Maiysha talks with award winning Washington Post journalists and critically acclaimed authors Robert Samuels and Tolu Olorunnipa about their book “His Name is George Floyd,” what it was like to speak with the family and friends of George Floyd, how did writing such a powerful book affect their lives and how George Floyd was much more than the 10 minute video that affected the entire world.
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Maiysha Kai [00:00:05] Hello. I’m Maiysha Kai, the Lifestyle Editor of theGrio. And welcome back to another episode of Writing Black theGrio’s podcast that celebrates Black writers and today we have Peabody and Polk Award winning journalist Robert Samuels and Tolu Olorunnipa. These are two amazing journalists from The Washington Post. And based on their previous reporting on George Floyd, they coauthored a very deep and telling exploration of the man’s life, titled “His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice.” And I think it’s important to note that since we interview these coauthors, they’re critically acclaimed book has been nominated for the National Book Award. So congrats to them on that. But before we get started with our conversation, let’s hear a quick excerpt. I feel embodies the importance of this work and its subject.
“His Name is George Floyd” Excerpt [00:01:01] For as long as anyone can remember. George Perry, Floyd Jr had wanted the world to know his name. He was young, poor and Black in America. A recipe for irrelevance in a society that tended to push boys like him onto its margins. But he assured everyone around him that someday he would make a lasting impact. As a child, he had a simple way of letting people know when he wanted to be taken seriously. He would touch them on the forearm and look into their eyes to ensure he had their full attention. So a sister, Zsa Zsa, stopped what she was doing one day when 13 year old Floyd rested his right hand above her wrist, “Sis”, he said. “I don’t want to rule the world. I don’t want to run the world. I just want to touch the world.”
Maiysha Kai [00:01:51] Hi, you guys. How are you?
Tolu Olorunnipa [00:01:53] Hey, Maiysha. We’re good.
Robert Samuels [00:01:55] How’s it going?
Maiysha Kai [00:01:57] You know, it’s it’s. It’s all right. This is, you know, this book, as I said, is a very special book. And, you know, I tell the stories semi often, not because I’m relevant to anything in the story, but because, you know, I am actually a minneapolis native. And so the last few years watching certain things unfold, whether it be Philando Castile or Daunte Wright or obviously George Floyd, have been both professionally relevant to me as a journalist, but personally devastating. And that was something that I thought about a lot when I was reading this book of yours, because, you know, as journalists were often told that to be part of the story. Right. And here the two of you are. And I don’t know, how do you separate yourself from, you know, as Black men in America, how do you separate yourself from the story of George Floyd?
Tolu Olorunnipa [00:02:59] I can jump in real, real fast, Maiysha. That’s a it’s a tough question because we got into this process as journalists. And, you know, sir, the goal of our reporting was to tell a story, to find out what happened, to find out the background, to find out the details of, you know, something that people might want to know about. And so you can approach any story like that. But this isn’t just any story. This is the birth in many ways of a second civil rights movement in our country that erupted in 2020. It’s a story of the backlash that happened to it. And it’s the story, obviously, of one person’s life that was taken away. And telling his story and telling the story of America through his life was, you know, something that was all consuming for us and that there was so much for us to cover, so much for us to uncover. This book, you know, goes through hundreds of years of history, you know, and my new details about George Floyd’s final moments. And so there was so much for us to kind of deal with it. It was it was all consuming. But at the same time, you know, we’re human beings, we’re not robots.
Tolu Olorunnipa [00:04:06] And so it was important for us to grapple with our own emotions as we, you know, talk to people who knew George Floyd and talked to people who mourned over him and people who were still in emotional distress over his death and over, you know, how the aftermath of his death was, was, you know, such a global movement. So it was something that we all had to kind of deal with and we all had to sort of figure out what we were going to do and how we were going to maintain our journalistic integrity and maintain, you know, our, you know, our approach to the craft, while also balancing a number of different emotions. And those emotions range from, you know, laughter and learning about George Floyd and who he was and his sense of humor to, you know, deep sorrow over, you know, the plight of Black men in America, the plight of Black Americans generally, you know, the plight of our country and trying to deal with some of these racial issues. And so it was a roller coaster, and we’re still kind of working our way through some of those emotions. But we didn’t try to, you know, be robotic journalists as we took on this process because we knew that just wasn’t going to work. This was too emotional of a story to just be, you know, completely disconnected from it.
