Saturday, July 16, 2022

Apology Not Accepted

The other day after the seventh installment of the January 6th Insurrection hearings, there was this viral Kodak moment: Stephen Ayers, who testified about why he was inspired to come to DC that day, made this great magnanimous gesture of stopping to personally apologize to the Office Harry Dunn of the Capitol Police. For those who haven't been watching these hearings, Officer Dunn has been a ubiquitous presence since the first episode of these proceedings. And while the photog who took that million dollar shot was thinking "Pulitzer baby," in my mind, Officer Dunn was thinking: "So is this apology for threatening my Black life or for disrespecting my blue uniform? I wonder what wifey wants for dinner tonight...I think it is Tuesday, so tacos it is." (And yeah, I know folks are a little unsure if we can even joke about tacos this week but stay with me here.)

That evening, Dunn appeared on MSNBC and responded to a question about the apology. And for the first time that I have ever witnessed such a bold sentiment in public, this Black man said no thanks. Now since I don't read alt-right social media, I can only imagine how upset that has made some of the folks who feel entitled to Black forgiveness. But dammit, he's within his rights to deny absolution for the way he was mistreated by that mob, on behalf of every Capitol Police officer, and on behalf of every voter whose integrity was challenged. Bravo!

I wasn't planning on writing a think piece on Officer Dunn or the January 6th hearings, so let me explain why I am really here. It is in response to a segment I heard on NPR about the arrest warrant that was found for one Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman at the center of the Emmett Till lynching. By some belated miracle, a piece of paper that was never served has brought us to a real moment of racial reckoning.

I'm sure that a lot of think pieces have already been written on the matter of her culpability, including this question of whether we ought to be demanding justice from an 88 year-old woman about a story she told 67 years ago. It might be un-Christian of me to say this, but Hell yeah we should!

The very foundation of my faith is the concept of forgiveness. God sent Jesus to the world as a living sacrifice for our sins, so we are forgiven, no matter how badly we have sinned. There is even a verse in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus offers a hypothetical number for how often a person should be forgiven (490 in the KJV, but 77 times in the NIV, so there seems to be some new math in the mix). Whichever number you choose, I am left to question whether at any point in the last 67 years, did Mrs. Donham ask for forgiveness even once. Because isn't that baseline requirement? In all of the years in which I have been alive, I have never heard her utter a single word of remorse. 

That includes the interview which was contained in the book by Timothy Tyson, The Blood of Emmett Till, released in 2017 where she is reported to have recanted the accusation that Till physically assaulted her. But she also denied having recanted, and there are doubts of what she actually said versus what was "reported" in his book... (a whole sloppy taco).

To be clear, my position is not that Carolyn Bryant Donham doesn't deserve forgiveness. My position is that she needs to earn it. After living all these years with the weight of a lie story she told that led to the lynching of a child, that might have been a heavy load to bear, but she managed to live with it. She stayed married to the killer and had several more children with him until they divorced some 20 years later. She remarried twice, raised her family, and has managed to stay out of the glare of infamy. In fact, she's lived such a quiet life that she doesn't even have a Wikipedia page (so I had to research multiple sources for details and found this article most informative). At some point she decided to write a memoir, which (surprise) reveals that she didn't want Till killed and she tried to save him, but we weren't supposed to know about her heroism until 2036 (when it was supposed to be released).

In the interview she gave to Tyson, Donham expressed a hint of contrition, moved by the death of her own son, which she referred to as "tender sorrow" for Mamie Till Mobley. As we all know, Mrs. Mobley's determination to show the world what had been done to her child is the reason why we even know about any of this. It is rather ironic that Donham would come to acknowledge any empathy linking the two women; however, tender sorrow doesn't sound like an apology. It sounds like the name of a Lifetime TV movie.

So miss me with any appeals for sympathy or mercy for Mrs. Donham.

Am I so cold as to want to see an elderly lady in prison for a crime that was committed by her late husband? One for which he was acquitted, then bragged about having committed just a year later? Don't I understand that she was also trapped by the social mores of the time that made interactions between Black men and white women deadly? Even if that 'man' was actually a child and the woman later claimed that she didn't want him to die over it? So what you're saying is that she had no choice but to stand by her man, so we should not judge her by that smile frozen in time immediately after his acquittal? And I should feel some kind of way because her life was ruined by the notoriety brought on by the case?

Her life? The life that endured its fair share of hardships and tragedy; nevertheless, it continued. Even if she drops dead before I finish writing this piece, you do realize that she has had the benefit of YEARS to do something more than just maintain her silence. 

