Note: This piece was written on May 28, 2020.
Today is my due date, and I can’t stop thinking about George Floyd.
I keep telling myself I shouldn’t be thinking about “things like this” right now, that the moments before I give birth should be spent in meditative relaxation. Surely, now is the time to reflect on the beauty and hope of new life, not the pain and ugliness of this world. But my mind keeps wandering back to a Black man’s face being flattened into the ground by the weight of a cop’s knee, his eyes begging for mercy he would not receive.
The promise of an empty bassinet and carefully folded newborn onesies sit in front of me, but I can’t breathe. As I read the news of George Floyd’s murder, I feel that same bronchial constriction that I’ve felt each time I hear of a new police assassination of a Black American.
I am reminded that, as a Black person in America, we have rarely in life taken a deep breath. As my airways tighten, and I search for the right relaxation mantra to calm myself, I think of my two Black brothers, my Black father, and my Black cousins in Minneapolis. I beg my mind not to play the slideshow again – the flashing images of the many ways I’ve imagined finding out that one of them has been killed in a chance police encounter. I can’t breathe.
Every new police murder of a Black victim digs at the same wound, the initial trauma I felt as a school-age child when I learned of this legacy – the Emmett Tills and Rodney Kings and all who followed them.
This painful discovery was cradled by my short lifetime of already knowing; even as children, we know the reality of racism before we are taught to name it. By age 8, I had already been taught to fear the police as a matter of basic social hygiene.
With time and exposure, these wounds have scabbed. It seems that the coverage of these murders is so frequent that, I am ashamed to admit, I lose track of the names and my eyes glaze across the news more often than I pause to mourn the dead these days. Like many Americans, the pain from Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor’s grotesque murders is still so fresh, it feels unjust to have to process yet another loss so soon.
Floyd’s murder immediately exposed my deepest layers of grief ... Seeing police calmly and slowly murdering a Black man in front of a distressed crowd utterly disturbs my faith in humanity, but also because of the familiarity of home.
Some of these murders hurt deeper than others. Floyd’s murder immediately exposed my deepest layers of grief, in part because seeing police calmly and slowly murdering a Black man in front of a distressed crowd utterly disturbs my faith in humanity, but also because of the familiarity of home. I am a child of the Twin Cities, born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, raised mostly in Bloomington, in one of the many cookie-cutter homes occupied by working class and immigrant families raised in the shadow of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport, and eventually the Mall of America.
My nursing assistant mother and cab driver/security guard/perennial-entrepreneur father, like so many of my neighbors, worked their ways into the suburbs to give their children that elusive gift of “a better life.” This leap was particularly large for my father, who was born in a Yoruba village in southern Nigeria, the second youngest of 12 children, with no memory of his own father who died of a heart attack when he was only four years old.
Like all African immigrants to the United States, I’m sure my father has complicated feelings about his own experience of being Black in America, but from a young age he presented to me a very clear message on my own Blackness. As a recovering perfectionist, I still often hear his regular before-school refrain: “You are Black and you are a woman; you will have to work twice as hard as everyone else.”
Mostly left on our own while our parents worked overtime and second jobs that could not keep them from two bankruptcies, a lot of violence and an ugly divorce, my brother and I found our own ways of navigating life in the Twin Cities. Our “better” suburban schools were less burdened by overt violence than some inner-city counterparts, but were steeped in Minnesota’s particular brand of white supremacy ― neatly packaged in “Minnesota-nice” progressivism, the kind that pats itself on the back for how fair it is.
For my part, I opted for the escape of success, dedicating myself to becoming president of as many clubs and teams and achieving as many A+s as humanly possible. My brother followed the other path of escape, seeking as much attention as trouble could bring him. Only later as an adult, after reading a report about systemic racism in Bloomington public schools, did I think about how we both suffered the insidious harm of Minnesota’s “polite” racism in our own ways.
This report showed how students of colour are disproportionately suspended and expelled, as my brother was for multiple pranks and fights, until he was finally pushed out of the school system entirely, never completing his high school degree. (My very intelligent brother eventually got his GED and worked his way through a challenging electrician’s apprenticeship.) The report showed, on the flip side, that Bloomington students of colour are grossly underrepresented in achievement opportunities; I acutely remember the feeling of often being the only Black person in my gifted program and the deep sense of unworthiness that instilled in me as a child.
