I refuse to write an insufficient epitaph in response to the cries for racial justice in these chaotic and crucial days for America. Brighter minds than mine have offered eloquent commentary on the murder of George Floyd and its repercussions. But, like countless others before me, my words rise from a mother’s aching heart.
I am the white mother of a black son and the grandmother of three black grandsons. Floyd’s brutal murder at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer has deeply affected not only my commitment to racial justice, but also my mother’s heart. I cannot help but recall some of the many occasions my son faced cruel racism, from the time he was a young child through his teenage years. I lived with the constant fear that he would be hurt.
In a recent BNG column, North Carolina pastor Timothy Peoples spoke poignantly and powerfully about “the talk every black boy receives” from his mother. He recalled the first time he was given The Talk as a first grader: “My mother got down on my level, kissed me on the cheek and with tears in her eyes said, ‘Baby, you are a black boy in a white man’s world.’”
When Peoples described his response, it hit me where it hurts the most: “’Momma, I’m different! They won’t hurt me. I’m nice and polite and the cutest.”
When my son, Jonathan, was a toddler he was definitely “the cutest.” Everyone doted on him. We had no idea how drastically that would change as he grew older. When he was a teenager, we had our own version of The Talk between a black son and his white parents, but we knew it could not ensure his freedom from harm, especially by police.
“As I watched the video and heard Floyd call out for his mother, it instantly brought back the fear for my own son then and now.”
I know all too well that The Talk could not fully prepare or protect George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery or Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice or Eric Garner or dozens of other black men during my lifetime whose names many of us know – or the many others whose names most white people do not know. As I was sitting with my thoughts, I could not help but recall a conversation we had with our son when he was 17. It was a rare event because, like many teenagers, Jonathan was never eager for serious and substantive conversations with his parents. This particular night, however, was different. He was open and talkative and obviously had something important on his mind.
“Mama,” he said, “you have no idea!” (And he was right, of course.) “The police stop me all the time. Last night, Mark, Andre and Jarrett were with me. I wasn’t speeding or doing anything. I stopped at a stop sign and a police car pulled up beside us. We didn’t know what was going on. The two officers pulled all of us out of the car and pushed us to the ground, face down with our legs and arms spread out while they searched us and the car.
“Nothing was in the car except our basketball uniforms.”
In that instant, my heart began to ache. I felt the burning sensation of anger rising from a very deep place inside me. I started weeping, causing our son to backpedal as quickly as he could from the room.
The fear and anger I felt in that moment propelled me the next morning to the offices of the mayor and chief of police. While it was not the first time I had been moved to act against a racial injustice, and it would not be the last, I was acutely aware that I walked into their offices carrying my white privilege. I knew it would force them to hear me, to receive my anger and perhaps even to take a modicum of action.
At the same time, I also knew that my best friend, a black mother, probably would not have been received so amicably. She would have been virtually invisible to the two white men in positions of power.
Afterwards, I wondered whether our police chief, if he had not already done so, would quickly ramp up some kind of in-service training and maybe even order his police officers to refrain forevermore from shoving black kids to the concrete. But then, as now, there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical.
George Floyd was violently pinned to the concrete on the day he died. What happened to him was starkly visible to millions, thanks to the courage of 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, who recorded the incident on her phone as a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Her camera had been recording for 20 seconds when the first of Floyd’s terrified cries of “I can’t breathe!” could be heard.
As I watched the video and heard Floyd call out for his mother, it instantly brought back the fear for my own son then and now. It’s the kind of fear that makes me feel as if I can’t breathe.
When the news of the day sucks the air from our lungs, perhaps then we will be compelled to advocate for racial justice with our lives, with our very breath, for as long as it takes. We may ask repeatedly, “How long, O Lord?” knowing all the while that it may take a lifetime. Our nation’s long, ugly history of systemic racism tells us that bringing justice to those who are oppressed will not only take the rest of our lives but the lives of generations to come.
“The impact of America’s original sin has moved on to our family’s next generation.”
My son is now raising black sons of his own. He fears for them, as I feared for him when he was a child and now fear for my grandchildren. Six days after Floyd’s death, Jonathan told me of a conversation with a white man.
“I had a confrontation with a person because of the stupidity that he was speaking while we were in the same room watching the news. We just had different points of view. He doesn’t understand what black men, especially, have to go through in life.”
Like other mothers and fathers, I have many reasons to be proud of our son. But, just as it was throughout his childhood, my pride is accompanied by a painful reality: the impact of America’s original sin has moved on to our family’s next generation. And that makes me feel as though I too can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe because George Floyd could not breathe. I can’t breathe because my “neighbors,” as Jesus would define them, have taken their mourning to the streets along with their feelings of betrayal, fear, frustration and anger.
I can’t breathe as the mother of a black son. And I can’t breathe because my son is the father of three black sons.
When I consider the injustices of racism and all the mistrust and mistreatment of “the other” in the world around me and find I cannot breathe, I pray that the breath of the Holy Spirit will fill me with the will, the persistence and the courage to change the world into a just and safe “home” for every child of God.
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