Four short weeks after his killing, I’m still wondering:
Who does George Floyd belong to?
My journey to that question began a week after Floyd’s killing, when I heard my son Skye weighing the different ways that hurt, angry Americans were responding to it. Listening, I was surprised to feel my eyes moisten. Certainly, Floyd’s killing in police custody was worthy of an ocean of tears. But I was crying for my brother. More than 40 years after Darrell, 26, died at the hands of police, I no longer cry much about the loss or allow myself to dive too deeply into the agony of examining his absence. But hearing the measured way Skye discussed yet another unarmed black man’s slaying by police inspired an obvious, yet stunning, realization:
Skye doesn't know his Uncle Darrell.
In his 24 years, my athletic, sports-loving son has seen his athletic, sports-loving uncle only in decades-old photos. He’s never heard my brother’s voice. Skye is completely unaware of the twinkle that lit my brother’s eyes when he was conjuring one of his pranks, and hasn’t once hunched over laughing at Darrell’s jokes, eerily like those made by his big brother Darrell — my middle son and my brother’s namesake, who inherited his uncle’s irresistible humor.
The flesh-and-blood brother who was one of the most alive people I ever knew has become a story, a collection of scattered snapshots and timeworn anecdotes too rarely told. How could Skye “know” him? The space in our lives that Darrell should occupy remains an emptiness, a yawning lack that even Skye, the most openhearted of young men, can’t help undervaluing. The warmth and movement and vocal inflections and facial expressions and scent and contradictions and gut-busting laughter and maddening frustrations — the life — that should have been my brother’s evaporated four decades ago, pierced by shots fired by two white policemen.
No matter how hard I’ve tried to evoke my brother’s memory, I realized, I can’t do justice to Darrell’s squandered reality. So I cried — that day, and almost every day since. I cried about feeling that my brother’s memory belongs only to me, my family and the tiny community that remembers him. And I cried about the blank spaces in countless black families and communities, where the ghosts of men and women whose unlived black lives belong to, matter to, too few.
George Floyd, of course, seems different. Since the video of his horrific slaying raced around the world last month, his name has been spoken daily by millions and appeared on countless protest signs and in news reports. This victim, it appears, belongs to everyone. The image of Derek Chauvin’s knee slowly squeezing the warm, rich life out of Floyd inspired millions to march, chant, pray, pull down statues, throw projectiles and scream bloody murder. But an image — even an indelible one — is not a man. The hole punched in the lives of Floyd’s loved ones will never fill, no matter what happens to the policeman whose face was so calm while he snuffed out Floyd’s life that an appalled white friend marveled, “He could have been sipping a drink.” One day, the little girl who charmingly crowed, “My daddy changed the world!” atop a family friend’s shoulders will find details of her beloved father blurring, like many memories I cherished of Darrell. I no longer wonder about the unknown woman who could have become Darrell’s bride, or the cousins Skye never played with because my brother couldn’t father them.
Errant cops' bullets, fists, knives, kicks, squeezing fingers and now knees don't just rob us of our kin in that specific, horrific moment. They create a void that keeps snatching away the slain victim's precious life day after day, decade after decade.
So forgive me for viewing the extraordinary moment we’re in with wariness. An unholy trinity of videos — Floyd’s excruciating slo-mo slaying, jogger Ahmaud Arbery’s inexplicable hunt-and-shoot killing by two white men in Georgia, and Amy Cooper’s Oscar-worthy phone performance in Central Park of a woman being attacked by the black man whose life she endangers for insisting she leash her dog — showed unequivocally that racism inspires seemingly normal people to behave like monsters. The coalition of outraged humanity that has galvanized to listen, learn and support victims and their communities represent every shade of humanity and nations where I barely knew black lives existed, let alone mattered.
Add to all of this the surrealness of a global pandemic and the whole world seems to be tilting. No wonder several friends — black, white and Asian — told me they can’t stop crying, either.
Almost every black person I know has had white friends reaching out, asking, “Are you okay?” and reassuring them of their empathy. Among mine: a policeman, one of my son’s best high school friends, who expressed his “disgust” at the “nightmare” of having Chauvin “represent the profession I could very well give my life for.” He gave me his word that he will keep rejecting the racism he’s hated since childhood, and continue to “watch over and protect … every beautiful person out there.”
