CrimeAugust 21, 2017
“What are you?” a member of the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston asked at the trial of the white man who killed eight of her fellow black parishioners and usher haircut on the voice their pastor. “What kind of subhuman miscreant could commit such evil?... What happened to you, Dylann?”
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah spent months in South Carolina searching for an answer to those questions—speaking with Roof’s mother, father, friends, former teachers, and victims’ family members, all in an effort to unlock what went into creating one of the coldest killers of our time.
Sitting beside the church, drinking from a bottle of Smirnoff Ice, he thought he had to go in and shoot them.
They were a small prayer group—a rising-star preacher, an elderly minister, eight women, one young man, and a little girl. But to him, they were a problem. He believed that, as black Americans, they were raping “our women and are taking over our country.” So he took out his Glock handgun and calmly, while their eyes were closed in prayer, opened fire on the 12 people gathered in the basement of Mother Emanuel AME Church and shot almost every single one of them dead.
At the trial last December, two survivors and the many relatives of the victims sat in a courtroom and looked at the back of Dylann Roof's head, the thinness of his neck. The ever growing bald patch at the center of his bowl cut almost made him look like a young, demented monk with a tonsure. He was dressed in the sort of getup that a man wears when life hasn't presented him with many opportunities to wear a suit: a worn crewneck sweater and thick polyester khakis that hung low over cheap-looking brown leather dress shoes.
During two stages of his trial, Dylann Roof decided to represent himself. When family members of the victims testified, they listened to him, without looking over, as he lifted himself weakly from his chair and dismissed them from the stand with his deep, always bored, blunt voice, which sounded like his mouth was full of Karo syrup. He didn't object often, but when he did it was because he was bothered by the length and the amount of testimony that the families offered. Could they keep their stories about the dead quick? Whenever he stood to be walked back to his holding cell, his mouth moved with what I first thought was a sigh or a deep exhale—really, it was an ever present twitch, a gumming of his cheeks that sometimes ended with his tongue lolling out and licking his thin lips.
Felicia Sanders, one of the few survivors, told the courtroom early on that Roof belonged in the pit of hell. Months later, she said that because of him she can no longer close her eyes to pray. She can't stand to hear the sound of firecrackers, or even the patter of acorns falling. Because of Dylann Roof, Felicia Sanders had been forced to play dead by lying in her dying son's blood, while holding her hand over her whimpering grandbaby's mouth. She had pressed her hand down so tight that she said she feared she would suffocate the girl. Eighteen months later, Felicia Sanders pointed that same hand toward Dylann Roof in the courtroom and said, with no doubt in her voice at all, that it was simple—that man there was “pure evil.”
Their vitriol was warranted but also unexpected, since in most of the press coverage of the shooting it had largely been erased. Almost every white person I spoke with in Charleston during the trial praised the church's resounding forgiveness of the young white man who shot their members down. The forgiveness was an absolution of everything. No one made mention that this forgiveness was individual, not collective. Some of the victims and their families forgave him, and some of them did not. No one acknowledged that Dylann Roof had not once apologized, shown any remorse, or asked for this forgiveness. Or the fact that with 573 days to think about his crime, Dylann Roof stood in front of the jurors and, with that thick, slow tongue of his, said without any hesitation whatsoever, “I felt like I had to do it, and I still feel like I had to do it.”
On the first morning that Felicia Sanders testified, I was seated directly behind Dylann Roof's mother, and because she is skin and bones, it was apparent that she was having some kind of fit. She trembled and shook until her knees buckled and she slid slowly onto the bench, mouth agape, barely moving. She said, over and over again, “I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.” She seemed to be speaking to her boyfriend, but maybe it was meant for Felicia Sanders, who was soon to take the stand. A communiqué that was a part of the bond that mothers have, one that was brought up by the radiant shame one must feel when your son has wreaked unforgivable havoc on another mother's child. Whatever it was, it was Gothic.
When Dylann Roof's mother fainted in the courtroom, a reporter from ABC and I called for a medic, and not knowing what else to do, I used my tissues to put a cold compress on her forehead and started dabbing it—before I felt out of place, or realized that I was too much in place, inside of a history of caretaking and comforting for fainting white women when the real victims were seated across the aisle, still crying. But even during all of this chaos, this pain that made the courtroom feel swollen with grief, Dylann Roof did not appear to look back at his very own mother.
After Roof was found guilty, they went up to the podium, one by one, when it was time for the victim-impact testimony, and standing near the jury box, they screamed, wept, prayed, cursed. Some demanded that he acknowledge them. “Look at me, boy!” one raged. He did not. Others professed love for him. He did not care. Some said they were working the Devil from his body. Feel it, they shouted. He did not appear to feel anything.
I had come to Charleston intending to write about them, the nine people who were gone. But from gavel to gavel, as I listened to the testimony of the survivors and family members, often the only thing I could focus on, and what would keep me up most nights while I was there, was the magnitude of Dylann Roof's silence, his refusal to even look up, to ever explain why he did what he had done. Over and over again, without even bothering to open his mouth, Roof reminded us that he did not have to answer to anyone. He did not have to dignify our questions with a response or explain anything at all to the people whose relatives he had maimed and murdered. Roof was safeguarded by his knowledge that white American terrorism is never waterboarded for answers, it is never twisted out for meaning, we never identify its “handlers,” and we could not force him to do a thing. He remained inscrutable. He remained in control, just the way he wanted to be.
And so, after weeks in the courtroom, and shortly before Dylann Roof was asked to stand and listen to his sentence, I decided that if he would not tell us his story, then I would. Which is why I left Charleston, the site of his crime, and headed inland to Richland County, to Columbia, South Carolina—to find the people who knew him, to see where Roof was born and raised. To try to understand the place where he wasted 21 years of a life until he committed an act so heinous that he became the first person sentenced to die for a federal hate crime in the entire history of the United States of America.
Dylann had always preferred Charleston. Charleston had history. It was once home to the most enslaved people in the country. It was a city full of relics and buildings that reminded him of a time when white men were mighty, and the masters of their dominions, a time when they had prevailed. Not like his hometown. Not like Columbia.
Dylann Roof's father lives on a dead-end street at the edge of Columbia, across from a lot that is as vast and empty as the end of the world. Behind the lot, there is a small apartment building that is lit up with too many halogen lights, probably to keep people from loitering and doing the dumb shit people do when they think nobody can see them. But that's it. There is nothing else at the end of the street except the Roofs' little house.
The house itself is well made. Low-slung, yellow, a Craftsman-style bungalow. It is in a nice enough neighborhood, but still looks like a place where people go when their dreams elsewhere have washed up and gone dry. On the mailbox, there is a route sign: end 1 key west. And on the door there are two faded Ron Jon Surf Shop stickers and a smaller, “I Voted” sticker. Someone has tied an American flag to the tree out front. The decals, the rusted wind chimes, and the slightly mildewed lawn furniture give the house the feel of one man's Margaritaville.