Robert Samuels [00:05:16] Yeah, I’d I’d also add that one of the lessons that really became clear for us is that objectivity is so often the wrong way to think about things. When we’re looking at stories, we’re making a decision, right? We’re making a decision that you’re doing something that’s going to be of value to readers. And you try to do things and you try to report things fairly, but it’s impossible to ignore. Or at least it was impossible for me to ignore when we were going about doing the reporting, the truth that I was a Black person who is who got to live and who had an opportunity to tell a story. And, you know, you say it’s not for you, but it kind of was for you. And about so many of the things that we both we live with every day and also being able to acknowledge some of the history that George Floyd contended. Well, so often when I hear anecdotes about his community, it sounded like my community back home. But I heard the advice his mother gave him. It sounded like the advice my mother gave me and more things. And complicating the whole, I realized that it would be a tremendous gift for readers to have people who had the and journalistic acumen, like telling me to be able to take these sorts of experiences, translate one to a larger audience, never compromising our athletes, but being sure that we got a story that was authentic and true.
Maiysha Kai [00:07:08] You know, and it is true. I mean, you you this book to me is really as much of as it is a tribute to George Floyd’s life. It’s a tribute to investigative journalism. And we know that’s great. I live in Chicago. So, you know, I live in the legacy of Ida B. Wells sitting on every corner here in terms of what it means to be an investigative journalist. You all work for one of the, you know, premiere outlets in the world in terms of of investigative journalism and just, you know, fact based reporting, which, of course, people have tried to convoluted so much over the last few years. How did this project come to you? Is it something that you pitched? Is it something that The Washington Post was like, yeah, we need you to go out and do this. Like, how how does this how does a book like this come to be? How do you all end up partnering on it? And how does this happen? And you turned it around so fast. So I’m going to get back to that part.
Robert Samuels [00:08:07] Yeah. So this story, it started as a project with The Washington Post that we produced in October 2020. And during that summer after George Floyd died, the Post had what is sadly become a standard story. For one, a person who dies in the way George Floyd dies is produced. It was longer than usual. It had some dalliances with his criminal record, but it was missing what so many of the other stories are missing. And that was an actual discussion of George Floyd. So you got facts about him, but you did not get to understand who you are and how you saw the world, why he did some of the things he did. And as we were talking about expanding coverage, that story was held, which was a remarkable thing for something for The Washington Post to do. We had a meeting and we started thinking about ways that we could actually handle it and discuss systemic racism, because there are a lot of readers who had little clue and were just beginning to understand what systemic racism is.
Robert Samuels [00:09:23] And so we were in a meeting and someone and I believe it was, Tolu said, it would be great if we could look at the life of one person and see how systemic racism impacted their life. And our editor said, I’ve been thinking about that. And I keep on thinking if that person, it should be George Floyd. There was a concern, right, initially that that sounded like a given. But here’s the thing about writing and recording. As we began to go through the work of looking at these institutions housing, education, Black land law, health care, criminal justice, um, we kept on seeing these echoes from these really smart people in ivory towers or telling us and the lived life of George Floyd as it’s growing up in tiny homes and as he moved to Minneapolis. It was really stunning. And we got this chance, which was a chance to tell the story in a deeper way, go through some of the things we could not go through in the original series and really help show who George Floyd was. And we knew that if we showed who George Floyd was, we’d have a better understanding of who we are as a society, because so many of the things that George Floyd contended with are things that millions and millions untold numbers of people in this country are still contending with.
Maiysha Kai [00:11:03] Absolutely. And I want to hear more about the soul of George Floyd, but we’re going to take a quick break and then we’ll be back with more Writing Black and with Tolu Olorunnipa and Robert Samuels.
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Maiysha Kai [00:11:35] All right. And we are back with two incredible authors, Robert Samuels and Tolu Olorunnipa, who have written. “His Name is George Floyd,” in partnership with their employer, the what? The Washington Post. We were just talking about the soul of George Floyd. And one of the things that really stuck out to me in this book, first of all, you know, the amount of research done, and I do want to talk about that more in-depth, but this thing that I think, you know, would stick out to anybody. This is a man who said I love you to people regularly. Like that was his thing. Like he was just, you know, it didn’t matter if it was like his homie down the block or his child or his lover or his, you know, his his siblings. I love you was his constant refrain. And, you know, we live in a world and in a media cycle. You know, we work with anybody, a cycle that regularly villainize as Black men. And here’s a Black man who made “I Love You.” His refrain like, how did that strike you? Like finding that out and that becoming part of this narrative that you were building around him?
