By NICQUEL TERRY ELLIS
George Floyd – for the last two years, his name has been echoed across the nation from the streets of Minneapolis where protesters marched, to the halls of corporate America where major brands publicly denounced racism. His name is a symbol for the racial equality fight, and a rallying cry for justice and an end to police brutality against Black people. But who was the 46-year-old father?
Washington Post reporters Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa decided that it was time to look deeper at Floyd’s life by writing a biography titled, His Name is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
The book, released May 17, details Floyd’s experience with racism, oppression and inequality from growing up in Houston’s impoverished Third Ward to living in Minneapolis as a Black man. Olorunnipa said he wanted the world to see Floyd as more than just a man who was killed by a White police officer.
“We wanted to look at Floyd as a full human being, not just as this person who everyone came to see through video of his death,” Olorunnipa told CNN. “He had a full life before he died and that life included intersecting with barriers from housing segregation to underfunded schooling to a bias criminal justice system to an unfair healthcare system and many other institutions that he tried to navigate.”
Olorunnipa said he and Samuels interviewed hundreds of people who knew Floyd, reviewed his diary entries, letters he wrote to friends and police reports where he was named.
“We left no stone unturned,” Olorunnipa said.
And while Olorunnipa says the country has made some progress with racism since Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, he said the recent controversy over teaching about race and African American history in schools shows there is more work to be done.
CNN interviewed Olorunnipa about what he learned in his research about Floyd and his family roots, how racism impacted his life and what readers can gain from reading the book.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Question: What motivated you to want to write this book?
Olorunnipa: We saw Floyd die like so many other millions of people and we knew there was more to the story. So our colleagues at The Washington Post decided to do a series looking at Floyd’s life and how he was impacted by systemic racism and that series was really powerful. We were inspired to tell more of that story by turning what we did into a book and by exploring who Floyd was on a deeper level. We wanted to restore some of his humanity for people who only got to see him through those nine minutes and let people know he was a full human being with his struggles, his high points, his good times and bad times.
Q: Who was George Floyd as a person?
Olorunnipa: He was a complex and complicated man, someone who was always striving for a better life, he had a number of challenges starting with poverty. He was born in a poor neighborhood, he grew up in poverty in Houston’s Third Ward and was always striving to find a way out, to make a way for his family, his mother and his siblings. But because of the way society was set up, it was difficult for him to escape, it was difficult for him to chart a pathway to stability. It came in the form of underfunded schools he attended; it came in the form of the criminal justice system that was waiting for him as soon as he finished school. He also didn’t have good health care. Despite all those challenges he was always striving for a better life. He was a kind-hearted person who would go around telling people ‘I love you’ even if he didn’t know them. He was also a large man and did not want to be seen as intimidating.
Q: Was there anything that surprised you during your research about Floyd’s life?
Olorunnipa: One of the things that I found surprising was that George Floyd’s family history includes a period of great wealth. We researched his ancestry and seven generations of his family, and his great-great grandfather actually worked hard for 30 years with a big family and was able to buy 500 acres of land in eastern North Carolina. That made him one of the wealthiest Black men in his community. He unfortunately had all of that land stripped away during a period of racial terror where land loss among Black farmers was rampant and he was a victim of that and lost all of his land. Because of that, his children and grandchildren worked as sharecroppers. George Floyd came into the world as poor, Black boy from the South and not because his family hadn’t worked hard, but because they were the victims of racism. As a result of that, he started life behind, he was born with two strikes and with the decks stacked against him.
Q: What did you learn about Floyd’s experiences with racism prior to being killed by a Minneapolis police officer?
Olorunnipa: In his own words, he felt that he was victimized by racist police. He was stopped by police more than 20 times over the course of his life. And at least six of the officers who stopped him were later charged with corruption or other crimes of their own. One of them was specifically charged with targeting poor, minority men for false drug charges because he knew they would not be able to afford a lawyer, he knew they would just have to take the charges and George Floyd often did just take the charges and plead guilty. We also found that while drug use is similar in Black communities and White communities, police enforcement is much higher in Black communities like the one where Floyd grew up. So he ended up with a long record while other people who were doing similar things were not arrested.
Q: What do you hope readers gain from reading your book?
Olorunnipa: I hope they feel motivated as they read about his life and how he slowly died over several decades, suffocating under the systemic pressures he faced as a child as a young man and as an older man. I hope people feel that same level of motivation to do something whether it’s to write their congressman or pay more attention to some of these systemic issues. There are millions of other George Floyds out there that might not be brutalized by police in the same way on camera but are still suffering from a number of different challenges. I hope people realize that we all have a responsibility to fix the broken systems.
Q: Reflecting on the last two years, how do you think George Floyd’s life has shaped how we view racism?
Olorunnipa: There are a lot of people who did not feel that systemic racism was an issue and now they are more willing to engage in some of these conversations whether it’s the corporate world or cultural institutions. But at the same time, we are seeing a backlash from people upset that this conversation is shifting. They want to ban books and they are saying we should all be concerned about critical race theory. So it’s a constant battle to make sure people are understanding the country’s history and making an effort to put us on a better course. But it’s a constant struggle and I think that’s something that’s going to be a part of George Floyd’s legacy. We have the ability to shape how that legacy is remembered based on what we do today. We all have a role to play in deciding what this country will look like in the years to come.
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