I stood there across the street, lying in wait. Waiting for what? An answer. A reason. A detail I could take with me to help make sense of impossibly awful things. Wrapped in that moonless night, I knocked on the door of the yellow house, and in the confusion of having an unknown black woman at his door a few hours before midnight, wanting to talk about his son, Bennett Roof let me come in and handed me an ice-cold beer that tasted like relief in my paper-dry mouth, parched from nerves.
And then I took a seat on the couch where his son used to sleep, feet away from the computer where his son wrote his explanation of why he had to kill nine black people, feet away from the file cabinet where Dylann Roof sometimes stored his jacket with its flag patches from African apartheid states. Bennett Roof was wary but kind. He watched me closely while I petted the affectionate mackerel tabby cat that his son had taken so many pictures of but still left behind. I watched him closely when I asked him to make sense of something that he said he could not. In a living room full of paintings of Florida and parrots, all that Dylann Roof's father could say, over and over again, was: “I don't know what happened, I just know that the boy wasn't raised that way.”
Even when I pushed him, he said it again, and then he shook his head and kept saying it until he asked me to leave, with the sad look of a man who wanted any other life than this one. After Dylann did what he did, there was no going back to Key West, or to some easy before. There was just this, just intrusions from strangers who wanted an answer and felt the nature of his son's crime warranted one—and just Benn Roof letting his two giant Rottweilers out the front door to track me and to make sure I'd gone back into the dark street and the black night I'd come from.
Benn Roof never showed up at his son's trial. (Contacted later, Benn Roof declined to participate in this story further, describing it as “fake news.”) In Dylann's farewell note to his father, found torn out of a journal in the backseat of his car, there is no nostalgia. It is devoid of a loving tone, except to say to his father that he was a good dad. In the card Benn Roof gave his son just four months before, for his 21st birthday, there is that same terse tone. Benn told his only son that he was proud of him, and here was an IOU for 0, so that Dylann could finally apply for a permit and purchase a gun.
The Education of Dylann Roof
It is as if he floated through people's lives leaving nothing for them to recall. One teacher who spent time with him in her classroom every day says that she typically has a good memory, but she apologizes because she really can't remember anything about him. He did absolutely nothing that would trigger any attention except that he compulsively used hand sanitizer. Dylann Roof emptied bottles and bottles of the stuff into his hands, so much so that it became something of a running joke in class that Dylann could not do anything, not even go to lunch, until he had disinfected and scrubbed his hands clean. As if he were aware of some stain or some filth that others did not see.
In the aftermath of the murders, many of Roof's former classmates rushed to do interviews. This infuriated Roof, who cautioned in his journal: “Many of the people who claimed to have known me, I have never heard of in my life. Anything these so-called friends have said about me should be interpreted as lies. I haven't had a black friend in years, and have never had a close black friend.”
When Caleb Brown sat down at my table in a restaurant in downtown Columbia, what was surprising was not only how many heads turned when he walked in but also that Dylann Roof's closest childhood friend is mixed race and looks black.
When I asked Caleb if Dylann knew he was black, he laughed.
“If you look at me, I don't think you'd be like, ‘Oh, that's a white boy.’ ”
Caleb and Dylann were already classmates when their mothers, who had been childhood friends, realized that they both had sons who were the same age and in the same class. Their mothers' bond pushed the boys together. Yes, Dylann knew he was black, and it didn't alter things. Dylann even once asked him about his brown skin, as kids will do. They had similar interests—skateboarding, wrestling, video games. So after school, they regularly hung out together, even though Caleb found Dylann to be slow-witted.
“I just remember that he wasn't necessarily doing that good in school on the easy stuff. And it wasn't just books; in everything he was just…dull,” he said. “He wasn't really street-smart. Let's say we were at the park, and we had to run away, he'd be kinda slow on getting what we needed to do.” As they grew older and their interests diverged, Dylann wasn't the sort of kid you took along with you, because “he just wasn't with it.”
Caleb, a musician and rapper, is thin and tall. The two times we talked, he was dressed in a uniform of red-gold-and-green Adidas shell toes, a punk T-shirt, skinny jeans, and an oversize bomber jacket. He had thick dreadlocks that reached his shoulders. The second time we spoke, he wore gleaming gold grillz. This is to say, he looks cool, and it makes sense that puberty became a schism between them and that they hadn't seen each other in years.
They were so estranged by the time of the murders that when Caleb read Roof's writings, what shocked him was not just the hatred but also that the dull, slow kid he knew could even string together a coherent collection of thoughts: “For a long time, I thought Dylann had to have read someone else's writing or been coached, because the kid I knew couldn't write or even think like that.”
When I told one of Roof's teachers that I'd been in touch with some of his classmates, the mention of Caleb delighted her. This happened with many people, including with Dylann's mother. She was the only person besides Caleb who confirmed that the two boys had ever been friends. (Otherwise, Amelia Roof declined to participate in this story.) Their teacher said, “Maybe Dylann's mother wanted him to be close with Caleb, but I can't really see it.”
Dylann and Caleb's elementary-school principal, Ted Wachter, administered Rosewood Elementary for three decades. Before that, he grew up in Queens, and he still has a strong New York accent even after 30 years in South Carolina. At his home in Columbia, he sat in a tall chair that made him look magisterial, but his gestures softened it all into the swagger of a liberal-arts professor. After he and his wife handed me a bowl of pistachios and a glass of white wine, Wachter, who talks fast and without shyness, asked me if I wanted to hear his theory on what happened to Dylann Roof. He started at the very beginning. Back when he heard on the radio about “this tragedy in Charleston” and the name Dylann Roof came up, Wachter thought to himself, Hell, I know that name.
Dylann showed up at Rosewood at the age when social relationships become “class driven” and start to “self-sort.” Wachter, who has a background in sociology, watched in dismay as “those black-white relationships also started fraying. They just broke up, and I don't think anyone wanted it to, but the social pressures are so strong.
“And when Dylann came,” Wachter observed, “I remember him because he was quiet. I always remember thinking, ‘This is a nice, handsome-looking boy.’ I'll show you his picture in the yearbook. Handsome, cute, but quiet, and he never was in my office for trouble. He was very quiet, and he wasn't part of the in crowd, which was more…the kids of college-educated families. He wasn't part of that. He was with the working-class kids.
“To understand Dylann, you need to read The Hidden Injuries of Class,” Wachter said. What that book revealed was “how white working-class people in Boston, in South Boston, the more you interviewed them, what came out, especially after a few beers, is how inferior they felt to all the Harvard, Cambridge, bright, educated people.” In Wachter's mind, Dylann wasn't stupid, but he felt displaced. It was a case of class resentment. “And here's the funny thing: If I had a dinner party right here with just white Ph.D.'s, it would not be socially acceptable for me to make any slur to an African-American person or a Hispanic person or a Muslim, but if I refer to poor whites as rednecks—”
“Or crackers or white trash,” I interjected, saying the words he didn't want to say.
