Tisa Joyner-Nance T’13

An essay by the Master of Divinity alumna.

Cancer, COVID and Cops

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A reflection by the theologian, educator, spiritual midwife and host of Tisa's Rants & Musings, a Facebook Live show.

Memorial Day—the day we remember and honor all those who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. For many the day is typically celebrated with barbecues, shopping and family fun time. That was until Memorial Day 2020, May 25th. It is a day that has changed our world and a day I can never forget. It was the day my father laid in a hospital bed and suffocated to death. It was also the day George Floyd was laid on the ground and did the same. My father had a cancerous tumor in his heart that constricted his oxygen flow. George Floyd had a knee on his neck that did the same.

Both of these strong black men fought for their lives. My father kept desperately gasping for air that could not be reached, while George Floyd begged for air that would not be given. Both men didn’t want to die. My father prayed until he lost mental consciousness. George Floyd cried out for his dead mama. The truth is while only one was diagnosed with cancer, both actually died from a cancer. My father died from a rare cancer I can barely pronounce, while George Floyd died from the common cancer of racism and police brutality that has been plaguing Black people in America for generations.

Unfortunately, my father had to die, there was no alternative. Gratefully, the hospital staff tending to him did all they could to make my him comfortable as he transitioned. They were kind, warm and sympathetic. But George Floyd? He didn’t have to die. There were myriad alternate scenarios that could have spared his life; yet four cops, without conferring with one another, all chose the same scenario, the one that ended with his death. Three opted to nonchalantly watch him die as the fourth opted to nonchalantly kill him, in broad daylight, with an audience.

Watching my father suffer trying to breathe as I sat by his side helpless is an image I still struggle with. But I also struggle with the image of four cops watching another human being suffer so long, trying so desperately to breathe, yet have no problem with his last breath being taken on the filthy ground. I can only imagine how difficult it was for 17-year-old Darnella as she stood there videotaping and watching helplessly as George Floyd suffocated to death while a racist was murdering him. I wonder if she’s sleeping. I pray she has peace. As if this day wasn’t tragic enough, around the country thousands more were in hospitals, on ventilators because they too couldn’t breathe. COVID-19 was killing them. More people, whose names didn’t make the paper, died alone on that same day.

I wonder how the history books will record this Memorial Day. Will they whitewash it or omit it like they do so many other historical moments that speak of this country’s racist core? Or will they broaden the day to remember all those who didn’t just die while serving in the Armed Forces but for all those who died while walking, sleeping, jogging and just plain living while Black in America. Will there be a memorial site for the dearly departed victims of police brutality? How will they remember those who died on Memorial Day 2020 because our healthcare system wasn’t prepared for a widespread virus? Will there be a COVID-19 museum like there is for those victims of 9/11?

I pray this world and especially this country, never forget Memorial Day 2020. I pray they mourn it as the day the human race witnessed and was forever changed by the lethal confluence of Cancer, Cops & Covid.

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