But, despite the many statistics that demonstrate that life for Black people in Minnesota is marked by unfair treatment and discriminatory systems, many Minnesotans hold on to the belief that life is at least “better” there because of Minnesotan progressiveness.
After graduating high school, I found my fastest way out of the Twin Cities – a full ride to Grinnell College, running from a difficult childhood and seeking that “better” we are all after. My first student trip brought me to the South for the first time, a volunteer trip to a hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. With a lens that was admittedly fogged by a sense of northern elitism, I was both appalled and fascinated by the extreme racial disparities that the human and natural disasters of Katrina exposed.
I found myself drawn to the open secret of social hierarchy, which was a more taboo topic in the Midwest. People talked openly about race and class, and how it affected them.
On that and subsequent visits to the South, I found myself drawn to the open secret of social hierarchy, which was a more taboo topic in the Midwest. People talked openly about race and class, and how it affected them. People said ugly, truthful things, which were echoed back to them in the reality of their lives. Somehow that felt safer to me – and I delighted in being in a majority Black city, walking down a street and blending in. I found myself breathing deeper than I could in the polite stuffiness of Minnesota.
By my second year of college, I knew I’d move to the South when I graduated. I remember telling my father that I had accepted a post-graduate fellowship in New Orleans, and his fearful reply: “But people are racist down there!” At 22, I laughed at my Black immigrant father’s willingness to buy into the Minnesotan narrative; despite his two decades of personal experience with discrimination – in work, in housing, in banking, in the criminal justice system – my father had been taught that the “real racism,” the kind to be feared, was “down South.”
As a soon-to-be parent of two, I can empathise with that desire to believe now; I see that in order to have the strength to raise our children in this world, we need to believe there is hope where we are and that our children will somehow benefit from it. We need to believe in a “better.”
Looking at photos of Floyd smiling and posing for the camera, I feel my womb heave as I try not to cry. I try to take some deep breaths and send them to the baby, try to find strength in the chant of “Black lives matter.” Ahmaud Arbery’s family’s lawyer said that “his life mattered” while arguing for Arbery’s assailants to be arrested and convicted.
Still, I try to sigh away the painful knowledge that this society is constructed around the assertion that my baby’s life – like Arbery, Taylor and Floyd’s – already matters less than its white counterparts before it has even left the womb. But Black mothers in America have always known what it is like to carry a life that the world has already decided will not matter. I think of George Floyd’s pregnant mother and I wonder, when he slid from her warm body, how acutely could she feel his mortality? Or did she choose to believe that things would be better for her son, that they must be?
This is why we chant, sing and write “Black lives matter,” and why the birth justice movement reminds us that “Black birth matters.” We burn to make these assertions become truth. Because America, you have already written the rationale for our murder, manufactured the blame for our incarceration, and defined the cause of our disease, before we are even born.
As a Black American murdered by the police, before your killer is even questioned, the first thing the world will know is a list of your wrongs. We are all complex people, our lives made up of beauty and ugliness, victories and mistakes. When my personal anxiety slideshow starts, and I see the many ways my family members might die in a fateful encounter with the police, I think of my father. I think of how, before his Black body would even be cold, the world would rather hear of his arrest record than to know he is a father and grandfather, that he is bilingual, or that, when we were little, he would rally all the kids at the playground into one big game of “monster tag” that we would play past dusk, until the mosquitos stuck to the sweat on our skin.
I was quickly reminded that as Black folks, our untimely deaths are already explained for us.
I’ve had the opportunity of late to worry about things a bit more universal, like a global pandemic. I’ve channeled my anxiety into worries of hospital policies for birthing partners and doulas, and how to plan a postpartum meal train with social distancing and hygiene precautions. Although stressful, there has been some relief in worrying about an issue that felt indiscriminate and universal. But, of course, it isn’t.
