An appeal for grace: The white historian’s responsibility to radical empathy and refuting the “invented past”

On February 14th, 2017, Representative Joseph “Joe” Neal (D) from Richland County, South Carolina, died unexpectedly at age sixty-six. Rep. Neal served as a pastor, an advocate for environmental justice, and a civil rights activist. He descended from enslaved African Americans in lower Richland County, a rural and predominantly Black community south of Columbia, the state’s capital. Neal was a powerful voice during state legislature debates in summer 2015 over the Confederate flag, which had flown on the Statehouse grounds since 1961. These debates arose after Dylann Roof’s murder of nine African Americans at Charleston’s historic Emanuel A.M.E. Church that June. Rep. Neal called upon white legislators defending the flag under the guise of heritage to consider the suffering of not only the victims’ families, but also enslaved African Americans and their descendants, a reminder to those white legislators of the Confederate flag’s racist history. Grace, he argued, could emerge from this empathy and understanding. It was a moment for white legislators upset about the erasure of their heritage to consider the heritage of their Black neighbors and to allow grace into their hearts and cultivate a different understanding of history for the sake of the dead’s grieving families. Was it grace that touched those white legislators that summer, many of whom ultimately voted for the flag to be removed from its pole on the Statehouse grounds? I don’t know. We cannot rule out the power of political expediency.

Recent events in South Carolina remind us that grace alone cannot cure all ills. Rep. Neal died barely a month and a half after a jury in Charleston sentenced Dylann Roof to death for the murder of nine churchgoing people—because, as Roof wrote in his jailhouse journal, it would have more of an impact than if he killed a black drug dealer. One of them had been a member of South Carolina’s state Senate: a young, powerfully charismatic man, the forty-two year old Reverend Clementa Pinckney. He had the name of one of the oldest, richest white families in the state (two of whom, both slaveholders, signed the Constitution), a tarnished and bloodied badge that many Black families have been forced to bear. Pinckney, shrouded with grace, had invited the twenty-year-old into the church of the oldest African Methodist Episcopal congregation in the South to join him for Bible study. I won’t belabor this story, since its contours are all too familiar to many Americans, but I am always struck by one detail: Roof sat there, among these loving, warm people, for an hour before he pulled out a Glock .45. The gun was a birthday present from his father, loaded with eighty-eight bullets, a numeric symbol for “Heil Hitler,” popularized on the white supremacist websites that fed his racial hatred. What was he thinking about during that hour? After listening to them, sitting among them, how did he muster the murderous anger to pull that trigger seventy-seven times? He was in the presence of grace, and he denied it as violently as possible. He had an opportunity to turn away after that hour and to drive back to his home in Columbia, less than a two-hour drive up the pine-lined I-26, but he did not take it. He chose instead to kill, and he expected to be among the dead. The police, though, had not yet arrived when he walked out of the doors of the church, turning his back on the bodies of the men and women he had murdered. So he got into his car and drove away, until law enforcement captured him in North Carolina.


Mother Emanuel Church on Calhoun Street in Charleston, South Carolina. African Americans founded the A.M.E. congregation in 1816 and the church that stands today was completed in 1892. Image Courtesy REUTERS/Bryan Singer.

Dylann Roof was from Richland County, like Representative Neal. I am, too. In fact, I knew Dylann Roof’s older sister. We attended Dreher High School together, a public school in downtown Columbia that has a demography evenly split between Black and white. Roof’s sister was a grade ahead of me, and we participated in theater productions together. She was little and blonde, with large blue eyes. Years later, I saw those eyes transposed onto the face of her younger brother, Dylann, staring out unfamiliarly hooded and dull from the pages of newspapers. Dylann went to Hand Middle School, which I attended, and there he overlapped with my little sister for a year. She didn’t know him, but she knows people who did. One of them recalled that Roof often spent afternoons smoking weed by the dumpsters behind the Target five minutes from my parents’ house.

My father met Rep. Neal a few times. Though my dad is the head of the statistics department at the University of South Carolina, he is also a dedicated environmentalist who has spent the past couple decades fighting to ensure protections of Congaree National Park, the largest remaining fragment of old-growth floodplain forest in the country. Congaree, the only national park in South Carolina, is located in lower Richland County, Rep. Neal’s home and his district. One of Rep. Neal’s dearest causes was improving lower Richland County residents’ access to clean drinking water. My father, for whom that issue meshed well with safeguarding the health of the Congaree River and its watershed, got to know him at public hearings on the subject. Roof also spent time in lower Richland County, living for a while within a stone’s throw of Mr. Bunky’s, an area landmark. It’s a catch-all country store, the sort of establishment where bags of chicken feed slump next to coolers of Coca-Cola, and from which, when I was young, my dad and I bought bales of hay for our dog Lizzie’s backyard enclosure. Roof practiced shooting guns, including the Glock, on a lot nearby, maybe framed with tall pines and scrubby oaks growing in sandy soil, like so many of the spread-out lots that checkerboard the agrarian landscape.

