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His Name Is George Floyd

What is most striking about the recently published His Name Is George Floyd: One Man's Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice, by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa, is how ordinary so many of the details are. The two Washington Post reporters have interviewed hundreds of people involved in Floyd’s life, starting with the family, teachers, coaches, co-workers, and friends who made up his childhood. Yes, these years are marked by poverty, and a broken home, but in America, such childhoods are common, and that’s what comes across in the early chapters. George Floyd was a typical kid in so many ways, playing with friends, helping his family, going to school, playing sports, developing his personality, dreaming of his future. He was tall and big as teen, and always made sure to try and put people at ease. “I can’t go into a room like you, because of my size,” he told his brother. “People look at me and they’re nervous and scared, so I open up to them and let them know I’m okay. I’m a good person.”

It’s also a childhood that was beset by the background of structural racism. Floyd grew up in the 1970s and 80s, after the Civil Rights movement began to dismantle some of the worst of Jim Crow racism, but his world was still one of segregated neighborhoods, segregated and underfunded schools, and the over-policing of the ‘war on drugs.’ All this would play out in the struggles of his adult life, but still, in the book’s opening chapters, George Floyd is just a kid, a kind, playful, thoughtful kid.

Before the book moves to Floyd’s adulthood, we are presented with Chapter Three, a masterful look at past generations of Floyd’s family. Both parents were descendants of slaves, and in fact were enslaved by white landowners who themselves had come to America as indentured servants before working their way up the ladder of economic opportunities available to them. After the Civil War, these white landowners continued to profit from the system. For one thing, the Freedman’s Bureau set up by Congress after the war, ostensibly meant to offer economic assistance to ex-slaves, in reality only benefited a mere 1% of freed Blacks in North Carolina. The rest of the money went to the white relatives of deceased Confederate soldiers. More importantly, the white landowners continued to benefit from the labor of their former slaves, who now worked as sharecroppers, subject to low pay and a rigged system.

Such was the sharecropping life of George Floyd’s ancestors after the Civil War, But despite the challenges, they managed to save and purchase land for themselves during the Reconstruction era. In fact, Floyd’s ancestors were among the wealthiest former slaves in North Carolina, with hundreds of acres of land that at one point represented what would be the equivalent of $400,000 in today’s currency. But with the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow racist laws and policies, they were steadily cheated out of their holdings. By the 1920s, their wealth was gone. This was the norm in the era, as the vast majority of Blacks were cheated out of their wealth and excluded from civic participation by white reprisals.

All of this--the decades of barring Blacks from the accumulation of wealth, and the continuing devastating effects of that even after the Civil rights era slowly began to redress some of those wrongs--sets the stage for the struggles of George Floyd’s adult life.

Floyd’s first arrest came after he dropped out of Texas A&M-Kingsville, where he had been recruited into the sports program. It was Floyd’s own courage and tenacity that got him into a four-year college in the first place, Between his underfunded schooling and his responsibilities helping to take care of his siblings, and of poverty in general, he struggled to even graduate high school. But he did it (several months late, after retaking an exam), and parlayed his skill in basketball and football into gaining entry to college. Unfortunately, his need for remedial courses in college, which did not count towards the necessary academic benchmarks for the sports program, kept him off the playing field. In the end, he decided to drop out and return home to Houston after nearly two years of frustration.

It was during that summer of his return that Floyd was arrested for the first time. He was trying to make some money by working for some of his friends in the drug trade. Those friends felt Floyd was not much of a hustler, lacking the hard attitude to hold down a drug corner, but they knew he needed money and wanted to help him out. This was the height of the drug war, and Texas was one of the leaders in arresting and incarcerating young Blacks on minor charges. Floyd’s bust by undercover cops led to a six month stint in prison, and even after his release he was saddled with large debts for court expenses.

It was Floyd’s first criminal conviction, and despite the relatively short sentence, he left jail with the psychological wounds that come from spending day after day locked in a tiny cell. In addition to a bout of anxiety and claustrophobia that would follow him for the rest of his life, Floyd walked out of jail in 1998 with a label he would never be able to expunge: convicted felon.

As the years went by, Floyd battled poverty, more stints in jail, and drug addiction. But he also kept striving to rise above it, dabbling in music, working different jobs, making the move from Houston to Minneapolis to try and make a break with the past. And throughout, he was valued by his friends and family, who knew the good to be found in his heart. Floyd always told those in his circle that he loved them.

Expressions of love were among his last words as he was suffocated with his face pressed to the pavement by police: “Mama, I love you!” “Reese, I love you!” “Tell my kids I love them!”

As I said at the outset, this story of George Floyd is filled with ordinariness, of a playful kid, a striving teen, an adult trying to persevere through hardship. It is a life lived against the backdrop of structural racism that closed paths to opportunity, a social condition that is all too ordinary in the lives of so many. It is a life that should never have been snuffed out the way it was.

The book is peppered with references that are painful in light of Floyd’s death. “I want to read about you in the newspaper,” one of his teachers told him. “I’ll probably be old then. But I want to read about you in the newspaper that you have made history and done something to contribute to society.” And at the end of his junior year in high school, as he and his friends talked about their hopes and dreams, Floyd said “I’m going to be big. I’m going to touch the world.”