Say what you know

The story is both familiar and unfamiliar: in the spring of 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, an African American named George Floyd died when his air supply officer was cut off by the knee of a police, Derek Chauvin. Floyd’s offence: he was thought to have used a counterfeit bill to pay for cigarettes at a local store. Thanks in large part to a widely circulated video of the incident, taken by one of the bystanders pleading with Chauvin to relent, Floyd’s murder set off a nearly massive wave of protests across the United States, which in turn galvanized people around the world. Chauvin’s subsequent conviction on charges of murder and manslaughter brought cautious optimism concerning justice for the George Floyds of America, where unarmed Blacks are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to die by police violence; Perhaps, it was hoped, with a new focus on this crisis, there might even be fewer such victims in the future. Floyd’s name and face became symbols of hope for a new day. The man himself, meanwhile, was largely unknown.

Until now. With their excellent, important new book, His Name Is George Floyd: One man’s life and the struggle for racial justicetwo Washington Post Reporters, Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa, have set out to chronicle not just Floyd’s death, but his life. They have interviewed more than 400 of Floyd’s friends, acquaintances and family members to create a vivid portrait of the man, complete with recalled conversations, observations from those who knew him well, the hopes and fears he shared with those close to him and the story of how his death electrified the public consciousness. In most biographies of deceased persons the subjects’ accomplishments poignance and gravity to the accounts of their deaths; Samuels and Olorunnipa invert that model, introducing readers to an ordinary person whose life was defined largely by disappointment and whose outsized contribution to the world was the nature of his demise.

At the center of His Name Is George Floyd is a kind of EveryBlackMan. A novelist seeking to create a character whose life exemplifies the challenges facing African American males could scarcely find a better model than Floyd. His disadvantages began well before his birth. His great-great-grandfather, Hillery Thomas Stewart, acquired land in North Carolina in the years after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. This, we learn, “became a target of unscrupulous businessmen and local officials, according to family oral history and local news accounts from the time”, and it was stripped from him. As a result Stewart’s descendants were sharecroppers who lived in squalor. One of his great-granddaughters, whom everyone called Cissy, sought music stardom (unsuccessfully) in New York, moving there with the man who would father George Floyd, who was born in 1973. To be with a new beau (who, like Floyd’s father, would not be in the picture for long), Cissy moved to Houston, Texas, where Floyd and his siblings were raised in a housing project known informally as the Bricks.

Floyd grew up in an atmosphere of poverty and crime. His test scores in second grade showed him to be on a par with his peers nationwide; However, the underfunded and all but officially segregated schools he attended did not serve him well, and by the end of high school he was lagging far behind. Floyd, who had grown to six and a half feet, showed talent on the football field. After finally passing his exams, he went to college and joined the football team, but there were conditions attached and his poor grades kept him off the field. Feeling hopeless, he dropped out. That left him back in the Bricks, where, without skills, connections, the inherited wealth that cushions many white families or any remaining hope of fulfilling his dream, he began selling (and using) drugs – which, predictably, led to jail time. At one point he was peripherally involved in an armed robbery. Before the age of thirty Floyd was a walking stereotype, an underemployed, sometimes addicted Black man with a prison record.

Samuels and Olorunnipa’s achievement is to bring to life the flesh-and-blood man behind the stereotype and statistics. Floyd emerges from these pages as a thoughtful, gentle, playful, well-liked person who, for a variety of reasons – some of his own making, many not – had a hard time getting his life together. One particular telling story involving a woman who taught in a school near the Bricks; barely able to keep control of her classes, she was at her wits’ end when some of the students suggested she talk to someone named Floyd. Knowing nothing about this man, but with nothing to lose, she contacted him. He helped her to understand the students because he knew them personally. He told her that this student’s parents were in prison; that student had witnessed the fatal shooting of a family member; that still another student was being raised by a seriously ill grandparent. Floyd and the teacher eventually became close. He had creative impulses, getting to know figures in Houston’s rap-music scene and performing on unreleased songs by the popular DJ Screw.

The book also makes clear that Floyd wanted to get his life together — so much so that he moved to Minnesota, where many he knew had proved able to leave addiction and crime behind. He hoped to put himself in a better position to care for his young daughter, with whom he kept in touch after the move. Before his departure, a friend who had himself relocated to Minneapolis told Floyd: “Wherever you go, bro, you take yourself with you”. When Floyd asked what he meant, the friend replied, “Well, the same thing you did there, you could be doing up here if you don’t watch it.” The friend’s words proved prophetic. Despite a promising start in Minneapolis, Floyd had fallen into old habits by the time of his encounter with Chauvin.

The final third of His Name Is George Floyd is devoted to the groundswell of activism that followed Floyd’s death, which brought with it the hope – so far unrealized – of national legislation to hold police officers accountable for actions such as Chauvin’s. But if the video and protests have not yet resulted in any new laws, they have raised raised. Among many, that is. Many others, as revealed by various’ interviews with rank-and-file conservatives, continue to see Floyd as nothing more than a criminal who it is implied, deserved his fate. Perhaps the last word on that score should go to Floyd, who wrote the following rap lyrics:

You can say what you want

Make sure you say what you know.

Clifford Thompson’s book What It Is: Race, family, and one thinking black man’s blues was published in 2019

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