Review of His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa (Viking, 2022).
George Floyd is a symbol. You can see artistic renderings of his face around the world. You can buy posters, t-shirts, and coffee mugs with his likeness and his words. George Floyd was also a person and, at this point, a little over two years after his death (May 25, 2020), we have the opportunity to learn more about both the person and the symbol, thanks to an ambitious biography by two Washington Post reporters, coming in at 432 pages, including about 50 pages of notes and acknowledgments. So, what can we learn from studying George Floyd’s life?
I recently finished reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869). Tolstoy spends the “Second Epilogue” of an enormously long book discussing the problem of “free will and necessity,” what we might rephrase as free will and determinism. He raises questions about the degree to which the events of history and the events of individual lives are determined by an individual’s free choices versus following courses predetermined by the individual’s circumstances. Says Tolstoy, in no case “can we ever conceive either complete freedom or complete necessity” (Maude translation).
Similar to the questions of Tolstoy, in examining His Name Is George Floyd, we will consider how social conditions may have influenced Floyd’s life. The book is laid out in three parts.
Part I, “Perry” (Floyd’s middle name and the name his family called him), has four chapters that give accounts of his last day up to the time police knocked on his car window; his childhood, growing up in Houston; his lineage, going back to a great-great-grandfather who was born a slave; his adolescence, high school, and college years.
Part II, “Big Floyd” (a nickname used for the adult 6’6” Floyd) uses six chapters to describe Floyd’s adult years up until his death at age 46. Almost a third of his adult life was spent in jail or prison. At other times he worked as a bouncer, security guard, and driver. This section includes a chapter on Derek Chauvin titled “Restraint” and ends with a detailed account of Floyd’s last moments.
Part III, “Say His Name,” uses four chapters to show how the city of Minneapolis, the state of Minnesota, and the country responded to Floyd’s death; how the trial of Derek Chauvin proceeded; and how Floyd’s life fits into the larger Black Lives Matter movement. It also ponders George Floyd’s legacy.
Now, back to how George Floyd’s life was influenced by his circumstances. I focus on circumstances rather than choice because we have a better vantage point on circumstances than we do on the actual possibilities of choice that happen internally. For comparison, I’ll place parallel factors of my own life alongside Floyd’s.
Floyd’s family went back to being slaves. Mine goes back to Scottish, German, and Swedish immigrants.
His family lost more than 200 acres of land to white people under what seem to be fraudulent circumstances perpetrated by a white-administered and white-favoring justice system. I was born in a home built by my grandfather, who in later life became a justice of the peace.
His family had only low-level job opportunities, such as sharecropping and domestic service. My mom was a nurse and my dad was a lab tech and, later, a medical doctor.
He grew up in a society where many of those in power saw him as inherently less than because of his skin color. I grew up without any particular thoughts about my skin color.
He had substandard educational facilities and was not academically prepared for college, so it was sports or drug dealing as primary career options. Sports didn’t work out for him, partly because of poor academic preparation, which kept him from being academically eligible to play in college. I had a good education and funding for college and graduate school.
He grew up in a single-parent home. I came from a stable home with two parents.
He grew up in the Cuney Homes housing project in Houston’s Third Ward, which the authors describe as “the poorest section of one of the poorest wards in Houston” (15). I lived in safe, comfortable housing.
He was much more vigilantly policed and more harshly dealt with by the legal system than a comparable white person would have been. I have been stopped and ticketed by police, but never for no good cause, as was Floyd on multiple occasions. I was never harassed by police. He was.
He was prescribed opioids for pain control and became addicted. I have not had to deal with chronic pain or drug addiction.
With a felony record in Texas, Floyd was barred from getting a variety of trade licenses, such as for the trades of barber, real-estate broker, locksmith, plumber, and many more. If incarceration rates for Blacks and whites were equivalent, this might still be a questionable policy, but could not be racially challenged. However, since incarceration rates are much higher for Blacks than whites, this policy has a racially prejudicial effect. I had to compete in a tough market for a job, but nobody ever told me I couldn’t apply.
