Today I GET to celebrate my 46th birthday. There is very little significance about the number 46, but living for 46 years feels like a gift to me. My brother Augustus, my first role model/friend died when he was 27. My brother Julius lived to be 43. And a third brother Elkins, one I never met because of issues with immigration from what some would consider a “shithole country,” made it to the grand old age of 56. None of them died violent deaths, though Augustus tragically died due to the callous indifference of a nurse who carelessly overdosed him with morphine as he cried out for pain medication during one of his sickle-cell crises. I don’t assume that the nurse was an overt racist (I don’t know what was in her heart) but from what my mother witnessed minutes before she watched him die, I know that that nurse did not see him as a full or equal human being. As a nurse, she is not sworn to the Hippocratic Oath, but likely and earnestly recited the Nightengale pledge which clearly calls for better care than he received at that moment. Maybe we should all swear to an oath of humanity where we all strive to see each other as full humans with needs, dreams, hopes and beliefs, and most importantly, do no harm.
So back to the number 46. In what has been just about a fortnight, a large part of America, and parts of the world have been watching, and reacting, to the video of a 46-year-old black man take his final breath under the knee of a person authorized and “authoritized” to protect him. We also watched others who swore an oath to serve and protect, not only fail to serve or protect, but fail to acknowledge his humanity, and essentially cosign George Floyd’s death warrant. Would that officer put his knee on the neck of a 12-year old white girl who allegedly was using a counterfeit $20 bill? Would Derek Chauvin kneel on the neck of a black lab for nearly 9 minutes? Would the other officers have watched?
There is a hard to watch Netflix docu-series where a man puts kittens in vacuum bags and sucks the air out of the bags, killing the helpless animals. Why was it so hard for some to watch a clearly evil person suck the life out of a cat, but not as enraging for some to watch Daniel Pantaleo choke the life out of Eric Garner (Pantaleo has since sued the city to get his job back). We could have used greater national outrage when Timothy Loehmann shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice within 2 seconds of arriving at the scene. Tamir had a toy gun and the 911 operator who called it in, knew that more than likely it was a toy. Fake-cop, George Zimmermann got away with killing Trayvon Martin because he got to “stand his ground,” after essentially stalking the 17-year old. What if Trayvon had better defended himself and Zimmermann had died? Would Trayvon be another black man wrongfully imprisoned?. How much faith should we have that the “citizen policemen,” Travis and Gregory McMichael, will be served the swift and fair justice that they deserve? We should be outraged that all of that happened, but we should be even more outraged that our systems and our laws make it all possible. If none of these things were caught on video, would many of us decide to remain willfully blind to the fact that injustices like these are happening every day when our camera lenses cant bear witness?
Derek Chauvin, and the other murderers mentioned above, may or may not be as evil as cat-killer and murderer, Luke Magnotta. He, and they, may not be as cognizant or overt in their racist beliefs as John William King or Dylan Roof, but he/they are so much scarier to me, because of what they represent. I will speak to this in a later essay, but back to my birthday.
As George Floyd repeated his breathless cries for life and asked for his “mama,” so many in the world saw injustice, or hate, or unfairness, or brutality. I saw visions of myself. Two weeks from my 46th birthday I was thinking, “this could be me.” When he cried out for his “mama” I was thinking, “what would have been my last words?” I share my birthday with my mama. Would I have called for her? Would I have called for my wife? Could I have survived the 8 minutes and 46 seconds?
Then I started to think, What if George Floyd had survived his death sentence for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 dollar bill? What if Chauvin had found some semblance of personal humanity and taken his hands out of his pocket and taken his knees off of another human being’s neck? What if there wasn’t a brave citizen with a camera? Would we be marching towards a revolution or what I hope becomes a War on Systemic Racism? If you don’t believe systemic racism is a real thing, I am happy to have a conversation with you. I believe in growth and human connection. Though I understand that it’s hard, or frustrating, or draining, for a lot of other black people to continue to educate, I am an educator and I will stay with you once learning and problem solving become the goals. However, if you are willingly inflexible, deliberately myopic, or don’t want to believe or even consider the fact that systemic racism is real, then we probably can’t be friends, even in the vastly shallow domain of Facebook. Denying that to me is tantamount to denying the fact that we need water to live or that we need air to breathe.
Two years ago for my birthday, I asked my friends to donate money towards a cure for sickle-cell anemia, the disease that my brothers struggled with for their entire lives. I was floored by the graciousness and generosity of so many of you. Last year I sent out eight copies of “Second Mountain” by David Brooks, and I asked people to read it, reflect on it and pass it along.
This year I will be writing one essay a week, for nine weeks in memorial to the nearly 9 minutes of indifference to George Floyd’s humanity. My only birthday wish is that if you care about me as a friend (Facebook and in the flesh) that you will read and share with an open mind and an open heart.
With Love and Hope For Greater Connection,