Blackness & George Floyd in a Black Immigrant Family: No Language to Grieve
It has now been two full weeks since George Floyd was brutally murdered by police just miles from me.
A few days ago I heard a character on TV declare quite matter-of-factly that “mothers always know!” It struck me that I was supposed to nod my head and agree that, indeed, mother always knows, but I was left entirely uneasy that I didn’t. For the next day, I was plagued with confusion as to why and just how long I felt that way.
The next day, my mom came knocking on my door huffing and puffing about some chore I forgot to do when I asked her a question I hadn’t realized I’d been working up the courage to ask for over a week. I asked her why in two whole weeks she didn’t even ask me once about how I was feeling about everything that was going on, why she didn’t sense the deep unrest and pain in my soul.
My mom, now in her forties, emigrated to the US in her late teens during the mid-nineties to escape the Somali Civil War. She has long since lived much more of her life here than she has there, but she is still a Somali mother through and through.
When I asked her that question and she read the pain on my face and in my voice, I saw her anger slip away about the chore I can’t even remember as she pulled me into the room and sat me down. My mom was honestly shocked to learn how deeply pained and grieved I was, how deeply the murder of George Floyd touched me as if he was a close friend of mine. She frankly couldn’t understand the connection I felt to this man I’ve never met, this man whose name I didn’t even know before last Tuesday morning. My mom knew, like everyone else, that I’d been hurt when I heard the news, but she couldn’t understand just how hurt I was, and thus, didn’t think to ask me about it. Something about this triggered a powerful grief within me, and I cried for the first time since George’s death, I cried for the first time in several years.
“My mom came over to hug and cradle me, still not fully understanding why I was crying, but my tears obviously saying enough.”
My mom asked me what I was feeling at that moment, but I couldn’t articulate the incoherent mess inside of me. The only thing I could tell her was that grief processes in its own time, but it wasn’t until later that I understood the extent of the grief that I was finally processing. I wasn’t just grieving George Floyd. I was grieving my short-lived youth cut short by my responsibility as a second dad to my siblings, managing the kids while my mom tried to raise all eight of us on government paychecks, bouncing between government housing. I was grieving the struggle that I face every single day as a young black Muslim man in America, the virulent racism and discrimination, the carefree life that I can never live because of how I look. I was grieving the realization that my children will be fighting this same fight, and that I will one day watch the innocence snatched from their eyes as they witness yet another Black body in the street, slain by the forces of white supremacy. I wasn’t just mourning George Floyd, but rather the past, present, and future struggle that I and my loved ones will have to endlessly endure until our deaths. Sometimes the struggle seems so impossible that a small part of my soul just wants to die already. I sometimes ask Allah to just remove me from the pain, remove me so I won’t have descendants who feel this pain too. I was feeling all of this and more at that moment as my mom sat across from me, and unable to form words in English or Somali, hot tears streamed down my face instead. My mom came over to hug and cradle me, still not fully understanding why I was crying, but my tears obviously saying enough.
The next day I was scheduled to speak at a Muslims for George Floyd rally at the intersection of 38th and Chicago (the site of his murder). On impulse, I went into my little brother’s room and asked if he wanted to come. He said sure. My little brother Zaky and I have had a constantly evolving relationship since he was a baby. For most of our lives, we were the staunchest of enemies: he considered me a tyrant and a bully while I considered him an insufferable hard-headed kid that couldn’t follow the simplest of directions. That seems like forever ago, however, because these last few years have seen a complete transformation of our relationship. It’s been a singular pleasure of mine to watch his steady growth as he evolves from a child into a man. Zaky is currently sixteen, the age I was when I entered university and started my own personal transformation, and it’s been amazing to see him start transforming into himself as I did. It wasn’t actually until the next day when I was speaking to the crowd as he stood behind me, watching, listening, that I understood why I had asked him to come.
I was sixteen when I first started to embrace my blackness as a key part of my identity, and considering the current world state of affairs, it seemed time for Zaky to become conscious about his blackness too. I wanted his first protest experience to be at the site of George Floyd’s murder, for him to be able to look down at the pavement and feel the power of the moment deep in his bones. I wanted his mind to break the disconnect, the distance of a video, I wanted him to realize that just as he was standing physically in the spot where George was murdered, so too could he just as easily have been the one choked to death and Zaky Ahmed the name we stood there chanting. I wanted him to see other young black kids his age out there, showing up, speaking, organizing, so that he could understand that this was his problem to care about too.
