Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
As a 47-year-old African American, I received news of George Floyd’s tragic death as a painful reminder of my own personal vulnerability.
When I was a black child growing up in New York City during the 1980s and 1990s, racial divisions were a prominent part of the social, political and cultural landscape that shaped my early life and my generation.
We were told vivid stories by schoolteachers, via television documentaries and politicians of the way in which the civil rights movement transformed America by ending racial segregation, securing black voting rights and moving the nation closer to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community.”
My first encounter with the fear and loathing that black men could inspire in white people was both political and painful. In 1986, I started attending an overwhelming white high school in Queens. My freshman year was the first time a white person ever called me the N-word, a circumstance that ignited a melee and landed us both in the principal’s office.
Michael Griffith, a black man chased to his death by a white mob in the Howard Beach section of Queens that same year, fared much worse than I did.
Both events left me deeply troubled, but also politically exhilarated by the realization that the narrative of civil rights in America in history books differed greatly from my own experience.
Spike Lee’s film “Do The Right Thing” premiered the summer before I turned 17 and quickly became my own personal touchstone. My identification with the character Buggin’ Out’s efforts to boycott an Italian American-owned pizzeria for their failure to include pictures of black people on the restaurant’s wall of fame proved instructive. As did the movie’s heartbreaking depiction of the death of Radio Raheem from police violence.
The movie’s coda, which drew quotes from Malcolm X preaching black dignity and Martin Luther King Jr. promoting black citizenship, remained stamped in my soul and is reflected in my work as a scholar to this day.
The precocious black boy who used the realization of personal vulnerability as inspiration to study broadly, empathize deeply and organize politically resides inside of me today, periodically brought to the fore by the latest example of a black man dying unjustly in America.
George Floyd’s death is already affecting millions of precocious black boys and girls in America today, many of whom have taken to the streets to demonstrate both the values of their own lives and to honor those taken from us too soon.