Recently, I talked to a young African American man, Andrew Roby, about the prevalence of racism in America. I argued that America needed to heal its racial wounds before it could move forward and reconcile its past with its present, to which he responded: “How can America’s racial wounds be healed if they are still open?”
Andrew Roby’s question remains painfully relevant. On April 4, 2015 Walter Scott—a human being, a black man, a father, friend, and son—was killed in North Charleston, South Carolina. A white male officer, Michael Slager, shot him in the back several times as he ran away. Walter Scott will never again hold his children, kiss his fiancée, embrace his parents, hang out with his friends, sing in the choir, or watch his beloved Dallas Cowboys play football. And nothing can bring him back.
Feidin Santana, who filmed the final moments of Scott’s life on his cell phone, waited to see how the police would report the death of Walter Scott before releasing his recording to authorities. As Adam Withnall of The Independent, reports, Santana “only came forward when the police’s version of events—that Mr. Scott had seized control of the officer’s Taser—appeared in the media.” On April 4, 2015 the open wounds of racial injustice widened further.
“God is tired of all this foolishness”
Injustice is not a figment of our imagination or a mirage. Denial of injustice disrespects its victims. It offers them no dignity. It ignores them, disregarding their experience as untrue. Still, solace can be achieved when those who confront racism speak their truth. In response to the suggestion that officer Slager may have dropped a taser gun next to her son’s limp body, Mrs. Scott asserts that “policemen are supposed to protect the people and not try to frame them or get out from what they’ve done wrong. They’re supposed to be honest people.” She holds onto the conviction that law enforcement officials ought to be just, even as she acknowledges the unjust, and often racially biased, practices some police officers condone in North Charleston, South Carolina.
Neither Walter Scott, Sr., nor Judy G. Scott knows what prompted the officer, Michael Slager, to shoot their son. Mr. Scott, Sr., said that he did not know whether the actions of the police officer were racially motivated or whether “there was something wrong with his head.” Still, Walter Scott, Sr., is “pretty sure that justice will be served, because God is in the plan.” He stresses that “God is tired of all this foolishness going on,” and that “God is going to finish [what others have] started.” Rather than turning away from his faith, Walter Scott, Sr., testified that God “has [his] back.”
Judy G. Scott echoes his sentiments, for though still immersed in grief, she does not deny where her strength comes from. She refuses to let rage rule her heart. She shares that “because of the love of God I feel forgiveness in my heart for the officer.” Mr. and Mrs. Scott, Sr., know they cannot cope with the loss of their son without Jesus. At the same time, their faith does not erase their hope that Michael Slager be tried for the crime he is charged with committing. Even God acknowledges that injustice exists. Even God teaches us “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:80). Even Jesus calls us to consider, “Have [we] neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith?” (Matthew 22:23)
The parents of Walter Scott are keeping the memory of their son alive by trying to make sense of the events leading up to his death. As Walter Scott, Sr., watched the video of his son running for his life, he admitted that he “couldn’t take it anymore,” and thought: “it can’t be.” In this moment, Walter Scott, Sr.—this father, husband, elder, and friend who loves his child—embraces his sorrow even as he stands up for the dignity of his son. As Walter Scott Sr., pointed out, “the way [officer Slager] was shooting that gun it looked like he was trying to kill a deer or something running through the woods.” His parents do not just see the back of their son but his whole person.
“I, Too, Sing America”— We, “Too, Sing America”
The testimonies of Walter Scott’s parents echo the importance Jesus places on listening to the voices of the disfranchised. Telling one’s own story, refusing to deny one’s experiences, and embracing the fullness of one’s complex humanity are some of the acts of courage and resistance that can enable us to experience solace and comfort in the midst of racial turmoil.
This sentiment was expressed at Walter Scott’s funeral through the reading of Langston Hughes’ poem, “I, Too, Sing America.”This poem gives voice to “the darker brother” who is marginalized and sent “to eat in the kitchen / When company comes.” He not only longs for, but believes he has a right to a seat at the table, even if that right is denied by those who want to relegate him to the role of servant. Indeed, he believes he has a crucial voice in the American conversation about race, identity, faith, civil liberties, and the dignity of personhood, even when his voice is ignored or silenced. Expressing his views is one way this brother takes his rightful seat at the table.
Like Hughes’ poetic character, Walter Scott’s parents sing their American story and that of their son when they honor his life and the injustice of his death. They see the fullness of his humanity. They see his beauty and are unashamed, even as they want those in authority—who do not see him—to, in the words of Langston Hughes’ “darker brother,” “see how beautiful [he is] / And be ashamed” of their actions and prejudice. And they give God thanks for Feidin Santana. Mrs. Scott believes that God guided Santana to capture the horrific scenes surrounding her son’s death. Such is their gratitude for his courage, Scott’s parents now claim Santana as “another son.”
“I’m gonna treat everybody right”
During her interview, Judy G. Scott, along with other family members and friends gather in her living room and sing Rev. James Moore’s “I Will Trust in the Lord.” The clip of this interview captures them repeatedly singing the lyrics: “I’m gonna treat everybody right.” This is not a performance. This is worship of the highest order. The conviction and faith of those gathered in the Scott’s living room confirm their commitment to “stay on the battlefield” until everybody “treat everybody right.” Their worship of God recognizes that there is a battlefield to “stay on.” As Lonnie Randolph, Jr, president of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP notes, “the South Carolina Department of Corrections imprisons more than 13,000 black men, who account for 65% of the prison population. Yet African Americans make up only 28% of the state’s entire population.” The Scotts have taken their rightful place at the table, even as they stand in America’s open racial wound and mourn the death of their beloved child. Through their testimonies, Walter Scott’s parents illustrate a belief in the God who sees and hears their experiences, their song, of injustice. At times, this will be a difficult song to sing. But they continue to celebrate a God who does not turn his back on the racial abuses they encounter. Their song is not just an American story, but a believer’s story.
Dr. Claudia May is a specialist in African American and Caribbean literature and popular culture, a spiritual writer, poet, and a spiritual director (see http://www.claudiamay.org/). She is a visiting scholar in the Department of African American Studies and African Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and a recipient of the Pacific School of Religion President’s award. She is a passionate follower of Jesus, a woman of prayer, and a lover of biblical stories and wisdom.