The image of Sandra Bland I cannot get out of my head is her selfie wearing a blue Beatles t-shirt.
Besides being professional black women with spirited senses of self, I am eons older, we seem to have loving the Beatles in common.
As her story was developing across the pond, I was in Liverpool reuniting with graduate school sistahgirls who were also there to present work at conferences that focused on “TransAtlantic Dialogues on Cultural Heritage,” while I just finished performing in one on “After the Revolution: Visions and Revisions of Haiti.” We did a Beatles taxi tour during which, we ran through lyrics of most of the major hits by the fab four with a guide who took pictures of our spirited emotional responses at every major site from Ringo and John’s childhood homes to, finally the orphanage, Strawberry Fields.
The Beatles were a much needed respite after a collective experience of days filled with intellectual engagement in environments with a paucity of black presence, meals at amazing eateries in streets with architecture and museums that were overwhelming reminders of Liverpool’s role as a major port in the slave trade. I had no idea that Penny Lane, the street, which John and Paul wrote about, was named after James Penny, a most successful slave trader.
It took me days to bring myself to watch any of the SandySpeaks videos. It wasn’t the jet-lag. I simply could not get beyond pictures of her so full of life knowing her life had ended. I could not bring myself to watch them because for many of us, we see Sandra in ourselves. She could have very well been me. She could have been my sister, cousin or friend. I could not bring myself to watch because she smiled a lot. She glowed. There is a radiance that emanated from her, which came from a fierce black woman on a quest of self-discovery with all of its ups and downs, a black woman determined to be of significance in this unjust world, a black woman who, as her mother described was “an activist, sassy, smart, and she knew her rights.” She was using her knowledge and skills to creatively create her life. Sandra Bland was not uppity. That may have been a perception of her by a white officer of the law clearly insecure in his position of authority who had no idea who he is when faced with someone like her.
Sandra Bland embodied a rare charismatic self-possession that disrupts social orders. It is one that black women like filmmaker Ava DuVernay who don’t ask for permission to be who they are and do as they do, reside. Feminist Wire co-founder, Tamura Lomax wrote that Sandra Bland is Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Fannie Lou Hammer. Black women freedom fighters who believed in their causes. They talked the talk and walked the walk to use an old cliche. This way of being in the world is one for which black women who do not submit continually pay a very high price. Within the social limits of white imagination, complexity is never ours, black women like Sandra Bland, black women like us, are be reducible to four, maybe five, stereotypes at the most.
We all have our share of DWB stories. This pursuit to extinguish and contain our blackness is not just with law enforcement, but in everyday “civil” interactions. Indeed, if I had a dime for every time I was told to keep my mouth shut, stay in my place, not question my seniors, or watch my comportment too often by white men and women in power… well that is another story. Fact is, I grew up under a dictatorship in Haiti, I have always had a very complicated relationship with silence. Every time I consider Sandra’s reaction, I identify with it. Her response whatever else you may think of it, was an act of self-possession. Her constitutional rights were being violated and she simply would not stand for it.
As black people, we live with the continuities of slavery and the Jim-Crow era when state sanctioned slave codes determined how we expressed fundamental parts of our “partial” personhood. We are being ruled by neo black codes of conduct enforced by social and legal machinery that demand we submit in the presence of white power or else become part of a landfill of hashtags. Sandra Bland refused because she knew her rights.