Tyre Nichols has gone home, as we say in the Black church tradition. But he was sent there violently and prematurely by police officers who broke his neck. Others that helped sign his death certificate with their silence or approval, including Emergency Medical Technicians who stood over his badly beaten body with what we would later learn was a broken neck, helped to send him there. Another funeral of a beloved family member sent home too soon and by the mean and the murderous. Tyre Nichols’s death hits home for so many of us, but it is personal for many of us who are Black in America. It was also a different kind of assault on the senses to open Black History Month. There is nothing historic about an unarmed Black person being killed by police for driving while Black. Even walking or jogging while Black is dangerous.
I watched the funeral with the same tear-filled eyes, clenched teeth, and twisted stomach I had when I had when I watched the Rev. Al Sharpton deliver the eulogy for George Floyd that spring of 2020. We had already been outraged when, a few months earlier, Breonna Taylor was killed while in bed. To be honest, none of us had recovered from Skittles-carrying Trayvon Martin’s killing by a police officer wannabe. Or from the 2014 killing of Eric Garner, the life choked out of him for an alleged loose cigarette sale; or from Sandra Bland’s inexplicable death in a jail cell for crossing lanes without signaling. The only historic thing about the episode is that police officers were swiftly disciplined by the Memphis Police Department with termination and swiftly charged with second-degree murder charges.
One difference important to name is that the five officers we saw beat Tyre with staggering brutality were Black. The Rev. Al Sharpton used Black History Month in an eloquent and cathartic way, recalling the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, where he was fighting for Black city workers—sanitation workers. He linked it to the fight for civil rights, including getting more Black police officers onto police forces. He said, “There’s nothing more insulting and offensive to those of us that fight to open doors that you walk through those doors and act like the folks we had to fight for to get you through them doors.” It was the moral clarity with the historic context that enabled a deep breath of relief. Policing, like slavery, has its Black overseers. Not all are abusive, but the ones who are play a role that is also one that has a historic precedent.
And so now we can have space to call for this latest murder to make some meaningful change. After Floyd’s murder at the knee of Minneapolis police, we felt the possibility for a real inflection point: renewed recognition that brutality is meted out to Black people for nothing. This felt even more painful as a result—the very fact that, despite historic, multiracial protests, nationwide and even worldwide, the Covid-crafted rise in some categories of violent crime would dissolve the resolve of too many Americans like the acid-filled blood of the alien in the Aliens franchise. We can demand safety from police violence only as long as no one feels unsafe from us.
The trauma we experience in witnessing the videos and the tear-streaked faces of family members was the type of plain-view brutality that can only re-traumatize us. The danger I felt personally was a disillusionment so deep that despair becomes the currency of complacency. Could I, could we, recover our sense of possibility and belonging?
As I was preparing myself for all the sorrow and anger that I knew I would feel watching his funeral, I got an e-mail from a stranger. I opened it, despite my hesitation. It was from a self-identified “liberal fan” who, with polite, considered, and respectful words, stated that there would be fewer police killings if “citizens would follow the directions of duly authorized officers of the law.” It was a gut punch that physically knocked the air from my lungs. I was so jarred by the e-mail that I couldn’t respond and had to actively push it from my consciousness, because I had to bear witness to RowVaughn Wells, Tyre Nichols’s mother, and to other family members. I had to share in the grief of Tyre Nichols’s godsister as she read a poem with the devastatingly direct line, “I’m just trying to get home. Is that too much to ask?” I had to preserve some soul space to experience the suffering of an entire community that required a large withdrawal from my emotional bank account that would be returned “insufficient funds” if I gave over anything to respond to that e-mail.
Black people have always had to create a cultural resilience to our constant vulnerability to the capricious anger occasioned by our mere presence. Tyre Nichols was sent home—but that poem was the true and deeper question we have been asking over the generations. And in every funeral like Tyre’s—whether George Floyd’s or Eric Garner’s and all the funerals we don’t watch on TV, but that we still know to be happening—each one adds the pounds of the lifeless body of our beloveds that we must carry on and cannot put down. We carry it, but how long can we have to respond to the demand of my “fan” that we just comply, heads bowed, to police violating our right to be? When my godson had his feet under my Thanksgiving table and he gave thanks out loud for being alive at 19, that steals something that can’t be returned without making real the promise of transforming public safety in a way that recognizes that we, too, are the public.
But our funerals are also resilience builders, and Tyre’s funeral was that for me. During the funeral, as family members were sharing the pain of his loss with remembrances of Tyre, someone shouted from the audience, “He will change the world!” George Floyd’s young daughter, Gianna, said almost these exact words after her father’s murder. It was a theme from pastors in attendance as well. The Rev. Rodney Woodley said, “Just because it looks like he lost a battle, the war will be won.” But it was Bishop Marvin Thomas, of the First Episcopal District, CME, who directed our attention to this idea of “home” here in America. He cited Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too.” I shouted out loud, “Yes!” Hughes intoned, “I too, sing America…”
The demand was clear and consistent throughout the funeral in the way we have always had to be when murdered by state violence—or to endure the complicity in the violence of white people. We proclaim our activism, as Reverend Sharpton did when he said at the funeral, “I am not a funeral director. I’m an activist.” As Mrs. Wells said with the shaking voice of a heartbroken mother still spending her emotional reserves to demand new laws so that no other mothers had to bury their children like this, like Breonna Taylor’s mother, like too many Black mothers.
Langston Hughes’s “I Too” speaks directly to my “liberal fan” who, after those vile videos, could still suggest that the fault somehow lies with the victim of brutality. The notion that the reform that is needed is Black obsequiousness, in the face of the violation of our constitutional rights, bans us back to the kitchen and the rear door or whites-only entry. You can attack our bodies. You can ban our books. You can try to attack our “wokeness” and you can tell us it can’t be done, but you cannot stop us from proclaiming, “I, too, am America.”