On May 25, 2020, the world witnessed a horrific event. George Floyd, while being arrested for using a counterfeit bill, was murdered by the arresting police officer who pressed his knee down onto Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while Floyd cried, “I can’t breathe” and then for his mother as he died. Prior to George Floyd’s murder, we were shown a video of Ahmaud Arbery being gunned down as he jogged through a neighborhood. We also learned of Breonna Taylor, an EMT who was shot several times in her own home by police officers just weeks after Ahmaud’s death. We were already in a boiling pot with the glaring disparity of how the pandemic was affecting people of color. The lack of access to affordable healthcare was resulting in more death and dying due to more black and brown people having preexisting conditions because of not having said healthcare. Because of health and safety concerns, they could not properly mourn or bury their dead. They were following stay at home orders, not able to work, or pay rent and put food on the table. More heat was added by watching these gruesome deaths. It all boiled over and caused an avalanche of racial reckoning.
And I sat and watched on my couch in the comfy of my white skin.
First in Minneapolis, and within days, everywhere. Protests were happening in the US and overseas. The streets were lined with protestors, saying their names:
Those first few days, I didn’t know what to do. So I watched. I prayed. With conversations about racism in the zeitgeist, I thought about my own history in this reckoning.
I thought back to a day in fourth grade. We were having our social studies class and there was a picture in our book of a water colored painting depicting the quarters of a slave ship. The pastels of yellow, red, aqua, brown blended together created a slap to my face. I was shocked and became overwhelmed. My heart felt dense. I had seen nothing like this before. An actual image of people piled on top of each other for a journey to an unknown land, to be chained, bought and sold right there, in my social studies book. My innocent mind could not comprehend such immorality. I didn’t know what to do to make up for such an atrocity. I felt the want and need to apologize to every single black person I knew or saw. Problem was, I didn’t know any or see any.
I grew up whitewashed. I had only one black person in my class and I believe he was only there for a year. My education was painted white with very little focus on black history. I lived in a white neighborhood and had white friends. I didn’t know any differently. I also didn’t know how to deal with my new knowing…that our history had this original sin.
Additional pieces of art struck that same chord of disdain for our country’s past were a mini-series about the 60’s where Martin Sheen played John F. Kennedy and Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross, as Billie Holiday. In the JFK series, I saw water fountains and bathrooms marked “colored” and “white” for the first time and watched as fire hoses were turned on blacks in Birmingham, Alabama. In Lady Sings the Blues, the filmmakers showed a young man lynched, hanging from a tree. Holiday would go on to sing, “Strange Fruit”, which was originally a poem written by a Jewish teacher from the Bronx, Abel Meeropol, who wrote it after being haunted by a photo of the lynching of two black men. Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” would later be named “The Song of the Century” in 1999. I watched these movies in 1984. I was 11. Again, “how did this happen? How did people LET this happen?”
Recently, I heard a term to describe the impact that art can have on our learning. Sometimes, art is the only way to understand the reality of something if we ourselves are not experiencing it. Dr. Sarah Lewis, an associate professor of history of art and architecture and African and African American studies at Harvard University, uses the term Aesthetic Force, and defines it as the “Internal shift that happens because of the power of the arts.” It took these pictures to force me into the reality of the history of black Americans. The dehumanizing of the slaves in the picture in my social studies book, the violent impact of the water on the bodies of protestors in Birmingham, and the hanging body of a young man in a tree shook me to my core and changed my reality.
During this time, I also fell in love with the music of Motown. I would listen to The Supremes, Aretha Franklin, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops. The Temptations. It’s joy was a juxtaposition to the pain I was learning about.
I had your typical Caucasian education that included, slavery, Harriet Tubman, the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, Jim Crow Laws, Brown V. Board of education, Rosa Parks, MLK and the Civil Rights Act. And that’s pretty much it. I learned later in college, the writings of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, and Langston Hughes. I didn’t go deeper than that. I didn’t know I needed to learn more.
Then, during the Rodney King riots, my perspective shifted. I lived in Milwaukee at the time and was at a café with a friend when the riots started. While there, I saw my friend, Will Gates, (the same one from the brilliant documentary, Hoop Dreams) and he offered to walk my friend and I home. I told him that we were going to stay a while longer and that we would make our way later and he said, “if you’re sure.” I was, but not by what he meant by that. What I realized later was that he wanted us to get home safely because Milwaukee was teeming with racial division due to the acquittal of the cops that had savagely beat Rodney King. When I got home and watched the news, I suddenly felt even more grateful for Will’s kindness. I also knew in that moment that there was a discrepancy between my experience of the police and his.
