This month marks two years since the world witnessed George Floyd’s murder, sparking a global rallying cry for racial justice.
A new book written by two Washington Post reporters goes beyond the story of how Floyd’s death prompted widespread conversations about systemic racism, and a backlash to talking about race. It builds on existing reporting to trace the foundational systems that began to shape Floyd’s life and legacy long before he was born.
“We went back centuries into his ancestry to find out why he came into the world poor,” said author Toluse Olorunnipa.
Floyd’s great-great-grandfather Hillery Thomas Stewart was born enslaved, became free after the Civil War and started on a path of American promise and opportunity. Stewart amassed 500 acres of land in North Carolina — a “feat for a Black man in the late 1800s” — but it was stripped away by unscrupulous businessmen and tax authorities during an era of racial terror, Olorunnipa said. “He knew that land in America was the birthright. The kind of thing that you can give to your descendants and allow them to have a shot in life.” The next several generations of Floyd’s family lived in poverty. Many of them, including Floyd’s mother, did sharecropping.
“It’s easy to say, ‘OK, that all happened a long time ago. Let’s focus on the present,’ Olorunnipa, a political investigations and enterprise reporter for the Post, said. “It’s much more difficult and complex when you do a comparative analysis of the family that abused Floyd’s ancestors and how they were able to benefit from the wealth that was created by that abuse. Floyd’s family suffered under the caprices of racism in the past and continued to suffer the reverberations of that going forward.”
Over the course of Floyd’s 46 years, U.S. politics and policy framed his efforts to navigate a number of interlocking systems, from healthcare to housing, education and criminal justice. “All of them seemed, in one way or the other, to be stacked against him as a Black boy and as a Black man,” Olorunnipa said. “We wanted to find out why that was, how that impacted him and how that can impact a life.”
“We didn’t just do this book because we had a curiosity about who George Floyd was, even though I think that would be a valid question,” added author Robert Samuels, a national political enterprise reporter for the Post. “But in thinking about who George Floyd was and how this country treated him, I think we get to learn about who we are as a country.”
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What was your philosophy around reporting on inequality, and how did you apply that to telling Floyd’s story?
Samuels: This is something that I’ve thought about since the very beginning of my career. How do you report on inequality? The answer is you report it fairly. Not only do you think about the stereotypes and the prejudices that come from people who we often write about from marginalized communities, but it’s also thinking about the context of their lives, the conditions around them and whether or not there was fairness in the systems in their lives as there were for people who have more privileged lives.
That’s the philosophy that we took within the book. And so whenever we thought about George Floyd and where he was positioned in his life, the next question had to be, why was he in that position? And also if we believe in the idea of the American promise; if we believe that there are institutions there to support you and help to propel you to all your dreams and goals, did those institutions do their jobs? Did the school system do its job? Did the housing system do its job? Did the police do their job in protecting and serving? Would prosecutors do their job in terms of trying to prosecute the person who killed George Floyd?
Q: Floyd was a big Black guy who is described as a gentle giant. But he also had to comport himself for other people’s comfort. How were you thinking about the fear that many have of Black bodies and its roots in slavery and racism when you were telling George Floyd’s story?
Samuels: One of the things that I asked, that I know a lot of reporters didn’t ask, was about George Floyd’s relationship with his body. And this one I sort of understood internally, right? Because I know I have a strange relationship with my body, whether or not it should be big, too big, too small. Whether I look too threatening. It governs so many of the ideas of how I walked out the house; how I presented myself to folks.
And so we didn’t know what they would say. But then it turned out that George Floyd was constantly thinking about his size. One of the cruelest contradictions about this was, he was a tall and lanky guy for a good part of his life. And he was told that he should get bigger so he can play football, which was the only way to get out of the housing projects and [out of] poverty. And then that dream doesn’t work out and what’s he left with? He’s left with this frame that he never fully felt comfortable in. Like up until the end of his life, he was breaking glasses and constantly dropping cell phones. But what it left is this shadow, this silhouette of a man that every part of society says: ‘This is what an intimidating guy looks.’
And so the idea that he had to try to comport himself to say hi to everyone who he walked into a room with; thinking that he’d only be able to secure jobs that utilize his strength and his ability to intimidate, that had an impact on him. He’s never felt like he could walk into the world being exactly who he was. He wasn’t allowed that opportunity.
Q: What do you want people to take away from the book?
Olorunnipa: One of the things that I want people to get from reading this book is a sense of the value and importance of grace in a life. George Floyd was not given the grace from various systems that he tried to navigate, whether it was the criminal justice system or the education system or the police that he ran into. He was often scrutinized and viewed in a skeptical way from the get-go just because of how he looked and the color of his skin. And obviously Derek Chauvin did not show him any grace when he kneed on his neck for over nine minutes.
What does it mean as a country to bring a young child into the world and tell them that you’re not going to have any grace in your life when you make mistakes or when you struggle? That your difficulties are going to be seized upon? Your worst qualities and your biggest challenges are going to be emphasized? What does it mean to tell that to someone and what does it mean for the American dream for someone to feel that way from an early age, and to hear about what has happened to your ancestors? Envision what George Ford’s life could have been if he hadn’t been viewed in the way that he was by society and by the institutions that he tried to navigate.
Samuels: One of the big lessons that I learned is how to perceive systemic racism. Before we started this reporting, I used to think of it as this lingering stain on the fabric of America, like America’s dark cloud. But over the course of following the Floyd family, and those who knew George Floyd, as they waited for the criminal trial, as they thought about life after the criminal trial, after we think about how much has changed and how much hasn’t changed, I’ve learned that racism is something that’s far more terrifying. It’s starting to feel more like a force that was moving, that threatened to consume everyone. And so one of the takeaways I hope is that George Floyd was a man of flesh and blood and he was shaped by these forces.
One of the issues that his life turned out to be so different from the life he dreamed about when he was a child, is because these ideas, what’s baked into American policy, have not been acknowledged and confronted.
The other thing that I found that is so important is about the persistence of Black people themselves. Even though we all saw the same video, we all witnessed this movement, there was a sense from the people in the book who are marginalized that things could still get better. They still needed to keep pushing, even when the public fascination with systemic racism and the Black Lives Matter movement turned against them.
And I thought it spoke to the persistence of a people who are the holders of American hope. George Floyd was one of those people. It’s not like he had a perfect life. It’s not that he lived perfectly. He made lots of mistakes. He talked about them, but he never stopped trying. And up until the last day of his life, he was making decisions, thinking that he could still be something great in the United States. And then, look what happened.
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