Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

George Floyd’s aunt lifts her voice in an impactful book February 3, 2023

IT’S NOT ENOUGH. I recognize that. It’s not enough to simply read books about black history and racism in America and call it good. But reading is a step toward widening my knowledge and understanding and then my compassion. So I will continue to read, and learn.

I recently finished Lift Your Voice—How My Nephew George Floyd’s Murder Changed the World. Angela Harrelson—who is Floyd’s aunt, lives in Minneapolis and works as a registered nurse—wrote this book with Michael Levin. Floyd, known as “Perry” to his family, died on May 25, 2020, at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, three now serving prison time in Floyd’s death, the fourth awaiting a judge’s decision on charges.

On the day I turned the last pages of Lift Your Voice, family, friends and activists were raising their voices at the funeral of Tyre Nichols, who was brutally beaten by police during a traffic stop in Memphis and died three days later. Listening to a portion of that service, a speaker called the young black man a “son, father, brother, friend and human being.” Human being. Those two words emerge in Harrelson’s book when she writes of (those) white people who don’t see black people as human beings. She traces that back to slavery (when slaves were viewed as property), sharing her own family history of slavery and lynchings.

Harrelson specifically cites Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin as failing to view her nephew as a human being. Chauvin kneeled/pressed on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as the young man lay handcuffed and face down on the street pleading for his life, “I can’t breathe.”

It’s a lot, this book. To read about Floyd’s tragic death and the deeply personal stories of Harrelson and her family and all they’ve endured simply because of the color of their skin is difficult. But stories resonate and make an impact. When she writes of “white privilege” as something held simply because of white skin color and unrelated to wealth and status, that clicked for me. Unlike Harrelson, I don’t have to think about being watched in public, suspected of something, anything, because of my skin color. Harrelson does and she shares specifics.

Her book covers topics of systemic racism, a police culture that needs to change (she’s not anti-police), the emotional exhaustion and trauma she feels, the importance of faith in her life, her role as an activist. But she doesn’t stop there. Harrelson calls for each of us, individually, to call out racism, to speak up when we see injustices, to treat each other with respect.

In my own community, I’ve, on more than one occasion, found myself responding to racist comments related to housing, employment, even the way people dress or their scent. It’s hard to hear this stereotyping, this obvious disrespect and racism. So I speak up, or as George “Perry” Floyd’s aunt encourages, I lift my voice. Lifting voices and being heard is how, Harrelson writes, the world will heal.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling