Each of the chants rising up from the demonstrations for racial justice burst with significance: Black Lives Matter, No Justice, No Peace, the various calls to defund police departments. Though only a few words in length, each has a consequential political history. Each speaks volumes. I want to reflect here on one of the chants – Say His Name, George Floyd – because of the many ways it affirms Mr. Floyd’s humanity, a humanity denied him in the last minutes of his life.
Though I focus here on George Floyd, and therefore the call to “say his name,” the following applies equally to Black women and the violence they face at the hands of the police – which is underreported. For a powerful illustration see critical legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 12/7/2016 TED Talk on intersectionality. See also the SayHerName campaign of The African American Policy Forum.
Speaking the name of someone who has died is an act of remembering. We read the names on memorials, alone or with others: The Vietnam Memorial Wall, The September 11th Memorial, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. We are keeping a person present in our memory and in public memory.
Speaking the name of someone is an affirmation not only of the person’s presence on earth, but of life history and identity. To lack a name, or worse, having your name removed or torn away, is to erase your life story.
Speaking a name asserts a person’s dignity. If you come from a faith tradition or are non-sectarian, you might believe in different ultimate sources of this dignity, but to say a person’s name in chant or softly in reverence is to assert the person matters philosophically, spiritually in the grand scheme of things.
When a person’s name is spoken to protest a crime against that person, in this case an unspeakably casual murder of an incapacitated Black man by a police officer, then the name gains legal and civic meaning, becomes a call for judgment and justice.
And when that crime is not isolated, is not an individual act of violence but floods out across centuries of countless Black lives, many of whom have been robbed of their names, then the name of this one person, George Floyd, becomes the name of multitudes, their humanity ripped from them, but, in one way, reclaimed in the voices rising in cities around the world. Speaking the name becomes a collective political and historical act.
Before my mother got too sick, she would cook a full pot of pasta or stew and carry it two blocks to the back lot of her neighborhood shopping center where some homeless men were living. When I found out what she was doing, I tried to get her to stop, for she was already frail and failing. “No,” she said firmly, “those men are somebody’s sons.” It was that simple and that profound. She was proclaiming the men’s humanity and in a way that connected their lives to hers.
As George Floyd was drawing his last breaths, he called out for his deceased mother – the woman who brought him into this world and named him.
Whether we intend it or not, no matter how renowned or common a person we are, our lives make a moral imprint on the world. A person’s life is more than the sum of its parts. George Floyd’s life carries a moral claim, becomes an embodied argument for racial and economic justice. Say his name.
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