As a black mother, my heart is broken.
That knee to the neck could just as easily been inflicted upon my own son. In a way, it was.
George Floyd’s life and certainly his death belong to all of us. Mr. Floyd died lying face down on the street, begging for his life. In his last moments he called out to his deceased mother: “Mama … I’m through!”
That primal scream, that sacred invocation, that help-me-mama hollering out from a man who knew he was dying seemed to stop my own heart, too. When we know we’re in trouble, we cry out for our mothers. It is often our final act.
George Floyd belonged to all of us, as did every single black man who died before him. They are our sons.
My heart is fractured. My tears are real. When will enough be enough? How many more knees will it take placed with such deathly disregard upon how many more necks before we realize we’ve reached the point of no return? How many more black men must call out for their mothers as they gasp their last breaths?
Our black men suffer when they live, and they suffer when they die. So do their mothers and fathers and families. Now, the nation at large, black and white, is beginning to feel our pain. This is why cities are burning. We are all the mothers of George Floyd.
That a global pandemic is simultaneously unfolding around us is really messing me up, igniting a bright, new flame of fear and heart-stopping anger in my heart that comes in the form of a single swatch of cloth: The protective masks designed to save our lives have, ironically, created deep within me a fresh new level of fear — a mask on a black man is never, ever a good look.
Every time I visualize my son stepping into a store or, heaven forbid, walking into a bank wearing his mask — the very thing that is designed to prolong and protect his life — my heart seizes with fear.
I am angry that the last words I always say to him are not “I love you,” but “be careful.” I resent being robbed of the purity of that simple expression of love; I am flat-out furious that this expression of love for my baby must be diluted with an admonition for him to keep his head up. To tread carefully. To make no sudden movements. To be constantly cautious. To watch out for his life.
Now I must worry about all that this mask represents. I must worry about the fact that a person sees a black man wearing a mask and feels fear. I must worry all over again, except at an entirely new level, about the fact that fear makes people do stupid things. Now I must try to bite back this slow burn of panic that simmers in my heart and sizzles in the pit of my stomach. I’m tired of being afraid about the death of our black men.
Imagine how our black men must feel.
So the streets are burning, and the collective pain and anger of the nation has itself become an incendiary device. This pain belongs to all of us now. It belongs to every mother who must live in constant worry about whether their sons will meet a similar fate. It belongs to every citizen, black or white, who is so sickened by these patterns of brutality that they must speak out.
But we must redirect this pain into something positive.
Rioters must stop rioting. The fires and the fighting must stop. The tear gas and the violence and the looting must cease. We must assemble peaceably. We have vital things to say, as well as a constitutional right to say them, but not like this; not played out on the streets as wild anger and wanton fury. When this happens, we step on our own message. Fury has a way of muddling a message. Our fury isn’t unfocused at all; our actions are. And this will be our ultimate undoing.
If we’re not careful, our behavior — the behavior of the police, of the protesters, of all of us who are experiencing pain, grief and all kinds of angst — will open the floodgates to new levels of fury and ferocity that will be difficult to contain. We’ve got to get it together. All of us.
We must also remember that we’re still in the clutches of a global pandemic, where even peaceable assembly is dangerous at best. Shall we just ignore social distancing? Is wearing a protective mask too docile a statement as we take to the streets to protest police brutality? Are the tiny, airborne spores of the novel coronavirus suddenly made somehow less contagious by virtue of our white-hot rage about racism and senseless police brutality? Come on, people. Let’s be smarter than this.
Every mother, every father, every citizen, black or white, must rise up above this violence — not above the anger, mind you, because our anger is what will mobilize us if we can channel it toward productive change, but above the violence that is muddling our message and pushing us toward a precipice that has no safety net. If we fall over this one, we’re finished.
All of this death — a knee on a neck, poisonous spores waiting to invade our bodies — and all of this abject fear about our mask-wearing sons doing something as simple as walking into a store — it’s wearing me down.
But I will not let my worry paralyze me. I will let it lift me up and take me to a new place, a place that can only be reached through positive change. The violence must end.
My heart is broken, yes.
But I’ve always been taught that when something breaks, you fix it.
You fix it.
Kristin Clark Taylor is an author, editor, journalist, communications consultant, and motivator.
This piece was first published in The Washington Post on Monday, June 1, 2020.