But I’ve never asked my black friends how that discrepancy feels. I’ve never asked about police brutality or racial injustice. Or how the DNA of slavery affects their daily lives. Or if they ever feel like they have to alter their behavior depending on surroundings. How should I show my solidarity when I will never know what it feels like to walk in black skin? I have not asked because I’ve been too afraid of coming off as “the white girl wanting to show she cares.” It should not be up to black people to teach white people about what it means to be black. It is not their job to make me feel better about our history. It is not up to blacks to teach whites how to dismantle white supremacy. That’s like asking the victim to teach the abuser how to stop abusing the victim. Change must be my work.
The protest during the pandemic started a new conversation for me about systemic racism. I learned that my daily life is embedded with racist practices. I didn’t know that I didn’t know so I read books and listened to interviews with historians and experts on the subject. I learned about historical figures that had never been mentioned within my education. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface.
Because of my fear of broaching this subject, I haven’t had conversations with my black friends about racism.
But I did have an unforgettable conversation with someone I barely knew. It was with a night nurse, Z, that I met at the hospital when my son was a patient there.
Z was an amazing nurse. She always kept me well informed, was sure to ask if I needed anything extra, and loved on my son. The nurse you would hope every child (and parent) had during their stay.
My son had been hospitalized with bronchiolitis and pneumonia. He was struggling to breathe, his oxygen levels remaining low. I was spending the nights with him there while my husband was with our oldest. I had hit a hard wall that day because he just wasn’t getting better. I told the nurse about my wall. That I had cried. That I was scared. She told me, “do you know where you are? What floor you’re on?” I shook my head that I didn’t. “The kids here have kidney diseases. They usually come in and stay for long periods of time, only to go home and come back very soon after. I don’t tell you that to make you feel sad or bad. I just want you to know that your son will be ok. You will be able to leave here and take him home and he’s going to be fine. I can promise you that.”
I told her that I had no idea that we were in this particular ward. She said that there was only our room available so we ended up on this floor. But that we were going to be ok.
Then she went on, “My baby didn’t make it. I had a baby that died at this hospital when he was 10 months old. We think it was SIDS.”
I expressed how sorry I was.
“I have another son that is becoming a young man. I have to worry about him in a different way.”
She then told me of the conversations that she has had with him about speaking to the cops and what to do and how to act. How to keep his hands open and out of his pockets. How to wear a hat and a hoody. What colors he can and can’t wear. Where he can and can’t go. We talked about Trayvon Martin and the protests in Ferguson. I asked, “what should I tell my son to do if he is with a black friend and they get stopped by police?” She said, “tell him not to leave. To stay with his friend. To witness. To be there with and for him.
“But remember, your baby is going to be ok. When he walks out of here, when he walks with his friends, he’s going to be ok.”
My fear about my son’s health dissolved that night and a few days later, we did walk out of the hospital. My heart felt both relief and remorse. I knew in that moment that I had taken so much for granted. That my family and I had the healthcare to navigate that experience. That I didn’t have fear because of the color of my skin. That my boys and I lived in the world blissfully, going in and out wherever we wanted without stares of accusation and suspicion.
“When he walks with this friends, he’s going to be ok.”
I thought about Z a lot when the protests began this past summer. The conversations she and so many parents of black children have had to have in order to protect them and that sometimes, they are protecting them from the ones that are supposed to be doing the protecting.
Z, thanks for taking such good care of my son, for comforting me, and teaching me.
The Thing Is…
We are learning a lot from this pandemic. We’ve learned that our healthcare needs to be revised. That the US economy depends on essential workers who are made up predominantly of people of color. And that a racial reckoning is happening. Our judicial, educational, financial, property ownership, art, athletics, – all of our systems need to have a come to Jesus about their racist foundations and reformations must be made. I will never know what a history of 400 years of oppression feels like. But I can stand in solidarity. I can reject complacency. I can call for and implement change.
I’m afraid I’ve said too much. Or not enough. I know that I had to say something. Say their names.
*and now, Daunte Wright. This post was written before the tragedy of his death. Minneapolis is confronted with another murder of a black man at the hands of police while reliving the trauma of George Floyd’s death over and over during the trial of his killer.
Sam Cooke’s song, “Change is Gonna Come” written almost 60 years ago says:
Then I go to my brother
And I say, brother, help me please
But he winds up, knockin’ me
Back down on my knees.
Oh, there been times that I thought
I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able, to carry on
It’s been a long
A long time coming
But I know a change gonna come
Oh, yes it will.