Penny For Your Thoughts: What Would You Say To Dylann Roof?

June 22, 2015  |  

“We enjoyed you.”

Those were some of the words that Felicia Sanders offered on Friday to Dylan Roof, the 21-year-old gunman who–viciously, incomprehensibly, heartlessly and hatefully–killed her 26-year-old son, Tywanza Sanders.

Just two days after that now infamous Wednesday night prayer meeting and Bible study during which Tywanza jumped into the line of fire to protect his aunt, his mother stood in court to say “We enjoyed you to the man who killed him.

Felicia Sanders certainly didn’t hide her pain. “Every fiber in my body hurts,” she cried. “I will never be the same.”

“Tywanza Sanders was my son, but Tywanza was also my hero. Tywanza was my hero. But as we say in Bible study,” she continued. “We enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you.” 

Appealing to God for mercy I get. When we ask for God to have mercy, it’s still God who’s handling the mercy-extending duties and not us. Even so, when a woman beseeches God on behalf of her son’s murderer, it’s still incredibly noble and unfathomably generous.  But for that woman to also say “We enjoyed you,” an acknowledgment that goes well beyond one-upping that other noble sentiment, “I forgive you”–well, that’s a remarkable feat of emotional generosity and spiritual fortitude.

Think about it: Could you say “We enjoyed” you to the man who savagely gunned down your bright-smiling, big-dreaming, has-his-whole-life-ahead-of-him 26-year-old son? Could you say “We enjoyed you” to the man who sat near you in a church pew and who you might’ve been glad to see when he first walked through the doors–before he discharged his .45 caliber pistol?

I can just hear the collective sound of “Amen” and see the nods of approval as the congregants saw that bloodthirsty, deceitful man, Dylann Roof, enter the church basement for Bible study. It turns my stomach to imagine the worshippers thanking God for the presence of an unfamiliar face, a new soul whom they might inspire. Meanwhile, that unknown person was merely lurking, waiting for the right time to kill.

I don’t know if I could do it. I don’t know if I could say “We enjoyed you” to such a repugnant individual. 

See, in my family, “We enjoyed you” is what you say when it’s time for a loved one who’s visiting from out of town to return home. Everybody stands at the front door and takes turns saying, “Let me hug your neck before you go” to the soon to be departed. And when that person is tightly in your arms, you say, “We enjoyed you” to let them know that everyone, not just you, is so glad they came.

Sure, my family and I could say “I enjoyed you,” but we like to individually say “We enjoyed you” to reiterate that, in our family, one person’s love speaks for the whole group. We say “we” on behalf of the next person, who may or may not be there. We say “we” because we know none of us stands alone.

I’ve grown up hearing and saying “We enjoyed you” for as long as I can remember. But now, after Emanuel AME and Sister Sanders, I hear that sentiment in a new way.

As far as I can tell, Felicia Sanders might be the only one extending those kind words, or any kind words for that matter, toward Roof in the aftermath of his racist rampage. The rest of us surely aren’t feeling as generous. Or, at least, I know I’m not. And I know my mother is not. My mother’s voice rises angrily like steam from a tea kettle when she talks about the massacre. She hates that Roof is being described as “fresh-faced” or even “a young man.”

“He’s an assassin, dammit,” she scoffs.

For my mother, for me and for nearly everyone I know, anger is the abiding emotion right now. We are like the frustrated woman who taunted Don Lemon and shouted “We’re mad! We’re angry! Tell the truth!” during a live CNN broadcast from Charleston. At first, the woman is talking loudly off-camera, but she eventually comes into frame to provoke Lemon. “Don, are you angry? Uncle Tom! Hello?” she asks.

Now, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, at times like this, we ought to be careful about how and at whom we aim our outrage. I’m not convinced it’s ever helpful when we call another Black person Uncle Tom, but it seems especially imprudent to sling such harsh characterizations at each other right now.

We could continue to tangle and argue with each other about what’s the right emotional response to the continued oppression of Black folks. Or, on behalf of Charleston’s Bible-studying victims, we could “wrestle not against flesh and blood” as that familiar scripture says.

Our attitudes will likely not reach the “We enjoyed you” end of the spectrum; it might be that we will feel stuck at the opposite “We’re mad! We’re angry!” end for a long time to come. Then again, maybe we won’t settle on either feeling or any one feeling at all. We might take a double Dutch approach, jumping from feeling to feeling from one moment to the next.

Our unity as a people, however, is not based on us all feeling the same way, thinking the same way or even seeing eye to eye. Our unity might just be a matter of never forgetting that Felicia Sanders said “We enjoyed you” to an assassin two days after he had slain her son.

Did she mean to show a sincere appreciation of Roof when she said those words? Maybe not. That phrase was likely a heart-wrenching thing for her to utter. She likely said those words with great disbelief (and, presumably, much regret), because she and other churchgoers had embraced the small flicker of light in a deadly human being overcome by hate and darkness.

Imagine the bravery and vulnerability it would take for you to say those words, “We enjoyed you”even if you were only saying “We enjoyed you” just to marvel at how true they no longer seemed.

You killed my son. But “We enjoyed you.” You talked with us for an hour and then you killed some of us, not all of us, but a lot of us, too many of us. But “We enjoyed you.” You planned. But “We enjoyed you.” You plotted. But “We enjoyed you. You spoke hideous words of hate to us and about us. But “We enjoyed you. 

I’m sure my family and I will continue saying “We enjoyed you” to visiting loved ones who are about to embark on their journey home. From now on, however, I will not think of those words or that sentiment in the same way.  

Saying “We enjoyed you” to a beloved cousin who drove 500 miles to Oklahoma from Louisiana is one thing. But I don’t know that I could ever say such words to a murderous bigot who drove 98.1 miles to massacre my friends and my child.

Could you?

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