To put this into perspective, Till's mother lived for almost 50 years with the horror of what had been done to her only child. She spent the remainder of her natural life fighting for justice, and when she died nearly 20 years ago, she had also written a memoir. Her book had been scheduled for release before her passing, so though it was published posthumously, there were no bombshell revelations because Mobley had been outspoken and indefatigable. It isn't clear whether Donham had ever expressed any tender sorrows or condolences over Mobley's death, or if she just kept on anonymously making jewelry and liking cat videos on social media.

Serve the warrant! It doesn't matter if it can't be executed for lack of evidence or if Mississippi will never prosecute her. The reckoning that we seek is not in wheeling an elderly and feeble Donham off to jail, but in denying her the peace to die in obscurity. Publish her memoir in its entirety right now on the editorial pages of every major newspaper of record so that she doesn't earn a dime of royalties. Just stop protesting in front of her senior living facility, lest you make her into a martyr (FAAFO that the arrest warrants for harassing her will be executed). Don't give the world any reason to feel sorry for yet another complicit white woman.

And DO NOT allow her to get off light with some belated 99 paged confessional tome. For once, let's not coddle the person in the wrong and allow them to dictate the terms of when/how they are forgiven. That is exactly why Officer Dunn's refusal to accept that dude's PDA (performative display of apologia) is so liberating. You say you're sorry for what you did? Then show me that you regret your actions. There are countless examples of some deranged white person (or people) committing wholescale genocide, but as long as they mumble a half-ass apology if you were offended or harmed, then all is right in their entitled view of the world. For example, white folks finally admit the truth about the Tulsa Massacre 100 years later, now that all of the terrorists and most of the survivors are long dead. 

With everyone else who was a direct witness to the Till murder dead, Carolyn Bryant Donham sure did pick the right time to develop a conscience. Why should she have the final word on what happened? She's had 67 years and has remained utterly unwilling to express even the slightest ounce of public remorse. Think about that--she intended for her memoirs to be published in 2036, hoping to be dead and gone, without ever asking for absolution (just like her former sister-in-law did in 2014). If that warrant had never been found, she would have gotten away with it too!

Pull out your Bibles and turn with me to the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of Luke. The Hub and I have often discussed our frustration with this parable, based on our belief that the older brother has a legitimate point about the way that the younger son is simply welcomed back into the family fold. From a certain perspective, he went back home when his money ran out. However, over the years, I have come to accept the notion that all of us are Prodigal children at some point in time, and forgiveness is the ultimate demonstration of God's unconditional love. We can always find His grace and mercy, but we've got to seek Him in order to receive it.

We need to understand that when we're living in pig shit, that existence is unworthy of a child of God. (Y'all know I cuss but stay with me here.) You can't believe the Big Lie that 81 million people stole an election from a con man or that said con man did not intend for a violent melee to take place on January 6th. You cannot tell a big lie that results in the death of a child, remain silent about it for 67 years, then expect sympathy. That man booked and boarded a flight to Washington in the middle of a pandemic! That woman is pictured celebrating with her husband after he was acquitted of lynching a child! Both of them, living and loving life up to their eyeballs in pig shit!

In the parable, neither the father nor the elder brother set out to look for that Prodigal son. So who knows how long he stayed in that pig stye before he realized how desperate and disgusting his condition had become. But once he came to his senses, he went home dressed in filthy rags and smelling foul. He presented himself to his father, literally reeking of remorse.

Stephen Ayers, we're glad that you disengaged from the alt-right media cult and that you now accept that everyone who disagrees with you ideologically is not evil. But as Officer Dunn said, you need to do the work to receive forgiveness, starting with apologizing to the American people. You need to take personal responsibility for the consequences of your actions. It means getting involved in some real work to preserve and protect this fragile democracy. At least you realized that you were wallowing in pig shit and have left the stye.

As for Mrs. Carolyn Bryant Donham, we're moved by the tender sorrow you had for the late Mamie Till Mobley after you lost your son. Yes, the magnitude of losing a child is immeasurable; however, that you found common ground with her 40 years later isn't enough to wash away the stench of the pig shit you've been living in. At the very least, you owe a genuine, personal apology to the Till family and to the community of Black people in Mississippi that lived in fear of what your late husband and brother-in-law did in your honor. If you haven't figured it out by now, no one is coming to rescue you. The fact that you are still alive means that there is still time to extricate yourself from the muck and mire.

Or you can stay there and pray that God is more understanding that we are.

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