The Familial Language of Black Grief

Black people feel the pain and loss of black life as if it were our very own blood that had been brutalized—because it easily could have been.

Emotional protesters embrace in West Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray, 25, who died in police custody in 2015.
Emotional protesters embrace in West Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray, 25, who died in police custody in 2015. (Yunghi Kim / Contact Press Images)

I cracked a joke to break the tension. “Everyone put on your seat belts, because the cops are definitely pulling us over tonight.” Psychologists say that laughter relieves stress and reduces anxiety—I guess that’s what I was going for in that moment. We were five black men sitting in a very nice car, a black Range Rover, about to go out for a night on the town. As I recall, we really tore it up at the local coffee shop with our lattes and pour-overs.

It was the autumn of 2015 and the phrase Black Lives Matter was then, as it is now, the subject of a national dialogue. We had seen a slew of videos showing police brutalizing or killing unarmed black people, and it was on all of our minds that evening, how quickly human beings could be reduced to hashtags. We all felt like we could be next. The police could easily stop us for no reason. They simply had to say that we “fit the description.”

If you asked each of us in that SUV, everyone could tell you about a horrifying encounter he’d had with the police during a routine traffic stop or a case of mistaken identity or presumed guilt. Patted down, hands on the car, faced with a drawn gun, cuffed, cussed at—different forms of the same terror that has characterized interactions between law-enforcement officers and black people for decades. It was this shared sense of danger that made us feel like more than friends—we were brothers.

I thought of this unspoken understanding that black people share recently when I heard the former NBA player Stephen Jackson’s speech about his friend, George Floyd, who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25. At a rally in Floyd’s honor he said, “I’m here because they’re not gonna demean the character of George Floyd, my twin … You can’t tell me that [the officer] didn’t feel that it was his duty to murder my brother, and that he knew he was gonna get away with it.” Jackson and Floyd had known each other for years. Shared experiences, laughter, and history made them friends. But when the officer killed Floyd, Jackson mourned his “twin” and his “brother.”

One of the last things that the 46-year-old Floyd did as he was being killed was call out to his deceased mother. “Mama … I’m through,” he can be heard saying in video that captured the incident. The protests that followed picked up that cry. One person carried a sign that read “All mothers were summoned when George Floyd cried out for his mama.”

Notions of family saturate the black freedom struggle in all of its aspects, especially the threat of police brutality. Under the constant surveillance, suspicion, and violence of law enforcement in America, black people share a kinship of calamity. A brotherhood and sisterhood of suffering. Like any family, it is not something we choose. This sense of solidarity through hardship is forced on us by the oppression we endure in a white-supremacist society.

Even with people we do not know or whom we barely know, black people can generally relate to the experience of being policed not just by law enforcement, but by anyone deemed white. Police brutality feels like a problem that is both very old and freshly personal every time it happens. We feel the pain and loss of black life as if it were our very own blood that had been brutalized—because it easily could have been.

In July 2013, shortly after a jury found Trayvon Martin’s killer not guilty, President Barack Obama gave a speech in which he said: “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son.”

Obama used the language of family to convey why, even as president of the United States, he felt the verdict so personally. Obama, along with countless other black people, mourned Martin’s death and the acquittal of his killer as if Martin had been our own son or sibling.

I remember the death of Philando Castile hitting me particularly hard. In 2016, a police officer killed Castile during a routine traffic stop. Castile told the officer that he had a lawfully registered gun in the car. In his testimony, the officer said he was “in fear for my life” when he fired seven bullets into the vehicle. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, caught the aftermath on her cellphone camera, all while her 4-year-old daughter sat in the back seat.

I never met Castile, but hearing of his death hurt like losing a brother. I could picture myself in the same situation—pulled over with my partner and child in our family car, the definition of nonthreatening. Yet a police officer could still perceive my black body, like he did brother Castile’s, as a menace that needed to be neutralized using deadly force.

This familial language is metaphorical, of course—I know that the pain I felt seeing Castile killed doesn’t compare to what his loved ones felt. But it’s the best metaphor black people have to express the grief that unites us.

And like all families, this brotherhood and sisterhood of suffering is complicated. It’s not the Brady Bunch. The movement for black lives has its arguments and animosities; people get estranged from one another. Sometimes black people reject relationships with their community. Some don’t see issues such as police brutality as rooted in historic patterns of oppression. Some black people think the way to get ahead in a white-supremacist society is to get away from black folks. As we say, “All skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.”

But when white supremacy takes its toll on these black people as well, which it almost always does, only one community will understand and gather around them, maybe with a hearty “I told you so” first.

However families may fight, they tend to come together in a crisis. Right now the crisis of police brutality has once again given cause for black people around the country, and even the world, to gather in defense of one another.