A Mother’s Plea in the Wake of George Floyd
by Nemata Blyden
This is a mother’s rant; the reflections of a woman fearful for her children. After a weekend off social media and away from the news, I turned on my television this morning and caught a segment on “how to talk to your kids about what they are seeing.” I came in just in time to see Deborah Roberts asking her 17-year-old son how he was feeling. “ A little worried,” he said mildly, but went on to elaborate that he feared going back into the city where “cops might take me down and try to hurt me.” I burst into tears, and called my eldest son, and then my daughter. I am a mother of three young adults, and I am terrified.
On Election Day in November 2018, my daughter, then 26, told me “Mommy. I’m scared.” It broke my heart. I expect to hear such sentiments and fears from my sons, now 25 and 20. My tall, handsome and confident sons are Black men who have been stopped by police, and profiled in countless ways. To hear this fear in the voice of my self-assured, poised daughter made me angry.
I also felt helpless at the thought that perhaps I could no longer protect my children. No more could I keep them safe as I have tried to do all their lives. I am the mother of Black children forced to have conversations with them about being “Black in America” almost since they could walk – the dos and don’ts, the many ways they could be marked, the assumptions that would be made about them, the dangers they would face.
I don’t want judgements made about my children because of what they look like. I don’t want them followed in stores. I don’t want to worry about them as my grandmother worried for my mother and as my mother did for me, to endure the indignities my grandfather and uncle did. Those Black men fought in two wars so my children could live freely in the United States, or so I thought. I don’t want my children killed because they are Black.
For four hundred years, Black Americans have been subject to violence, social and economic inequality, and prejudice. “Structural racism,” now a buzz word, has defined how we live daily. In the wake of the killings of countless Black Americans at the hands of police, the murder of one more amid a pandemic has signaled that African Americans have had enough.
Halfway through the quarantine we learned of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Black families, forced to stay indoors, and those who watched members of their families set out to work in high-risk jobs, felt helpless and impotent.
The rising deaths due to COVID-19 revealed that African Americans are dying in disproportionate numbers, facing greater economic insecurity and unequal and uneven access to health care. (How many stories of Black people turned away from hospitals only to later die of the virus did I hear?)
Mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters are dying in hospitals and in homes without their loved ones by their side. Meanwhile, our death practices and rituals have been disrupted, as families have had to choose which members would see their loved ones off. Elders in our communities died without the honor and respect reserved for those who have lived a long and worthy life. Virtual funerals and repasts substituted for the fellowship and closeness we are accustomed to as we say goodbye to those we love.
And now George Floyd.
I heard Kareem Abdul Jabbar comment on a protest sign in Minneapolis – “Can you hear us now?” In his eloquent appraisal of the situation in his Los Angeles Times piece, Jabbar observes that, “It feels like hunting season is open on blacks.”
For four hundred years, Black Americans have had to fight to be heard – ever since bolting from slavery and eluding attempts to hunt us down and return us to that awful institution. We’ve fought to be heard through suits for emancipation from slavery; in petitions for equal treatment; in demands for justice in courts; by enlisting in armies and fighting in wars; through civic participation, voting, and running for office. Yet many feel they still have not been heard.
The airwaves are filled with reports of “looting” and “vandalism” in the wake of Floyd’s death. To hear the news stories, American cities are being “destroyed” by protesters. We know that this is not true. The protests are largely peaceful. Historically, destruction of property has often been a byproduct of demonstrations, but focusing on those marginal elements, and the small number of opportunists amid real concerns about police brutality, is unfair. It is unfair to the Black mothers who have lost sons and daughters to police violence. The real anger of mourning mothers, frustrated fathers, and grandparents forced to relive memories of Jim Crow and lynching, should not be minimized.
Before we speak of “looting,” and how little it achieves, before we spout platitudes about how counterproductive destroying property is, I ask, “Can you hear us now?” Did you “hear” Floyd call for his mother? Did you hear Arbery’s heart pounding as he was approached by two white men who would kill him in broad daylight? Do you hear the nightmares of Atalanta Jefferson’s nephew as he recalls the shots that killed his aunt in her home? Did you hear Breonna Taylor’s cries of incredulity as she, no doubt wondered at the horror of being killed where she lived?
“Can you hear us now?” The answer, sadly, is probably no.
Dr. Martin Luther King said rioting is the voice of the unheard. Protesters setting fires and destroying property are asking to be heard. They – and we – are asking for equal treatment and better access. We are asking for our children to stop being killed.
Listen to us! Hear us!
Nemata Blyden is Professor of History and International Affairs, Department of History, George Washington University. She is the author of African Americans and Africa: A New History, available at Yale University Press and on Amazon.