A letter for my daughter about Clementa Pinckney

Grace Beahm/The Post and Courier via AP
Grace Beahm/The Post and Courier via AP

On Friday, I left you with your dad and headed to work, stepping out of a hot, sunny morning and into my office.

When I left, hours later, to head back home to you, it felt as though I were stepping into an entirely different world. Wind whipped my clothes and hair; the sky was heavy and low; my heart felt full but also broken. I felt changed, somehow, as a person, as a citizen of the United States, and even as a mother.

Why? Well, when I sat down at my desk for what was to prove one of my more distracted workdays of all time, I learned that the Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage in all 50 states. With a decision ending in four words, “It is so ordered,” a measure of long-delayed justice was delivered at last. I wanted to run around in circles and scream and shout with joy. Instead, I sat quietly and read jubilant Facebook posts. I basked and sniffled. I watched Barack Obama give a speech we could barely have imagined just a few years ago. It was like Christmas.

Then I watched him eulogize the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, shot along with eight others at a Charleston church eight days before in a horrendous act of racist terrorism. My ears belonged to our President, but I couldn’t take my eyes off that casket in front of him, that casket that should not have been there, that casket whose occupant was meant to continue doing great things.

I couldn’t take my eyes off his listeners, either. Their cries of assent and cheers and songs filled me with both awe and anger (anger, that is, that nine fellow parishioners who shared that same goodness and perseverance had been cut down by such an unworthy ignorance, such pointless hatred). “For too long,” he said, and they called back, “FOR TOO LONG!” They didn’t even know what he was going to say next; he was making a transition to a section about gun violence. It didn’t matter. Whatever aspect of this tragedy he was about to address, whatever he was about to say, they knew that change was long, long overdue.

Our president, yours and mine, said that it would be a betrayal of Clementa Pinckney’s legacy for us to “slip back into a comfortable silence.” I headed out into the ominous afternoon, walking a little unsteadily in the powerful wind, wondering what that meant. I felt lost. I also felt a deep sense of longing. I wanted something that I couldn’t quite name.

When I finally realized what it was, it made me stop walking and breathe deep.

The thing is, ever since you were born – no, before you were born – I have been trying to pull back on the reins of time. I wanted to be pregnant forever, to keep you inside of me where you were safe and warm. Then, once I saw your newborn perfection, I didn’t want you to change: not one wrinkled finger, not one funny alien gesture, not one of your squeaky sleeping sighs. Of course, I have marveled at every milestone. I would never want to go backwards and lose the hilarious intelligence that has bloomed in front of us. But unlike your father, I resist that forward motion every step of the way.

Until Friday. Until that walk home from work when I realized that what I was longing for is to see what you will do with this crazy world we’ve inflicted upon you. I don’t mean that I expect you to solve our problems, or to do any one thing in particular. I just mean that you are so tough, so very tough, since your very first moments, and you are also very kind, and this world needs tough and kind.

What I can I do to make sure I don’t “slip back into a comfortable silence”? I can write down this entry in the dictionary of you, a list of the phrases that have meant something to me and that I want to explain to you in my own way. This entry is different, though. It isn’t for words in the Spanish language, or any words at all. This entry is a name: Clementa Pinckney.

It’s my job to make sure you know that name.

You don’t have to know it in a deep, meaningful way. You can know it in an eyes-rolling, ohmyGod my mom is so teeeeedious way. But I want those sounds to be familiar in your ear, because if they are, that will mean that maybe I have talked to you, at least occasionally, about things that matter. It will mean that maybe I taught you please and thank you and also HELL, NO. It will mean that maybe I filled our calendar with family birthdays and anniversaries, but also Charleston and marriage equality and the other dates that make up your personal history. It will mean that maybe I said some other names into your ear, names like Rosa Parks and Harvey Milk. It will mean that maybe, since I talked big, I did a better job at taking action as well, to give you more than just words.

Those are some high hopes for one name. But Clementa Pinckney is not just any name.

I am writing this in the dimness of late afternoon, next to you on the bed as you finish your nap. When I wake you up in a few minutes, you will snuggle up under my chin as you did the first time I met you, and I will once more want the clock to stop. But I don’t think I’ll ever quite forget about the first time I ever yearned for the day when you’ll be big, when you’ll come off the bench. We need you in the game.

You balled up your fists from the start, so sturdy. When you get a shot in the arm, you giggle. What else might you laugh at, discard with righteous indignation, rip down like Bree Newsome on that Carolina flagpole? To what cause might you dedicate that stubborn face, that fierce pout, someday?

I had one last epiphany: that this must be the way my own parents, like so many others, felt about their own children when we were small.

In that case, we have our work cut out for us, you and I both.

8 thoughts on “A letter for my daughter about Clementa Pinckney

  1. An excellent “letter”, Ms. Stanley! I am so sorry your once-great nation is so screwed up, so polarized, back vs, white, rich vs. poor, democrats vs, republicans, police vs. everyone else, gun lobby vs. anti-gun lobby, etc. etc. I am not a U.S. citizen (thankfully) and have never lived in the U.S. but I still wonder how it happened. As an outsider it seems the U.S. is tearing itself apart, that the whole “culture” is based on fear, greed and conflict. Even your national anthem glorifies war and conflict. I hope that your daughter’s generation can do something to solve the problems. Keep up the good work!


  2. Wow. It’s early mornng and I’m getting ready to go out into Medellin to play tourist, but I have to read this post again and again tonight and the next day. You always touch something in me but today you have moved me to tears. I just got the right to marry, something that has been denied to me for 62 years. The horror of the murders in Charleston also occurred in that same week. I so want the US to live up to its potential, to the false image that we were imprinted with as kids, liberty and justice for all. For LGBT people, that has come a huge step closer. For people of color, it has become so obvious in the last 8 years, with a concentrated, horrible example in the last week, that racism needs to be eradicated, that guns need to be controlled and that the gun fetichism must be combatted psychologically.

    I love your posts. Thank you.


  3. I don’t have children, but I’ve cared for children, and I love how they inspire us to be better versions of ourselves in order to be a better example for them. 🙂

    Thank you for writing this.


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