Keeping The Doors Open

Hospitality, Hostility, & History in Charleston

By Professor Robert Bernasconi (Pennsylvania State University) & William Paris (Pennsylvania State University)

July 14, 2016             Picture: Randall Hill/REUTERS

This article is part of The Critique’s May/June 2016 Issue “Black Lives Matter (Part II): Understanding The New Movement For Racial Justice”

We would like to begin our short reflection with the moments – an hour or so – on June 17, 2015 that Dylann Storm Roof spent at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston in the company of the congregation, including nine of the people whom he would go on to murder.

By his own testimony “everyone was so nice” that he hesitated to go through with his plans. The members of Mother Emanuel, welcomed him and he responded with violence. They showed him hospitality and they almost broke through the hatred that he had learned from the internet and elsewhere, but in the end that hatred was so deeply embedded in his psyche that he could not respond in kind. They welcomed him as a friend and a guest. He was free to come and go as he wanted: the doors of the church are always open. But he responded as an enemy and held them hostage before shooting them.

It would be naïve to suppose that the church members did not see that Roof was white, but they welcomed him in his uniqueness. By contrast, he saw them through the lens of race. He reportedly said: “I have to do it.” What was the basis of this compulsion that for some reason he felt he had to explain to them before killing them?

His justification began: “You rape our women.” This was the accusation that had for decades been leveled against Black men by White men to account for the hatred that would express itself in beatings or lynching. Roof extended this expression of hatred beyond Black men to the whole race.

He accused six women – Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson – along with three men – Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, and their pastor, Clementa C. Pinckney, of rape, because he could see their race but apparently not their gender. To be sure, he was aware of White women as women, but he took ownership of them: they were “our” women. He was acting on their behalf because they apparently could not act on their own behalf.

By contrast, the Black women of Mother Emmanuel were to be treated as agents who were responsible for the acts that, he claimed without any justification, were being committed by others whose only connection with them was the color of their skin.

A logic of sexual difference complicates the racial narrative that he wanted to present as justification and it operates through a chain of substitutions and erasures here: Roof substitutes white masculinity for his place in the room; he substitutes “the myth of Black rapists” for the Black men in the room; the white women he claims to protect, while present in his statement, were absent from the room; the Black women who were his disproportionate victims, while absent from his statement, were present in the room. Roof did not only extinguish vulnerable life, but foreclosed singularity by subsuming his victims under a hostile concept of Blackness. In order to carry out his violence he made his victims other than what he knew they were so that he did not kill only their bodies, but their subjectivity.

Roof was a guest who considered himself as a host. It is impossible for us not to think here of Jacques Derrida’s observation that in the French language the word hôte can mean either guest or host. Derrida writes, “So it is indeed the master, the one who invites, the inviting host, who becomes the hostage—and who really always has been. And the guest, the invited hostage, becomes the one who invites, the master of the host. The guest becomes the host’s host. The guest (hôte) becomes the host (hôte) of the host (hôte).” (Derrida, 2000: p. 123- 125). This seems to describe what happened. And yet Derrida continues: “These substitutions make everyone into everyone else’s hostage. Such are the laws of hospitality.”(Derrida, 2000: p. 123- 125).

But is this the case? Does everyone become everyone else’s hostage when there are White people who think of this as a White man’s country? That conviction short-circuits the logic of hospitality.

Roof’s explanation continued: “You‘re taking over our country.” He claimed that African Americans had taken over a country that in his view belonged to him because he was White. He was the guest of the members of Mother Emmanuel but on the pretext that the United States belonged to White people, and not its original inhabitants, they were his unwanted guests. And they were not welcome.

All of this led Roof to his conclusion that “you have to go.” He meant by this that he would inflict the death sentence upon them. It is not a classic syllogism but it was effectively the same logic that had been used to justify the enslavement of Africans denied the right to live as alleged prisoners of war or as presumed rapists or perpetrators of some other fabricated crime.

Nothing that Roof thought he knew about US history was his own invention, either in these few brief sentences or in what is now known as his manifesto, a document widely circulated in the aftermath of the murders. The manifesto is also revealing for what he claims made him racially aware. On his account Whites are not as aware of race as Blacks are, so he offers the explanation that he became aware of race after reading about Trayvon Martin on Wikipedia after which he concluded that George Zimmerman was innocent. Further searches led him to a page about Black on White crime. According to him this radicalized him and racialized him.

Whereas he accused Blacks of viewing everything through a racial lens, he was the one in this context who could see only race, but it is important to our argument that he did so by adopting a false view of history that is allowed to circulate in this country about slavery and segregation.

Racist epithets are no longer socially acceptable in so-called polite company and there is a taboo against appealing to bad science to justify unsustainable opinions about racial hierarchy, but a false history that ignores the facts of the United States is perpetuated.

To be sure, there is some pushback by the media when, as in a recently published school textbook, slaves are referred to simply as workers, but dishonesty about the history of the United States even extends to a Black President who was alive during the Civil Rights Movement calling this country the world’s oldest democracy.