After the protest, I brought him along with some of my friends and mentors as we all hung out for the first time in the months since we started quarantine. One of my friends treated us to an arms worth of ice cream each, another friend treated us to fish burgers and fries, and we spent our late afternoon as a group at the park, discussing one friend’s newfound passion for horticulture, deciding which Hollywood actors needed to get canceled for their racism, and struggling to finish our food as the sky changed from blue to orange to pink. As we sat amongst my mentors and friends, people who have been doing this work for a long time, I wanted to show Zaky that in a time of accentuated black pain, black joy doesn’t get pushed aside, but it is rather what keeps us sane and makes all of it worth it.
“In a time of accentuated black pain, black joy doesn’t get pushed aside, but it is rather what keeps us sane and makes all of it worth it.”
Ask me who I am today and I’d answer that I’m an 18-year-old Black Muslim man hailing from all over but who calls Minneapolis home. Three years ago, none of these identifiers were all too important to me at all. You see, until around sixteen, you never really have to know who you are because it’s expected that you’re still finding yourself, that you’ll get there one day. The journey was arduous. I have completely reinvented and slowly acquainted with myself for over three years now, but I’ve finally gotten there, I’ve found who I am, and I wouldn’t give up any part of me for the world. When my mom came to this country at eighteen, she had already found herself too, and all of her core identities have been the same since. My mom would describe herself as a Somali Muslim woman and a mother — Black, an identity so precious and integral to who I am, not so much.
Last Tuesday morning when I watched the video of George’s life being choked out of him, I was choking too. A carnal fire was lit in a place deeper than deep within me, a fire burning me up, using my essence as kindling and my anger to fan the flames. This was a fire I couldn’t wash away, a fire that’s been rousing me and draining me in a steady stream since the beginning of it all, a fire that’s still with me now. And through every second of it, I had to walk alone. My blackness as an identity is singular in my family, as my parents weren’t raised that way and my siblings are too young to have formed an identity yet at all. My mom couldn’t guide me through this, heck, it wasn’t even on her radar. “Mother always knows.” That might’ve once been true, when I was a kid, before I grew into myself as an adult, before the cultural chasm between us grew too deep. As my mom got up to leave, I said to her, “You used to know me better.” I could see another type of grief on her face as she solemnly stated, “You’ve grown up,” and left, leaving the door open behind her.
Being an older brother to many children, for a long time, I once heavily resented the burden of having to be a role model for them. However, the longer I have struggled to pave my path forward alone, the more that I have learned to cherish the responsibility of helping guide my siblings through their own transformations so that they don’t have to do it alone as I did. Since I was a child, my main goal in life was to be a father — and the fact that my younger siblings look up to me and see my path as one to follow signals to me that I am on track to becoming the positive black Muslim male role model that I wish to be for my children. What was once a burden has since shifted into one of the greatest honors of my life.
Being the older sibling in an immigrant household means that you’re never just an older sibling, but also a third parent, paving a path alone through trial and error, discovering what it means to be American yet more, how to maintain the perfect balance of all of your identities, discovering which identities now also apply. It’s writing the blueprint as you go along, developing the language to love, developing the language to grieve. The poet Amir Suleiman said, “You’ll be somebody’s ancestor. Act accordingly.” I am being tried by fire, but the blueprint I am writing for my family today on how to grow up as a Black Muslim man in America will inform my siblings, my children, my nieces and nephews, their children. Blackness is a blossoming identity in this family, and I am proud to do my part and be a good ancestor.
At the pigs, racists, and white supremacists of the world, I offer you a dua by my friend Nadirah Pierre: “May every morsel of their food and every drop of their drink be vile. May their days be long and miserable. May Allah break their backs and snap their necks. May they never know rest or peace. May Hellfire be eagerly awaiting their arrival.”
in that same vein, here’s a poem I once wrote as I watched the movie The Pianist for the first time — it applies here too:
Too weak to receive my lunch
Groveling on the floor for some sustenance
They watch me from their windows and they snicker and they gag
Anger boils up, so swiftly taking my revenge, I strip them of every silver nickel and silken rag
Fool, now you wanna offer condolences and waive the white flag?
I’m not stopping until like my mother, you leave here punched with holes, blood seeping, being dragged out in a body bag.
-Abdimalik Ahmed, April 22nd, 2020
To my future children, a dua from our shining prince Malcolm X directed to you: “I pray that God will bless you and anything that you do. I pray that you will grow intellectually so that you can understand the problems of the world, and where you fit into that world picture. And I pray that all of the fear that has ever been in your heart will be taken out.”