This must sound almost folksy — a town in the South where everyone knows each other, or each other’s family, or some piece of gossip — and it might be, if it weren’t for the patina of blood. Proximity does not guarantee compassion. In the South, it’s often been the reverse: the closer whites and African Americans are, the more whites push themselves away. We’ve made racial hierarchy more rigid, using racism to reassure ourselves that we are indeed better than our Black neighbors. It’s an ingenious but ultimately vicious, self-defeating strategy. James Baldwin wrote extensively about what this racism has done to the white soul. In a clip from the powerful new documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2017), he calls it “the death of the heart.” He argued that racism has created a division in the private and public lives of white Americans, rendering them unable to practice public empathy — grace, as Rep. Neal might have called it. Baldwin, in his book The Fire Next Time (1963), described it as an “inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives,” a profound distrust of the self that makes any incisive, revelatory discussion of the racial reality of America nigh impossible.[1] Until white people open themselves to public empathy — to grace — and interrogate why, as Baldwin puts it, we have constructed the concept of and need the “n—–,” that conversation cannot happen. Roof needed to believe in that myth, and, like so many whites before him, he killed Black Americans to maintain it.

As an effort against this violence, those of us who are white should allow grace and empathy, imbued with a deep sense of history, to guide our political conversations. Rep. Neal asked us for it. Reverend Pinckney did too.[2] In a speech to the state senate in May 2015, a mere month before his death, Pinckney made a stirring plea. After Walter Scott was shot to death in North Charleston by a white police officer in April 2015, a bipartisan group of legislators, including Pinckney, introduced a bill that would require police officers to wear body cameras. The goal was to increase police accountability. Pinckney, in his steady, resonant voice, told the story of Jesus’s disciple Thomas, who refused to believe that Jesus was dead until he stuck his fingers into Jesus’s mortal wounds. An onlooker filmed Scott’s death, which, Pinckney argued, encouraged the public—the white public—to finally believe that a police officer would gun down an unarmed, innocent Black man in retreat. Witnessing deaths would, Pinckney hoped, diminish denial of racially motivated murders by police. Pinckney said that the use of body cameras would “allow sunshine into this process.” Recognizing that white people kill Black people because of racism, and passing a piece of legislation with that understanding, did not need to be an ugly, accusatory thing. Instead, it could be an opportunity for some long-needed change and racial progress. The white American public has been, in so many ways, like Thomas, refusing to believe that their institutions were racist, even when witness to lifeless Black bodies. What does it take to instill that empathy? Walter Scott’s death, even after the video of his murder emerged, did not. Roof’s hour with Black congregants discussing the Bible did not. The significance of his murder of nine of them didn’t seem to reach many white legislators during the debate over the Confederate flag. They couldn’t make the connection between their private empathy for their white ancestors who fought and perhaps died during the Civil War, and the need for public, historicized empathy, which would necessitate not just the removal of the Confederate flag, but the transformation of the systems of racism and capitalism that have so long shaped southern politics.

Both sides of my mother’s family, going back a full three hundred years, were born in South Carolina, a genealogy that my sister and I verified after scouting around on last winter. We also discovered that at least one generation enslaved African Americans, a history with which neither my sister and I nor my mother grew up knowing. After the Civil War, they lost their human capital through emancipation and began a descent into poverty that, a century later, had erased her family’s memory of class privilege — though that privilege of forgetting was surely not granted to the descendants of those enslaved African Americans. My grandparents, children during the Great Depression, lived on farms that successively failed or were sold off. My grandpa, a Vietnam War veteran who was missing in action for nine months and exposed to Agent Orange, died of acute leukemia when I was seven, after years struggling with alcoholism and PTSD. My grandma, now eighty, is a petite woman who is happiest sitting on the back porch of the small, impeccably clean house that she and my grandpa bought, looking over her peaceful yard and into the woods beyond the chain link fence. Railroad tracks lie seventy-five feet into those woods, though trains are scarcer these days than before. She is kind, she is sweet, she has weathered a difficult life, and in the twenty years since my grandfather’s death she has worked to build a more contented, independent life for herself — not an easy task for a woman who grew up within the toxic confines of the particular sexism, gendered violence, and class strife common in the rural South. She has, I think, the private empathy that Baldwin wrote of.

My mother visited my grandmother around the Fourth of July in 2015, two weeks after Roof’s massacre. Granny had, in past years, decorated her kitchen table with a mason jar filled with both American and Confederate flags for the holiday. Poor white southerners have long searched for and participated in the construction of identities that empower them or explain their own financial and sociocultural straits. Adopting and creating racist symbols and ideals is an old solution that poor white southerners have a history of embracing and that wealthy white southern politicians in particular have encouraged and manipulated to their benefit. This year, though, the Confederate flags were missing from the display. My mother, a progressive English professor, complimented Granny, saying that she liked how cheery the house looked — though she did not comment explicitly on the absent Confederate flags. Granny flashed her a canny look and said, “It was time for them to go.”