A few weeks into the pandemic in the U.S., the data started to show what should not have surprised any of us – that this devastating disease is far more devastating for Black and Brown communities. In my first surge of disappointment, I realised I had actually been hoping that this would finally be one exception in a world of racial disparities. Hearing my spiteful Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy explain that Black people are predisposed to dying from this disease – ignoring social determinants of health like stress, poverty, and racism in favour of racist biological determinism – I was quickly reminded that as Black folks, our untimely deaths are already explained for us.
Knowing we matter less is a burden we carry in and out of every day, every social interaction. I am one of the privileged Americans who is not an “essential worker,” and who has been able to quarantine safely at home for the last two months.
Recently, I had to leave the house for a medical appointment, and realised that life at home with my family had allowed me to let my guard down. Like so many of us, my quarantine life has meant infrequent hair washing and forgetting about bras entirely. As I entered a once-busy office building for my appointment, mask on and hand sanitiser in hand, I was greeted by empty halls and dimmed lights.
On the short walk to the elevator, I met almost no one, until I passed the front desk where three employees stopped their conversation and followed me with suspicious eyes until I got on the elevator. Their gaze expressed without words, “Should you be here?”
Once the elevator doors closed, my reflection in the glass door told me why: In my homebound state, I had not bothered to comb or oil my hair, which was threatening to burst out of the loose hair tie on my head. Three inches of my brown belly hung out from the bottom of my no-longer-adequate maternity tee, above basketball shorts and flip-flops. And I was masked, an inherently risky look for people of color no matter what situation they find themselves in.
Feeling my heart pounding, I immediately thought of multiple stereotypes of Black women that I could easily be forced into at this moment, and envisioned how the mostly white staff in this building might react if they thought I was sneaking around the dark hallways. My mind went through a checklist that Black and brown people in this country must learn to use.
Like I did as a teenager when the clerks at a Mall of America clothing store would follow me around the store with that same questioning look – “Should you be here?” – I asked myself, “How can I look less threatening?” I pulled my mask down a bit to expose more of my eyes and cheekbones so I could look like I was smiling; I attempted to tug my shirt down to cover more of my belly; and I made my hands clearly visible. I sighed relief into my cloth mask an hour later, when I finally reached my car after my appointment.
The roll of the genetic die that determines how 'Black' you look also determines how the world will see you. How many mistakes will you be allowed to make? How quickly will they blame you for your own expulsion, incarceration, death? How lucky will you be?
With my brown skin and frizzy hair, I have experienced both anti-Black racism and light-skin privilege throughout my life. Apparently as a compliment, a high-school friend once called me “the Minnesota blend,” while New Orleanian cat-callers holler “hey red” and “brown sugar don’t melt baby” to me as I stroll these humid streets.
My family is mixed race; if you lined us all up you’d see a variety of skin tones, hair textures, and more. The fun curiosity of waiting to see what and who my baby will look like is tinged with a darker anxiety. With my first baby, I remember the mix of joy and fear as I watched her skin darken over time and wondered if her baby curls would loosen or tighten. Behind clichés like “good hair” are a bitter truth; the roll of the genetic die that determines how “Black” you look also determines how the world will see you. How many mistakes will you be allowed to make? How quickly will they blame you for your own expulsion, incarceration, death? How lucky will you be?
Most of the time, I feel hopeful. I decided to create and birth my babies out of hope, because I believe in our human potential for good and that the struggle for social justice is worth fighting. I believe that we can build a better Minnesota, a better country and a better world. But sometimes that hope is obscured by fear and darkness.
In moments like this one, I fear that for too many Black people in America, being lucky doesn’t even mean surviving. Being lucky is just having enough witnesses around to film your death and share it with the world. Somehow justice isn’t living your life to its full potential; it’s begging for your murderers to be arrested and convicted of a crime.
I sat down to write this in an attempt to release some of the overwhelming anger and grief burdening my heart. But now I need to turn my attention to my higher purpose in this moment: to give birth to our newest member of society, and to make sure they know from the moment they’re born, that despite what the world may tell them, their life matters. We can build a better future where that is true.
Latona Giwa is a perinatal health advocate, birth doula, registered nurse and lactation consultant in New Orleans. This article first appeared on HuffPost Personal.