I cannot breathe.


I contemplate the almost nine excruciatingly protracted minutes as George Floyd pleaded to breathe — for his life — and gradually faded. My own throat constricts, and I am unable to swallow, or breathe or think at all.

Rage consumes me.

As soon as the video surfaced, my phone chimed nonstop. Messages from my children.

Chuka: “Mom, can you believe this?”

Delia: “Mom, are you OK?”

Obi: “Mom.”

Just “mom” — nothing more. My children know me well.

What can I say? That I was OK when I wasn’t, or that it would be OK when I clearly knew that they — my children and their children after them — have a high chance of meeting the same fate as George Floyd, as long as the color of our skin remained the same. That will not change.

George Floyd was not the first African American man to die unjustly or at the hand of the police, and I have gotten used to this genre of videos — and then the public outcry, and condemnations and recriminations, and then nothing. Until it happens again.

When my children were young, I was consumed by the gross contradictions of America — about what we taught our young black children about their place in this country and our expectations that they keep faith in a society that did not deem their lives significant. I had to tell them all my fears and the truths about racism and somehow still keep them believing in themselves.

I struggled with how to raise good citizens, leaders and well-adjusted people. It meant that I was strict with dictating the rules — the laws, both moral and secular; their education — my children had to be the best in their classes; their public appearances; and the people with whom they associated. I had felt it was my responsibility to raise extraordinary black people — just so they would never been perceived as threats or violent or anti-social.

My husband and I had “the talk” with our children, over and over, even as I bemoaned the unfairness of our black children having to lose their innocence too soon. The talk evolved as they got older and as public attitudes shifted.

As they readied for college, the talks were more urgent and intense — about law enforcement shootings of unarmed African American males and vigilante white men taking the law into their own hands. We wanted our children to fully grasp how to operate in a world that would see them as undeserving of basic respect.

I told them over and over that they will be judged more strictly than their peers, and that at every turn, they should exceed all expectations. They did not fail.

Now, all in their 30s, they are married and largely living their own lives. But the issue persists. I live in constant fear that my children might be killed just for being black. I also worry every time my husband goes for his run that he may never return, that his blackness would doom him.

How many more black lives? When will it come to my doorstep? My husband, Charles, Chuka, Obi, my two grandsons — Fritz and Theo, my brothers, my nephews — Che, Kyler — all over the United States.

This is not the first time I have written about my fears following such incidents. I wondered what I would tell my then very young black children in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict in 1992. I also observed in 2012 that Trayvon Martin looked like and could have been my son after the teenager was slaughtered.

It is personal for me. I cherish this country and the life it has afforded my family, but I wonder if it is truly worth the anxiety, the fear, the lies we tell our children, and the stark reality of our black lives.

What I know now is that a young man has joined the long line of other African American men who have died — for no other reason than their blackness.

When will it all end?

Dympna Ugwu-Oju is an editor for the Fresnoland Lab, a reporting and engagement lab focused on housing, land use, water, and neighborhood issues.

Support our nonprofit journalism.


Your contribution is appreciated.