George Floyd's legacy illustrates the burden borne by families of slain black Americans

Floyd's family has borne a burden that is "unfair, it's unjustifiable and unwarranted, and yet it is critical and necessary," the Rev. Michael Eric Dyson said.

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By Janell Ross

If there was one refrain repeated in many forms at the final home-going service for George Floyd in Houston on Tuesday, it was the idea that Floyd's life was given meaning, global meaning, in the moment of his death.

"Can any good thing come out of this? We have lost a loved one, and the pain is unbearable," said the Rev. William Lawson, a black minister and civil rights activist, speaking to Floyd's family seated near the front of The Fountain of Life church.

Lawson told those gathered that he had come to Houston in 1955, the same year the body of a 14-year-old lynched and mutilated boy, Emmett Till, was pulled out of the Mississippi River and the same year Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus.

"Well, all of us know the name of George Floyd," Lawson said.

The Rev. William Lawson, pastor emeritus of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church of Houston, speaks during the funeral service for George Floyd at The Fountain of Praise church in Houston on June 9, 2020.David J. Phillip / Pool via Reuters

That is true of the collective, the 40 million black Americans in the United States who look at the life and sudden death of George Floyd and know that what happened to him could happen any day to any one of them, said the Rev. Michael Eric Dyson, a sociology professor at Georgetown University, who was not at the service.

"As a human being you want to believe that your life has meaning and value in its own right but white supremacy has done away with that premise a long time ago for black people in America," Dyson said. "So this is the necessity that is thrust upon black people, to extract something good from something bad. It's a perspective that transforms hurt into celebration. And I think that is what black people have done from the beginning of our sojourn in this country. The only other option is insanity or absurdity."

It is especially true for the family of Floyd, he added. These are ordinary people, not activists who signed up and spoke out knowing the risks. But in the last two weeks, Floyd's family has been called upon to admonish those protests that turned violent, called upon to encourage voting, called upon to say something to soothe the country when elected officials can't, won't or outright fail when trying.

And his family has cried out for police accountability, said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who delivered Floyd's eulogy. On top of that, they have been called upon to share their pain and their happy memories of Floyd, the details that shaped a life that ended decades too soon. They had to be willing to do all of that — and to do battle with those who would stuff him into some ready-made trope about those who are black and poor, those who have health problems, those who have criminal records.

"That burden, it's unfair, it's unjustifiable and unwarranted, and yet it is critical and necessary," Dyson said. "They have to share him with the broader world. That's the strangeness of black life. There is a tax on them that is nearly inhuman, at this time and all the time."

Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country

Dyson likened the situation to those drafted into the Army. Activists take on what has proven to be the dangerous and sometimes mortal work of trying to change America, trying to make it fulfill its promises. But they know the risks.

Others leave home each day expecting that most of the time, everything will be all right. For black Americans at every point in U.S. history, those expectations have always had a kind of asterisk: But remember you are black. You may be killed or injured. Someone may lie or tell the truth about the circumstances and face no consequences at all. Or the fight to secure some measure of justice may cost others their jobs, their homes or their lives.

There's an entire 21st century fraternity of families who know those painful details, Dyson noted. Some have become activists, like Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, who announced Monday that she's running for public office, or Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner. Lucy McBath, mother of Jordan Davis, was elected to Congress.

For some, the pain is too raw to participate publicly in the cycle of public mourning, Sharpton said this week, noting that that was the case for Wanda Cooper-Jones, mother of Ahmaud Arbery.

The Rev. Al Sharpton speaks during the private funeral for George Floyd at The Fountain of Praise church in Houston on June 9, 2020.Godofredo A. V?squez / Pool via Getty Images

On Tuesday, while delivering Floyd's eulogy, Sharpton, the founder of the National Action Network and host of MSNBC's "PoliticsNation," echoed the idea that Floyd's life had been given meaning in the world's reaction to his sudden death. But Sharpton cautioned against the easy work of public apologies without action. He highlighted, as an example, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

"It's nice to see some people change their mind," Sharpton said. "The head of the NFL said, 'Yeah, maybe we was wrong.' ... Well, don't apologize — give Colin Kaepernick a job back. Don't come with some empty apology, take a man's livelihood, strip a man down of his talents and four years later when the whole world is marching, you go do a Facetime talking about you sorry."

The burdens borne by families like those of George Floyd, of activists who willingly speak up and act up when others won't, are far heavier than those managed by people simply searching for meaning in the national racial mess, Dyson said. But people pulling down a slave trader's statue in England and denouncing racism in Petal, Mississippi, probably give Floyd's family some comfort, he said. It is the evidence that Floyd's life has not been wasted.

"The man has instigated and inspired a social movement that lived up to his desire to touch the world," Dyson said. "It wasn't the way he wanted or thought, but few of us determine how or where our lives will make an impact."