This story was produced in partnership with The Undefeated, an ESPN website that explores the intersection of race, culture, and sports. This report also appears on TheUndefeated.com. ESPN and National Geographic are both owned by The Walt Disney Company.
The video frame of George Floyd on Facebook, handcuffed on his stomach as a Minneapolis police officer presses his knee into Floyd’s neck, feels narrowed.
Floyd lies immobilized, groaning on the pavement as cars rush by, police radios beep and bystanders gather, yelling that Floyd’s nose is bleeding, that he is subdued, cursing and entreating the officers. “Let him breathe, man!” one bystander yelled.
“Please, man!” Floyd begs as he is ground into the pavement. His pleas mix with the ambient noises around him. They are the disjointed sounds from the clash of belief systems and competing visions of sovereignty, of ownership, of authority over black bodies compressed into the narrow frame of Floyd’s last moments.
“Momma!” Floyd, 46, calls out. “Momma! I’m through,” the dying man says, and I recognize his words. A call to your mother is a prayer to be seen. Floyd’s mother died two years ago, but he used her as a sacred invocation.
“He is a human being!” comes an anguished plea from someone in a desperate attempt to engage the officers’ reason or compassion or oaths of office. But in that moment, those officers are beyond the reach of humanity. Not Floyd’s, but their own.
I didn’t want to click on the video. I didn’t want to see another police snuff film. I didn’t want to watch whatever it is that compels someone to put his knee into a man’s neck, until he can no longer draw breath. But I heard this black man had called out to his momma as he lay dying, and I too am a black mother. One of the ones since time immemorial who have to answer the sacred call. Who have to answer the call for the divine sisterhood of black mothers. Even when they are not our own, we are asked to bear witness.
I was in the delivery room with my son, in pain with no medication, save the one that magnified my contractions. As my vision narrowed, I focused on a point above me and I heard the nurses talking about me as if I wasn’t there. I stared at the ceiling and over and over I called out for my mother. There are moments when it feels like life hangs in the balance, and in those moments, we want to go back to the beginning, when we were known.
Dying soldiers called out for their mothers, according to Civil War battlefield reports. Last year, an article from The Atlantic cited a hospice nurse. “Almost everyone is calling for ‘Mommy’ or ‘Mama’ with the last breath.”
We are the ballast. The anchors. A way for those who are close to the edge to find their way back, or their way home. This is true for black mothers, who are especially tested and learned in all the dread fates of black bodies. We are the hedge against the people who don’t see us. We are an assertion of black life.
For black people who feel they are about to be taken from themselves, we are the assurance of memory, of justice, of 10-hour waits to cast our ballots at polling places. We will not be moved.
I have often imagined 14-year-old Emmett Till calling for his momma, Mamie Till-Mobley, as he was kidnapped, tortured and killed over the false witness of Carolyn Bryant Donham, whom America had invested with the savage idea of white womanhood. The black mother’s answer was to throw open her son’s casket and change the nation.
It is the duty of black mothers made sacred by all the ugly Karens (Beckys, Katies, et al.), who threaten to call the police on black people because they understand the country we live in. It has been made sacred by all the admonitions, and prayers — all the side deals we try to cut with our God when black boys cross streets, or play in parks, or get into cars, or grow into men who do anything at all while being black.
It is made sacred by our need to protect against all the people who think they hold dominion over black lives. Who overpolice or underfund, or over-report, or wag their fingers in our faces. The vacant-looking father and son with rifles in Georgia, the masked female portfolio manager waving her cellphone in New York, the reptilian officer who has learned how to kneel a man to death in Minnesota, may not see themselves. But we, the black mothers, see you.
As bystanders scream at Minneapolis officers, “He’s dying. You’re f—ing killing him,” Floyd is no longer moving, he is perhaps already dead. In the ways black people have trained themselves to look at these things, in his final breaths, he has already won.
To call out to his mother is to be known to his maker. The one who gave him to her. I watched the Floyd video, for us, the living. It’s my sacred charge. I am a black mother.
Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.