less. This is not about pitting black men against black women. We need to admit to the truth of American life: black women’s lives matter less than everyone else’s. Take breast cancer for example, how is it that even though black women are less likely to develop it, we are more likely to die from it?  The simple answer is that the larger American community is not listening to our needs and not tuning in to our pain. As a black woman and a feminist, It’s painful to watch this “less than” rhetoric play out over and over again. I see the lives of the great women murdered at Emmanuel AME as my own. They stand as a mirror of who my friends and sisters could be.

Let’s remember Rev. Sharonda Singleton, a pastor, speech therapist, and high school girls’ track coach, and the woman who raised her teenage son to have compassion for her murderer. Let’s remember Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, the reverend and mother of four, who spent her time as a community director. These women were much more than the congregants of a megachurch. These women carved out niches of power for themselves and the women in their community within a historically misogynist faith, one where black female reverends still receive death threats.

It’s with bitter disdain that black feminists and womanists in America, such as myself, watch as black women are murdered for exercising the same religious liberty afforded to the racist conservative pundits and militarized groups that disseminate hate in American communities. It’s with mind numbing tears that we watch as feminist media channels ignore our deaths at the hands of white people. But what really drives the pain home is how much we are continuously being used. When liberal politicians need the black vote, they know where to find it and rouse the black church. Yet, they are very silent as those same churches are hollowed out with the fire of Bible Belt racism.

The destruction of black churches as overtly racist forms of terrorism and gendered violence has occurred throughout  America’s history. The truth is that any violent assault on the black church is a violent assault on more than half of our country’s black women. Jia Tolentino over at Jezebel points out that besides the 8 that are being whispered about in the news, “29 other black churches have burned within the last 18 months.”  We have yet to completely account for the countless others that were silently burned down in the years when commentary on the tragic state of race relations in America didn’t drive traffic to internet websites, news channels, and blogs. We know of white racists burning down churches and killing little girls, but we categorize those acts as dust left to settle in the past. America thrives on the silence which surrounds violence against black women. This silence is the same one that enables google to tag a young black girl as a gorrilla in an image, allows an Ohio police officer to break the jaw of a 12 year old black girl at a pool party, and perpetuates the most dangerous myth swirling in white America’s imagination: that black people feel less pain.

The truth is this: in 1963 four little girls were killed in the Birmingham church bombings, and 52 years later, in 2015, seven black women were murdered in a bible study group. Cynthia Hurd, the public librarian who was also killed at Emmanuel AME, was two years old in 1963. I can imagine her parents had cradled her in their arms, and thanked god for the blessing of having their own daughter safe in their home while vigilantly watching their television screens. I can see them  bravely breaching the collection plates of their own church to donate to the women that had lost their little girls to senseless white violence. I can only imagine.

In 2015, the death tolls aren’t decreasing. Misogynoir festers underneath the American psyche. Black women are routinely seen as violent by even other marginalized groups in our society. This makes it easy to denounce the mass violence that is enacted against us at both systematic and personal levels. Just as the death of Rekia Boyd, or the assault on Dymond Milborn, a twelve year old black girl who was beaten and kidnapped by police in front of her home, went unnoticed, so has the mass sterilizations, and the church burnings been ignored for what they are: violence against black women.