Yes, I have strong opinions, and no, I don’t often express my political opinions. For many reasons. I respect other people to have a right to their opinion, and I don’t want to cultivate an exchange of comments with strangers with whom I strongly disagree. It is highly likely neither person will change a single thought in the other.
Still, I am a woman who lives by words. I love them, I value them, and the words people use are the words that define them.
On Wednesday, a White gunman opened fire in Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and killed nine people. I am not using his name, because I do not want it indexed on Google and magnified.
What does this have to do with words? The first news stories used words like “tragedy,” “heartbreak,” and “sad” which don’t begin to describe this. But they are the words we reach for again and again. We used them in 2012 when we read about Sandy Hook elementary school where a gunman killed 20 children.
We used those words in May 2014, when a man stabbed and shot six people in Isla Vista, California. We repeated those words about Ferguson, Missouri and in New York and Florida. We use those words and then, feeling justified, we go on to the next story. A new tragedy we can shake our heads over.
The follow-up stories are also all too familiar. Fox news talking heads have discussions that say the shooting was not about race, but part of a war on Christians, although the gunman shouted racial remarks before he opened fire. The NRA releases publicity that implies that more ministers should carry guns in church. The usual “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” tropes are circulated. Tired words that magnify anger and fear.
The next wave of words define the killer as “mentally ill,” and “loner.” That is doing a disservice to mental illness. There are people in the world who were raised to hate and who grow up hating. They are not mentally ill. They are evil. There is a difference, and it’s huge.
We have exhausted words that we need to be more careful with. Words have power. Words have lasting effects. We define ourselves in our words.
Here are the words that need to be said: these are the names of the people who were shot down for no other reason except hatred on Wednesday. These are the names of people who will be forgotten by the American public in a week after their funerals. These are the names of mothers and fathers who will not come home to their children, librarians who will no longer contribute to uncovering facts and creativity, voices who will not sing in a choir or teach, love and have opinions.
Myra Thompson, 59, a church member
Depayne Middleton, 49, admissions counselor of Southern Wesleyan University
Daniel Simmons Sr., 74.
State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, 41
Ethel Lance, 70, and her cousin Susie Jackson, 87
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a track coach at Goose Creek High School
Cynthia Hurd, 54, a branch manager at the Charleston County Public Library
Tywanza Sanders, 26, a graduate of Allen University
This loss was preventable. It begins with changing ideas you have about race and fear, hatred and separation. This did not happen to other people, far away. We are much more connected than that. Words connect us and separate us. And we have a lot of difficult conversations that can no longer be avoided.
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Today is Juneteenth, the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. In 1865, Major General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas. He brought news that the Civil War had ended and that slaves were now free. This was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was made official on January 1, 1863. Slavery lasted longer in Texas simply because communication was slow.
Racism didn’t end with that declaration. Racism won’t end until we admit is exists and work to end it because we want fairness and justice more than we want to be better than someone else.
—Quinn McDonald values words and change. It is time.