For someone like me, witnessing this tsunami of multinational empathy has been like watching water thicken into wine — a full-blown miracle. My eyes keep trying to adjust. Have millions really decided that Floyd and others like him belong to them? Gingerly, I’ve savored every word of affinity, every supportive sign in shop windows, each corporate statement of solidarity. I’ve recoiled at images of peaceful protesters beaten and tear-gassed, and photos of stores looted by those whose actions appeared to dishonor the sacredness of most demonstrators’ intentions. I was gobsmacked when Roger Goodell — representing the same National Football League that cynically allowed Colin Kaepernick to be vilified as anti-American for peacefully protesting police killings — stated that his league was wrong for not listening to its players pleas for understanding and for not encouraging them to speak out and peacefully protest. I mean, did he actually say the words Black Lives Matter?
Goodell’s statement came on the heels of a viral video of a dozen top black NFL players, including biracial league MVP Patrick Mahomes, reciting the names of 13 well-known victims of police brutality. “What will it take?” the players asked. “For one of us to be murdered by police brutality? What if I was George Floyd?”
Watching the player video, I burst into tears — again. Celebrity athletes — who know they're widely valued — could ask that. I've silently screamed different questions:
What if it happened to someone who belonged to you? What if whatever accident of skin color or Zip code or financial security that protects you evaporated — and it was YOUR son crying for his mama as his life leaked out beneath a stranger’s knee? Your father chased down and shot just for jogging? Your sister, awakened and shot by police officers who smashed in her door? Your smart, handsome, caring brother, who loved you unconditionally, killed in a ditch and no one noticed?
Yet hearing those victims' names said aloud, knowing they'd been heard by someone in power who was seeking to make amends, I felt like my brother finally belonged to someone besides me. Somehow, a multibillion-dollar sports conglomerate's admission of culpability felt like an acknowledgment of Darrell’s existence. Like an apology I didn't realize I'd been waiting for.
Crazy, right? There’s nothing rational about a forced corporate mea culpa feeling like atonement for a long-forgotten killing. But the human heart isn’t rational. Neither is racism, which makes everyone it touches crazy.
Consider how straight-up insane it is for people to feel superior to fellow human beings they’ve never met — often without even realizing it. The foolishness of people insisting that so-called “inferior” people are dumber, meaner, lazier, less honest — less worthy — because of their skin color, while failing to note the equally dumb, mean, lazy and dishonest people who look like them. Making assumptions about others based on their appearance clearly opposes Christ’s blanketing love — and yet many racists claim they’re Christian. Would the God in whose image in which we were created approve our judging others based on the skin that same deity wrapped them in?
Racism makes black people crazy, too, no matter how reluctant we are to admit the prejudices many of us have adopted against our precious black selves. We, too, absorb the muted murmurs of our supposed inferiority, feel the dismissiveness woven into the national fabric. Is it surprising that some of us aren’t immune to the shame and self-doubt symptomatic of a contagion so common that if you breathe, it can poison you, too?
After days of intermittent sobbing, I realized something. The emptiness that I mourn as my brother is misleading. Darrell is gone. But the part of him that always belonged to me stubbornly lives on. Denied his own chance to mature, my brother daily forces me to evolve, in ways I'm still discovering. Tragedies like mine have no one-size-fits-all response. Some people unjustly robbed of their loved ones turn the tables, heaping bitterness and unforgiveness on all who look like the thieves who stole those precious lives. I can't judge them.
Yet I can’t join them, either. I was reminded of this when I learned David Kessler, a co-author with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the psychiatrist famed for identifying the five stages of grief, recently expanded the number of mental states people negotiate after losing a loved one. After denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, Kessler added one more: meaning. I don’t remember the moment I understood that although I couldn’t change Darrell’s death, I have a say in the meaning I attach to it. His unwarranted slaying sometimes pushes me into fear, making me withdraw, feel fragile, and shudder for the safety of open-faced young black men I see strolling on city streets. It makes me wonder if I can trust the multitudes that would claim Floyd as their own. But Darrell’s passing also propels me toward love, inspiring me to chat up strangers, speak up for the helpless, and use my voice and my writing to make others, whatever their color or culture or nationality, feel seen. Darrell coaxed me to dive so deeply into spirituality that I rarely forget that if God is everywhere, we’re all part of that ever-present divinity. Dismissing that Spirit in anyone would mean behaving like the policemen who dismissed it in Darrell.
Even in death, he blesses me. I don’t know what will happen next in our emboldened, embattled nation. What I do know is that my brother’s short life taught me what every soul inspired by Floyd’s martyrdom to march, speak out and change once-concrete institutions in honor of Floyd should remember: Each and every one of us is immensely flawed, insanely beautiful and worthy of being seen. Forty-three years after I lost him, Darrell whispers to me that George Floyd belongs to everyone to whom he, too, belongs:
To me. To you. To the God that created us.
We belong to each other.
Donna Britt, a former Washington Post columnist, is the author of “Brothers (and Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving.”