HIS NAME IS GEORGE FLOYD
One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice
By Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa
It feels like more than two years since America and much of the world were convulsed by the police killing of George Perry Floyd Jr. in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. The intrepid action of a Black teenager named Darnella Frazier, who recorded almost nine minutes of video documenting Derek Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck, turned a routine instance of deadly police violence into a hinge point in American history.
It is a testament to the power of “His Name Is George Floyd” that the book’s most vital moments come not after Floyd’s death, but in its intimate, unvarnished and scrupulous account of his life. The Washington Post journalists Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa, backed by hundreds of interviews along with extensive reporting by their colleagues, offer a brilliantly revealing portrait of the structures of poverty, land theft and racism that shaped not only Floyd but also his kinship networks in the South.
Raised in Houston’s racially segregated and economically impoverished Third Ward, Floyd was descended from Hillery Thomas Stewart, a formerly enslaved Black farmer turned prosperous landowner, whose wealth was stripped away by the politics of Reconstruction-era white backlash. Floyd’s grandparents became sharecroppers who toiled on a tobacco farm owned by an unscrupulous white man. Floyd’s mother, Larcenia, grew up as one of 13 surviving children in Goldsboro, N.C., searching in vain for an escape from intergenerational poverty. George was the third child born to Larcenia and George Perry Floyd Sr., an aspiring musician with a weakness for alcohol and extramarital carousing.
Shy, contemplative and good-natured, George grew into a strapping high school student, 6 feet 4 inches tall. His dreams of becoming an athlete, the authors write, were upended by “the cruel reality of growing up Black and poor.”
“His Name Is George Floyd” does an impressive job of contextualizing Floyd’s struggles with drug addiction, frequent arrests and afive-year prison sentence for aggravated robbery in a crime that he insisted he had nothing to do with. Throughout, we get the portrait of a flawed man trying to come to terms with diminished dreams, one whose muscular physical exterior hid a gentle soul who battled pain, anxiety, claustrophobia and depression.
Samuels and Olorunnipa take pains to offer capsule histories of the structural roots of racism in the criminal justice and education systems — with their impact on wealth and homeownership — to better tell Floyd’s story holistically. This does not always make for a seamless narrative, but in many ways the book is stronger for it. They carefully examine the role that Floyd’s mother played in trying to help him navigate the dangers of the Third Ward. Floyd inherited her expansive and resilient heart, a sensitivity that both strengthened and imperiled his efforts to make his way in the world.
By focusing on the disparate parts of the system of structural racism that impacted Floyd’s life, the authors allow readers to better comprehend and experience the final indignity that greeted him on May 25, when Chauvin, an officer with a history of brutalizing suspects, casually ended his life. Floyd’s agonizing last minutes, when he begged for his life, called for his recently deceased mother and pleaded for breath, may not have come as a major surprise to him. He had always feared being attacked, assaulted or even shot by the police.
In death Floyd has indeed “touched the whole world.” The racial and political reckoning of 2020, and its continuing aftermath, can be traced back to the uprisings that followed the news of his death. Near the end of their book, the authors observe that “the summer of George Floyd did not dismantle systemic racism in America.” This is definitely true, but it did move the nation closer to acknowledging the structures that led to the largest social justice movement in American history. And for that alone, George Floyd’s life deserves to be not only remembered, but honored.