He grimaced but acknowledged them.
“That would almost be socially acceptable to say those things. It just shows you how alienated they are. And these poor white working-class guys, they must realize this. See? So maybe Dylann's family is a good example of downward social mobility. And Trump showed us this, that we underestimated how vulnerable and precarious self-esteem is for white, working-class people in this society. They not only see the white elites, but then they see…”
“They see us, black people, coming from behind, eclipsing them.”
Leaning forward in that tall chair, Wachter pointed at me for getting the answer right, and then he shrugged with his long arms out and asked the question he knew neither of us had an answer for.
“And, they say, ‘What are these people doing up there? What has happened to me?’ ”
Before I left, I followed Wachter into his study, where his wife, Jan, pulled down a bin of yearbooks. They sorted through them until they found what they were looking for. The three of us huddled around and peered at a picture of a young, small, diverse class full of smiling black students and a few smiling white students, as well. The students were grouped together, with clear affection, elbows on each other's backs, almost hugging, giggling with ease. And then I found him. Off-center, straining at a smile, with sad eyes, standing to the side, in a natty-looking red jacket, with his bowl-cut blond hair, already looking like a boy apart.
The Purity of the Roof Family
“My blood is mostly from the British Isles, but I have been blessed with a significant amount of German blood, and a German surname,” Roof wrote. “My blood is representative of America.” Roof was preoccupied with the idea of his own purity. He did cursory studies of his family online. I'd been curious about what he might have found and so I spent time in the archives in Columbia, learning what I could about his ancestry.
The Roofs of the 19th century were not what anyone would call an illustrious family, but they did well enough in Columbia to be recorded in local history books as diligent churchgoers and good citizens. Dylann's great-great-great-grandfather played a minor role in the Civil War: Jesse Marion Roof had planned to become a minister, and would have if the Civil War hadn't interrupted his studies. Instead, he married a woman named Tarsy in 1859, and three years later, he enlisted in the Confederate army as a corporal. He was put on boat duty and ran water to Morris Island, which is best known as the site of the horrendous defeat of the first black members of the Union army. But these were not remarkable lives. If anything, they were wholly typical. They were so typical that when I was at a local library, the only thing that caught my eye about Roof's early ancestor was that when Jesse Marion and Tarsy Roof's household was tallied for the census, along with their names there was listed in the household a small “mulatto” child.
“I wish with a passion that n——s were treated terribly throughout history by Whites, that every White person had an ancestor who owned slaves,” Dylann wrote on his website, TheLastRhodesian.com. Although all white Americans have benefited from the centuries of free black labor, it is true that the majority of white southerners were in no position to own anything or anyone. Dylann Roof's ancestors also had very little, but they owned a child, an enslaved girl. There was no first name listed, but her last name was Roof, and she was 8.
I spent the weeks in the courtroom looking at him and wondering about her. If she was purchased, she was purchased as a child who was close to incapable of doing much work. And with no other enslaved people in the household, why was it just her? Who was her mother? Who was her father? Or was she the product of the rape of an enslaved woman, which, of course, could very well make her Dylann Roof's ancestor, a most American part of his pure blood? The fact that he felt like he knew so much about race but didn't know about her is why, in all of Dylann's investigations into his family, in all of his interpretations of history and his rants against race mixing, there is the cognitive dissonance of a man looking for what never was, especially in this country: any kind of racial purity in the first place. Bennett Roof was in his mid-20s when he met Amelia. Amelia, who went by Amy, worked at a bar called the Silver Fox. She was a waifish, young divorcée, only 29, a bartender with blonde hair that was so long that some people said it went down to her ankles. It did not, but she must have looked just like a pale version of that country singer Crystal Gayle. Did Benn sense that Amy, too, came from a family that fared better in the before? Or did they sense the social decline they were both caught in and seek to plunge into it together, hand in hand? Amelia Roof came from a prominent Yankee family that had moved south to the Carolinas in the early 1800s, but by the time she was born, none of the education, wealth, or class seemed to have trickled down. Dylann’s paternal grandparents were people full of promise (he is now a well-respected, solidly middle-class real estate lawyer in Columbia; she does not work), but they had what their grandson did not: educations and an assurance that their social class and their whiteness would mean that they belonged.
There was no birth announcement when he arrived. In fact, on his birth certificate, there is no father even listed. Amy named her boy Dylann Storm Roof because she liked how the name sounded from a character on the soap opera General Hospital.
In this wasteland, with this group of listless friends, Roof could talk about shooting up a college, brandish his gun, use racist slurs, all without being considered outlandish. To this day, they seem to have a striking inability to process the gravity of what he did: “He would talk about killing people, but none of us took it seriously.”
In his “manifesto,” Dylann says that it is absurd to suggest that being the child of a divorce means that he had a hard life, since many people are the products of divorce. But Dylann wasn't really the product of divorce. His parents weren't together when he was born; Dylann was either an accident or a love child. And the reunion did not last. For Amy, there were five addresses in just as many years—more addresses than almost seem possible. Maybe those many moves explain why no one remembers much about Dylann Roof as a boy. In the classroom and around town: He was an unmemorable ghost, until he wasn't.
That Dylann Roof walked into a church and brought such violence into a sanctuary was the detail that most white people I met in South Carolina found so disturbing. That the church was predominantly black and he was white was an aside to them. To harm anyone in a church is something that you just don't do. Church is the center of one's moral education and basis for one's life, they told me. So early one Sunday morning, I woke up and went to a service at the church that Dylann's father and grandparents attend in Columbia.
This black body of mine cannot be furtive. It prevents me from blending in. I cannot observe without being observed. At Dylann Roof's church, I was greeted warmly at the door by a young white woman and a middle-aged white man. But when I entered the chapel and was seated in a rear row, many eyes turned on me, making me feel like I was a shoplifter trying to steal from their God. Was it because I didn't know the hymns, because I didn't take Communion, or was it because I was black? I do not know.
After the service, I told Dylann's pastor, Tony Metze, how uncomfortable I felt being there. And even though he didn't really have much time, Metze agreed to give me a few minutes to talk. For as long as Roof was held at the Al Cannon Detention Center, Metze continued to visit him, and a few days after our interview in Columbia, Metze also attended the trial with Roof's grandparents. When the murders occurred, Metze was approached by lawyers to ask kids who knew Dylann what they remembered about him, but none of them remembered much.
“What I've seen is: He's a really smart kid that's always been very interior, where stuff goes on that you're not aware of." Metze said Dylann was smart but just couldn't do school. "And there wasn't a whole lot of interaction with the other kids,” he told me.