Tolu Olorunnipa [00:12:41] Yeah, it struck it struck us the same way. And we opened the introduction of the book with those very words, because we would hear them. You know, we did over 400 interviews for this book with his siblings, with his nieces and nephews, aunts, uncles, friends, lovers, coworkers, people who did time with him. And over and over, we’d hear, you know, as people recreated conversations that he had with them and talked about what he was like when he was alive. We’d hear that he’d sign off from conversations with I Love You, just to say that as the final word that he would have before ending a conversation and before, you know, ending a text message chain, just to put that love out into the world. Because he knew in the kind of community that he he grew up in, with the kinds of struggles that he faced from a very early age, from poverty to overpolicing to segregated schooling, that there was a lack of love and society treated him in a sort of loveless way. And he wanted to inject some of that love back into the conversations and relationships that he had, even with strangers, even with people that were just hanging out on the street, you know, he’d just hang out with them. And as he was, you know, showing them a little love, he’d say, I love you, you know, keep your head up, take, you know, take care of yourself.
“His Name is George Floyd” Excerpt [00:13:54] Floyd’s emotional declarations were nothing new to his siblings. As a teenager, Floyd would stop to give his sister Georgia a hug and tell her he loved her before leaving their house with his friends. Just quietly enough to keep the other kids from overhearing.
Tolu Olorunnipa [00:14:09] And it was also important for us to know because of, you know, what you talked about with the way some of these stereotypes get put forward about Black men who look like George Floyd, who are large, who maybe are hanging out on the corner or who may not be in a suit like I am. You know, there’s, you know, quick stereotypes that people have. And we wanted to make sure that we dispelled people of those stereotypes, even as George Floyd became one of the most well-known faces in the world. In the summer of 2020, people didn’t really know much about him. They used the ten minute video clip of him screaming for his life and trying to breathe. As you know, that’s what I know about George Floyd. But he was much more than that. He was somebody that had his highs and lows and was not just the person who was arrested or just his arrest record or just anything that people, you know, in this social media age are so quick to, you know, shrink someone down to this one clip or this one experience. He was someone who was complex and he was someone who was comical. He was someone who had a sense of humor that people gravitated to. He was someone who had stature in his community. And he used that stature to try to get people to put the guns down and try to be more, you know, more loving in their, you know, in their own community.
Tolu Olorunnipa [00:15:24] And it was important for us to relate as much as we could find out about him so that people didn’t just take that ten minute clip of him and think that was the full story, because some people would take that clip and say, Oh, he’s someone who we should have compassion for us. And people will take that clip and say, Oh, he should have just complied with the police. And, you know, he died because of his own making. And so we wanted people to at least get the full story, get much more than just sort of that clip of him dying. And hopefully we thought that people who learned about how he was struggling to breathe long before the police officer came and met him, he was struggling to breathe and, you know, segregated schools and as a result of poverty and the housing system that was also segregated and and there was a lot of the health care system that, you know, left him struggling with a number of different health issues. We wanted people to have that same level of concern that they did for seeing him on the street with a knee against his neck. As Robert said, there are millions of people who may not have their death captured on camera but are sort of slowly dying in America. And we want people to know that that’s happening and at least understand how that happens through the life of someone that they came to know on his final day. So it was important for us to try to tell his story in a more full way than most people would have gotten just from seeing him die on video.
Maiysha Kai [00:16:43] Yeah, I mean, and obviously that was one of the most devastating things that most of us will ever see. I want to come back to that and we will in just a moment. When we come back with more Writing Black.
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Maiysha Kai [00:17:15] All right. We are back with more writing Black and our two friends today Tolu Olorunnipa and Robert Samuels, who are the authors of “His Name Is George Floyd.” You know, this this is such an interesting title to me, actually, in a way. I know it’s like the most straightforward thing you can you can say and obviously, you know, the typeface here and then to evoke the I Am a Man posters from the Memphis sanitation strike, you know, which is in itself striking. But also, as you’ve pointed out, George Floyd is both such a unique and special soul who most of the world will never get to know, even in the way that you all got to know him posthumously. But he’s also an everyman because we see this happen every day. You know, really, it’s feels like and I’m sure it does really like, you know, for all the things that we see captured on camera, things that we don’t. Why did you name the book this? Why did you feel like that was how you wanted to frame this?
