“If you truly are sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you and I know if you go to God and ask Him, He will forgive you,” said Brandt Jean, the 18-year-old brother of Botham Jean, who was slain by off-duty police officer Amber Guyger in his apartment last fall.
“I don’t even want you to go to jail,” Brandt continued. “I want the best for you, because that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do. And the best would be give your life to Christ.”
As he choked up, Brandt asked for permission to give Guyger a hug. The judge granted his request, and Guyger met Brandt in the middle of the courtroom where she wrapped her arms around his neck and collapsed into his embrace. He said inaudibles into her ear while patting and rubbing her back.
These words and actions from Brandt are courageous and noble, yet disturbing to me as a performance of black forgiveness.
I am a champion of forgiveness. I’ve been on the receiving and lending end of the tool. Forgiveness and reconciliation are what my faith hinges upon, and I have been a huge benefactor of each. I’ve understood forgiveness and grace to be in tandem: Forgiveness is an act of grace, or an undeserved gift. Christian teachings suggest we extend that same kind of grace to others. So I get Brandt’s heart.
But righteous anger in the wake of injustice also deserves a presence here.
When the tables are turned — as they more than likely are — black men and women are not granted the same grace and forgiveness when we’re deemed perpetrators (whether we actually are or not); we don’t get forgiven, let alone hugged and consoled. We get the harshest punishment the court has to offer and dehumanizing labels.
We have the right to be mad that Botham Jean wasn’t even safe in his own home; the right to be mad that the maximum sentence for murder in Texas is 99 years, yet Guyger was only given 10; the right to be mad at the systematic injustices within the legal system that ruin the lives of black men and women, and destroy our families.
It’s OK to be mad at that — it’s right to be mad at those facts.
You can’t talk about black forgiveness, though, without mentioning black empathy.
Black people know all too well what it means to mourn life, whether it be in a casket or in a cell, so our empathy can run high for those who go through any semblance of something similar. History has familiarized us with trauma and tragedy and the depths of pain they bring. Compassion is any good person’s natural response to seeing someone else experience hurt.
The judge, while professionally inappropriate, later gave Guyger a hug, too, in addition to her personal Bible. Images and videos of a black female bailiff fixing Guyger’s hair after she was found guilty circled the internet.
These actions begged a conversation on mammying, since these black women were, in essence, nurturing this white woman. The gestures, while problematic, along with Brandt’s, did display how “selfless acts of compassion” by empathetic black people can be mistaken for absolving America’s wrongs against African Americans.
Not only do we have to endure injustices, we then have to turn around and forgive the injustice when that same luxury is rarely, at best, offered back to us. That feels like a double whammy. Forgiving, then, doesn’t become a tool for healing, but another burden we are plagued with.
And yet, I get it. Some days, after you’ve lived in America as a person in black skin, you just don’t have the internal capacity to be mad, much less acknowledge, feel, grieve and process the things you encounter. If I chose to be up in arms about everything I perceived to be racist — let alone the things that actually are undeniably racist, sexist and acts of mysogynoir — I would, very simply, be perpetually tired.
Sometimes it’s easier to forgive, to let it all roll off your back like a duck, than it is to unpack and productively deal with the emotional and psychological trauma that comes with being a black person navigating America.
Black people employed forgiveness as a means for survival. “Forgive all the people in the last 400 years for the violence they enacted upon you because of your Blackness,” is what the idea of forgiving white perpetrators seems to communicate. Forgive so that the imprints they leave you with don’t manifest into a permanent chip on your shoulder that will blind you from the pieces of good lingering within the cracks of this broken world.
Forgive, so you can be healed and whole.
Miss me with that. I have the energy to be upset today.
Chisten A. Johnson wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.