Out of everyone, it was his grandfather who was closest to Dylann, Metze said. “He just would not give up on Dylann. Dylann just doesn't talk, so I think his grandfather did what grandfathers do: spend time with him, hope and pray I can nourish and strengthen this kid, bring something out in him.” C. Joseph Roof, Dylann's grandfather, would later tell the court at Roof's state trial that he and his wife prayed for the victims' families every day. He said they were very sorry, but he also implored people to remember that “nothing is all bad, and Dylann is not all bad. There’s no way we could ever feel what they’ve felt and what they’ve lost, just as no one can understand what we’ve been through.”
When I got the opportunity, I asked Metze about what happened to me in his church, if it was indicative of a larger inability to deal with race and racism. He pointed to a Korean church out the window and said he did not know why people liked to worship with their own. Then he told me there was one black parishioner, who comes to an earlier service.
Roof even wore shoes to federal court decorated with neo-Nazi codes and Klan runes. He thought himself part of a secret fight for the future, in which, Roof wrote, he imagined he would one day be pardoned by a sympathetic president.
When he finished speaking, Metze's shoulders slumped as if he was facing a certain ruinous defeat, and he admitted that he could be wrong, but he felt like times had changed since when he was a boy in South Carolina. “I don't know what's going on with Dylann, but I know there's a wickedness or evil in the world. I'm not making the connection necessarily. There's things I just don't understand that get into a realm that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. How do you make sense out of that which makes no sense?”
I asked if they'd reached out to the victims.
He told me they were not sure if it would be appropriate yet to visit Mother Emanuel. He told me that they sent them cards and books about how to grieve. I did not tell him that to me this felt somewhat insulting. It came across as a weak defense. One that perhaps I shouldn't have charged him with answering to. But in that room, we had become proxies for the people who weren't there.
Had Dylann changed at all since the crime? I asked Metze. Do you see a difference? I was searching for a shred of humanity, and I think Metze saw that, because he looked disappointed to have to tell me the answer.
Metze slowly stood up. He had duties to attend to, so I told him I would let myself out. I went out the way I came in, but the doors were locked. The lights had even been turned off. But gleaming on a windowsill was a plastic laminated binder labeled “St. Paul's Safety & Security Plan.” I opened it. It contained instructions for the greeters, the same people who had welcomed me at the door. Without knowing what I was looking for, I started to read: “Shocking events reported in the media can cause congregations to take immediate action on emergency and security issues, but emergency planning is a long-term process.… If a questionable unknown visitor arrives, be polite, engage in conversation, steer him/her to a rear row seat where you can have an Usher assigned to keep an eye on him/her.… Threats can come in many forms.… You are the eyes and ears for the Safety/Security program at St. Paul's.” I flipped through all of it, but the St. Paul's safety binder had no instructions for what to do if the shooter was one of their own.
The Trailer, the Kids & the Strangeness
For two months in 2014 and 2015, Roof worked for Clark's Termite & Pest Control in Irmo. There, his boss and his co-workers noticed that Roof was “often spaced or zoned out while working,” that he would “go sit somewhere else by himself, even though the rest of the crew was sitting together,” and that he would fall “asleep virtually anytime he was stationary.”
One co-worker told Roof's lawyers that Roof wandered off one morning and started working on “edging three houses down from the house they were working on.” The co-worker had so much trouble getting Roof's attention that he had to “get in front of [Roof] to get him back on the right property.” Another said he once asked Roof about hobbies and Dylann said he “did not do anything; he just went home and sat in his room.” When the co-worker asked Roof if he played video games, Roof said, “No, I literally look at the walls.” He was a ninth-grade dropout with an online GED whose laziness was legend.
In February 2015, four months before the murders, an ad with a picture of a young man appeared on Craigslist. Roof was anonymously looking for a companion to join him on a tour of historic Charleston, and he was seeking anyone except “Jews, queers, or n——s.” The foulness and bigotry of the ad caught the eye of Dr. Thomas Hiers, a retired psychologist. He reached out to Roof to try to help him, but in their exchanges Roof continued to use the same hateful, derogatory language. Hiers offered to pay Roof to watch TED talks, because he felt Roof needed an expanded worldview or, as he later explained to Roof's lawyers, “a different way of looking at the world.” Roof replied to thank Hiers and told him that he seemed like a nice man, but he refused the help because “I am in bed, so depressed I cannot get out of bed. My life is wasted. I have no friends even though I am cool. I am going back to sleep.”
The day after the murders, while talking to FBI agents, Roof described a life that sounded cloudy with the same haze of idleness his co-workers spoke of. What were his days like? They were a blur. There was a day spent at the movies; and the day of the “incident”—but he could not remember which day he had done what. Roof told them that he did not own a cell phone and that the few “friends” he did have were kids he'd reconnected with in the months before the shooting, when he went to a local library and used the computer there to create a Facebook account. He added 88 “friends,” and the majority of them were black kids who went to high school with him. Eighty-eight because H is the eighth letter of the alphabet and two H's is Nazi shorthand for “Heil Hitler.”
Among the friends he reconnected with that summer was Joseph “Joey” Meek, who knew Dylann in middle school. Meek, a young white man with bloated chipmunk cheeks, had a serious marijuana habit and a permissive mother who had been asked by Amy years before to encourage the boys' friendship. When Roof found him again, Joey was living in a rented trailer in the unincorporated area outside Columbia with his mother, his girlfriend, Lindsay Fry, and his two younger brothers, Justin and Jacob. As the summer passed, Dylann would start to crash there at times. Later, Joey would do a flurry of interviews in which he described his friendship with Roof and explained why having a friend he hadn't seen in years stay in an already crowded trailer wasn't at all strange. He was just that kind of person, who helped people who were down and out.
The Meeks' rented trailer is tucked away in a circle of mobile homes that are not mobile at all. Instead, they look very lived-in, bolted down to the rough times and the twists of fate that landed their owners there. It was drizzling when I pulled into the Hideaway Park development, and a man whose face I could not see stepped out of the shadows. He was dressed in an oversize hoodie and was carrying a small pit-bull puppy in his arms. He walked out toward the road without saying a word to me, even when I asked him if he knew the Meeks. Out front, there was a child's play kitchen with a sink full of stagnant, reedy water and a white car whose whole front had been sideswiped and deeply dented.
During the time he stayed there, Roof would often drive Meek and his friends to swimming holes, but then he would leave because he complained that his body could not bear the South Carolinian heat. Even in the trailer, Roof kept to himself. Meek's mother noticed that at times Roof would get agitated and retreat to his car, where he would blast classical music and opera to quiet his nerves. But what had made him so upset remained unknown.
