The George Floyd Killing Provokes a Torrent of Thoughts about Racism in America from a 62-year-old Black Man
BENTON HARBOR, Mich.— My friend James “Terry” Stokes called me up the other day. It had been a few weeks since we’d connected. We talked briefly about the status of a life-mentoring project Terry heads and for which I had written a grant proposal. And then two words came up quickly, inevitably: George Floyd. Terry is 62 and Black. I’m 68 and white. We met just a couple years ago. We had talked about racism before and Terry’s growing-up years in Louisiana with a Black mother and white father, but I’d never heard such urgency in Terry’s voice. Or grief. His words spilled out. He wondered why some white people hate Black people. He told me that every hour of his life he has been aware of his blackness. He said every Black family he knows — even families of Black cops — warn their sons about police. He told me the killing of Floyd by a white Minneapolis policeman was a “boil-over” point. He said he had become aware he had been traumatized throughout his life. As someone who has participated in Brave Talks, part of Community Grand Rounds: Healing the Trauma of Racism, Terry talked about learning some facts about how racism harms Black bodies. But he feels leaders need to move faster to use this knowledge to really help Black people. Clearly, he was boiling over to tell me about his experiences of racism. We agreed to meet the next day at my house near Benton Harbor for an interview. I knew Terry would cover a lot of territory and be utterly honest and candid. I was not disappointed.
Leaving the South; 44 Years in the North
Terry is gregarious and colorful, with an outsize personality. He is well known in the small, predominantly African-American town of Benton Harbor. He is a successful businessman, probably best known for having owned Popeyes Chicken franchises. He has invested in and helps manage a local barbecue restaurant. He and his wife live in Benton Harbor, and Terry is deeply committed to helping people break free of the mindset of poverty, the dominant theme of his life-mentoring classes. (For more from this interview, see the sidebar: “Terry Stokes, in Short Takes”) At 18 — “I just wanted to get away” — Terry left his hometown of Lake Providence, La., for Benton Harbor, where an aunt and a sister, one of his eight siblings, were living. He worked in a factory for about 15 years in Benton Harbor before getting his first franchise restaurant. After 44 years in the North — all of those years in Benton Harbor — Terry still talks with Louisiana in his voice. His speech moves to a slower cadence, but he punches certain words and phrases for emphasis. His voice takes you on a real ride. Our recorded interview ran for an hour and a half. Below are highlights from this rich mix of reflections on American racism of a Black man whose mood would swing, sometimes within seconds, from frustration and resignation to hopefulness about the possibility of real change. But first, let’s look briefly at a few of the many lessons about race this Black child absorbed.
Something’s Not Right Here
Growing up in the South, Terry said the different treatment of Black people he experienced was something he was “born into” and thought was normal. “But at some point I became aware of it, that something wasn’t right about it,” he said. His mother took him to the doctor when he was a young boy. He remembers it in part because a trip to the doctor was rare for a family with nine children on a tight budget. But he remembers it mostly for another reason. Terry, who was old enough to read, sat on the side of the doctor’s office labeled “Colored.” He could look through to the other side, labeled “White.” He noticed it was much nicer and cleaner. “And I’m looking at it and I became aware that something was different. But I didn’t think to ask. It was just something that was understood.” He recalls Black people being forced to buy ice cream from the window at the back of a drugstore. He heard stories about Black people being lynched in his hometown, and about how the local police had murdered people. That fear lodged inside him. His parents were an extraordinary match for the 1950s in the South. All nine children took more after their mother’s darker skin color than their father’s white skin. “But you could tell by our features that we were not all-black,” Terry said. “It was very obvious.” Because of their skin color, their mother shepherded the children around in the daylight. “I remember my daddy taking us for a ride in the car, but he had to do it in the wee hours of the morning when everybody was asleep, and it was dangerous.” Punctuating his words and giving long pauses, he said, “We lived — in a home in the ‘50s — with a man who was white and a Black mother. In the South! You can imagine some of the stuff I could tell you, just knowing about the history of the South and what that was like.”
It’s Not Safe ‘Over There’
As he grew up, he was coached about not going to certain places — the white areas of town — because it was not safe “over there.” And “over there” was a place with “well-manicured lawns” and nice homes, where people obviously lived far better than on his side of town. As a teenager, he ventured into the white area of town by doing deliveries for a Jewish man who owned a television sales and repair store. He got a close look at those nice white homes and felt uncomfortable in that environment, though nothing bad happened to him. His high school only had a few white students, but the football team’s quarterback was always white. “(From) even the best white people, it was understood Black people were not smart enough to be a quarterback,” Terry said. “We accepted that — all through school” Terry’s father owned a small grocery store, in the Black side of town where the family lived. “White people didn’t have to deal with me. I was like a void. I didn’t exist. I didn’t have to interact with them. And that was done on purpose. I felt safer when I didn’t have to interact with them.” His white father did deal with white people. These white folks didn’t know he was married to a Black woman and had dark-skinned children, so they felt free to make racist remarks around him.
George Floyd: This is Different.
The catalyst for our interview was the way George Floyd was killed two weeks before and the cataclysmic reaction around the world. Terry was clearly shaken by Floyd’s death. He mentioned a couple of other recent highly publicized killings of Black people. One was Ahmaud Arbery, 25, who was shot and killed Feb. 23 after two white men with guns, a father and son, pursued him while he was jogging near his Georgia home, while another white man video recorded the shooting. Terry also mentioned the case of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician in Louisville, Ky. She was killed when police, using a “no-knock” arrest warrant, entered her apartment March 13 on a search for drugs. Taylor was shot at least eight times. Her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, shot and wounded a policeman. A lawyer for Walker said no drugs were found in the apartment. “And it was all bad. You felt bad” about these incidents, Terry said. “This George Floyd thing, for some reason, is a little different. Seeing this guy, this police officer, with his knee on his (Floyd’s) neck, and him crying — you felt something. I felt something.” Terry saw a nonchalance in policeman Derek Chauvin’s face, “like he was totally oblivious to what he was doing. It did something to me, like the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Terry’s personal feelings reached a “boiling point” with the Floyd video, and “the pot” of his feelings was now overflowing.
“This George Floyd thing, for some reason, is a little different. Seeing this guy, this police officer, with his knee on his (Floyd’s) neck, and him crying — you felt something. I felt something.” Terry saw a nonchalance in policeman Derek Chauvin’s face, “like he was totally oblivious to what he was doing. It did something to me, like the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“It affected me mentally and physically. It kind of made me feel ill to a certain level. It’s kind of hard to describe. But for a moment it made me feel like I lost hope. I’m losing hope in society and mankind. I’m disappointed in this country, that we haven’t — although we’ve made some strides — but I thought we would be farther along than what we are.”
A Guarded Optimism
Terry had obviously watched portions of the Floyd video many times on TV news. He provided a studied, keenly observant reaction to what he saw, alternating between past tense and present tense, as if he were still watching it. “It just didn’t seem like he understood that was a human being,” Terry said of policeman Chauvin’s attitude toward Floyd. “I saw no emotion. I saw him look at the camera, and time and time again I kind of looked at his face. Each time I may look at George Floyd sometimes, and sometimes I look at him [Chauvin] to see the expression on his face, if he had any. I didn’t see anything. He didn’t make me feel he understood that was a human being. And he had no problem with snuffing out his life. And there was a sense this is normal, that it made me feel like he must have thought this is something he can get away with,” because Chauvin knew cellphones were video recording his actions, yet he didn’t change what he was doing. “He just had an empty look, a void.” We talked about the protests over the Floyd killing in the United States and, indeed, around the world. Terry found the number of white protesters significant and encouraging. “I don’t think Black people alone can bring about the change. Our voice is not enough. In some of the marches I’ve seen as many or more white brothers and sisters than I’ve seen Blacks. And they were as outraged as if it happened to them. I think there’s an awakening.”
“I don’t think Black people alone can bring about the change. Our voice is not enough. In some of the marches I’ve seen as many or more white brothers and sisters than I’ve seen Blacks. And they were as outraged as if it happened to them. I think there’s an awakening.”
