According to Robert Samuels, journalist and lead author of Pulitzer Prize–winning biography His Name is George Floyd, it is critical to understand individuals’ full stories and recognize how societal standards shape their lives.
“To me, the ultimate point of the book is the dangers of what happens when you don’t consider a person’s full humanity,” Samuels said. “By not considering a person’s full humanity, it’s ignoring the structures and the systems that might have shaped their lives.”
Samuels spoke to Boston College students and faculty on Sept. 13 about his journey documenting the contours of George Floyd’s life and his attempts to bring light to who Floyd was as a human being. The event was part of the Lowell Humanities Series at BC, co-sponsored by the Forum on Racial Justice in America and the African and African diaspora studies program.
Samuels explained that although the story of Floyd’s death circulated in the media, he feels that no one knows who Floyd truly was.
“We had heard breathless stories about George Floyd, but somehow despite all of that, I still somehow felt that I did not know who he was,” Samuels said. “I knew he played football, but I didn’t know why. I knew he had moved from Texas to Minneapolis, but I didn’t know why. Those were facts, but they weren’t the revelations of a spirit.”
Samuels said that prior to writing his book, he reached out to Floyd’s ex-girlfriend Shawanda Hill, ate dinner and went to church with all six of Floyd’s siblings, received haircuts from Floyd’s barber, and attended Floyd’s old rehab sessions. Samuels said his goal was to understand Floyd as a person.
“The first thing that [my co-author and I] did was we just asked to hear stories,” Samuels said. “We said, ‘I want to hear stories about your mom, I want to hear what it’s like growing up in Houston, I want to learn about what made George Floyd stand out to you.’ I never asked until the very end where they were when their brother had died, or what they felt when they saw the video, because quite frankly I didn’t think it was as relevant.”
Eventually, Samuels said he discovered that Floyd was a writer. After asking Floyd’s friend to show him Floyd’s work, Samuels said he obtained diary entries that shed light on Floyd’s thoughts and life.
“They opened this closet, and they brought out this paper bag filled with George Floyd talking about his life: on the crimes he had pleaded guilty to but didn’t actually commit, on his hopes and dreams and ambitions,” Samuels said. “One of the last things that we know he wrote to himself was a list of goals. One of those goals was ‘let this be the day that I can overcome this dark situation through the Holy Spirit.’”
Samuels also emphasized that Floyd should not be remembered by his death. Instead, Samuels explained the importance of people recognizing who Floyd was to those around him—an individual who carried and expressed immense love.
“The three words that defined George Floyd’s life should not be ‘I can’t breathe,’” Samuels said. “It should be another phrase that we kept on hearing: ‘I love you.’ George Floyd expressed that sentiment to men, women, and children. To relatives, old friends, and strangers. Floyd said the phrase so often that many family and friends have no doubt about the final words he spoke to them.”
To close, Samuels noted that recognizing Floyd’s story reifies his faith in humanity and serves as a reminder that society must work to understand individuals’ full and complex lives.
“In his dying seconds, as he suffocated under a white police officer’s knee, he managed to speak his love,” Samuels said. “‘Mama, I love you,’ he screamed from the pavement. ‘Tell my kids I love them,’ he said. These words remind me about the faith that we all should have in humanity as human beings.”