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My Head Is Bloody, But Unbowed (In Memory of Mother Emanuel 9)
7/1/2015 3:44:36 PM

By Beverly Gadson-Birch 

This year my family, the Thomas & Sarah Robinson Memorial Reunion, will be celebrating our 54th family reunion in my beloved hometown of Charleston—blood stained Charleston. It will be a teachable moment for them when we make Mother Emanuel our first stop on our city tour. 

One of our family members, Rev. John H. Gillison, is a part of the church’s history.  He served as a former pastor of Emanuel AME Church and recently retired as Presiding Elder of the Edisto District. The Fourth of July is synonymous with freedom but are we really free?  

Are we celebrating—the birth of a nation or the destruction of our nation? Celebrations are reserved for things of joy.  While I am not feeling joyous right about now and while my people are still yet oppressed, I am more determined than ever to run this race for equality for all people.  Sometimes I get weary like most human rights fighters do and I think about throwing in the towel, then something as atrocious as the Emanuel 9 killings comes along and causes me to rethink my purpose—and that is to serve and be of service to the least among us.
The words of William Ernest Henley’s Invictus “my head is bloody but unbowed” expresses my true feeling leading up to this Fourth of July weekend and beyond.  Let me just share that entire poem with you so that the message is clear.  Sometimes we just need to be reminded of who and whose we are, where we came from and let nothing shake our faith and our resolve. I saw that determination in Presiding Elder Goss, the AME Church and families of the victims as they moved quickly to forgive the shooter. It doesn’t matter how horrific the crime, the shooter did not triumph in his dastardly deed.  He could not destroy the souls.  Henley expresses so well how one can rise above or live your life in spite of your circumstances in his poem, Invictus.

“Out of the night that covers me
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever God may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced not cried aloud
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how straight the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”

How can America be the beautiful with blood stained hands?  How can we call America beautiful when her hands are stained with the blood of slaves, the incarceration of the innocent, stolen elections, unequivocal racism, and prejudicial opportunities? How can America be the beautiful when she allows the Confederate Flag to fly alongside the American Flag?  How can America be beautiful when she fills her belly with Caviar while every night millions of her children go to sleep hungry?

What kind of mother country is America when she fights against her birth son’s, President Obama, healthcare bill to provide free health care for all of her children who served her well during their youth but now as they grow old cannot afford basic health care?  What kind of mother would do such a thing to her child? As you make your way around town to the cookouts with your fork in one hand and aluminum foil in the other, think of what freedom really means to you.

Freedom is not about eating all that you can eat; or drinking all that you can drink.  It’s not about drive by shootings or spousal abuse.  Freedom is more than a state of being.    Freedom is when you wake up in the morning and you have food on your table. Freedom is being able to pay your bills and have a few dollars left over because you have a job paying more than minimum wages.  Freedom is when you apply for a job and get it based on qualifications and not color.  Freedom is when you can drive your Lexus or BMW without getting pulled over and  shot in the back.
Frederick Douglas, one of the greatest orators that ever lived wrote, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”.  America was in its infancy stage when Frederick Douglas delivered this eloquent speech to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society at Rochester Hall, Rochester NY.  I want to take this opportunity to share a few of Douglas’ thoughts with you as you get ready to rock and roll for the Fourth of July.  Mr. Douglas wanted America to know that there was still some unfinished business and that “liberty and justice” were not free for all.  Many of the slaves died not ever knowing what it was like to be free.

Excerpts from “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Fellow citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! Whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.  If I do forget,  if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “May my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.  My subject, then fellow-citizens, is American slavery.  I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view.”

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?  I answer:  a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.  To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy— a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.  There is not a nation on this earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”

The best way for Charleston to honor Mother Emanuel 9 is to never, ever forget how destructive racism can be and work to erase the root causes. If you cut off the head, the tail will die. Black folk did not ask to come to the shores of America.  Our ancestors were forcibly transported, shackled as slaves in the bottom of wet, dark ships and thrown overboard to the sharks when they became sick or food became scarce.  That is Black history. That is fact history.  That is America’s History.


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