Help me Mama, I can’t breathe


I have stared at this blank space for well over an hour, unable to preface this narrative with anything that can reflect the depth of authenticity in this tragic submission for our anthology “Essential Americans: the Stories that can no longer be Ignored.”  Certainly, Denise Martin’s story is one that should be heard by everyone.  Denise responded to a Craigslist ad I posted in Portland solciting stories. When our period of national reflection subsides, I hope that we discover we have more in common than our pain.

I’ve included Denise’s email address with her consent, and Paypal information, should you feel compelled to reach out to her. You can help us publish her story, your story, and others by joining our GoFundme campaign.

Here is what Denise sent us.

Help me Mama, I can’t breathe

by Denise Martin


I am submitting my story in email form because I am still homeless because of covid so…

I am a 63-year-old female with a half-black teen. When George Floyd was murdered it rocked me to my soul personally. I bought a pack of name tags and wrote, “My name is George Floyd, I can’t breathe,” and gave them out all over Portland.

For me it was about trying to figure out what Derek Chauvin was thinking as he kneeled on a dying man’s throat on camera. It haunted me. I couldn’t sleep at night or stop talking about it. I grew up in an extremely racist, Christian family where I wasn’t allowed to have Jewish friends and there were no blacks in my upper-middle-class Westchester, NY neighbourhood.  And my Black baby-daddy is a vicious racist who believes all white people are racist. Although I came from White privilege, my whole life has been dogged by racism.

For weeks I lay awake at night imaging Derek in his cell processing all this. I would lob off an arm to have a conversation with that man. I can understand racism. I really do. It’s all about fear. But Derek thought that racism is so acceptable that he felt safe murdering a black man on camera and enlisted junior officers to help him. That breaks my brain and indicates we have a dangerous systemic racism problem. So I set out to write a song for George Floyd.

As you will see if you watch the video of my song, the enormity of the situation hit me while I was recording. I realized how terrified I am for my son. It is a dark, haunting song. I don’t remember how to play it and haven’t played it since I wrote it. I have to adapt a certain amount of denial to live in a world like this with a mixed-race child. I have to let go and trust.

Sometimes when I greet a stranger of color on the street I think I feel this energy – “Oh how cute, the White lady is pretending she isn’t racist.” Sometimes I feel anger and don’t know what that means and often it is just a normal human encounter. I am not and have never been a racist person. I can admit that I judge people by their religious beliefs and I am fat phobic. I nearly killed myself with bulimia because I am so afraid of getting fat. Being an overweight teen and being shamed by my parents landed me in that messed up mindset. But racism is not my game, and yet because I am White I may never be fairly appreciated for what is in my heart. That is truly sad.

If the news cycle hadn’t moved on in such a threatening way I would still be stuck on Derek. I am infuriated that he is out of jail. I can’t wait to hear him explain his choices in court. I need closure with Derek. I wonder how many other Americans feel this way or has Trump’s nonsense drowned out the outrage about Derek?




Denise Martin

PayPal –


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