I wish Dylan Roof could’ve walked with me for a while. He might’ve awakened to an important truth on the road: that he does not exist apart from anyone else, and that, in fact, he needs people in order to survive. All people, every kind and color.
I wish he could’ve been there when I was passing through Baltimore, less than a week into the walk. He would’ve felt the deep gut fear I felt that night, of being alone without a safe place to sleep. Just as it was getting dark, he would’ve seen a young black man walking ahead of us carrying a 40 ounce beer in a brown paper bag. The man’s name was Corey Mosley. Corey would ask us what we were doing with our big backpacks, and we’d tell him we were walking across America listening to people’s stories, and that tonight we were looking for a place to camp out. Any ideas? “You can camp in my backyard, man,” Corey would tell us. “It’s right down the road.” In that moment, it would’ve been hard for Dylan not to feel gratitude for this black man. He might’ve even loved him for a second, before all the racist thought patterns came rushing back in again. We’d go with Corey to his apartment, and then we’d all hang out on the porch for a while, sharing beers. Corey’s girlfriend, Lynee Mallory, would join us. “You can just sleep in our living room,” Lynee would say eventually. “It’s going to be cold out here tonight.”
I wish Dylan Roof could’ve been with me in Tuskegee, Alabama. He would’ve heard the warning from the white woman a few towns east: “All the whites left, and the help stayed, and you have to be careful because the southern black is a whole different animal than the northern black.” But we would’ve kept walking, Dylan and I. We would’ve reached Tuskegee, filthy and aching from the long trek, and we would’ve felt completely vulnerable once again – far from home, exposed, nowhere to stay. And then we’d see the fire station, and we’d meet them, the firefighters of the only all-black fire department in the nation: Orlando Sim and Uralvin Clark, Marco Fields and Octavius Thomas. They’d allow us to camp within their safe domain, and they’d let us shower – sweet bliss – and they’d stay up with us until midnight, swapping stories. Dylan Roof is a human being, so he would’ve felt something that night, something quite different than hatred.
If Dylan Roof had walked with me, he would’ve been taken in by a black barbershop outside Selma. He would’ve been given a cold Gatorade by a black man who saw him suffering in the heat outside New Orleans. He would’ve learned something from this beautiful woman on the threshold of her death, and he would’ve realized that he needed all of these people to keep walking.
Instead, Dylan Roof, a young white man like myself, murdered nine black people on Wednesday night, people who welcomed him into their church to pray with them. Now we must make sense of this senselessness.
Sure, he’s an outlier. He’s an extremist. But he’s also one of us – an American, a human being – and what he has done is reflective of where we’re all at as a national family. We cannot write him off as separate. We’ve now met him on our walk, and he’s just as much a part of the story as anyone else. We are all one. This is not some hippie-dippy, feel-good, drum-circle cliché. This is the baffling truth. Sometimes this truth strikes me as beautiful. In this instance, though, it’s horrifying, because it means that since Dylan Roof is capable of such hatred and violence, we all are. It means that I can kill nine innocent people in a church. It means that I already have. I think this is where the transformative work begins – accepting that this problem is my problem, too, not just the problem of some deeply deluded kid in far-off South Carolina. It’s only in recognizing that I am one of the authors of this story that I can begin to write it differently.
This massacre is not an anomaly, nor is it an isolated incident – it’s impossible for something to arise out of nothing. Dylan Roof didn’t just become a mass murderer on his own. 21 years ago, he was a baby, as sweet and innocent as every baby has ever been. So we should ask: What were the forces that made a killer out of a child, and where are they now, and how are they continuing to do their work? Where were we for Dylan Roof during his coming of age as a man, as an American, as a human being? How did he slip through the cracks? Where are we now for those boys-soon-to-be-men teetering on the razor’s edge of good and evil as they navigate this wounded world? And what do we do at this juncture, to heal and transform?
I want to keep taking walks. I want to go meet more strangers and see them for who they really are, not for who I thought they were based on my fearful judgments. I want to find the capacity for hatred in my own mind – of self and of other – and I want to meet it with love, because hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love. A pretty smart guy called the Buddha once said that. I’m pretty sure Jesus was on the same wavelength, too.
On racial relations in America specifically, we have to be brave enough to be honest about the prejudice that is still alive among us and within us, individually and systemically. While I was walking, I met a great man named Bryan Stevenson in Montgomery, Alabama, and he had some wise words to say on this. I recorded them.
“I think our great challenge now is to try to address the fact that when segregation quote-unquote officially ended, we never really committed ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation. We didn’t tell the truth about what decades of segregation and apartheid did to both black and white people. We didn’t tell the truth about the trauma that we created and the burdens we’ve inherited and the bigotry we’ve ingested without thinking.”
“How do you deal with someone who doesn’t want reconciliation?” I asked him.
“Well, I think a part of it is they don’t want truth either. And so at first you kind of have to make truth a dominant part of the conversation. Because without the truth you begin to deny things. What’s a little fascinating to me is that because we don’t know how to talk about that history we just deny it. So, I think we make truth the first part of it. Then, if you can get people to at least hear the truth, even if they have a hard time accepting it, the reconciliation comes easier. You can’t create reconciliation until people feel there’s something broken that needs to be addressed.”
Let’s listen to the truth today. Let’s look at what we’re doing to ourselves right now. We’re creating a nation where some of our sweet little babies slip through the cracks and mutate into murderers. We’re perpetuating conditions that culminate in the racist slayings of nine black people, the very same conditions that spawn injustice and oppression in countless other quieter ways. Don’t get me wrong, we are also many beautiful things, we Americans. We are Corey Mosley and Lynee Mallory. We are the firefighters of Tuskegee. But we are also Dylan Roof, and everything that led to Dylan Roof, and none of us will ever heal until we admit that to ourselves. The work begins there. Let’s get to work.
I send my deepest love and solidarity especially to all those directly affected by the killings.