In most of Roof's friends' accounts, there is one indisputable fact: That summer, they all did a lot of drinking and a lot of pot smoking. Roof had already been arrested the year before for possession of a Schedule III controlled narcotic. He was stalking employees at the Columbiana Centre Mall and asking them “out of the ordinary questions.” When police responded to a call, they searched him and found a “small unlabeled white bottle containing multiple orange in color square strips.” Suboxone is typically used to wean opioid addicts off their dependence, but it can also give non-addicts a sense of euphoria, coupled with intense nausea.
In his jailhouse journal, Dylann wrote: “I don't like it when people try to read into things, or try to find, or create meaning that isn't there. I don't like it when people put so much weight on the things I say. Sometimes, more now than before the incident, I feel that the people I talk to hang on my words as if they were all important or offer some sort of insight into my being. But this isn't the case; it never is with anyone. For example, I stated before I never used drugs to ‘drown the pain,’ or ‘self medicate.’ I used drugs because they get you high. There is no deeper meaning behind this. There is no deeper meaning behind any of my behavior.”
One person who spent time in the trailer park with Roof agreed to talk with me on the condition that I didn't name them. When I asked what was most memorable about Roof, the answer came quickly: “He was quiet, uncomfortably quiet, strangely quiet. I mean really strange.” But in this wasteland, with this group of listless friends, Roof could talk about shooting up a college, brandish his gun, use racist slurs, all without being considered outlandish. These instances evaporated into their ears as liquored-up loose talk. To this day, Roof's friends seem to have a striking inability to process the gravity of what he did. They have said things like: “He would talk about killing people, but none of us took him seriously.”
Perhaps some of this ennui can be attributed to age, but nothing can excuse the fact that in the days after the murders, Meek took it upon himself to encourage the rest of their friends to lie to the FBI investigators. For that crime, Meek was indicted, tried, and convicted of withholding evidence and was sentenced to 27 months in prison. And one month after her roommate committed a hate crime so horrendous that it shocked the entire nation, Meek's girlfriend posted a picture of herself proudly sticking out her pink tongue and her piercing's Confederate-flag decal.
In a parking lot near railroad tracks, the friend speaking anonymously—and nervously, and trembling—told me that none of them are racists, they never heard Dylann say anything bigoted, the press made that up. It was a moment, a wild summer, they were just kids, and now it is all over, their friend tells me. Meek's brothers and his mom no longer live with him; all of them have moved away from the trailer in Hideaway Park.
Shortly after Roof was identified as the killer, a story circulated in the press that Dylann had been upset about a white girlfriend who had rejected him for a black boy. But Roof himself denied this in court. There was no girl. In fact, no one, not a single person anywhere, remembers Dylann Roof ever dating anyone. Occasionally he went to strip clubs; in an interview with the Charlotte Observer, Meek's girlfriend recalled that Dylann had a preference for black strippers.
On a whim one night, I sent a series of messages to the other Meek brothers, Justin and Jacob.
I asked them lots of things about Roof that they ignored.
But when I asked Jacob if Dylann Roof was a virgin, I saw the text bubbles that meant he was typing a response.
Finally, his answer appeared: Yes.
Then I saw more typing, and then another reply, containing an answer full of the immaturity and ambivalence that marked those weeks in the trailer:
On April 11, eight days after Dylann Roof turned 21, the legal age for purchasing a gun in South Carolina, he took the money his father had given him for his birthday and drove to a gun store in West Columbia called Shooter's Choice, where he picked out a Glock.45-caliber pistol.
Since he had been arrested for drugs the year before, Roof was no longer legally able to carry a gun. But he lied on his concealed-weapon-permit application and wrote “No” on the line that asked, “Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?”
As an applicant with a criminal record, Roof should have been flagged and stopped by the FBI's background check, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, whose task is to not let “guns fall into the wrong hands”—e.g., an opioid user. The FBI has three days to deny an application. If it doesn't, as Ronnie Thrailkill, the manager at Shooter's Choice, testified, “the law allows dealers to transfer that gun to the potential buyer. That's standard practice.” Without any reply from the FBI, on April 16, Dylann Roof walked out of Shooter's Choice with his gun and five magazines of bullets.
Two and a half months after the purchase, and 12 days after the shooting at Mother Emanuel, Ronnie Thrailkill, an imposing, shaggy-bearded man whose thick old-school glasses look like Cazals, received a phone call from the FBI's NICS. They were calling to say there had been a mistake. The sale of a gun to Dylann Storm Roof should have been denied.
The Matriculation of a Murderer
He traveled far to prepare for the crime. He drove that black car back and forth across the state so many times that when his GPS was recovered by the FBI, the route looked like a cat's cradle strung out by evil.
The hatred animated him. The dots that connected it all were historical sites related to slavery and Confederate history, and practice runs to Mother Emanuel. He drove to the 400-year-old Angel Oak on Johns Island, the Museum & Library of Confederate History in Greenville, a graveyard of Confederate soldiers in his hometown, and plantations like Boone Hall in Mount Pleasant. And he spent one evening at the beach on Sullivan's Island, a place that at one point was the largest disembarkation point in the United States for ships carrying enslaved Africans.
When he was done crisscrossing those dank swamps, those barren fields that once held rice and indigo, he must have felt as accomplished in American history as any naive ninth-grade dropout can feel. He'd downloaded books about the Klan, he'd made lists of other nearby African Methodist Churches, he'd weighed the pros and cons of shooting up a church versus a black cultural festival, and he'd jotted down the name of a white church, with a note that this one was just “to visit.” He'd scribbled down Nazi crosses and Klan runes in his journal. He'd inserted and implanted himself onto the few sites in South Carolina that recognized or incorporated the history of black Americans in the antebellum story of the state. He'd also taken selfies, portraits of himself that logged his travels, which by virtue of the medium also captured his solitude, his intense loneliness.
That Roof's crime was a metastasization of socially acceptable racism into something more rugged and violent was what for most southerners signaled his outsiderness. He'd killed because he was trash, they said. But in Columbia, during the trial, the gossip about what some said was the real reason had blown around the city like an ugly, chilly storm wind. And it was how some of those who knew the Roof family made sense of the crime.
They said that a rape had occurred of someone close to Dylann Roof at the hands of a group of black men, and while it had been kept a secret, there was a possibility that Roof had found out and decided to seek payback on the most cowardly terms. This was why he kept saying things like “I had to do it,” and why he told the nine victims, who were predominantly women, that “they were raping our women.”
Folks said, one after another, that they felt compelled to tell me about it because they wanted to rip the cloak of silence away from Dylann. They felt like those families in Charleston needed to know the truth. If the story was true—that someone in Roof's life was sexually assaulted and, because of that, he went into a church and rendered such complete destruction on nine innocent bodies—it was such an old, foundational excuse. It was a kind of twisted mythology birthed long ago in this nation, one that had been leaned on to absolve guilty white men of their crimes on the innocent for centuries.
As they saw it, this story of a fraudulent “revenge” placed Roof in his proper lineage. He had joined the long line of white men who thought the letting loose of black blood, the finding and maiming of random black lives, could somehow reprieve and rescue a white woman's honor while securing a white man's position. These men, like Roof, weren’t victims, they weren’t knights in an honorable war, they were murderers and mercenaries who were searching for their Tara, and someone to blame and punish for their decline and all of their worldly grievances.
What the Internet has done is transmogrify the old nature of racism. The argument that the defense presented in court was that the answers to his rage lay in Roof’s unique psychopathology. Roof was found to have a high IQ, but one that was “compromised by a significant discrepancy between his ability to comprehend and to process information and a poor working memory.” The same obsessive-compulsive behavior that led him to take 88 bullets to the church and fastidiously keep only 88 friends because of the symbolism to Hitler possibly drove him to become obsessed with racial violence. Dr. James C. Bellenger, the court-appointed psychiatrist, found that Dylann’s ostensible lack of a social network and the rapidity with which he was radicalized, coupled with his inability to forge any known connections even in the white-supremacist chatrooms he frequented, give credence to the diagnosis of a “schizoid personality disorder, a mixed-substance-abuse disorder, depression by history and a possible autistic spectrum disorder.” Much of the evidence that was sealed from the jury offered proof that Roof is on the autistic spectrum, but many people have these differences, and they do not commit acts of violence or harm anyone. And none of this alters the fact that Dylann Roof is not insane—he was declared competent to stand trial not once but twice—and that was why Roof was allowed to excuse his legal team and handle some of his capital-murder trial himself. Roof was perhaps suffering from undiagnosed mental disorders. He was definitely raised in a hotbed of racism. And maybe he was activated by the rumor of the rape. But it is inarguable that he found the answer to his problems online.
That Dylann Roof supposedly went down Internet “rabbit holes,” by himself, "going from one hate group’s false information about blacks to another, absorbing false statistics about black-on-white crime and other race matters,” as Columbia’s newspaper The State put it, was one of the things that surprised Heidi Beirich, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which is the part of the center that tracks hate groups. Beirich told the paper that “most white supremacists killers [sic] spend a long time indoctrinating in the ideas. They stew in it. They are members of groups. They talk to people. They go to rallies. Roof doesn’t have any of this.” Beirich later told the Charleston City Paper, “If he's like anything, he's like ISIS people. Young people who look at ISIS Twitter accounts, get sucked into that ideology, and then go join the fight in Syria or commit domestic terrorist attacks. He's actually rather unlike your typical white-supremacist killer. This complete online radicalization over the maybe two and a half years he was in his room is very atypical.” If it was atypical two years ago, it is no longer. To imagine that Roof needed a handler is to underestimate the role that the Internet has played in re-energizing and indoctrinating a young community of white supremacists.
The white supremacists of today, having been kicked off Twitter, often have Instagram bios that offer an eerie good-bye to their opposition: Good night, left side. And there are thousands of them. Like Roof, and unlike a typical ISIS recruit, they don’t have handlers or any centralized way of becoming hooked. Instead, they are brought into the fold because they have found something that explains their laggard social progress to them and confirms their narrow worldview as fact.
They are young, they are white, and they often brag about their arsenals of guns, because these are the guns that will save them in the coming race war. They are armed to the teeth, and almost always, they are painfully undereducated or somewhat educated but extremely socially awkward. That is, until their eyes are opened to the fact that within the world of white supremacy they can find friends. These young white supremacists call this reversal “weaponized autism.” What once alienated them now helps them relate to others, people like Dylann Roof, over a common desire to start a race war.
This new generation thrives off of subtext—small cues, images of a cartoon frog called Pepe, reconverted swastikas that can go undetected. And they view the transmission of these cues as a kind of trolling of their enemies. It is like the passing of a note behind the teacher’s back. Roof even wore shoes to federal court that were decorated with neo-Nazi codes and Klan runes. He thought himself part of a secret fight for the future, in which, Roof wrote, he imagined he would one day be pardoned by a sympathetic president.
The first public figure to link Roof to the Trump era was Nikki Haley, the then governor of South Carolina, who said that “divisive speech”—like Trump’s, she noted—“motivated Dylann Roof to gun down nine black parishioners at historic Emanuel AME Church.”
While on the campaign trail, J.M. Berger of Politico noticed that Trump would often “promulgate messages with racist cues (some more subtle, some less so), then deny or disavow them, while the white nationalist community dutifully perked up and saw those messages as a call to arms.” Although Trump denied any culpability, months later, he twice retweeted an insult about Jeb Bush from an account called @WhiteGenocideTM. A quick glance at the tweet’s origin revealed to Berger a page “filled with anti-Semitic content and linked to a revisionist biography of Adolf Hitler.” And on Stormfront, the same message board that Roof often frequented, having seen the retweet a member wrote that Trump had “willingly retweeted the name. The name was chosen to raise awareness of our plight. He helped propagate it. We should be grateful.”
Dylann Roof, then, was a child both of the white-supremacist Zeitgeist of the Internet and of his larger environment. He grew up in a state that derives a huge part of its economy from plantations that have been re-purposed as wedding venues. When I attempted to go to Boone Hall Plantation to see the exhibits and the stuffed enslaved-people dummies that Roof posed with in some of his pictures, I was told I was not welcome there unless I submitted a media request, since I might have a negative view of the plantation.
I am a black woman, the descendant of enslaved people, so I went anyway and walked along the same path that Roof did, where the quarters are set on something cheerfully marked as “Slave Street.” I stood next to the dummies that are supposed to represent black people in their deepest ignominy, and noticed that there were no dummies that were supposed to represent the masters or the mistresses of the plantation. I listened to a group of young white women sigh at the Alley of the Oaks, a corridor of trees near Slave Street. One of them lamented, “It was so beautiful that pictures couldn't really do it justice.”
South Carolina is the sort of place where, out one evening in Columbia for dinner, only minutes after I sat down, I was accosted by six drunk upper-middle-class white women who were out with their grown daughters. After pointing in my direction, one of them staggered over and sat down, and with her thick tongue and her red eyes, she asked me if I was her Uber driver and demanded that I drive her somewhere, “girl.”
Dylann Roof was educated in a state whose educational standards from 2011 are full of lesson plans that focus on what Casey Quinlan, a policy reporter, said was “the viewpoint of slave owners” and highlight “the economic necessity of slave labor.” A state that flew the Confederate flag until a black woman named Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole and pulled it down. A place that still has a bronze statue of Benjamin Tillman standing at its statehouse in Columbia. Tillman was a local politician who condoned “terrorizing the Negroes at the first opportunity by letting them provoke trouble and then having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable…to rescue South Carolina from the rule of the alien, the traitor, and the semi-barbarous negroes.”
Roof is what happens when we prefer vast historical erasures to real education about race. The rise of groups like Trump's Republican Party, with its overtures to the alt-right, has emboldened men like Dylann Roof to come out of their slumber and loudly, violently out themselves. But in South Carolina, those men never disappeared, were there always, waiting. It is possible that Dylann Roof is not an outlier at all, then, but rather emblematic of an approaching storm.
Blood and Soil
He found solace in the belief that he too was part of the dispossessed. The embittered white men who feel like they have no real future in the 21st century. Roof knew this fear so well that he even wrote in the manifesto that he finished in jail: “How can people blame white young people for having no ambition, when they have been given nothing, and have nothing to look forward to? Even your most brain dead white person can see that there is nothing, to look forward to? Even your most brain dead white person can see that there is nothing good on the horizon?”
To become a student of this false history, it took him seven months—all of those drives, all of that planning. His first trip to Mother Emanuel was on December 22, 2014. Two months later he ordered the South African and Rhodesian flag patches and made a phone call from his mother’s house to the church.
Who knows how far along Roof was in his racism when he came across the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white-nationalist organization that was founded in the 1980s (out of the ashes of the Civil Rights-era White Citizen Councils), to support segregation and chokehold "all efforts to mix the races." During the last election, the group was intensely active and not at all subtle about their mission, with their Yale-educated spokesman, Jared Taylor, making robocalls for Trump. Taylor also promised in an interview with This Alt-Right Life that “if there actually is a Trump presidency, he will attract, at all sorts of levels in his administration, people who do think the way we do.... There will be a great number who will infiltrate his administration, his campaign, his advisers in ways that cannot but be extremely useful both to Trump and to us."
For many years the CCC’s website and its newspaper were run by Kyle Rogers, a computer engineer with an undergraduate degree from Ohio State University. Rogers, who is on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Top 30 watch list of “new activists heading up the radical right”, is a prolific white-supremacist writer on black-on-white crime. He was an early organizer of the Tea Party movement, and he believes that enslaved people who were taken to the United States hit the “slave lottery."
To find sympathetic allies, Rogers, the owner of a flag company called Patriotic Flags, stays in the comments section of the social-media accounts of pissed off white men, and when the time is right, he posts links to his company, with its bazaar of Confederate, white-nationalist, Nazi, and apartheid-era flags, similar to the patches that Dylann Roof sewed onto his jacket. Rogers has said he was “devastated” to learn that Roof connected to his writings, and he denies ever meeting Roof, going so far as to call it libelous to associate the two of them. He issued these denials because many people assumed that there was a link between them since Rogers also lives in South Carolina. In fact, he lives just 20 miles outside of Charleston in a beige ranch house, from which he is said to run one of the most militant branches of the CCC. On his street, one neighbor's yard is decorated with chipped clay figurines of black boys and a chipped clay Bambi deer.
I know this because after Kyle Rogers refused to take my call, I went there one day and knocked on his door. His neighbor, a heavyset white guy with a buzz cut, had just pulled up in his pickup truck. After he got out, he lingered in his driveway and, with lots of theater, grimaced at me. To make conversation, I asked him if I was at the correct house—I was looking for someone with the last name of Rogers. The neighbor was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt. His arms were sunburnt even though it was December. I think that he was drinking a beer, but he might have just looked like someone who should have been drinking a beer.
He bucked his head toward the house and smirked.
"Him? I don't know his last name."
"Okay, well do you know if someone named Kyle lives here?"
That was when he stopped smirking, and I started to suspect I was being had and that we both understood what the deal was. It began to dawn on me that chances were he knew Rogers, he probably liked Rogers, and he probably did not want anyone, especially someone who looked like me, to bother his neighbor.
“My guess is if he was in there, he’d answer,” he said, so I walked back to the door, aware that my back was turned, and knocked again.
A quick flutter of the blinds led me to believe that Kyle Rogers was in there, but that he would not come to the door, so I left him a note with my name and number. On my way back to my car, I looked back to see if he had answered, but there was no sign of him, and no sign that he even lived there except for the decal on his golden brown truck, an image of Trump, raising a beer, enthusiastically mouthing these words: “We did it."
The 17th of June was hot and humid in Columbia. The air would've felt like a warm towel pressed over your face. Smothering. After a few sleepless nights of heavy partying, sometimes staying in his car, or sometimes crashing at Joey Meek's trailer, Dylann Roof dashed off one last post on his website: “[At]the time of writing I am in a great hurry.”
Dylann Roof arrived in Charleston at 7:48 P.M. In the preceding weeks, he'd purchased 88 bullets at Wal-Mart. They were hollow-point bullets, designed to expand when they hit body tissue and cause catastrophic damage as they passed through their target. He drove into the gated parking of the Mother Emanuel around 8:15 P.M. Then he walked into the basement entrance where the 12 members of the Bible Study were gathered in the Fellowship Hall.
They say he killed him, but really Roof assassinated Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Pinckney was a state senator and a prodigious preacher whose sermons were full of black liberation theology and a rare kind of intellect. He was shot first, with three bullets, and he was the one who'd pulled out a chair for the man who would murder him. Pinckney's death alone would have been a grave loss. But Roof, undaunted and unmoved by the prayers and the weeping of the others, continued.
The oldest man in the room, Daniel Simmons, was a veteran who always carried his gun, but that day he had left it on the seat of his car. Unarmed, he still tried to charge the shooter. Roof shot him four times, and later, he stepped over Simmons's body on his way out.
The oldest woman in the room, Susie Jackson, was three years away from being 90. She was shot the most, 11 times. The youngest man in the room, Tywanza Sanders, tried to reason with Roof, but when that failed, he stood up and faced Roof's barrel so that his mother, Felicia Sanders, his aunt Susie, and his niece might live. Sanders was a poet, a barber, and a family man. He doted on the women in his family, in particular his aunt Susie. He died with his arm stretched out toward her.
The stranger shot and killed Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and DePayne Middleton-Doctor. Women who were ministers, educators, and mothers to young children. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton had three children, who look so much like her that as they sat in the courtroom, they seemed to have their mother's face. DePayne Middleton-Doctor had four daughters, who went everywhere with her, often lined up according to height. The Doctor girls were supposed to attend the prayer meeting, but at the last minute their mother had let them stay home.
Myra Thompson had received her preaching certificate that afternoon, and after weeks of study, she would lead the group for the first time. Nothing in life had been easy for Myra Thompson. But her faith, her happy second marriage to the Reverend Anthony Thompson, and her taste for St. John dresses were the result of her keeping on and working hard until things had finally gotten good.
Cynthia Hurd was headed home that evening, but Felicia Sanders asked her to stay for the prayer meeting. Cynthia Hurd was a librarian. They say kids didn't leave her library without a library card in hand. If you love me, you will stay, Felicia Sanders teased her. For all the hate in the room that night, there was also an aegis of undiminished, undying love. We know this because Cynthia Hurd stayed.
