“Mama!” George Floyd said as he pleaded for his life. “Mama ... I’m through!”
Monalisa Smith felt that the Black man with his neck pinned beneath the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer was calling out for her, too. The video of Floyd’s death, which has prompted a long overdue reckoning with the centuries of crushing injustice at the heart of this country, is minute after excruciating minute of Smith’s worst fears made real.
Mothers of Black sons carry those fears with them always. The crushing weight of them can never be prayed away — though God knows, Smith gives it her best shot. She has done everything she could to protect her son, tried to warn him that the color of his skin makes him a target, but also to urge him to understand those who hate him, to keep him from the justified anger that would make white people see him as even more of a threat.
None of it will save her son if his car is stopped by the wrong police officer. And none of it saves him from the corrosive indignities of his days, offenses in stores and office cubicles that go far deeper than bad policing.
After Trayvon Martin was shot to death by George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012, I talked with Smith about how she tries to protect her son who, like Martin, was 17 at the time.
Between Martin’s death and Floyd’s, her son has gone to college, launched a career in finance, and bought a home in Mattapan. In that time, many, many Black men and women have died at the hands of police officers and others to whom their lives are worthless, some of those deaths caught on video, too.
I talked with Smith, who leads an anti-violence group called Mothers for Justice and Equality, about how little has changed between then and now, and whether she sees any hope of progress. Today, I’m going to get out of the way and let her tell you herself.
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"When Trayvon Martin happened, there was that whole fear of knowing that as a Black mother you did everything you could do, and you still have to live with fear every single day — every single day — that his life may be taken for no other reason than because he is a Black man. And then you have to deal with the anguish of having to explain to your Black child that because of who you are you will be hated by certain people. Then you’ve got to balance that with protecting his heart from becoming bitter and resentful towards everyone who doesn’t look like him, because it’s important for our children to hold onto hope, and love.
"We always raised him to really embrace people from all different races, but I remember him coming home when he was in high school, saying he had been followed around in stores [as if he was going to steal something]. And I would say, ‘You have to know who you are,’ and I would try to ease that burden and acknowledge that he would always be targeted, and say to him, ‘Maybe wave at the police or something.’ I couldn’t show I was angry or hurt, which I was. If I’d told my son the truth, then he might not be able to deal with what is in front of him every day.
"He has been pulled over by police, and he has been scared. When he finished at Babson and started his first job at an investment firm, he was in an elevator and a white woman got on, and he felt like this person feared him, or that he was suspicious because he was a young Black man. One time he was leaving work for the weekend and a white colleague said to him, ‘Don’t get shot.’ When a white co-worker’s desk was moved near him [the co-worker] said, ‘I’m moving to the ghetto.’ Those things don’t leave you.
"I raised my son and sacrificed and paid for him to go to college, I did everything I was supposed to do. He got accepted, he did his work, he got a job, and he still has to deal with racism. It’s not fair. It’s a deep wound we cover up.
"We have to be silent in moments when we want to raise our voices. We’ve got to keep the peace in order for our children to survive in a society that only sees our skin first. We have to teach our children to survive racism.
"I don’t get up a day, or go to bed at night, without praying God will protect my son from dangers, seen and unseen. I do not live a moment without that prayer. I have fear for my son all the time, that his life will be prematurely taken from him. He has a nice car, he worked hard for it, and I’m afraid he will be pulled over and meet up with the wrong person.
"So Black mothers, we are bearing a lot, raising Black sons. And then watching our sisters lose their children, that fear and anguish is so real.
"But I think we are looking at something different now. You know when a person reaches a point where they just can’t take it anymore? I think we are looking at that moment. There are so many we can name, from Trayvon Martin to DJ Henry to Ahmaud Arbery, and we had a wound from each one [of their deaths]. And what we are seeing now is that wound is just open, and we are not going to Band-aid it anymore. My son is angry. He is going to the rallies. He knows something is very wrong here.
"We had to watch that video [of Floyd’s death] for eight minutes, but it wasn’t anything that mothers who are raising Black boys didn’t live every single day. But now people are coming together, and realizing something we have been struggling with for years. I’m hearing from white mothers who want to join us and say, ‘What can I do?’
"There is a call for change, and we will not accept anything other than that, and I think no longer will people just bite their tongues or be silent. You are going to see young people like my son go into these spaces and say, ‘No more. I deserve to be here, just like you.’
“We have a lot of work to do to see that vision come to pass.”