Robert Samuels [00:18:16] The title is actually one of the longest debates we had over the course of recording and writing the book. But there are a few things. Yeah, we went through a few of them, but there are a few things that we’re hoping that’s one of both. One is the actual declaration of humanity. We see it happen several times in the book where he’s confronted by an institution, and the first thing that he can do to reassert himself is to say his name. That’s not in the context of the Black Lives Matter. Right. That’s a reminder that he’s not just a mural or hashtag. His name is George Floyd. He had a name. The other thing that we wanted to do with you wanted to give a nod to the actual racial justice movement. And in so many ways, we thought of this book as an answer to the question of, say, his name, because what we hoped to write was this not just exploration of who he was. And I you know, I believe completely that having a story looking at George Floyd’s life would be important to itself in itself.
Robert Samuels [00:19:45] But we also wanted to recognize that there was so much more of a value in telling this story because it would help provide a tangible example for some of the things that we’re still questioning in this country about how the history of the past connects with the present and the other thing. You know, for me as a writer was, I think, confronted with my own stereotypes. Right. And if I had them, I’m sure other people have them, too. George Floyd, as he lived, was, you know, the type of person who if I lived in the neighborhood, a teacher or a pastor or an authority figure, would kind of tell me to stay away from, you know, boy on the corner, the one who seems to have a problem. And it’s so true that we can tend we have a tendency to dehumanize one another when we see someone struggling that we sometimes close the book on thinking about who they are and how they got to be there. And so we wrote we created the title in that aspect to with that in mind that we’re really opening a book to take away from this idea that, you know, maybe you don’t want to learn about this person because you might learn something you don’t know. All of it’s relevant. All of it connects to our larger humanity. And that’s a part of the stuff that we wanted to share.
Maiysha Kai [00:21:24] All right. Well, I want to share more about George Floyd’s life, and we will in just a few minutes. When we come back, seconds, actually, and we’ll be back with more Writing Black.
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Maiysha Kai [00:21:55] All right. We are back with Writing Black and our guests Tolu Olorunnipa and Robert Samuels. And we’re talking about “His Name Is George Floyd,” a really remarkable and incredibly researched book. And I want to get into the research now because, again, I think this is obviously not just a feat of literature, if you will, but a feat of journalism in terms of the amount of research you did. I believe totally. You said you guys interviewed over 400 people for this. And most impressively, you earn the trust of some of George Floyd’s nearest and dearest, who were the ones most qualified to tell the story, since he’s not here to unfortunately tell us the story himself. I mean, you know, I obviously I can’t help but wish that he had lived to tell tell the tale, as I’m sure many, many of us do. But you have in your epilog, you talk about sitting with Ben Crump, who has become obviously a very well-known figure, you know, in the racial justice movement and him kind of putting you off behind some other journalists saying they’re going to ask easy questions, you’re going to ask the hard ones. And this book is full of answering hard questions. And you managed to get his siblings and all these people who were so close to him to confide in you. Was that an effort or did you find they were eager to to share and to give you as much access as possible? Because I can imagine they were getting it from all over. And you all seem to have gotten some unprecedented access here.
Tolu Olorunnipa [00:23:35] Yeah, there there is. You know, sometimes an idea is for you and you have Black reporters that it’s easier to get. Black sources are, you know, subjects to to talk to you. And, you know, this is a very difficult issue. There’s a lot of mistrust in the media. There have been people who have been burned in part for trusting people in the media. So building that trust and earning that trust was was difficult. It was just as hard for us as it would have been for for other people who have to build sources on their stories. And we went through the same process of talking to people very clearly and saying, you know, this is what we want to do. And they saw that. So they saw this process as a project, as a partnership, in a way, with us to be able to tell George Floyd’s story, but also to tell the country something about the America that George Floyd grew up in. When we first did this series, we titled it George Floyd’s America, and we wanted people to know about his world. We wanted people to know about the 46 years he spent living before he met Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis in the summer of 2020. And that was part of the pitch. That was part of what helped people to get on board with the idea of giving us access to his story, his life story, telling us about him.
Tolu Olorunnipa [00:24:56] And we found as we spent more time with them and speaking to, you know, his siblings and his nephews and his family members, that they started to trust us more as we spent more time with them. With them, as we published that first series alongside with our colleagues, they saw what we were able to produce. We saw they saw how much care and nuance we took with the project. And that opened up more doors. And they said, you know, if you’re going to put this much time and effort into telling George Floyd’s story, remember, as Robert said, that that first piece that we were going to do was actually held in the summer of 2020, and our series didn’t go out until October several months later, after we’d taken the time to do the research, to spend time with the people, to fact check things and make sure that everything was airtight and make sure we weren’t putting out any misinformation because there was a lot of misinformation floating around in the summer of 2020 that we were going to do the research. And I think that helped to earn the trust of people in George Floyd’s orbit. And they said, you know, these folks are serious. They’re going to take the time to get it right. And I can’t tell you how many people have reached out to us, even since the book and said, you know, you guys took the time to tell the story and do it right and they appreciated that. And that is bigger than any review that we can get in any media or any, you know, accolades that we can get out there. Just hearing people that we spoke to who entrusted us with their stories, with the story of their loved one, with information that sometimes wasn’t flattering and sometimes it wasn’t easy to share, sometimes was emotional.
