Even Breathing Is Strange: Reflections on the Anniversary of George Floyd’s Murder

A poem and essay on black motherhood—and life.

Cassie Williams

A George Floyd mural in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published last year, on the third anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. As we mark the date again this year, and as police continue terrorizing and assassinating Black and brown people across the country, this poem and reflection lands more powerful than ever.]

  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

Comply always

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.

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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.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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