A Letter to Black America on the Anniversary of George Floyd’s Death
Dear Black America—
I hear the birds outside in the spring air, and there is a part of me that can’t believe we’ve made it this far. It’s been a year since George Floyd was stolen from his family and from us. A year since the whole world squeezed into the theater of our grief. What have we lived through? Where have we been?
None of our losses were new. The ever-lengthening list of Black lives cut short by brutality, by fear, by racialized hate. Like a terrible procession, making its slow march through the ages. My grandparents knew it. Perhaps yours did too and theirs. My parents told me stories about how this form of loss had touched them growing up in Alabama in the 1930s and ’40s. Such stories were a way of warning me that justice was not guaranteed. Perhaps they also sought to underscore the enduring trauma such injustices instigate—how, even in loss, our Black lives continue to matter. All manner of stories were lumped together—like the one about my mother’s uncle or great-uncle who, in the early 1940s, had made a good deal on the sale of timber felled from his own land. At the end of a night spent celebrating his gains in a bar, he was shot and robbed by a white man who’d caught wind of the fortune in that uncle’s pockets. “Did the white man go to jail?” I asked, before I had learned enough to know that’s not how these stories ever end.
But there was another kind of story too. When I was in my first or second year at Harvard, in 1990 or ’91, one of my mother’s sisters pulled me aside to tell me the story of B., a cousin who had attended Harvard in the early 1960s. If I’m remembering correctly, B. had lasted there barely a year. The proof of the psychic toll that place in that particular time had had upon her was that she had been found walking across campus one afternoon barefoot in the snow. Somehow her story, in its telling, was equal in strife to that of my mother’s uncle. Of course B. had gotten out with her life, but there was no way, my aunt seemed to be saying, to measure the psychic toll of what our cousin had endured or to know whether the damage of that time had come to an end.
These family stories were meant to be extrapolated upon. I was meant to extract from them not just a private warning about how to protect myself, and whom it was unsafe to trust, but also a larger form of knowledge. I was meant to understand that our family stories were but a minuscule part of a centuries-old collective body of knowledge built of struggle, punctuated by loss, and kept alive by love. I was meant to understand unreservedly that our stories were indispensable to the full story—the true story—of America, a story America itself was unwilling to tell. But for a long time, all this knowledge did was coalesce into a painful spot in my mind, a site I tended to shy away from. If I’m being honest—with myself, with you—for a long time I coped with that particular pain by attempting to numb the area of my mind where it sat. On the night that Michael Brown’s murderer was acquitted, I muted my rage, telling myself I had long ago been told (“Did the white man go to jail?”) what the verdict would be. I believe this numbness, this muting of feeling, was an attempt at self-protection. What would I have known to do with the force and the weight of such actual pain if I had been willing to truly claim it or claim a right to it? Would I have let it chase me out into the street or out barefoot in deep snow?
I have always felt ashamed of my tendency toward silence, my habit of seeking to settle the emotions wishing to storm up and out in reaction. So I was eager to let this past year, with its convergence of crises, change me. The past year, so frequently and so inaccurately labeled unprecedented, was like a storm hammering down on all of us at once, held as we were at home in lockdown. In its conflagration of deaths—to police brutality and to subtler but no less virulent forms of racialized disregard—history seemed to be insisting that we acknowledge how little had changed: Remember Chicago in 1919? Tulsa in 1921? Remember Reconstruction? Remember Trayvon and Michael and Eric and Philando and Sandra? And on and on? It seemed that the age-old patterns my parents had insisted I see were registering in the collective imagination. Not as proof of how things had always been but as an argument for how things must begin to change. The world’s watching, and its reacting, refused to let me retreat into numbness.
Thanks to activists in Minneapolis, New York, D.C., and communities across the country, I felt myself to be in a strange new Now that was bound up—this time willingly and actively—with the past. History, no longer behind us, was right there, nudging us to act. And act we have. Even in moments of peace, I feel now the guiding presence of history. Savoring a delicious meal, I am for a flicker of a moment a child again at my mother’s table. Snuggling next to one of my children at bedtime, I feel myself be wrapped up again in the cherishing crucial to my own experience of childhood—the tenderness and instruction intended to buoy me through day after day, to keep me intact in a world where so much would be intent upon my diminishment. Don’t sit on this, history seems to say. And, finally, I obey.
Black America, I’m trying to make or preserve the space where the We of Blackness can count on the wider, whiter world to have our backs. But I’m also wary of such trust. How many times in this very same year, in moments where my advocating for smaller justices—in the literary community or on the campus where I have long taught—was met by attack, have I been made to feel the silence of my white peers as a form of annihilating violence?
Chasteningly, it is in those very circumstances—in the pain of feeling betrayed—that I’ve been made to see how dangerous for us all the tendency to muteness and the ability to go numb can be. My own included.
Black America and all of us willing to honor and protect Black life: We know how exhausted this year has left us. We also know our strength. We know our laughter is a way of digging into the work to be done. And we know a song or a poem or a prayer can summon others near so all the many of us can work together as one.
Black America and all of us willing work not just in the here and now of our own time but in the wake of the labor of generations past: Mammoth is our task. I believe it will keep us busy into generations yet to come—our waves rippling out to merge into theirs, even if you and I are, by then, elsewhere.
When I am overwhelmed, as I am so often this year, I close my eyes. Once, in what must have been a plea or prayer for help, I watched as the silhouette of a woman bathing in a river or lake took shape in my mind’s eye. I watched her in her wading, her diving and rising. Never facing me. Her back and shoulders rippling with agency. Then I felt a message rise in my mind: We live. Again and again, we are born into every age. We give ourselves over to it, planting something the earth needs, seeding the planet so it might proceed.
Black America and everyone who understands that a cherishing of Black life is essential to the enterprise of democracy: I’m talking to us, all of us. As we did so often in the past year, we find ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder—now in flesh, now in spirit—called upon to manifest the possible. Is it possible for us to reseed the imagination not just of ourselves but of our entire nation? Is it possible to fill it with tall climbing vines that lift our sights up from where they’ve been?