Tolu Olorunnipa [00:26:29] And they felt that we were able to carry that that forward with, you know, nuance and care and. We were careful with his story and that we weren’t reckless with it. We weren’t just trying to exploit anything. And the last thing I’ll say, Robert, it often talks about how we didn’t want this to be an exploration of Black pain. We knew that there was pain in this story, but we knew that telling George Floyd’s story, telling the story of the entire family over the generations, was telling a story of hard work, of love, of support, of grit. And we wanted to make sure that that shone through as well. That was the case in George Floyd’s life. Picking yourself up and dusting yourself off. It was the case in the life of his family going back all the way to the time of slavery and how they worked hard and continued to work even when things were taken away from them. And so we wanted to be able to tell that story and tell it with all of its nuance and all of its tragedy and hope and love. It was all in there. It’s an American story, so we wanted to take it in that direction. And we are really grateful to George Floyd’s loved ones for helping us to tell that story.
Maiysha Kai [00:27:40] All right. I want to tell the story of journalism as well. And we’re going to do that in just a second. So we’ll be right back with more Writing Black.
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“His Name is George Floyd” Excerpt [00:28:27] Floyd and the other students at his predominantly Black high school had received a very different message about the pathway to wealth, opportunity and freedom. At Yates, which suffered from crumbling facilities, aging textbooks and other vestiges of segregation, gifted athletes like Floyd came to see their bodies as the means to escape poverty. Yates excelled in sports. Achieving statewide recognition even as its academic record flagged. The result of a system that concentrated, impoverished students with significant needs in underfunded classrooms.
Maiysha Kai [00:29:03] All right. And we are back with more Writing Black and Tolu Olorunnipa and Robert Samuels of The Washington Post and their incredible book “His Name is George Floyd.” You know, 2020 became a watershed moment, largely because of George Floyd. Obviously, you know, we also were dealing with Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, I mean, so many stories. But this was not a new American story. This was just a vivid one. And it was the first time, I think, since the civil rights movement that we really had had the first civil rights movement, I should say, that we had really had this visual evidence that was motivating so many people in front of us. But it was also a moment in which we really began to discuss what it means for us as Black journalists to have to cover these stories. You know, we’ve been covering them for years. We have been, you know, just kind of just moving along, you know, gritting our teeth and burying it. And this was the time when people really started to, for better or worse, consider the emotional impact that stories like these had on their coworkers, whether they were in journalism or not. You know, all the sudden you get all these stories like, please stop asking me if I’m okay. White coworkers and stuff, you know? You know, you spoke a little earlier about objectivity and what we should and should not expect. But did this change the dynamics of how you approach your writing, your reporting, your newsroom, your colleagues, or how they approached you?
Robert Samuels [00:30:44] I’m not sure about how they approached me. I try not to think about that. But I’ll tell you I’ll tell you that this I consider this reporting opportunity to be the most important thing that I’d ever done as a journalist. And I came into it sort of on the back end. You know, I was not there during the original protests. And the reason I wasn’t is because I had no real interest in being there, because, you know, after being in Ferguson, after being in other high profile, very contentious situation, after being kicked out of a Trump rally, I knew how dangerous and how heart wrenching it could be. And I was actually one of those people who had to put out a note on Facebook telling people to stop asking me if I was okay. And one of the things that I did was the first thing I did was I spent time in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a group of white women who are trying not to be Karens. They were doing all the things that so many people did, and I was that really inspired me to start looking for journalism that it felt the country really needed and that that sort of exploration of systemic racism, the practical way, using some of the tools that I knew how to use would be really helpful.