When I look at all these imbalances, can I judge Floyd and say he should have “Ben Carsoned” himself up by his bootstraps and made it out, becoming a neurosurgeon or whatever? What would have happened to Ben Carson if his mother hadn’t insisted that he read library books and report on them every week? If he hadn’t gotten proper glasses at the right time? If the knife he thrust at another boy hadn’t broken on the boy’s belt buckle? Any of those circumstances, if altered, could have been enough to sink Ben Carson. This is not to take anything away from all the hard and excellent work Carson did in becoming a great surgeon. It’s just to show that Carson’s life, like all of ours, is formed as a combination of choices plus good and bad circumstances—plus (we assume) God working behind the scenes in ways we do not understand.
So, where do George Floyd’s personal mistakes and bad choices come into play? What about the good choices I or my parents made? Although those choices are certainly important, that’s not the point here. Let’s imagine that the force of gravity operated differently on me than on my friend Dave. If gravity is tugging 25 percent harder on Dave than on me, there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll be able to run faster and jump higher than Dave, no matter how Dave chooses to train and how hard he works. And if there are a thousand Daves and a thousand me’s, a few Daves will rise to the top and a few me’s will fall, but the inherited and accumulated advantages I have will help me finish on top much more often than not.
I am not suggesting, nor are the authors of this book, that personal choice doesn’t matter. The authors write about “the suffocating systemic pressures Floyd ultimately could not escape, even as he tried repeatedly to reset his life and overcome his past” (xi). The words “could not” do not resolve to what degree the inability lies with social circumstances versus choice. It must be–from our human perspective–an imprecisely understood mixture of both. If there were no choice, we wouldn’t hold Derek Chauvin responsible for killing Floyd because Chauvin would then be a victim of his own circumstances. I am suggesting that I shouldn’t judge George Floyd’s life and say he shoulda coulda done this or that. I don’t know what choices I could or would have made if I had been in his precise circumstances. Second, I have a deeper understanding of the wrong done to George Floyd by Derek Chauvin and by the system that supported Derek Chauvin to be in a position in which Floyd was killed. Despite his size and strength, Floyd was not a physical threat to Chauvin or the other officers at the time of his death, and there was absolutely no good reason for him to die when he did.
But I’d like to go beyond Floyd’s final movements, as the book does, and think about all the injustices and lack of opportunity that happened to him along the path of life. One of the brilliant things about this book is the way it presents Floyd’s story as a way to humanize the many statistics and experiences we may have heard about racial injustice and look at them operating in the life of one man whose experience has become representative for a much broader cultural experience. The study of Floyd’s life, the authors suggest, “provides a tangible example of how racism operates in America” (xi).
George Floyd “the symbol” stands for all Black people (and other minority or marginalized persons) who are oppressed by their societies. His dignified and somber portrait stands for their suffering. His words “I can’t breathe” plead their cause. His case is a point of leverage for those who would like to make society racially unbiased and minority-respecting.
The title of the book, His Name Is George Floyd, alludes to the #saytheirnames movement, a way of commemorating those who have died as a result of police brutality—learning someone else’s name and respectfully using it is a baseline for civil society. It is the starting point for getting to know someone, for treating them as a full human being. It is no accident that slaves often lost control of their names, that Black domestic workers would sometimes be renamed to the taste of their employers, and that prisoners in concentration camps were known by their numbers. Naming is a way of recognizing and respecting the individual humanity of a person, of not identifying by group or stereotype. This book does that service to George Floyd, not only in the use of his name in the title and the three titles of subsections but in the presentation of a human life with its particular trajectory, struggles and victories, friendships and interests.
I ended this excellent book thinking that George Floyd the person was not a hero or a villain but, like me, an ordinary person with good points and faults. George Floyd the symbol, however, stands as a poignant reminder that our society needs to redouble its efforts to be a place of welcome and opportunity for all.
Scott Moncrieff is a professor of English at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
Title image courtesy of Viking Press
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