Remembering a Friend: Mother Emanuel 4 Years Later

I met Tywanza Sanders at an open mic comedy night in Charleston, South Carolina in the fall of 2013. It was a Tuesday and it was on the upstairs floor of Joe Pasta, an Italian restaurant at the corner of King Street and John Street that has since been replaced. Tywanza was a young 26 year old African American man who immediately exuded a warm presence and a calm demeanor, and was eager to talk to the other comics in the room. I fondly recall he had a smile that day. He asked who was hosting for the night as he wished to sign up.

While I had been performing for four years at this point, I still felt very insecure about hosting and therefore did so only on the rarest of occasions. However on this day the primary host was not able to be present that night and requested I handle hosting duties for him. I told Tywanza that I was the host and directed him to the sign-up sheet. He also asked if he could record his set, which I informed him would not be an issue.

Tywanza’s set that night I remember going quite well, and the audience was quite receptive to it. His set was also distinctive for two notable reasons: first, his set did not include much profanity, which was a common trait in most sets (mine included). Second, he ended his set with a poem. If you’re reading this and feels that sounds uncharacteristic for a comedy open mic, it is. While I cannot recall the words of this poem, the general theme was a message against divisiveness and a call for love over hate. Among as cynical a lot as stand-up comedians it was quite a departure. I even had one comic comment on whether or not he should be doing a poem at a comedy mic. While I almost thought to say something to Tywanza about this, I decided he should be free to express himself with the time given and didn’t try to discourage him. After all, people say some pretty outlandish things at open mics in pursuit of a laugh, so in the grand scheme of things, an optimistic poem should be a welcome detour. I’m glad I didn’t say anything.

Over the coming months, I got to know and learn a great deal more about Tywanza as he frequented that open mic every Tuesday. I learned that he was going to business school and had an entrepreneurial spirit, as he would describe with an acute attention to detail how he planned to open his own small business. He expressed how he was enthusiastic to generate enough income to take care of his mother, of whom he on a number of occasions spoke of in the highest esteem. He laughed at our jokes. We laughed at his. And every time he performed he would once again close with a poem calling for unity. In comedy, you usually want to close your set with as big of a laugh as possible. The poem, however, was clearly meant to be reflective. While it always struck me as an odd choice it clearly meant a great deal to him, and ultimately it was his time to do as he pleased.

The night of June 17, 2015, I was driving back with my girlfriend at the time from a screening of a film. My phone had died shortly before the movie began, but when I got back in my car I connected my phone to the charger and began to drive. As my phone powered back on, a torrent of news updates flooded in, in addition to various messages. While I was in the film, a shooting had occurred at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in downtown Charleston, a historic African-American house of worship with a long and rich civil rights history. The church was a mere two blocks from where I was living downtown at the time, and the area was inundated with police cars as we arrived on the peninsula. There were reports online stating that there were confirmed fatalities. Within a few hours, I learned one of those fatalities was Tywanza.

Hearing about the passing of a young man I knew and considered a friend in the comedy scene was a deeply painful blow. But it was compounded by a deeper pain when I learned how he had died. Tywanza was present at a Wednesday Bible study with his 87 year old grandmother, Susie Jackson, his mother, and his 5 year old niece, as well as 9 other people. A young Caucasian man arrived and joined them for the study, where by all accounts he was welcomed with warmth and love. After about an hour, he stood up and pulled a gun on Susie. Tywanza quickly stood in front of his grandmother and pleaded with the young man not to cause them any harm, and the shooter responded “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” He then shot Tywanza five times, killing him, his grandmother, and seven others. His mother and niece survived by playing dead. I couldn’t imagine someone I knew would be murdered, and couldn’t fathom a more tragic manner in which such a murder could occur.

The city of Charleston responded with a beautiful display of unity in the wake of the shooting. Fundraisers for the church were numerous. Local businesses, other churches, and events all lent their support to aiding the Mother Emanuel in its time of need. The citizens of Charleston took a day of remembrance and held hands stretching across the iconic Ravenel Bridge as a sign of solidarity with the church. Even the comedians of Charleston put together a charity event and made their own contribution to this cause.

Perhaps the biggest impact the shooting had was the fact that it finally led to the removal of the Confederate Flag from the state house in South Carolina. The flag was a relic from the Civil War era of Southern pride that was long since heavily adopted by high profile white supremacists groups. It was now closely associated with many racially divisive ideals and to see it finally taken down proved to be very cathartic for many. When I saw it being removed I couldn’t help but think of Tywanza. I felt proud for my friend that despite the tragedy, in a small but impactful way his call for unity was fulfilled.

While there were no doubt that some positive changes occurred in the wake of Mother Emanuel, four years later I cannot help but be angered by how much has not changed. White supremacy murdered a young man I considered a peer in comedy. Charlottesville and the reactions to it revealed that white supremacy is not only alive and well, but is gaining more acceptance than previously suspected. I suspected the fact that mass shootings had now become a threat in houses of worship would lead to efforts to lessen this epidemic. Since Mother Emanuel there have been close to 40 shootings with 3 or more victims, and still no substantial change in action to prevent these types of tragedies. Two of the high profile shootings were also in churches. In many ways this still feels like a disrespect to the victims of that night.

I miss Tywanza. I miss his optimism and the fact he never had an unkind word to say to anyone. But what I think about most when I remember him are those poems. At the time I admittedly felt it was out of place at a comedy mic, and I sometimes felt it was something an audience that came for laughs didn’t need to hear. Now, on the fourth anniversary of his death, I think we need to hear it more than ever before.

Michael Clayton is a writer and stand-up comedian based out of New York City.

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