Robert Samuels [00:32:20] But along the way, I also learned a lesson about why we shouldn’t stop. And it really depends of my mission in terms of talking and thinking deeper about some of the historical and structural basis bases for why things happen. You know, there’s a part in the book where we talk about a rally that’s attended by Courtney Ross is one of George Floyd’s girlfriends. And this happened starting to this happens during the course of the trial. And she’s with a bunch of mothers, largely mothers, some other some wives, some other girlfriends who’ve lost family members or loved ones to police violence. And I was really stunned. And it was completely overwhelming to me because there were so many women who had stories of losing someone in a way that was similar to the way George Floyd was lost that I never heard of before. And at that point, I sort of said to myself. After that, some done. It’s too much. And as I’m having that discussion with myself, someone gets a text message that says they shot another one. And that was Daunte Wright in the suburbs of Saint Paul. And all those women. And it turned out Kourtney had known Daunte, but all those women, they didn’t stop. They just kept going. And they marched to the site and they did it all over again. And it made me realize that racism in this country is not just sort of a stain or a dark cloud. It moves and the impact of it continues to grow. The longer it exists that that it felt that you couldn’t escape it until it was confronted and defeated. And for me as a journalist, that meant that a lot of my journalism had to be taken with that lens, that if I wasn’t acknowledging the problem, I’d be allowing it to happen and not using my power of the pen and not using the skill set that I have to do something that could be such a pervasive force in the country.
Maiysha Kai [00:34:52] I mean, that gives me hope to hear that. But I want to talk more about hope as soon as we come back. We’ll be back with more Writing Black in a second.
Maiysha Kai [00:35:03] Hey Grio fam, it’s Maiysha Kai, host of Writing Black on theGrio Black Podcast Network and I have a little treat for you. Not only has Writing Black been blessed to have as a guest acclaimed actor Omar Epps, but Omar and his publishers Delacorte Press have a little treat for you. That’s right. Omar is giving away signed copies of his debut Y.A. Fiction, “Nubia The Awakening”, co-written with Clarence A. Haynes to some lucky subscribers. But you heard that right, subscribers. If you want to get your hands on a signed copy of Omar Epps, Y.A. debut you’ve got to subscribe to Writing Black. You can subscribe on the on theGrio Black Podcast Network or anywhere you find your podcast. But you got to post it. You got to take a screenshot, post it and tag us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. That’s right. All you got to do it. Subscribe to Writing Black wherever you listen to your podcast and tag theGrio Black Podcast Network. And you too can have a personally signed copy of “Nubia: The Awakening” by Omar Epps himself. So hit that subscrbe button. Do it. You know you want to. Don’t you want to spend Sundays with us? Come on. You love Writing Black and we love you.
Maiysha Kai [00:36:21] All right. We are back with Writing Black and our guests this week, Tolu Olorunnipa and Robert Samuels, who have written. “His Name is George Floyd.” And we were just talking about this. You know, listen, I was so struck by what you were just saying, Robert, this, because I think the fatigue is real. Right. Like, you know, we fight against racism, our parents fight against it, their parents, etc., etc., you know, and so on and so on and so on and so be, you know, as we now, Baldwin said, you know, to be Black in America is being in a constant state of rage. And I think when you write something like this, which I totally agree with you, like, listen, I hope you write all the things forever and ever because you all are brilliant. But if this is the last thing you write, you have done tremendous work here. But how do you, in the midst of that, I think, maintain a sense of hope about it? You know, like how do you keep showing up? Because I think that like that emotional that that that exhaustion is very real for very many people, not just journalists, but, you know, people all over.
Tolu Olorunnipa [00:37:32] Yeah, that that is a key question that we titled the last chapter of this book, American Hope, in part because we wanted to leave the reader with a sense of hope and in part because, you know, looking at the long arc of history, there are reasons to be hopeful. If you look at how far you know, how much progress has been made and how progress happens in this country, it doesn’t happen in a straight line. It’s not just things continually get better and better and better, especially when it comes to civil rights. There’s a movement forward, there’s progress, and then there’s usually a backlash. And we saw the backlash to George Floyd’s death and the protests that erupted afterward and the sense that we were all kind of moving in the direction of becoming more aware and becoming more committed to racial justice. You know, people were buying books. People were reading and trying to make themselves more aware. And then we saw the backlash.
Tolu Olorunnipa [00:38:27] We saw, you know, books being banned, this uproar over critical race theory and, you know, people winning office by saying, you know, we’re going to stop talking about race in school and not teaching our children about the country’s history. And so, you know, it was important for us to highlight some of the history and highlight how there have been, you know, previous periods of backlash where, you know, that’s just sort of the way things work in this country. You know, people in power don’t give up power without a fight. And so it was important for us to talk to someone like Jesse Jackson, who’s gone through, you know, part of the civil rights movement from the past and is now living. And to see, you know, movements continue the Black Lives Matter movement. And he was someone who was incredibly helpful in his discussion with us, telling us that, you know, there is a reason to be optimistic, even as progress is hard won, even as it’s, you know, often seems like it’s happening too slowly.
