Opinion by Karen Attiah | Global Opinions editor | June 9, 2020 at 7:17 p.m. EDT
This year was the first time I saw my father cry.
We were standing in front of the casket of his oldest friend, “Uncle David” to me since childhood. Our masks were on. We stood six feet apart, following the rules of the funeral home.
A few weeks later, I watched my father sitting alone at the dinner table, looking at something on his phone. I worry about his heart, now that his best friend is gone. I worry about his neck and eyes, staring at small screens like that. It was the video, 8 minutes, 46 seconds, of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck until he died. “I remember hearing about Emmett Till as a teenager in Ghana,” my father said.
In that moment, America’s racist past felt very present. My father came from Ghana by choice in 1971, my family’s path to this country paved by the struggles of the descendants of slaves who were brought to America’s shores in chains. In that moment, the illusion that brought us here was finally gone: that being the “right” immigrant, having the right degrees and titles, can protect our family from racism.
As more than 6,000 mourners waited hours outside the Fountain of Praise church in Houston, on the hottest two days of the year, to pay tribute to Floyd, the dead man lay in a gleaming gold coffin — an open casket that brought to mind Till’s funeral 65 years ago, his mutilated body on defiant display for the country to reckon with. The families of Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Botham Jean were in attendance, as if to induct Floyd’s loved ones into a tragic fraternity of black victims of racism and police violence.
This time the pain feels global. Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo declared that Floyd’s name would be added to the Sankofa forum at the W.E.B. Dubois center in Accra. “Sankofa” in the language of the Asante peoples literally means “to go back.” Ghana commemorated 2019 as the Year of Return, marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans to America’s shores. George Floyd’s name will return to Ghana, a homegoing of monumental significance for all the descendants of enslaved Africans around the world. In order to move forward, we must connect with the past.
Floyd’s violent death is a uniquely American tragedy. Like Garner, in his last moments Floyd pleaded, “I can’t breathe.” It is a horrifically familiar line in America’s dark song of racism and police brutality.
And yet, Floyd stands apart, his death a spark that has set the country and the world on fire — Emmett Till for a digital generation.
The week that Floyd was killed in front of our eyes, America had already been shaken by the viral video of Amy Cooper, a white woman in New York City, viciously threatening to make a false report to the police about bird-watcher Christian Cooper. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” she warns him. Calling the police on a black person can mean a death sentence. In the video, Cooper weaponized her whiteness in a way that mirrored the sadistic chain of events that led to Emmett Till’s gruesome lynching in Mississippi. A white woman falsely accused the 14-year-old Till of whistling at her; Till was kidnapped, tortured and killed. His attackers then threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.
The photos of Till’s disfigured body in the open casket that were published in Jet magazine helped touch off the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks said she had Till in mind when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus that same year. Today it is Twitter and social media that have broadcast the images of George Floyd’s death and funeral, and millions around the world have him in mind as they march, yell, sing, kneel and dance in the streets for racial justice.
As Floyd is laid to rest in Pearland, Tex., I worry about the protection of his gravesite. While the critics of black protest decry damage done to buildings, I cannot help but think about how white racists desecrate black graves and memorials. In Mississippi, Emmett Till’s memorial marker was shot at so many times they had to make the sign bulletproof.
In America, racism doesn’t even let its black victims rest in peace.