George Floyd has missed another birthday, and we still haven’t effected any real changes.
If you’ve been in one of my workshops or heard me speak to a large audience, you’ve likely heard me tell the story of how Freddie Gray and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015 completely changed the way I approach my work. That moment moved me from objective commentator on issues in education to unapologetic advocate for Black children.
Last summer, there was another moment. My children, now old enough to consume news on their own (thanks, Apple News alerts), are generally aware of what’s happening in the world, but only at a sort of intellectual level. By the time we were driving through Houston the evening of May 29, 2020 they knew George Floyd had been killed by Officer Derek Chauvin, who had knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. We’d talked about why the police don’t seem to understand that Black lives matter (because institutions in this country weren’t created to protect or serve Black people). They’re my children. They read and question and research and interrogate. They know.
But no amount of reading and interrogating and discussing could have prepared them for the drive through George Floyd’s hometown four days after his murder. The demonstration was still taking shape, but it wasn’t long before the car was surrounded and citizens and police were engaged in a tensing stand-off. My almost-ten-year-old son, incredibly observant and deeply empathetic, burst into tears. “Mommy, why are all the police officers standing with their hands on their guns?” “Mommy, I’m scared.” And then: “Mommy, what if one of these men gets killed tonight? What if they die fighting for people who look like me to be able to live?” Then, through his tears as he sobbed quietly in the backseat: “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t be crying. I should be brave enough to be out there with them. Mommy, I wish I was brave.” My 12-year-old is usually “tough.” She’s even more observant than her brother, and usually gives him a hard time for being so “soft.” I glanced up in the rearview mirror to see tears slowly sliding down her cheek. She’d been quiet the whole time, but when she met my gaze in the mirror, she said calmly, “Mommy. Can we go to Uncle G’s? Please? Call him.”
We hadn’t planned to see their “uncle” this trip. He’s a doctor and had been alternating weeks on hospital duty. It was his on week, and he was apprehensive about being around the children, because we were still in the middle of a global pandemic. But when he answered the phone, he must have heard the urgency in my voice and told us to come on. By this point, our car — and the cars of all of the other drivers who had been diverted from the highway which, at this point, had been shut down by protestors — was surrounded. The standoff between protestors, most of who looked like us, and police was getting more tense. A brother who probably wasn’t in charge, but whose size and presence commanded attention and respect glanced into our car and he must have seen the children’s faces, because he started instructing the crowd to let us through and personally walked us through. I noticed ours was the only vehicle they were making provisions for, and as I reached back to squeeze my son’s hand, I made eye contact with my daughter in the mirror.
“See? We got us. See how he’s protecting us and making sure we’re good?” Both children relaxed, just a little, just enough for it to sink in. We got us.
We made it to their uncle, and he greeted us with hugs, ordered pizza for the kids and sent me to the roof to watch the sunset, because everyone knows sunsets are my favorite thing. The children laughed, and I smiled. And for about an hour and a half, everything was normal. We got us.
But it’s not normal. The children know that, and I know it. I had been having conversations with their superintendent about equity and the importance of realizing the weight of the moment and taking the opportunity to think more intentionally about hiring decisions and the way students are(n’t) reflected in their curriculum. I ultimately made the decision to fully homeschool my children, because there were too many unknowns in Texas, between the way they approached educating children who look like mine and the ongoing debate about masks in the midst of a pandemic that has disproportionately claimed Black lives.
If Black lives matter the way all the marches in the city and silly yellow paint on the roads have declared, we are still missing the mark to show it and prove it. Not in trite symbolism, but in changed policy and thought processes. I wrote a whole Black history month curriculum in response to my son politely challenging why there’s no Black history month content or research subjects who look like him. (His principal pushed me off on the only Black counselor — who didn’t even serve my son’s grade — when I brought his concerns to her office.) The curriculum was adopted by several schools and districts across the country — but not the one my children would have gone to, if I hadn’t withdrawn them.
We are well into another school year, and haven’t addressed why the discipline disparities between Black and brown children and their white counterparts are so staggeringly high, or why Black children displaying indicators that could either be labeled as gifted or labeled as deficient end up in special education. The voices of Black community members are still being silenced as district leaders superficially invite “comment” without real partnership.
George Floyd would have celebrated another birthday last month, and we still haven’t made any progress on policies that would actually positively impact Black people — and especially Black students — in this country. Many of the cities have painted over their performative shows of solidarity mainfested as “Black Lives Matter” murals on streets. And many have dropped the conversation around effecting any real systemic change.