But Terry wondered how long the awakening and the outrage would last. “The question I would have to say is, ‘Well, how long? Why did it take this long? It’s been happening all along’” throughout America’s history. He wondered how so many white people could be silent until now. At another point in the interview, he said, “Our legal system has failed us. They’ve been killing us at will for hundreds of years.”
Repeated Slayings ‘Dull’ the Emotions
“I think, as a Black man, I got so used to us being killed, that at some level it’s almost like there’s a certain amount of tolerance … normalcy about it,” Terry said. “It’s been going on for so long, at some level our senses have been dulled to death, to Black men’s death.” Terry compared this defeatism with what he has seen of a mother gazelle on TV nature shows. When a lion ran and caught the baby gazelle, “the mother would stand back and look at it, realizing there’s nothing she could do. And at some point, she would turn and walk away and totally — it was like, ‘He’s gone.’” Terry said the very constancy of violent Black deaths over hundreds of years leads him and other African Americans to swallow the news and go on. Or, to use the psychological term, they “internalize” it. “If it was something that happened one time it would totally freak you out, and it would just devastate your mind, I would think,” Terry said. “But since it’s been happening for hundreds of years,” he personally believes the long train of abuses has dulled his senses. “Society keeps telling me, ‘These people deserve this.’ “It’s eating my internal organs up. It’s making me sick. And some things I’m not even aware of that it’s doing to me, physically and psychologically.” He said a psychiatrist would probably tell him he has been traumatized. “But I think there’s some level of resilience that allows me to (go on), because I have no Option B.”
An Emotional Lockbox
Terry’s comments about burying his feelings of pain as a Black man made me think immediately of a psychological lockbox where emotions could be stashed away. At one point we took a break, and when Terry came back to the room and resumed talking, he began with a revelation, of sorts. “There are some things that I have never told anybody,” he volunteered without prompting, “and I don’t know if I ever can.” I asked him if he meant how he has been treated throughout his life. He said yes. “Some things I don’t know if I could ever reveal.” “What is it that makes you not able to reveal these things?” I asked. I said I would not ask for any of his secrets, I only wanted to know why he couldn’t talk about them. He got teary and didn’t talk for a while. He looked down. “No, it’s time. … Just need to let it out.” He said he couldn’t talk about them “because of the feelings, the dormant feelings. I don’t want to experience this. I’d rather hide. I’d rather not deal with it. I’d rather put it in this space. Obviously, there is a space somewhere in my mind where I can put things.” Had he even told his wife? “No, there’s some things I’ve never told anybody. “There’s this place that I can tuck some things away, it’s like never to be opened,” Terry said. “So, I think a lot of us, whether we’re aware of it or we are unaware of it, there’s a place that we can put some things. They don’t have to be opened up. And we don’t even have to go to them. We know they’re there, but we don’t have to experience how they make us feel, how they make me feel. “I just think some of us have gotten really good at it!” He’s so good at it that he knows he can’t watch the George Floyd video anymore. Slave movies are out, too, and so even is “Selma,” the 2014 movie about the Selma-to-Montgomery, Ala., voting rights marches of 1965. He won’t risk ripping open those dormant feelings.
It All Adds Up to Trauma
All of what Terry was describing — how he has normalized and internalized racist treatment and even slayings over the decades, and how he locked much of this evil away — created what he called his personal trauma. “There’s no doubt about it that I have been traumatized all my life. And for some reason I have been able to function, and still just make do and get by with that trauma,” he said. “Because, really, I have no choice in the matter. I don’t have the luxury of lying down and licking my wounds and wallowing in my misery, because the world just keeps going on. And I think for some people this would be something too much for them to bear and still function as a normal.” Terry once took a class in adverse childhood experiences. He said it taught him how trauma at a young age can affect a child physically and change the brain’s development. “I’m thinking, most Black people in America, as far as I’m concerned, we probably all need to see psychiatrists,” he said. “We’ve been traumatized. And the trauma continues.”