Tolu Olorunnipa [00:39:25] If you look very closely that progress is continuing to happen, those activists continue to have hope that if they take, take, take to the streets, that something might change. I mean, people aren’t just protesting for their health. They actually want things to change. And they believe that by collecting together, by having their voices heard, by taking direct, direct action, that things can change. And we would be remiss if we said that everything is the same as it was before George Floyd died. Things have changed in a number of different places. We have seen corporations, corporate America, part of our culture, parts of our court, part parts of our education systems and other places within our country change. And we’ve also seen police, police departments and policing generally and our law making shift in some ways. Obviously, it hasn’t been what everyone wanted after George Floyd died and what the activists called for. But there have been places where they’ve banned chokeholds. There have been police officers who are in jail today because of what they did, including the police officer who murdered George Floyd. And so that kinds of progress, even when it’s incremental, it’s something to look at, something to focus on, even as people continue to fight for more progress and for more action and for things to continue to get better.
Maiysha Kai [00:40:46] Yeah. You know, Jesse is another one of those figures who here in my my my home city of Chicago, where I’m sitting right now, is a huge figure and just might keep hope alive. Right. So we’re going to do that, but we’ll be back in a second with more writing Black. All right. And we are back with our two incredible authors. Robert Samuels told Lou Oliver never talking about his name is George Floyd, talking about the man himself, but also talking about the impact on American culture, American journalism. I want, you know, on a very big level going macro with it. You know, you’ve talked a little bit about this, but what do you hope? You know, people who engage with this work, people who care enough about who George Floyd was as a human being to read this book? What do you hope they take away from it? How do you hope that we use this as a tool moving forward in racial justice?
Robert Samuels [00:41:49] Yeah. Before we get there, I just wanted to add to something that I think is important. You know, I don’t want to give anyone the illusion that they should continue churning and or trafficking in things that are not good for them. You know, and one of the things that I think is important is, you know, color and I have each other. And having that outlet made things a lot easier in terms of caring for me to know that we’re doing it together. But when we think about the work and what we hope it does for me, I hope it accomplishes a few things. The first thing is to remember that George Floyd was a man of flesh and blood that he loved and he why he was loved and that, you know, I think about, well, the three words that people associate with him so often are I can’t breathe. But if you knew George Floyd and I hope people do after they read or feel like they’re a little closer to him, I hope those three words are I love you. Because that’s through through his words.
Robert Samuels [00:43:04] The other thing is sort of the answer to this question that he asks one of the police officer that still ran right over in my head, which is why don’t you believe me? And we hope that in telling George Floyd’s story that we readers will be able to see the connections between some of the things that we learned about or some of the things that they don’t want to teach any more about in this country and how they regard this book. It takes takes great strides in putting together this stuff. So these theoretical ideas become real. The third thing, and this is really important, I think was something that I didn’t I didn’t intentionally think about. And this is funny, sounds strange, but when I read what Togo and I had put together. The first thing that came to my mind was what a beautiful people. I mean, because throughout the course of the book, you see a host of folks, largely Black people, never giving up on the full belief, the full fruition of the American dream. It is their optimism that power is the American hope. That is the title of the last chapter of the book. And I hope people get to see that. But, you know, yes, Joe Biden’s in the book and Jesse Jackson’s in the book and all these names that we do know. But the truth stuff, the stuff that makes the miracles in this country and the things that I hope really rightly happen, because a group of people have continually been oppressed and neglected and disregarded, continue to believe that this country can be better. And that, I think, is the ultimate takeaway of what we do.
Maiysha Kai [00:45:22] You know, I ask a question of every guest on this show, so I’m going to ask the two of you. And as a journalist, I’m very excited to as writers in general, I’m excited to hear your answer. I mean, I’m so inspired by this book, but who inspires you? Who do you read? Who kind of is your touchstone or your guiding lights when it comes to your craft?
Tolu Olorunnipa [00:45:47] Oh, gosh. Put me on the spot here.
Maiysha Kai [00:45:51] Sorry.
