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Why we can’t stop thinking about George Floyd’s neck

Physically and historically, it is the point of subjugation and control

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At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, a key part of the experience involves making oneself vulnerable.

To read the names of each victim of lynching inscribed on the memorial’s 800-some steel corten monuments, visitors must gaze upward. The orientation forces them to consider the thousands of black people who were hunted, tortured, burned and strung up to support a violent system of white supremacy, and they must consider this from the position of a person standing in a lynch mob. Visitors are encouraged to think about their own complicity in black death while leaving one of the most delicate parts of their bodies open and exposed: their necks.

The design of the memorial evokes a truth about American history and the subjugation of black people by requiring them to crane the part of their bodies that soldiers of white supremacy have targeted in order to show dominance. Ours is a history of the depravity of literal and metaphorical white boots on black necks, from the placement of shackles and yokes on the necks of enslaved people forced to march in coffles to iron collars deployed as punishments to enslaved people who dared attempt escape. This was acceptable for beings counted by the United States Constitution as three-fifths of a person.

We slaughter livestock by severing the neck and draining the blood from the freshly killed animal. Like leashing them to a collar, killing a person in this way reinforces their status as less than human. Along with beheading, death by hanging remains one of the oldest methods of state execution. Fifth century Germanic Anglo-Saxon tribes brought the practice to what is now Britain. Indeed, this is why capital punishment has the name that it does. The Latin “caput” literally translates to “head.”

Of all the associations it carries along with it, for black Americans, a boot on the neck remains an enduring metonym for state-sanctioned and extrajudicial violence.

To attack a human neck, especially to separate it from its body, is to sever our earthly vessels — our bodies — from that which makes us who we are, our brains. That is what it means to behead, to hang a person, to grasp them in a chokehold until they expire, to slit a throat from ear to ear. Such was the curiosity of a French doctor named Beaurieux, who attempted to interview a convicted murderer named Languille in 1905 immediately after he’d been guillotined.

Wrote Beaurieux:

Here is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the decapitated man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about 4 or 6 seconds. I waited several seconds longer. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half-closed in the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day […] It was then that I called in a strong, sharp, voice: ‘Languille!’ I then saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contraction — I insist advisedly on this peculiarity — but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts. Next, Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with a vague dull look, without any expression that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me.

Beaurieux likely witnessed the extinguishing of Languille’s sacral nerves, located in the brain stem — the neck. When a brain dies, the sacral nerves are the last to keep transmitting signals. From birth until death, the neck remains vulnerable.

When an astronaut spends 11 months in space, as Christina Koch recently did, the prolonged absence of gravity leaves an effect that’s evident when they return to earth. The muscles must relearn how to support the head, the way infants require adults to support their necks because they cannot yet hold up their heads on their own.

Chokeholds, like those employed by police (including Daniel Pantaleo, who killed Eric Garner), are intended to immobilize by cutting off the supply of oxygen to a person’s brain. There’s a reason why the idiom “to stick out one’s neck” means willfully exposing oneself to danger. To “go for the jugular” is to pursue certain death, not just injury — see Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and the way she relishes the slaying of Holofernes.

When Wu-Tang Clan’s debut single, “Protect Ya Neck,” came out in 1992, it was a fitting salvo for an era of hip-hop that put a premium on artful, bombastic rhetoric. The group let listeners and other MCs know that to expect lyrical mercy from them was a lost cause. Protect ya neck, indeed.

Candles and flowers are laid at a memorial event for George Floyd.

Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Aside from genitalia, the neck is the part of the body most susceptible when subjected to attack. And because of this widespread recognition of the neck as a spot of weakness, it’s also ideal for communicating intimacy. When André Leon Talley interviewed former first lady Michelle Obama for the November 2012 issue of Vogue, the article was accompanied by a portrait made by Annie Leibovitz. In it, Obama is in profile, her face turned away from the camera. Her hair is pulled back in an elegant swoop, to reveal her shoulders, her neck and a single earring. The composition, the lighting and the background called forth another portrait: Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. But while Vermeer’s subject directly engages the painter and the audience, Obama is turned away, but exposed.

There are those who, in their paths toward violence and abuse, seek out the neck. Sylvia Vella, a clinician and detective in the domestic violence unit at the San Diego Police Department, spoke to The New Yorker in 2015 about neck injuries from strangulation and their connection to domestic abuse and traumatic brain injury: “Statistically, we know now that once the hands are on the neck the very next step is homicide,” she said. “They don’t go backwards.”

All of that is why we cannot stop thinking about Floyd’s neck. His death, recorded on video, with multiple witnesses begging for mercy, is a documentation of a certain kind of cruelty, enabled by the state.

Floyd is dead at age 46 because for eight minutes and 46 seconds, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee pressed into Floyd’s neck after a shopkeeper accused Floyd of attempting to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. He is dead because Chauvin, and his fellow officers, Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas K. Lane, disregarded Floyd when he told them he could not breathe, when he told them they were killing him, when he cried out for his dead mother.

To remain anywhere for eight minutes, but specifically to remain with one’s body weight parked against the neck of another person while they beg for their life, is to make a choice. An independent autopsy determined that Chauvin’s actions led to “homicide caused by asphyxia due to neck and back compression that led to a lack of blood flow to the brain.”

It is no wonder then, six years after Garner’s death, with his last words revisited anew because they were also Floyd’s, that the New York City Council has reintroduced a bill to ban police chokeholds entirely. Congress plans to hold hearings on a similar measure that would ban chokeholds at the federal level.

Of all the associations it carries along with it, for black Americans, a boot on the neck remains an enduring metonym for state-sanctioned and extrajudicial violence. And yet when our collective necks are threatened, when we are finally forced to do away with civility and politesse because all other options for insisting upon our own humanity have been exhausted, there are white counterparts who remain quizzical about our frustration and fury. We are left reminding our fellow countrymen and women of the quotation widely attributed to Malcolm X: “That’s not a chip on my shoulder, that’s your boot on my neck.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.