Artist and mother stand in front of George Floyd mural

Artist Alex Roman Jr. (aka Donkeeboy) and his mother Sylvia (Donkeemom) in front of their George Floyd mural in Houston, Texas

Alex Roman Jr. and his mother stayed up all night under a Texas sky to finish a piece of art forged to honor a deceased man from Roman’s hometown of Houston. That man was George Floyd. But their depiction of him included something that transcended Floyd’s identity as a man and a murder victim.

In June 2020, Roman, who goes by the name Donkeeboy, and his mother, Sylvia (Donkeemom), painted a mural with a radical message. Floyd was centered in front of two enormous angel wings with a halo above him. Written in the blue paint on the brick facade are the words “Forever Breathing in Our Hearts.” Just as the angel wings counter the hideous nature of his death, the words symbolically restore the breath stolen from him in life. The mural has become one of the most iconic pieces of art created after George Floyd’s death.

When asked what the painting represented to him, Roman, 39, wrote in an email in May, “To my mother and I, the wings represent him taking flight from a bad place to a good place. While we were painting it, dozens of people gathered around, and we heard so many stories about George from people who grew up with him in the Third Ward. He meant a lot to his community, and his death has made an impact on millions of people around the world.”

The mural of George Floyd painted by Roman and his mother offers a stark contrast to how angels are often portrayed in American media, both in imagery and in words. In some ways, the mural reclaims for those who mourned George Floyd and other Black victims of violence what angels traditionally have represented in the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In other ways, it subverts accepted angelology to make a larger point about our societal view of victims of crime and racism.

Roman’s painting might also provide inspiration for journalists to reconsider the language we often casually use when we refer to victims of crime and police brutality.

Floyd’s death at the hands of former Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020, sparked massive protests, demonstrations, and civil unrest across the United States. It has prompted some of the sharpest debates yet over policing in America. But throughout the year that preceded Chauvin’s trial, much of the controversy around George Floyd’s death focused on the way George Floyd lived.

In journalism, we at times portray crime victims as either completely innocent (“angelic”) or beyond redemption (“evil”). Most human beings exist in a space somewhere between those two poles.

 In journalism, we at times portray crime victims as either completely innocent (“angelic”) or beyond redemption (“evil”). Most human beings exist in a space somewhere between those two poles. This is true of George Floyd. He was a star basketball player, a man of abiding Christian faith with deep family ties as a loving son, father, partner, and brother. He also suffered from addiction to opioids and had multiple arrests, as The Washington Post chronicled last year.

So, it might seem unusual to see George Floyd represented as an angel in a work of public art.

That was clearly the view of conservative pundit Candace Owens, an African American woman, who released a video shortly after Floyd was killed, criticizing people for lifting him up as a hero: “For whatever reason it has become fashionable over the last five or six years for us to turn criminals into heroes overnight … George Floyd was not an amazing person … George Floyd is being uplifted as an amazing human being … Everyone is pretending that this man lived a heroic lifestyle when he didn’t,” Owens said.

The rant was reminiscent of a racist trope often employed when Black people are victims of brutality at the hands of police or suffer other injustices — the “no angel” trope.

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post, has repeatedly denounced the trope, including in a response to a story profiling Michael Brown, a Black teen slain by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri, in The New York Times, when she served as the public editor at the paper.

“I do think, you know, that journalists have become aware of how freighted that expression is and the way people react to it much more so than they were seven or eight years ago,” Sullivan says. “Because every time it’s used it gets brought up as something that you know is either racist often or insensitive or just inappropriate. We can know whatever we know about whatever angels really are or how they really were depicted in the Bible, but we also know in our culture an angel is thought to be a very well-behaved, flawless, or holy, sacred sort of being. When we say about someone that they’re ‘no angel’ that means something very specific.”

Lexicographer Kory Stamper says the words “angel” and “cherub” often now carry sentimental connotations that whitewash their original biblical meanings: “To say, ‘He’s no angel,’ that’s also relying on a particular understanding of what innocence is, of what sweetness is. It’s taking a word we automatically use because of hundreds of years of art and associate it with cute white babies.”

Much of our modern cultural imagination of angels comes from European Renaissance-era art, in which angels, especially the cherubim, were recast as beautiful, gentle, baby-like Caucasian creatures. That doesn’t accord with how the cherubim are described in Scripture.

“In the Bible cherubim are fiery … creatures who, along with the seraphim, are described as among those angels closest to God,” says Dr. Kimberley C. Patton, who teaches the course “Angels: Messengers of God” at Harvard Divinity School. In Genesis 3, one guards the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword; in Exodus, they guard the ark of the covenant; in the vision of Ezekiel, they uphold the throne of God in midair.

“They’re literally the single most scary thing in the Bible,” says Eric Silverman, a professor of religion and philosophy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.

But a deeper understanding of angels, especially in the depiction of George Floyd, calls for an appreciation of their particular and most fundamental role in the Bible — that of messenger.

And that’s precisely the way Roman explains the intent of his mural: “Angels are messengers, and this mural was created to spread a message of change.” Biblical and Quranic angels are beings of divine power, righteousness, awe, and beauty.

Roman’s mural should spur newsrooms to do more soul-searching about the language used around victims of crime and police killings. When we write about crime, we are capturing a snippet of time in a person’s life, one that might portray their worst moment, excluding the complexities of the full life they have lived.

Dr. Semaj Vanzant Sr., a theologian and pastor of Second Baptist Church in Asbury Park, N.J., a historically Black congregation on the Jersey Shore, hopes the mural helps change society’s understanding of biblical angels. Even more so, he hopes it will help American society understand the humanity of victims of crime and police brutality. “Theologically, angels are spiritual beings. There is no color to them, just as there is no color to God,” Vanzant says. “The message [Roman] was sending was subversive. In some way it was an attempt to restore or to depict George Floyd’s humanity.”

“Angels … are awe-inspiring yet perhaps, in their own way, two-dimensional. Human beings are human beings, many-dimensional. When we justify harm against a human image of God by saying, ‘He was no angel,’ we have twisted the deep meaning of both angels and human beings,” says Patton.

Journalists don’t need to make anyone into an angel or a demon; instead we need to capture the nuances of their humanity.

Austin Bogues, a 2021 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, most recently covered Asbury Park and Neptune Township as well as race relations for the Asbury Park Press, part of the USA Today Network in New Jersey.

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