In the words of Ntozake Shange, “one thing [we] don’t need is any more apologies.” Black America is inundated with apologies. We have been collecting sorries, didn’t-mean-tos, and it-wasn’t-my-intents for decades.
Many of us have shown great restraint in the face of these sorries — wishing the best to those who wished us the worst and granting mercy to those who sought to (and successfully did) do us harm. It is not just when #ApartmentPattys block us from entering our own luxury apartment buildings, that we are called upon to meet our agitators with understanding, but also under much graver circumstances.
Even in the midst of targeted mass shootings, police brutality, and Charlottesville riots, we are expected to remain calm. We are invited to see reason, to show compassion in response to hatred, and to peacefully sort out our trama. We are besieged by cherry-picked quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — quotes like “we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies” — in the hopes that we will invoke his spirit of forgiveness and sedate our hurt and outrage.
However, 9-year-old Jeremiah Harvey refuses. “I don’t forgive this woman, and she needs help,” he said of Teresa Klein — also known as Cornerstore Caroline. It was his bookbag that brushed up against Klein’s rear end as he departed from a New York bodega, yet she was adamant — even after seeing video footage that showed the opposite — that Jeremiah sexually assaulted her. Though even his mother forgives the woman, Jeremiah cannot. Even at a young age, he understands that those who harm us do not deserve our immediate forgiveness, no matter how hard they plead for it.
Despite the pleasant quotes we see every January, King himself became disillusioned with the notion that through love, over time, white people would come to see Black people as their equals. In his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, he wrote “[w]hites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”
Though his work was important and necessary, King understood that his moderate tactics were rooted in respectability politics. They operated on the principle of being well-behaved, agreeable Blacks to gain respect, equality, and access.
But in many cases, being a respectable Black was not working. Peaceful protests and community gatherings, provoked by over-policing, erupted into riots in over 150 cities — resulting in nearly 100 deaths and thousands of injuries and arrests. The Memphis Sanitation workers were maced and tear-gassed during their nonviolent protests. A student protest at a bowling alley culminated in the Orangeburg Massacre in South Carolina.
Toward the end of his life, King recognized — as poet and writer Hanif Abdurraqib so eloquently puts — that “[we] could not prosper in a game where [we] were the only ones expected to play by the rules.” Being a dutiful, well-mannered, educated, law-abiding, and forgiving Black citizen was not successful in numerous circumstances, because it largely hinged on the idea of convincing white folks that our Black lives mattered — and many were simply not convinced.
I am not interested now, or ever, in arguing a case for my existence. And neither (I believe) is Jeremiah. Like Jeremiah, my anger, annoyance, and exasperation at racists (and racism) is justified, and I will not be assuaged by phantom regrets or reluctant apologies that do not undo our trauma or bring our children back to life.
To paraphrase Jeremiah and inflate his sentiments to encompass a larger problem: these sorries are meaningless because America needs help. Genuine apologies require acknowledgement of the hurt caused, repentance, restitution, and a commitment to change. Our forgiveness, my forgiveness, and Jeremiah’s forgiveness must be earned. So for now, I don’t forgive you.
Not for slavery, and not for Jim Crow. Not for Emmett; nor for the Birmingham Bombing. Not for Tulsa, and not for Flint. Not for Medgar, Malcolm, or Martin. Not for Trayvon, Korryn, Natasha, Tamir, Freddie, Sandra, Amadou, Oscar, Jordan, Eric, Rekia, Aiyana, Tarika, Philando, Sam, Terence, Alton, Miriam, Stephon, Tanisha, Yvette, or the many other names we say. Not for voter disenfranchisement, housing segregation, medical experimentation, capitalism, nor for our faulty education system. And definitely not for Trump.
I don’t forgive you, and you need help.