To pull the trigger of a Glock, you must exert about six pounds of force. Roof pulled that trigger seven times when he murdered Ethel Lance. Ethel Lance, unlike Roof, was needed in this world. Her deaf son, Gary, needed her, her daughters needed her, and the church that she proudly cleaned and maintained with “her special touches”—real wood wax and fresh flowers—needed her. Now she is gone.
Polly Sheppard, a retired nurse, was also in the room that night. She is a woman who has serious eyes. Her gaze can make you feel as if you're in the grip of something vast and unwavering that just won't let go. And her face, the high cheekbones, the depth and the luster of her brown skin, gives her the look of a woman from a Benin plaque—proud, regal, and knowing. From under a table, she watched his dirty boots circling, stopping so he could shoot her friends, “a skinny white dude” stepping through the blood and broken glass. She stayed in her prayer, she said the words out loud. When he came to her, he told her to shut up. Polly Sheppard is 72 years old. He asked her if she was shot. She told him no. And then, with those eyes on him, as if it was his choice and not their otherworldly command, she asked if he was going to shoot her, too. “I'm not going to,” he said. “I'm going to leave you here to tell the story.”
Dylann Roof was still in the room when Polly Sheppard reached for her phone and called the police.
Charleston's Emanuel AME Church looms over the downtown street where it stands and makes you stop. It is an austere but resplendent structure, made of whitewashed stucco and brick, so tall and steep that on some mornings its chapel seems to pierce the blindingly bright sun that makes its white walls gleam.
The ministry was founded in 1816, but its earlier churches were burned to the ground to punish its congregants, who had dared to test the laws of the land and believe that they, too, had a right to be religious and interpret the Scripture as it applied to them as oppressed people. In 1822, one of the church's founders, Denmark Vesey, a free black man who was married to an enslaved woman, was accused of being the architect of a massive slave revolt. Vesey and his army of enslaved men were purported to have come up with a plan to slaughter all of the slaveholders in Charleston, free the rest of the enslaved people, and then escape to the new black republic of Haiti. Instead, he was betrayed and lynched. To this day in Charleston, he is regarded as a dishonorable man and homegrown terrorist, with much less said about the Charleston businessmen and slave traders who brutalized and murdered millions of enslaved Africans to make the city rich, and ultimately the effete destination that it is now. The church structure that stands today was erected in 1892 by people who were beside themselves to finally be able to worship in public as free people, but very few know much about its history. Or that in the vestibule of the church, tucked away from the street in a nook, behind gates, is a brass diorama meant to honor Vesey and the other founders of the church. (One person who did know about Denmark Vesey, however, is Dylann Roof. Roof is even alleged to receive mail in jail from someone using Vesey's name to antagonize him.)
The last time I saw Mother Emanuel was a week before Christmas. I'd been in town for weeks for the trial and was walking back to my hotel from the dry cleaners. It was raining, I was overdressed in a wool sweater, and the combination of the dank air and the heat and the wool was making me feel sick. The church, though, shone in the evening light and the shadows. The large white cross out front and the blooming camellia bush were set against the church like a cameo silhouette. Near the gate, a man I hadn't at first seen yelled out to me. “Why are you out there in this rain, staring? Come on in, girl,” he said. In any other situation, I would have declined, but the sickness, both for home and the feeling of coming fever, made me want to go in. I felt vulnerable and alone in a new city. I wanted to be around the familiar, my people, so when the smiling man pointed to the doors, the same doors that had let the murderer in, but also ones that were still flung open to the world, I walked in. “Tonight,” an old woman inside patted my hand and told me, “you are Rachel, but you are also our special Elijah. The stranger who is always welcome.”
What Roof didn't understand when he walked into that church was the genius of black America's survival and the nature of our overcoming. Nothing in his fucked-up study of black history had ever hipped him to this: The long life of a people can use their fugitivity, their grief, their history for good. This isn't magic, this is how it was, and how it will always be. This is how we keep our doors open.
In Charleston, I learned about what happens when whiteness goes antic and is removed from a sense of history. It creates tragedies where black grandchildren who have done everything right have to testify in court to the goodness of the character of their slain 87-year-old grandmother because some unfettered man has taken her life. But I also saw in those families that the ability to stay imaginative, to express grace, a refusal to become like them in the face of horror, is to forever be unbroken. It reminds us that we already know the way out of bondage and into freedom. This is how I will remember those left behind, not just in their grief, their mourning so deep and so profound, but also through their refusal to be vanquished. That even when denied justice for generations, in the face of persistent violence, we insist with a quiet knowing that we will prevail. I thought I needed stories of vengeance and street justice, but I was wrong. I didn't need them for what they told me about Roof. I needed them for what they said about us. That in our rejection of that kind of hatred, we reveal how we are not battling our own obsolescence. How we resist. How we rise.
On my last day in Charleston, I went to Sullivan's Island, where in the dappled light of the setting sun, on a beach being washed clean by the tides, Roof once wrote “1488” and other neo-Nazi symbols into the sand. He had defiantly squatted under the sign that honored the stolen dead and the many enslaved who had trudged across that sandy expanse toward the unknown and faced a future that for centuries only held grief. This is what is written on that sign:
This is Sullivan's Island. A place where Africans were brought to this country under extreme conditions of human bondage and degradation. Tens of thousands of captives arrived on Sullivan's Island from the West African shores between 1700 and 1775. Those who remained in the Charleston community and those who passed through this site account for a significant number of the African-Americans now residing in these United States. Only through God's blessings, a burning desire for justice, and persistent will to succeed against monumental odds, have African-Americans created a place for themselves in the American mosaic.… This memorial rekindles the memory of a dismal time in American history, but it also serves as a reminder for a people who—despite injustice and intolerance past and present, have retained the unique values, strengths and potential that flow from our West African culture which came to this nation through the middle passage.
I'm sure some of those enslaved people's descendants were in that courtroom. I know that some of those people's descendants were shipped like seeds and dispersed throughout the country, with all records of who they were and where they came from lost forever. But for as many who died or were killed or perished and went to watery graves on the way here, millions have survived the incomprehensible, and they have prevailed despite each and every attempt to destroy them.
Roof told the jury in his closing statement, “Anyone…who thinks that I am filled with hatred has no idea what real hate is. They don't know anything about me. They don't know what real hatred looks like.”
Because I know exactly who Dylann Roof is, I know that he is hatred, and because I know that he is hatred, I understand why he thought he could do the impossible and trump the everlasting, the eternal. But he could not, and no one ever will.
And so where on that beach he wrote down hatred in the sand, I carved into it all nine of their names: Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Daniel Simmons, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah is an essayist living in New York. Her first book, ‘The Explainers & the Explorers,’ will be published next year.
This story originally appeared in the September 2017 issue.
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