White people have to take responsibility for the fact that they allow historical falsehoods every bit as dangerous as scientific falsehoods to be repeated ad nauseam because it was these narratives that blinded Roof and enabled him, as his manifesto revealed, to understand himself as the defender of a proud civilization under threat. He adopted a rhetoric from others that still remains intact.

Nothing reveals this better than the self-congratulatory way in which the confederate flag, that since 2000 had stood proudly in front of the South Carolina statehouse where Clementa C. Pinckney served as a senator, was removed.

The flag was taken down grudgingly and far too late. Yet, it was the least that could be done after it was found that Roof, who posted photographs of himself burning the Stars and Stripes, proudly deployed the Confederate flag as a backdrop to photographs of himself found on his website.

It was the least that could be done after nine people were assassinated and, as the least that could be done, it was done so that White people could move on in the understanding that they had made yet another concession to what was made to seem like an unreasonable demand by Blacks.

The persistence of this flag in public places had served as the legitimation of a certain narrative within the various narratives concerning American history, but there was little sign of those people who had once defended the flag distancing themselves from the narrative that had been built around the flag.

Instead we heard that the flag should be removed because Black people were offended by it, as if this was somehow news to them. Removing the flag, this symbol of hatred, was made to seem like a generous gesture performed to assuage the oversensitive who did not understand the true Southern values of honor and the virtues of White womanhood for which the flag stood [See Corlett for a detailed discussion of the moral justification for removing the confederate flag].

The point is not to turn Roof into a victim, a victim of a false narrative perpetuated by Southern politicians and media personalities some of whom know better, but if one accepts his own account of the motivation for his actions, his alleged insanity was simply that he took literally the stories that White Americans have to tell themselves so that they can feel better about themselves as White and as Americans.

If Roof was insane, if he was mad, mad about Blacks raping “our women” and “taking over our country,” it was because he had been introduced to an absurdly dishonest history of the United States that all White people have a responsibility to challenge at every opportunity.

Roof’s crime against that historical narrative was that he allowed the dots to be drawn linking a White mythology protected by free speech and the criminal way in which Blacks are treated in their own country. So the confederate flag had to go and Roof’s insanity has to be established.

How insane is Roof? What did Roof think when the people he came to kill were “nice” to him? Did that tell him something about them? Or was it all about him? Did he think their hospitality was because these Black people who, according to the manifesto, see everything through the lens of race, were nice to him because he was White?

The intimacy Roof shared with the congregation gives pause for thought. These “guests” in “our country” surprised him. He professed his duty to take the law into his own hands (“I have to do it”) in order to protect vulnerable White women no longer secure in the face of the misogynistic masculinity of Black men (“You rape our women”) and went ahead and killed six Black women, all because he had come to believe that what had to be destroyed was Black culture and therefore everybody that perpetuates it.

Why this invocation of “duty”? Did he not want to commit this heinous act of violence? And who bestowed this duty upon him (we may presume that it is symbolic white masculinity)? What are we to make of his desire to expel them from his “home” by entering their home? And why did he think it important to tell the world that he almost did not go through with it because of the welcome they gave him?

So intent on re-enforcing the narrative of Black criminality, how did this fit into the story he wanted to convey? Could he not trust his own feelings because he had been so fully indoctrinated? Could this hesitation on his part have been for him anything other than a moment of weakness? Is this evidence that if Blacks continue to be welcoming to Whites, then eventually everything will improve? How many more assassinations will it take? Do we want to believe that? Can we believe that?

These questions cannot be the last word because that must lie with the survivors of the massacre and also the relatives of the survivors who forgave Roof. The members of the congregation in welcoming him in his singularity and so not seeing him through the lens of race had already disconnected him from the racial history that he wanted to represent in his actions toward them. He was in a sense already forgiven – without asking for forgiveness – for that history with which he identified. And this same Black culture that Roof wanted to destroy responded to his actions with an act of forgiveness that transcends every historical narrative because it does not make sense in terms of the cause and effect of history. In forgiving Roof the survivors have chosen to keep the doors of the church open. And the possibility of another history.

Footnotes & References

[1] Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality, trans. by Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), p. 123- 125. 


Robert Bernasconi is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Philosophy and African American Studies at Penn State University. He is the editor of the journal Critical Philosophy of Race and the author of two books on Heidegger and one on Sartre as well as numerous essays on various aspects of critical philosophy of race and continental philosophy.

William Paris Official

William Paris is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Penn State University with a focus on 20th Century Continental Philosophy, Critical Philosophy of Race, and Feminist Philosophy. His dissertation will focus on developing an ontology of Blackness through the work of Continental Philosophy and Black Feminist thinkers. He is attempting to construct an account of race and gender that is not bound to the theological and political heritage of the concept of sovereignty and thus will allow for a different understanding of the state and its relationship to systemic racism and sexism.

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