Photo: USA Today
By Emelda De Couteau
“To tell the truth is to become beautiful, to begin to love yourself, value yourself. And that’s political, in its most profound way.”
Years ago I read a poem by Sapphire (author of the novel Push) about her adamant refusal, as a young child, in pledging allegiance to the American flag in school. And today, as I reflect on Sandra Bland and her courageous questioning of white state trooper Brian Encinia when he pulled her over for a traffic stop in July, I am reminded of all of us – women and girls of color who dare to question the absurdity of institutionalized racism.
I close my eyes and see our faces, the rich range of complexions, then I hear our voices at once melodic and self-assured, demanding acknowledgement in a culture which vehemently refuses to accept us as whole human beings, worthy of respect, capable of complex thoughts and emotions. You see, my sisters, we are all Sandra Bland. Her life, the words she left us with, are inextricably linked to our own.
In order to understand how being stopped for failing to signal while changing lanes escalated so quickly we must not begin by listening to the exchange between Officer Encinia and Sandra Bland. No, we must look deeper, unpacking what it means to exist as a black woman within a white supremacist system, which classifies people, deciding, both overtly and subtly, who matters and who becomes invisible. And we all know black folks are on the bottom of the list, and within this patriarchal culture, black women are even lower.
“I will light you up!”
Officer Encinia talking to Sandra Bland
According to Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected, a paper published by the African-American Policy Forum and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, the disdain for black women starts in childhood at school; we are punished more severely and at higher rates than our white classmates. “In 2007, a 6-year-old girl was arrested in Florida for having a tantrum. Later that year, a 16-year-old girl was arrested in California for dropping cake on the floor and failing to pick it up to the officer’s satisfaction. It is well-established in the research literature and by educational advocates that there is a link between the use of punitive disciplining measures and subsequent patterns of criminal supervision and incarceration.”
Indeed the school-to-prison pipeline exists, and it greatly impacts communities of color. All too often what this specifically says for women and girls of color is marginalized or ignored. In our zeal to save black boys, we abandon black women and girls. Yet what some stubbornly refuse to face can no longer be cast aside. “Between 1977 and 2007, the population of women in prison grew 832%, while the male prison population only grew by 416%, according to data from The Sentencing Project. Additional information from Critical Resistance and The Sentencing Project highlights a particularly dismal statistic: “Black women are incarcerated at 4 times the rate of white women.”
“If we want a change, we can truly make it happen. Start in your own homes. Start with you.”
Intelligence and an uncompromising determination to be heard, these are phrases which filter in and out of my consciousness as I think of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old young woman brimming with hope, driving from a job interview.
And I am pleading that her life mean infinitely more to you and I than tired refrains about the sadness of it all, or worse, how her own conduct and commitment to speaking up contributed the tragedy. These responses are far too simplistic and myopic. Do you know why I say this to you? Because it lets us off the hook. We can place Sandra Bland in a box, mark her as acceptable or unacceptable without examining ourselves, our way of being in the world, and why an acquiescence to the status quo is dangerous, not merely for us, but future generations.
If we remain silent, content to make Sandra Bland a hashtag or Facebook post, we obliterate our own light, voice and larger purpose of creating a world where black women and girls matter immensely. Because after all, I am Sandra Bland. You are Sandra Bland. And if we allow the mendacity of American society to annihilate her, we too, slowly die.
I leave you with a quote from the incomparable Arundhati Roy, which challenges us all to become better, every day in numerous ways:
“To love. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.”
For more on where Sandra Bland case is currently:
Voices For Sandra Bland
“Sandra, I’m speechless in the most powerful way. Because vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord. Thank you for coming and being the bright light I needed to focus on pushing us closer to our freedom!”
“Her kinky curls were just like mine, so I see why she was misunderstood and prejudged for her knowledge. Silenced before she could speak to explain, but why must my sister keep explaining? But now we the people can’t explain her death in an empty box secured to keep life, but not my sister’s life.”
“Let my memory be a beacon of light to drive away the darkness of injustice. We are Sandra Bland.”
“Black women’s voices have always been feared, Sandra Bland’s death is a powerful reminder that our brilliance and resilience remain under attack. None of us should be comfortable enough to just let this go.”
Anyania I. Muse
“We are not asking for special treatment, we want, desire and deserve the SAME right for protection from the police instead of having a justifiable fear of the very entity that is tasked with protecting and serving ALL citizens. This is OUR country as well. We DESERVE the same rights.”
“For all the sacrifices made by women before us and the unfolding journey of women that will lead us into the future….”WE are Sandra Bland and our voices will be heard.”
“How long do you think you can keep us quiet? Hasn’t it been long enough? I will not allow you to continue to judge unjustly and pardon the wrong doers. How long? though I’m not here physically my brothers and sisters will carry on my voice, so it won’t be much longer. We are Sandra Bland.”
Emelda De Coteau is a work-from-home Mom whose current professional pursuits include freelance writer, communications consultant, and co-owner of Keystone Productions, a video and photography business based in Maryland. Visit blog Live In Color which focuses on inspiration, faith and motherhood.
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