This op-ed post originally ran in the summer of 2015, when the news of Sandra Bland’s arrest and untimely death broke. For the latest coverage of Sandra Bland’s case, please click here.
I have never seen an ordinary Black woman take mainstream media by storm in the way that Sandra Bland has.
Like so many of the other Black female police brutality and neglect victims we’ve come to learn about, Bland could have disappeared through the gaping holes of injustice, never to be seen or heard of—much less reported on by the heavyweights like the New York Times, ABC and CBS. Maybe she would have gotten some mentions from far-left activists who are already invested in preserving the stories of marginalized people crushed by intersecting forms of oppression, but the mainstream media would likely have been out of the question.
But for Bland, the opposite has been true. She has arrested all of us. Her story and her pictures are being projected from the world’s biggest media channels to the tiniest nooks and crannies of the Internet. I firmly believe that Bland’s commitment to documenting her life and sharing her perspectives through her vlog, #SandySpeaks, as well as through social media, is why we’re committed to exploring and preserving her legacy. Bland is the one that is steering the narrative here—not the Texas Department of Public Safety, the mainstream media outlets or even my dedicated brothers and sisters in the Black Twitterverse.
Sure, there are a lot of reasons why we’ve all rallied around (and obsessed over) Bland’s history and the circumstances of her death. She was pretty. She was God-fearing. She was well-spoken. She dressed conservatively, based on her pictures available to the public. Her family members have made themselves accessible to the media and have been speaking out in full force, unapologetically denying Waller County’s claim that Bland committed suicide. Despite the well-deserved attitude that she was serving up to Texas State Trooper Brian T. Encinia when she was arrested, Bland comfortably fit into the confines of respectability politics.
But there is something about her vlog, #SandySpeaks, that is affirming her space in the mainstream news cycle and is impacting how we see and understand her—even though we can no longer talk directly to her. She can’t be rendered invisible by Encinia, Waller County’s court system, or the likes of NYT and ABC because she left a digital trace of herself. It is a trace that can never be undone or wiped away. The officials manning the prison where she died want us all to believe that she was a depressed, suicidal woman who was already on the brink and who couldn’t have been stopped.
In spite of that, the fact that she blazed a path by speaking her truth day after day through digital media is now giving us the opportunity to judge the situation for ourselves. The testimonies that Bland made while she was alive are a direct challenge to the theories being spewed by Waller County. As a result, the initial autopsy findings they’ve put forth aren’t being treated as the ultimate explanation for Bland’s death. Rather, the county’s investigative findings are just one explanation.
I won’t project the idea that Bland wasn’t suicidal just because she smiled a lot and made some inspiring web videos. Bland was capable of doing anything. Black people are as susceptible to suicide and mental illnesses as everybody else is. Lastly, just because someone looks happy and grounded, it doesn’t mean that they actually are.
But what is irrefutable is that Bland was an incredibly vocal and knowledgeable woman who was driven by her faith. She spoke out relentlessly about #BlackLivesMatter. She was well aware of her rights—and she was unafraid to fight for them. The bittersweet element to all of this is that Sandra Bland’s immense, consistent media coverage has outshined other past and present Black female victims of police neglect and violence like Rekia Boyd, Natasha McKenna and most recently, Raynette Turner and Ralkina Jones. However, I’m still grateful for the media platform Bland created for herself because without it, I don’t think the mainstream would have picked up her story in the first place. More than that, I don’t think her family and friends would have been given an audience to express what they think happened and be validated throughout this process.
I know that Ms. Bland’s story is going to haunt me for years to come. I’ve been looking at old #SandySpeaks clips where she muses on the needs and issues of Black people, her own struggles with mental illness, near-death experiences, art, God, children, self-love. Virtually all of them start the same way, with her flashing a bright, hearty smile greeting her viewers as “kings” and “queens.” Watching her, you know that her smile was real. Her eyes are wide, yet relaxed, and her cheeks are full and high. I know that I will hold onto the images and words she left behind because there was something warm and familiar about her: the rasp in her voice, the subtle, gold eye shadows she sometimes wore, the small plats and twists that sat on her head. In watching her, I feel like I knew her.
Of course, I didn’t know her. In a time of blogs, Twitter and Instagram, we all have at least two ways of presenting who we are: our authentic selves and our digital selves. Neither Ms. Bland nor I am exempt from that. In any case, I’m not going to blindly accept the accusation that Bland was some angry, uncontrollable Black woman sick enough to end her own life under such corrigible circumstances.
Sandra’s story isn’t just a narrative about stereotypes of Black women, police brutality or inept prison guards. It’s a story that reflects the importance of documenting and sharing our experiences. It’s a story that compels us to build our own platforms. These are the platforms that will counter the powers that be when they try to erase or misconstrue who we as Black women are or what our intentions are on this Earth. I’m grateful that Bland’s family, friends and celebrities all over the Twitterverse have been speaking on behalf of Bland. But in the end, it doesn’t even matter. Ms. Sandra Bland made it her practice to speak up for herself so that we didn’t have to.
So keep tweeting. Keep posting your videos, your blog posts and your Facebook rants, your Snapchats and your selfies. These platforms were made for us to rebel, to respond and to bear witness to the White supremacist patriarchy that is still contextualizing our lives in 21st Century America. In an era where Black men, women and children are and will continue to be under attack, we have no other choice.
Like Zora Neale Hurston once said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”