Black History Convocation
English professor pleads for change in Black History Month Address.
“When I look at my life over the half century since the schools initially desegregated in Charleston, I still see it from the vantage point of the segregated world ‘behind the veil,’” said Dr. Kendra Hamilton, associate professor of English and director of the southern studies program at PC.
As Hamilton said during the virtual Black History Month Convocation on Thursday, Feb. 18, “behind the veil” is the way writer W.E.B. Du Bois described segregation in The Souls of Black Folk.
“(It was) the racial caste system that, when I was a girl dictated where my mother could buy my Catholic school uniforms, where my parents could sit in a movie theater, and whether or not they could vote. And from that perspective, the change I see seems nothing short of miraculous.
“But from the vantage point of recent events, the view is perhaps not so miraculous.”
During the event, Hamilton spoke about her personal experiences during her childhood and career. In 1970, Hamilton went to an integrated school for the first time ever. In 1976, she was the first African American to graduate from Ashley Hall School for Girls in Charleston.
In 2004, she became the first African American woman to be elected to city council and then chosen as vice mayor of the city of Charlottesville, Va. And in 2020, she became the first African American woman to receive tenure at PC.
“I’ve been asked to share with you some personal thoughts and personal experiences for the benefit of our younger generations who have little direct experience of the world behind the veil,” Hamilton said, “and also for those who lived on the other side of the veil and are perhaps not used to hearing voices such as mine.”
Hamilton spoke about “domestic terror” and shared her story of the days surrounding the murders of five clergy and four church members of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015. Hamilton recounted what she was doing when she heard the news.
She remembers seeing the morning headline from CNN at 5:30 a.m.: "Nine Killed in Shooting at Black Church in Charleston."
"I'm from Charleston, I thought fuzzily," Hamilton said. "'Nine killed,' the words said. 'A shooting … in a church?' my mind raced… which church?"
Since it was too early to call anyone, Hamilton went out to her garden but realized she wasn't at peace.
“I didn’t actually break down, though, until I was halfway to work,” she said.
“Drowning in memory, I found myself swerving and clutching the wheel, frantic to keep the van in a straight line as I rocked and sobbed and howled. I did make it to PC Preview that day. Fortuitously I did not have to meet with students. And for the next 48 hours, I didn’t do much of anything but sit riveted alternately by the television and computer and phone screens-- rage and weep, rage and weep. Wash, rinse, repeat.”
Hamilton read the names of the nine whose lives were taken at the church on June 17, 2015. She spoke about Dylan Roof’s motives for committing the murders and recalled times that she had endured racism. Hamilton admitted to “wrestling with hate” for those who supported the Confederate flag flying on the statehouse grounds and others who were “blustering about ‘our’ guns.’”
“Can we get some attention in this moment to my culture?” Hamilton asked.
“I hated them all. And it felt good. I was conscious that this was wrong, that it was against all my values, everything I’d ever been taught or believed in. I was conscious even of a presence that was pleased with, gloating over, my slip-slide into darkness.
Hamilton shared that her newfound hate provided “such unexpected comfort, such certainty.”
“I had always known who the enemies were, after all. They had never bothered to hide, except possibly from themselves,” she said. “Now, rather than struggling to understand them, to forgive them, I was free to loathe them with every fiber of my being. And in my secret heart of hearts, I was reveling in that freedom.”
Hamilton said she still felt hate even when a “multiracial human chain” of 10,000 people held hands, sang freedom songs, and demanded the Confederate flag be removed from the South Carolina statehouse grounds.
“I teared up at the sight,” Hamilton said, “but not enough to melt that chip of ice that hate had lodged in my heart. Just like in the fairy tale.”
Then a day later, the “assassin” listened to the family members of the Mother Emanuel AME clergy and church members he killed. One by one, they forgave him.
“Bethany Middleton-Brown said, ‘Depayne Doctor was my sister. And I just thank you Lord on the behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. For me, I'm a work in progress, and I acknowledge that I'm very angry.
“’But one thing Depayne .... taught me [is that] we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate. we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.’
“‘I am a work in progress,’ she had said. And with those words, I was released from the bondage that hate had laid upon my heart. Those stunning gestures of forgiveness—radical acts of grace that, in effect, extended the circle of the ‘beloved community’ even to the most egregious act, the most heinous offender—healed me.
“This was the victory of the liberation gospel, which for centuries saved souls of black folks from the relentless hatred and violence that had for centuries been wielded against us. Just like that, in a personal miracle of salvation, I found myself restored to myself.”
Five years later, as she shared in the virtual event, Hamilton notes the irony of the Charleston massacre.
"Dylann Roof went to Charleston looking for the truth—and it was right in front of him in the form of people who were so nice and encouraging that he had second thoughts about killing them," she said. "But kill them he did because he could see nothing but his preconceived narrative."
Hamilton concluded the address with a plea.
"What is certain is this: We are in need of a new conversation," she said. "This cannot be a conversation that’s about winning or losing. It will be a conversation that we may have to change in order to engage in. Indeed, that we must be changed by each other in order to survive."