What consciousness had she gained? Was it a small step towards public empathy? Or was it fear of appearing overtly racist? Was it some of both? I do not know. What I must admit here is my own uncertainty on that subject, and others. I had multiple conversations with my mother about the inclusion of this story and my depiction of my grandmother. We were unsure that this essay could adequately capture the complexity of her life, which is sketchily and incompletely (though hopefully not unkindly) represented here, without diverging too much away from the purpose of the piece. I’ve decided, honestly, that I am unable to fulfill that task, and that I must simply say that there is much here unexplained and unsaid, especially on the dynamics of class, race, and gender. Writing about living people and the recently deceased requires due diligence and an empathy of its own, and piecing together this essay has given me a revived appreciation for offering that empathy to those long dead, too. My adviser during my undergraduate years at Middlebury College, Dr. Anne Knowles, often told her students that admitting uncertainty within their academic work was not a bad thing—that honesty was better than a lie of omission, and that it kept a door open for further research and exploration at another, more appropriate time.[3] I’m applying that advice here and now.

I do know a few things, however. I think the role of the historian is clear: we can provide the context, the history, to inform a new ethics of empathy and grace. We can do history, for history is, after all, not a passive collection of events but a tool that reveals the ugliness of racism and its entrenchment in the white American soul. Baldwin wrote that accepting one’s past “is not the same as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.”[4] The wrongheaded, “invented past” — the past that those white legislators preferred, that whitewashed the Civil War and uplifted Confederate veterans at the expense of liberated slaves, and the false past of profligate rape of white women that Roof embraced to justify his violence — is an unstable thing.[5] It corrupts the white soul and reifies racism. We white historians should push ourselves to practice public empathy in our writing, our research, and our teaching. It is time to learn how to use our past, rather than ignoring it or succumbing to white guilt. We academics cannot alone undo the legacies of racism — though to start, we can do our best to recognize and tear down our own — but the practice of doing history that expresses grace and empathy is of urgent importance.

This call to empathy is not a naïve one, with an overreliance on a shallow liberal sentimentalism that glibly elides the valuable uses that emotions like anger and sorrow can have. Indeed, this empathy, the sort that Baldwin wrote of and that Neal and Pinckney both evoked, has a radicalism to it. As Baldwin famously wrote in “A Talk to Teachers” (1963), American history, filled with pain and grace, is “longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” That is a worthy lifelong project to dedicate ourselves to: writing a truer history that requires both exposing the terror and beauty of the past and understanding our personal role in it. Let us not make the mistakes — inadvertent or intentional — that so many of our legislators, our classmates, our neighbors, or our families have made in conjuring a distorted vision of American history, misattributing patterns of violence, and refusing to extend radical empathy to others in our present and our past. Entertaining those delusions of history does real violence. Instead, let us cultivate a profession with a keen, clear-eyed, radical sense of empathy, both public and private — the historicized understanding of suffering, of violence, of bigotry, and of what grace looks like when we find it.


It would be remiss of me not to include former President Barack Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckey, in which he too evokes grace.

[1] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 1963, (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 43.

[2] My favorite piece on Dylann Roof’s trial is this co-written essay by Shani Gilchrist and Alison Kinney, both journalists and women of color, who reflect on their methods of survival in the face of the various bigotries that threaten their communities. It’s movingly, beautifully written, and they, like Rep. Neal and Rev. Pinckney, encourage empathy, too – though from a different set of perspectives and aimed in different directions than I discuss here.

[3] One thing that I hope this piece conveys is what a communal effort thinking about and doing history can be. I could not write this without careful consideration for the voices of activists, writers, and thinkers who have pondered similar issues, drawing on both a wider academic and a smaller personal pool. For example, Erstwhile editor and friend Alessandra Link pointed out that Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark (2004) contains valuable insight on the intersection of hope and uncertainty: “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes–you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think everything will be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.” From Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2004), xiv.

[4] Baldwin, 83.

[5] Ibid., 81.

I should add, finally, that the title, while I didn’t realize the connection when I wrote it, could be an allusion to David Walker’s famous “Appeal.”

2 thoughts on “An appeal for grace: The white historian’s responsibility to radical empathy and refuting the “invented past”

  1. Pingback: Historians Speak: A Collection of Resources, by Historians, on Charlottesville and the Charged Politics of Civil War Memory | Erstwhile: A History Blog

  2. Pingback: Moving away from monuments: Doing southern history well at two South Carolina house museums | Erstwhile: A History Blog

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