Tolu Olorunnipa [00:45:54] Too much, too many books that I can’t even even single anyone out. But yes, for for this book in particular, like we did a lot of historical research and reading, a lot of biographies, reading a lot about, you know, the civil rights movement, about the Black American experience. And I found a lot of a lot of power in that. You quoted James Baldwin before. I mean, there’s an elegance in his writing and his truthful depiction of what it is like to have an experience in this country that’s different than the majority experience. And I think that’s there’s something beautiful in that maybe something we took from from that as well. And, you know, from all of the the civil rights leaders who, you know, depicted that experience and used the power of a story is the power of of a speech, the power of language, the power of nonviolence to get across the moral outrage of, you know, of what it’s like to experience poverty and to experience injustice. I think some of that is reflected in our work as well. And I take a lot of inspiration from from from that as well. Not only, you know, books, but also, you know, speeches and songs and plays and things that, you know, get at that that artistic power of language to to get across a message. I think there there’s power in having that sort of diverse pool to to look to look at. And so, you know, your August Wilson, your Martin Luther King’s your your songs, your songs, this song is of the civil rights movements. You know, those are folks that that I turn to from time to time. And I find a lot of inspiration in the power that they were able to put together under really, really difficult circumstances.
Maiysha Kai [00:47:58] I love that. And you Robert. Anybody specific?
[00:48:02] Oh, yeah, I would. I mean, God, I can talk, but I think I think in this case, I can’t say much about Toni Morrison and just her work, but the way she’s sort of her approach, you know, the idea of not writing for the white gaze like there was, I think there’s sometimes a pain or a fear or a presumption that if you’re writing about racism, that ultimately you’re writing for white people, that, you know, these are just things Black people just kind of know. A lot of this stuff like are in these pages, I didn’t only know, but also in sort of looking at the beauty of language and thinking about the fullest, most honest depictions of Black people, I think are just really instructive as we’re doing the book. You know, it sort of builds on the good foundational work of journalism Black journalists like Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who really forced the conversation in terms of rethinking about how we present some of these issues to readers. And then I thought about, particularly when we’re thinking about how to enter, and it’s important to note that we did not know how this story was ending as we were writing it. You know, we were living these experiences in real time with the people who are talking about. We had no idea that our children would be convicted and no idea the police reform act to an impasse. But when we’re thinking about how to and I started thinking about great American stories and I read that myself and I read a little bit of “The Grapes of Wrath” and I read the end of “The Great Gatsby.” And I did that because I wanted to make sure that our work had the feel and, well, the feel and the sentiment of who we think of as great American depictions in literature. To me, George Floyd deserves no less. And so when we’re doing the reporting and thinking about writing, I had those works on my mind a lot.
Maiysha Kai [00:50:44] Well, I always say that there’s a Black canon, but I agree with you that this story and others belong in the American canon because this is a very American story. Tolu and Robert, thank you so much for joining me on writing Black and being so candid and being so thorough and telling the story of George Floyd. “His Name is George Floyd” and I have to show this as well. I believe this portrait is by Robert Hart. Richard Hart excuse me, Richard Hart, artist for George and this beautiful image on the back of this book. But I think everybody should engage with this. I can’t wait to see what else you all do. But again, go take a rest because this is incredible. Thank you so much for joining us and talking with us today.
Robert Samuels [00:51:33] Thanks so much for having us.
Tolu Olorunnipa [00:51:34] Thanks, Maiysha.
Robert Samuels [00:51:35] Appreciate the chance.
Maiysha Kai [00:51:40] All right. Well, this is the part of writing Black where I tell you what I’m reading and how I’m inspired by the guests that we’ve had each week. And, you know, George Floyd is has become such an important part of our American conversation. But there’s another book that is another great part of our American conversation. I mean, there are many. But this one I really love by Claudia Rankine “Just Us: A Conversation.” This book, if I’m not mistaken, actually came out prior to George Floyd’s death, which I guess makes it all the more poignant. But Claudia, you know, she’s a she’s an award winning poet. She is just a tremendous talent, tremendous scholar. And she wrote this book. She’s, you know, wrote this book as part of a series of conversations, actually, with white men. You know who. Last time I checked her, the dominant power in America. And she she and these these conversations range from strangers in the airport to her own husband. It’s a multimedia piece. So there’s art in here. There’s poems, there’s essays, there’s dialogs. And it’s just such a striking piece of work. And she’s just such a striking, striking talent and visionary and thinker. And I think as we continue to evolve this American conversation, dissect this American conversation, and really understand the undercurrents of biases, both how those held by white people and those that we hold ourselves. As Robert pointed out in our conversation, I think this is an incredible book to read. So “Just Us.” And yes, that means justice, but you get it. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode of Writing Black. As always, you can find us on theGrio app or wherever you find your podcasts.
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