Skip to main content

Hope, despite the trauma of racism

Quinton “Q” Smith, a doctoral student at UNC School of Social Work, currently serves as interim director for the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture at Duke University. Smith was one of several Black leaders who were invited to speak in front of Duke Chapel in April, following the conviction of Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd.

Today, May 25, 2021, on the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s murder, we want to share Smith’s remarks (with his permission) with our broader School community.

Remarks by Quinton “Q” Smith

This may come across as a bit of a tangent but humor me. It is all too easy to find ourselves caught in the quest to do more. To get things done, to feel accomplished, to be productive. As much as I sing the gospel of self-care and uplift the Nap Ministry and its calls of rest as resistance, I too frequently fall prey to this mindset.

It was in this vein that I once found myself looking an article of 50 things a person can get done in a span of a few minutes. Some of the suggestions were pretty easy for me: Call your parents, meditate or practice mindfulness, vacuum a room, make your bed. Some were a bit more ambitious, like sorting and folding laundry or decluttering and cleaning off your desk. What all these tips had in common, however, was that they could be done in 10 minutes or less.

Today, I find myself wondering what George Floyd could have done in the 9 minutes and 29 seconds it took former officer Derek Chauvin to rob him of his life. Maybe he could’ve grabbed a meal at a drive through, or at least decided what he wanted to eat. Maybe he would’ve played his favorite song and got so into it that he had to run it back and listen again. Maybe he would’ve prayed. Maybe he would’ve called his daughter just to hear her voice.

Or maybe, just maybe, he would have done nothing but sit in his car and enjoy the ability to BE and simply draw breath. Unfortunately, we will never know what George Floyd could have accomplished in the 9 minutes and 29 seconds wherein breath and opportunity and future and rights and humanity were stripped from him.

At this point, we all know that the man who knelt upon the neck of another man as he begged for air and cried for his mother, had indeed been found guilty of his crimes. But if I may be vulnerable for a moment: I did everything I could to avoid following the trial of Derek Chauvin. I didn’t watch it live; I didn’t look at summary videos. I scarcely read articles reviewing the points, and actively ran from news coverage, because I was scared, put simply. If you asked me at the time, I would’ve said it was because of self-care — I didn’t want to be retraumatized and couldn’t listen to days and days of Black life lost and grief and pain. I couldn’t listen to how the defense would spin the facts to protect not only this one murderer but also the institution behind him.

In hindsight, however, I don’t think it was the trauma I was afraid of; it was hope. I know it sounds paradoxical, but hope can be terrifying to those of us whose ethno-racial identity and cultural heritage are constructed atop the charred remains of broken promises, framed with the bones of both ancestors and contemporaries who were destroyed by people and institutions who suddenly saw the morality well run dry when the hands drawing water were tinged with melanin.

I suppose that much like people who are not afraid of heights but afraid of falling, perhaps I was not so much afraid of the hope itself as I was afraid of what would happen to me mentally and emotionally if hope wasn’t enough. This was definitely the case, because as soon as the notification that the verdict was ready flashed on my phone from every news app and group chat I have installed, I felt my heart clench, my chest tighten, and my head begin swimming as my breath shortened. It was terror.

I suspect many of you are familiar with this sort of terror; the cold and gnawing fear that over the precipice ahead is a chasm of despair. Another not guilty verdict. Another mistrial. Another injustice carried out on the backs of Black bodies as is tradition in this country of ours.

However, this time was different. This time, hope gave way not to despair but instead to relief, to joy. Indeed, this time the world bore witness as the long arc of the universe that Dr. King spoke of seemed to finally bend towards the ever-elusive justice. Minnesota to New York, Atlanta to Durham, reports have poured in emphasizing the impact that this verdict has had upon people. Tears have flowed in streets and newsrooms; flowers have been laid at memorials; and jubilant people who have been so desperately starved for joy have danced and sang and screamed out that yes, finally, we matter. Yes, finally, we can breathe. Yes, finally, we are seen and heard and human.

See, for many, the guilty verdict in this case symbolizes not only the achievement of justice for George Floyd and his family, but evidence that perhaps our long fight for liberation need not be lost in a dark spiral of fear-poisoned hopelessness. Perhaps, buoyed by the fire and passion of a movement for Black life that has spent the last year relentlessly trying to challenge narratives and change people and institutions, hope can once more be held as a source of resilience and strength and not a prickly thing full of empty words and toxic lies.

Now, I did not come here today to steal joy or peel away hope, for I believe that these are things we must reclaim and nurture in the times we are in. If rest is resistance, then joy MUST be civil disobedience in a society that would deny your very humanity. So, sing if you have breath, dance if you have mobility, revel in the victories that we are able to experience, but do so knowing that this is one verdict against one man for one injustice.

The guilt of Derek Chauvin does not signify the end of racism in general or anti-Blackness in particular. His time in prison will do nothing to close race-based income disparities or rectify the enormous racial wealth gap in this country. The outcome of this trial will not make schools more equitable, rectify housing discrimination, normalize natural Black hair, make the healthcare system less violent towards Black women, or even make historically white-serving institutions suddenly become more welcoming and authentically safe for Black and brown bodies; and that includes the criminal justice system.

Indeed, while we may celebrate the outcome of this instance of Black death at the hands of state violence, we still mourn the names of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks. More recently, we faced the murders of 20-year-old Daunte Wright and 13-year-old Adam Toledo, the police shooting of 16-year-old Ma’khia Bryant, and the killing of 40-year-old Andrew Brown, Jr. here in North Carolina. I have felt my heart sink as the same group chats and social media feeds that notified me of the trial visibly deflated from what feels like a never-ending onslaught of trauma.

However, in spite of this, I still wish for us to reclaim hope. To hold on to joy, no matter how thin and fleeting it can feel at times. I wish for us to continue working and building towards the kind of world we want to see, where justice and liberation are as ubiquitous as inequity and inaction seem now. Because, yes, this trial and its verdict represents merely a single root in the tree of institutionalized oppression, systemic racism, and nationalized anti-Blackness that has borne the weight of strange fruit and nurtured the lifeblood of white supremacy for centuries. But if enough roots are pulled and left to whither, even the oldest of trees can be felled. So, yes, sing. Dance. Celebrate the victory attained. And then get your gardening gloves back on, because there are roots yet to be pulled.

Thank you.