Even Breathing Is Strange: Reflections on the 3rd Anniversary of George Floyd’s Murder
A poem and essay on black motherhood—and life.
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees”
Before he entered the world
his umbilical cord clutched his neck tightly
constricting blocking the air that
had yet to flow through his body
He was born breathless
I wear a scar across my belly
to commemorate the day
I saved my son from himself
Did he find out that little brown babies
are not celebrated here
They are not held to the sun for the world to see
They are born and protected
held firmly in between bosoms
forced to shrink and silence themselves
and tiptoe to not disrupt
The breath of a brown baby boy
is large and loud like a
broken glass in a silent room
a gunshot in a large crowd
His inhale is thievery
and his exhale is a disturbance
I grip him tightly
his breath rumbles the ground
and raise hairs on necks
I try to cover his mouth
with survival lessons of
Do what you are told
Don’t be too loud
Don’t wear that hood
Don’t go to that neighborhood
Keep your hands where they can be seen
He is forced from my grip
and suffocated until he is merely
just flesh on concrete
I hear him say momma
in between each faded breath
I am not strong enough to save him
“Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck,
for the rain to gather for the wind to suck,
for the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
here is a strange and bitter crop.”
It was worse than I thought, was my initial feeling after watching the killing of George Floyd play on the news. I debated whether to watch it that day in fear of the trigger that it might cause. Working in fields that address inequities and racial injustices for years, my experience as a black woman raising black children has made me sensitive to the triggers that these videos cause. With all the buzz that increased after the footage was released, I had to watch it.
It took me back to the coverage of the Rodney King beating in 1991. I was 9 years old at the time. I didn’t quite understand the magnitude of what I was watching. Although I had already experienced racist encounters by that time, I grappled with how the brown that coats my skin could evoke that level of rage and the assertion of power and control. My parents, angry but not shocked, tried to explain what transpired to my siblings and me.
I became my parents the day I watched the footage of Floyd being pressed into the ground and eventually robbed of every last breath he had. He screamed for his mother. That moment remained etched in my mind. I have had the privilege of birthing 5 children, 3 of whom are boys. I felt both joy and fear the day my oldest son was born. He was born by cesarean section with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. The thought of him not being able to breath once bothered me because there was nothing I could do at that moment. All of the healthy food, prenatal pills, and exercise meant nothing.
One of my worst fears is not being able to protect my children from the hands of other people — people who will never see the beauty of my children or value them enough to treat them with care. Care was not a factor when Floyd screamed in desperation that he couldn’t breathe. Raising children is already challenging, but to raise black children who you may not be able to protect is immense pressure and emotional strain.
As we come to the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, I want to remember the life and the breath he had in him. I did not know him personally, but when I look at my black babies I think of him and all the other black and brown people whose lives were taken. Like my children, they were deserving of all that life had to offer them. To honor those lives and the lives of our children, we have to continue the work of calling out hate and white supremacy, so they won’t be diminished to just another black body on the ground.
The excerpts at the beginning and end of Cassie Williams’ poem is from “Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropoland, sung by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.
This article first appeared in Workday Magazine.
Cassie J. Williams has an extensive background in social justice, community and youth programming and organizing. She is a Labor Educator at Labor Education Service in Carlson School of Business at the University of Minnesota. She has published her work in literary journals, performed and presented in slam competitions, schools, events, and local and national conferences. Williams was awarded a Southwest Minnesota Arts Council Individual Artist grant in 2019. As a wife and mother of five children, Williams is currently sharing her journey of balancing (or not) being a writer, educator and mother on Instagram and Facebook under the name Poetess Unbound. She is set to release her first collection of poetry in June.