By Denise Miller
“…it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” ― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
It is important for me to be able to write this today. In the wake of this horrific crime in Charleston, to keep the families of these murdered in our hearts and minds, please take this space for a moment of silence. .
Now, however, it is time to speak because it is equally important to hold all those accountable who would paint this 21-year-old man, this product of a deeply and historically violent and racist society, as a “deranged individual.” Doing so allows any person in this country – including the racist citizen and the citizen who refuses to believe that racism still exists in and is practiced by the sane minds of those living here – to refuse to see this deeply embedded racism as the thread that wove the fabric of this country. It also allows them to refuse to understand that racism is a learned behavior based on an American Values curriculum written by some of our so-called greatest thinkers and founding fathers. It is an historic curriculum implemented by local, state and federal governments, religious leaders, organizations, and by parents and other caregivers at dinner time around the family table. It has been, and still is, taught by the sane, and our citizens have been, and clearly still are, tested on it over and over again in this country’s lifetime. We then cannot call this 21-year-old “deranged” or justify his behavior by naming his act an act of mental illness.
He is, unfortunately, product of an education system – both public and homeschool – that did and is continuing to do its job immaculately. It is a system whose pupils, faculty, staff and administration must be held accountable but won’t be if we put him and his actions in a box and set them aside as an anomaly or make them a kind of innocent as we do when we label someone mentally ill. When our past presidents, government officials, religious leaders and founding fathers shared his sentiments, we did not label them “deranged”. We now in fact label them a product of their time so that we can excuse the fact that they created this violent and racist system with the same “brilliant” minds that they created some of our most revered documents and policies. The truth is, that they held slaves and talked freedom. They allow/ed black people to be lynched and killed in other horrific ways and, at the same time, talked peace. They allow/ed segregation and gentrification while they talk/ed the American Dream. This 21-year-old has been under their tutelage and so has his father, mother, grandfather, grandmother and so on. He has learned deeply and well.
Refusal, then, to see this 21-year-old’s horrifically violent action as the result of an American Values curriculum is refusal to look at the curriculum itself, beginning with our Declaration of Independence and continuing through the words that leave the mouths of our governors and senators, police officers and so-called friends, the words that get tossed around teachers lounges and boardrooms and city streets, around courtrooms and dinner tables and Facebook and Twitter. All of these words are all a part of a curriculum that may have resulted in the following end of semester or end of year coursework by American pupil-citizens: the science fair projects manifested in the lynching and flaying of thousands of black men and women, and the postcards of their charred and bloated bodies that served as correspondence course materials that were inspired by textbooks such as Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia and have birthed such dissertations as the study of Eugenics and anthropological studies such as segregation which have created such practical applications as a 21-year-old getting and loading a gun, entering a church, seeking out and sitting by its minister (a state senator), listening to the service for 40 minutes, allegedly making this statement: “I have to do it. . .You rape our women and are taking over our country. You have to go,” and then opening fire, leaving 6 women and 3 men murdered.
The results of the test, you wonder? Did he pass? According to the curriculum he studied, he solved 9, but I am not sure just how many problems this American Values curriculum identified for him to solve. What is clear is that his words are only the echo of a speech taught, learned and repeated in the same faithful and patriotic manner as the Star Spangled Banner or the Pledge of Allegiance. For any of us to deny this would be to make him and this country innocent while giving up our own to find all of our fingerprints on the bullets loaded in the gun of the 21-year-old pupil of the American Values curriculum.
Denise Miller, born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, and raised in Cadiz, Ohio, is a Kalamazoo Valley Community College instructor, artist, poet, and community activist.