SIOUX FALLS S.D. — Mariyom Deng and Liz Magnuson grew up together. If you asked them how they knew each other, they would say they’re sisters.
On the night of May 31, the pair held on to one another as they marched the streets of Sioux Falls with hundreds of other protesters in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Marching with her childhood friend was important to Deng, an African American woman whose parents immigrated from Sudan.
“I need people to see that there can be a greater love between two different individuals of two different races,” Deng said.
Deng was 3 years old when Magnuson’s mother, Jean, became her preschool teacher. When Deng’s mother, Achol, needed a break, the Magnusons would watch her. Deng’s mom worked long, hard hours to support her husband, Peter, who was still in Sudan at the time.
Although they are six years apart, they quickly grew close. The young girls would spend their evenings in old dance recital costumes they pulled out of Magnuson’s closet. Dressed in neon wigs, and the fluff of bright pink and red tutus, they would sing Hannah Montana songs as they danced around Magnuson’s basement.
“When I think about all the weekends we spent together, I never think of it as us helping them,” Magnuson told the Argus Leader. “I think of it as them helping us. I have learned so much from her family.”
Deng’s father eventually immigrated to the United States when she was 5 years old. The families would spend Thanksgiving together around the dinner table. The two families became one.
Prior to the march, it had been months since Deng and Magnuson last saw each other. Deng moved to Brookings in 2012 with her family and visits became less frequent. While they were eager to catch up, they knew important conversations needed to happen. Their hearts felt heavy. Deng spilled her thoughts to Magnuson about what she has experienced being a black woman in South Dakota. At one time in her life, she felt confused by her identity.
“I felt like I had to assimilate and act like every other white girl I was friends with,” she said. “In a way, I lost myself. I started straightening my hair and tried to look as normal as possible. That hurt me, because I was trying to change myself for people who were already willing to accept me for who I was in the first place.”
During that Sunday’s marches, Deng embraced who she is. She took off her wig and painted her face with designs of bright silver, which represented Sudan. In dark letters, she wrote on her poster, “Give my baby brothers the future they deserve!!!”
Deng led the way as Magnuson stood by her. Magnuson spent her whole life acting as an older sibling to Deng, teaching her things like how to tie her shoes. But as they navigated Sunday evening’s protest together, she knew that she would never be able to understand the struggles Deng and her siblings may go through.
As the two clung to one another, they protected each other. They reflected on those conversations they had while getting ready just hours before. They felt anger as they thought about the injustices black people endure, but felt peace seeing a community march together. They thought about George Floyd.
“Every time I see (George Floyd’s) picture, I see one of my little brothers under that knee,” Deng said. “I don’t want that to be the type of world they live in.”