Eighteen-year-old Brandt Jean’s behavior sparked intense discussion throughout the U.S. Jean declared that he did not want Amber Guyger, the police officer who murdered his brother Botham, incarcerated. Moreover, he offered her forgiveness and pleaded with Judge Tammy Kemp to let him hug her.
Receiving less attention, however, were the actions of Jean’s parents, Bertrum and Allison. Also neglected by the public were the comments of Monica Robinson and Michael McGlockton, whose son Markeiss was executed by Michael Drejka.
The different reactions by Jean, his parents, and Robinson and McGlockton lay the foundation for a discussion about racial oppression and the ethos of the African American people.
In the mainstream media, most commentators gushed with admiration of Jean’s “grace.” Many commended his hug of Guyger as “inspirational.” White Christians and conservatives were especially elated by Jean’s behavior.
In the black community, the response was more mixed. Some also found his behavior a wonderful expression of pure love or of Christian faith, though many decried the hypocrisy and inherent double standard. And some sought to legitimize black rage as an appropriate response to racial injustice.
Brandt Jean’s performance of forgiveness reflected his Christian faith, but we would be foolish to not see the shroud of white supremacy shadowing his enactment of the old ritual of black forgiveness. It is a performance as old as U.S. chattel slavery. Indeed, it is an expectation that black people express gratitude and forgiveness and never articulate condemnation and demonstrate anger, regardless of white people’s behavior.
Kevin S. Aldridge, an African American minister and columnist for the Cincinnati Inquirer, contended that Brandt Jean’s demonstration of “love freed him more than her.” That is, Jean’s forgiveness of Guyger spared himself from years of debilitating anger and hate.
Aldridge marveled at black people’s “amazing” ability to “forgive the unforgiveable.” He also doubted whether white Americans could be as forgiving had they endured what African Americans have.
The Atlanta Black Star reported that Iyanla Vanzant, the New Thought spiritualist, praised Brandt Jean’s ritual of forgiveness. She declared Jean a role model. Vanzant claimed he “became a demonstration for other black men about how to move from one step to the next.” Her observation is strange, unnecessarily unclear, and has a whiff of internalized racism.
Yet, even her affirmation of Jean’s ritual of forgiveness was not enough. Vanzant also defended Kemp’s unprofessional behavior.
In tears, the African American judge hugged Guyger, gave her one of her Bibles and urged her to read John 3:16, the essence of the New Testament.
Jemelle Hill, an African American ESPN commentator and Atlantic columnist, condemned Kemp’s behavior as “unacceptable.”
In contrast to Vanzant’s questionable statements, the Ethical Society of the Police, a St. Louis organization of largely black police officers, highlighted the racial disparities involved in Guyger’s sentence. Even though the prosecutor requested a minimum of 28 years, Guyger received only 10. To which the society observed, “even a man that killed a police dog got more time than Amber Guyger.”
In The Root, Annie Branigin assailed the ritual of black forgiveness as “delusional.” She alleged that what white people really wanted was “absolution.” Branigin further contended that these ritual displays of forgiveness served as proxies for racial reconciliation, but in actuality negated real racial justice. She correctly believes “black rage” should also be validated as an appropriate response to racial oppression, especially terrorism.
Righteous anger can fuel productive action. Indeed, during the nadir (1877-1923), black people openly referred to their meetings condemning lynching and other forms of racial terrorism as “indignation meetings.” They acknowledged their anger and used it to empower collective resistance. Rage against injustice is necessary to fight for justice.
In contrast to the young man’s display of ritual forgiveness, his mother expressed her anger. She condemned “corruption” in the city of Dallas. And importantly, she shifted the discussion to the issue of institutional racism. In a lawsuit, Allison and Bertrum Jean charge that Guyger used excessive force and violated Botham’s civil rights. Additionally, they alleged she was “ill-trained” and that the Dallas police's policy “to use deadly force even when there exists no immediate threat of harm to themselves or others” was defective.
Robinson and McGlockton also rejected the ritual of forgiveness. Releasing her righteous anger, Robinson told Drejka, “I don’t hate you, but I will never forgive you.” McGlockton informed Drejka, “In the Bible, it says in order to get into heaven, we must forgive those who trespass against us. At this point in my life, I am not there yet. And if it just so happens that the Lord chooses to take me before I come to terms with this, then I will see you in hell, where you and I will finish this. Mark my words.”
The Jeans’ and Robinson and McGlockton’s responses all reflect African American traditions. The younger Jean’s response emphasizes an individual tradition, one which is dangerous for the collective. The responses of the adults resonate with me. The Jeans use the legal system to punish the city and the police department for Guyger’s poor training. Ultimately, I find McGlockton’s position the most correct. However, for this historical moment, it’s Robinson’s sentiment that I embrace.
In the current environment, black people should reject the ritual of forgiveness and practice a philosophy of “I can’t forget, and I won’t forgive.”