I was old enough to experience the civil rights movement in the 60s and can’t help but wonder: What’s different? And: How important is the difference? One of the answers to the first question is that white people like me are increasingly willing to really listen to Black Voices, not interpreting everything, not telling Black movement leaders what they need to understand.
So, today, I offer not my voice, but four other voices, to help us all understand what we (white folk) can’t understand, not in a visceral way. The first voice is my friend Desiree Cooper who I met in 1985. She was married to Butch Hollowell, a good friend of mine from high school, and in a small world way, she was my wife’s mentor at a corporate law firm in Detroit. We visited each other at the hospital when our children were born, and Des has remained my friend and teacher. I asked her if I could re-post a blog she wrote two weeks ago. Thanks for saying “yes,” Des.
Beneath her blog are three amazing videos. Each is less than 3 minutes. Each is amazing in its own ways. I am grateful to my student Christine Chinwuba who recommended them for me and for you. Let’s keep listening. Here’s des.
A version of this column first appeared in the June 2020 issue of BLAC Magazine.
We have endured too many horrific videos of Black men being gunned down, choked off and bleeding out. But the public execution of George Floyd has stirred something primal; it has struck at the hearts of mothers. Late on Memorial Day, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin used his knee to choke the life out of a 46-year-old African American father who had gone out to buy cigarettes.
It took nine months for Floyd’s mother to bring him into the world, and we all watched as it took nine minutes for the racist, sadistic officer to take him out. After submitting, pleading, moaning and weeping all failed, Floyd did the only thing a hopeless soul can do – he called for his mother.
I am the mother of an adult son who has quarantined with me in Virginia these past few months. In the days following the murder, we have struggled to keep each other’s spirits aloft as we have watched America’s cities burn. Right now, we are helpless to engage in the big questions, but we are also helpless to engage in the smaller questions, too. Like why my child will always be my gentle, precious baby (he’s 32), but to the world, he is an animal.
On the Saturday after the murder, we escaped the horror of the news to take a long drive. As the landscape got more rural, he got less comfortable. As African Americans, we know that green places – green with money or green with nature – hold special dangers. He kept commenting about the woods. We passed a road named “West Neck,” and he read it “Red Neck.”
When we approached a traffic jam on a two-lane road, I strained to see what was going on, while he grew rigid and silent. When we neared the reason for the snarl, we were both relieved that there were no police – only onlookers slowing down to avoid a giant turtle taking its time crossing the road.
We stopped at a seafood diner to eat, sitting outside, away from the entirely white (and friendly) staff and clientele. I thought it would be a treat, but I immediately saw my mistake. He was hyperaware the whole time, his ears in the conversations around us, uncomfortable with the distance to the bathroom, constantly checking his surroundings.
I kept telling him it was OK. He tried to trust me. He wanted to trust me. But he had already been arrested, handcuffed and thrown in the back of a police car like a common criminal three times for minor traffic infractions, like a busted taillight or expired tags. He knows what all Black men know: In those moments, his mother can’t save him.
And yet, that doesn’t stop our boys from calling out to us. When I heard Floyd use his last breaths to rasp “Mama!” I lost it, especially after knowing his mother was two years gone. If you are a mother, you know that flutter in your heart when you hear your child’s call. The reflex is so umbilical that even when you hear someone else’s child cry out at the mall, in the park or at the grocery store, your ears prick and your muscles tense.
When Floyd cried out, his mother couldn’t respond to him, but mothers everywhere did. In the days since his murder, it’s been hard not to feel helpless as we cradle our grief. But remember that one mother is capable of transforming the world, and when mothers band together, there is no greater force.
It was a West Virginia mother who nursed soldiers on both sides of the Civil War and led the establishment of the original Mother’s Day as a peace movement, not a day for brunches. It was mothers who paved the way to peace between the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.
It was mothers who formed a powerful force to stop the tragic outcomes of drunk driving. Mothers are protecting girls from child marriage, stopping the destruction of the environment, demanding reproductive justice that includes the right to raise children free from poverty, violence and oppression.
At this moment, grandmothers from all walks of life are on their knees, mothers are weeping, pregnant women are wondering what kind of world will await their babies. Sorrow and anger fill our wombs. We hear our Black men cry “Mama” and we don’t know how we can possibly save them. But they never stop calling us, never stop believing that we will.
Here are the videos – again each less than 3 minutes! – that Christine shared with me and our class:
Christine has shared some video links with me to help us listen more deeply to voices of African Americans. She chose these in part to demonstrate how long these issues have remained, so that we can understand better the ongoing sense of hurt, fear, and exhaustion felt by individuals and families of African descent. Here are her recommendations: