The cover article of the May 9-16th issue of The Nation Magazine is an article entitled “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” It takes the words first used by alumni of Prairie View A&M University who were mourning Sandra Bland the week of her death, and ultimately used to express a movement, and repurposes them to make white people more comfortable. In a rhetorical move as equally unconscious of bias as the #AllLivesMatter shift, the author uses her platform as a journalist and award-winning author to write an opinion piece masquerading as an investigative piece. The article takes the discomfort that has been rising amongst White liberals and defuses it. It converts it from White responsibility back to White guilt.
It does so not by honoring the intention of the words – a persistent and yet unanswered question – but by delivering the author’s answer.
I was there in the Opal Johnson Smith Auditorium when Debbie Nathan requested an insider interview from Sandra’s family. I was there when she was turned down. I was there when she said she would write the article with or without them. At the time, I did not understand their response. I liked Debbie well enough. Now I understand.
What would motivate her to dig more deeply into the personal affairs of the grieving family than she dug into the circumstances surrounding Sandra’s death in a Texas jail?
To understand her article, you have to start by working backwards, realizing that Debbie Nathan is not asking “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”; she is telling her opinion of “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”
Debbie Nathan had already decided the culprits. She committed one of the biggest errors of investigative journalism, she investigated in order to prove her theory rather than to find the truth.
I first met Debbie Nathan when she came to the Houston area with the conviction that she was the one who would write about Sandra Bland. She had become so fixated on Sandra, seeing her as a daughter figure; and consequently had become a student of my work as well. She had studied both of us on Facebook, and felt so attached to me that she had brought me a red scorpion made of beads that she had picked up for me while on vacation. She felt like she knew me. She did not. She felt like she knew Sandra. She did not.
Through a narrative filled with assumptions, such as the assumption that Sandra Bland cut herself in response to Dylann Roof’s murders, Nathan provides the nation with a way out of the discomfort that has become almost unbearable for many. She works to subtly convince the reader that the only intelligent, educated, reasonable answer is that Sandra Bland killed herself, while simultaneously emphasizing the refusal of many in the African American community, especially Sandra’s close family and friends, to accept those results at face value. She even uses a Black child’s refusal to accept that ‘truth’ as the closing line of the article. Pair such logic with the subtle racism of White liberalism, and the results are obvious: A translation of the experience of the Black community utilized to discredit rather than empower their perspective.
Nathan communicates that it was oppressive systems and structures that killed Sandra inch by inch, wearing down her psyche until she was primed for suicidal thoughts: Sandra Bland died from a “thousand tiny cuts.” Diffusion of responsibility.
This rhetorical move will conveniently remove the thing that the dominant culture abhors most: holding individuals responsible for the actions that they carry out as willing participants in racist and oppressive structures. This terrifies us, because to hold any of us accountable raises the possibility that any of us may be held accountable.
Let me be clear, we do seek to hold the system accountable. We do seek to dismantle the system of white supremacy. However, in order to dismantle the system, there must be accountability for the individuals within it. Without accountability, there can be no motivation to change. First, we made corporations people so they can bear our rights, will we next make systems people so they can bear our sins?
Fundamental to the Christian faith, and many others, is the concept of both corporate and individual fault or sin. While we must seek to deal with the crimes we commit as a corporate body, we cannot lose sight of the sins we commit as individuals. Both are important. Repentance for our corporate wrong-doing does not relieve of us accountability for our individual wrong-doings.
By framing her answer in such a manner, Nathan does dishonor to the reason why we sat in front of a jail for 80 days with a sign that said, “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” We were not asking what happened to Sandra Bland before she got to Texas. We were asking specifically what happened to her from July 10-13, 2015. By using the words of our question to avoid the intent of our question, she relocates the answer from Sandra’s present to her past. She colonizes our query, seeking to replace its original inhabitants.
She takes a big question: “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” and makes the reader believe there are only two answers, A or B; homicide or suicide. That binary is exactly what we have been trying to avoid and expand.
This rhetorical move is so subtle in the article that it is helpful to have gotten the chance to hear her May 5 on the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC to discuss her true intentions in writing the article:
Arun Venugopal (substituting for Leonard Lopate): “In terms of the time [Sandra Bland] spent, the last few days, you’ve really tried to clarify and sorta get past the conspiracy theories. What are some of the conspiracy theories that you were trying to sort of put to rest?
Debbie Nathan: “Well, um, the basic one is that she didn’t commit suicide. That was the finding of the autopsy. And so there is a theory that that was wrong and that she was murdered. That it was a homicide. So, you know, I tried to look at all the facts, all the evidence and see if there is anything that would reasonably support the theory of homicide. And the only thing that I could come up with is that since there is no evidence of homicide, there’s no physical evidence of homicide, um, that you would have had to have a pretty big conspiracy. You’d have to have several people in that jail, including the administration, do things like tamper with the film, do things like study for weeks beforehand about how you, um, strangle somebody but make the mark on the neck look like it was a suicide mark, which you’d have to be a genius to do. I mean, I think you’d have to be Hannibal Lechter to figure out how to do this. And, um, there’s just sort of like many things that a bunch of would have to get together and do. So who are these people? I mean like brilliant, psychopathic, really malign racists? I mean, when you look at who was working in that jail, um, many if not most of the guards were either African American or Latino. um. They are low-paid, not very well educated people; to the extent that any of them have education they’ve often gone to the historically black college, to Prairie View, because they live in that community. um, they all have their social media too. I looked at their social media before they all took it down because they got sued. They were doing things like Martin Luther King food drives, they didn’t seem like the kind of people that would be capable of engaging in a very viscious, racist, brilliant, psychopathic conspiracy.”
There it is: the bias. Without even giving notice to the shade thrown at HBCU’s, her belief that it is not possible that footage has been edited would contradict Selma producer Ava Davurnay’s absolute confidence that it has been. Her presentation of the Facebook activity of the guards has portrayed them as saints focused on “Martin Luther King food drives.” She seems to have missed their sinister joking about cell 95 where Sandra Bland died: “Be nice, or else you’re going in 95 and talk with your friend” (Dormic Smith to Elsa Magnus).
You do not need conspiracies and “tall tales” to know how Sandra Bland was treated. To quote directly from the Waller County Sheriff’s Office Committee Recommended Police & Jail Practices, released in April of 2016: “Epithets such as ‘turd,’ ‘thug,’ ‘gang-banger,’ and ‘piece-of-shit’ were sometimes used to describe suspects. Such ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ language is not only dehumanizing in itself, but tends to be a cultural value passed down to other, more junior deputies and engenders an atmosphere that denigrates the rights of suspects and invites misconduct. The risk is that dehumanizing language will be translated into inhumane actions.”
So where did Debbie Nathan go astray? To understand that, you have to look at another article that she wrote for the Boston Review. In the article, she writes affectionately of Sandra Bland: “Watching the footage these past few weeks, I have felt like one of her queens, and I wish we could all experience the royalty she offered us.” It is there that she shows her cards.
See, the thing is those words were not for us; they were not meant for Debbie and I. They were not meant for white women at all. And that is perfectly okay.
When Sandy was addressing white people, she made it clear, “To my white folks…” and she usually had a loving but firm challenge to go with it. When she was addressing her African American brothers and sisters, she made it clear as well, “My Kings and My Queens” and she also usually had a loving but firm challenge to go with it. But her advice was different for the different audiences. Her challenge for white people was different from her challenge for black people.
Nathan’s inability to understand that crucial difference and boundary is the key to understanding why she may not be the one to look to for an understanding of “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”
She stepped outside her lane. She forgot that the Lemonade being served up in our culture right now is for Black women. It belongs to them. They do not have to share with us. They do not have to give us the recipe. We will not be able to figure out how to make it by watching them. It is not ours.
There are many things I have seen, heard and witnessed about the experiences of Black women in America, but I’m not going to be the one to analyze it. Why? One simple reason: Black women in America are fully capable of doing so themselves. It is not my place. Not my lane. There are plenty of Black women talking about the pain and burden of Black women. Our role as White women is to amplify their voices, not to silence them by telling their stories for them.
Our role is to speak from our own experience: How have we experienced privilege? How can we talk about the impact of racism with other White people? We need to stop thinking that the only way to talk about racism is from the perspectives of those suffering from its effects; we have to start talking about how we benefit from its effects economically and socially, even as it wounds us spiritually.
There was so much real investigative journalism to be done in Waller County. The truth is not even hard to sniff out. It lies on the surface like the algae in my father’s pond. You only have to reach for it and it is in your hand. Yet, Debbie Nathan has chosen to tell the nation through The Nation, that corruption is not there. There is so much white-people work to be done in Texas. Yet, Debbie Nathan left Texas to fly to Chicago; and finding no one close to the situation willing to talk to her, she found people who would say what she wanted to hear, and she let her displeasure with the grieving family’s reticence be known through her writing:
“Geneva Reed-Veal—her mom had gotten married—has acknowledged in recent press interviews that she and her daughter had long-standing conflicts. She and Sandy’s sisters declined to speak with me on the record; what those conflicts were about, Reed-Veal has not said publicly… She contacted a sister who was hardly in a position to send $515, since she was being sued by her landlord for back rent, to the tune of more than $1,500.”
The amount of effort that it must have taken to dig into the struggle of the woman who had been the most supportive of her sister’s Sandy Speaks videos and activism could have been put to so much better use in seeking the truth in Texas. Yet, maybe that was not the goal.
Sometimes it takes a whole lot of facts to distract people from seeing the truth.
The pain and struggle of Black women in America is not one more possession for white women to claim. Their lives and minds are not ours to pick apart, to analyze, to interpret. We have our own work to do. Clearly.
If you want to listen and amplify:
Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy A Yoke
Everything on Candace Benbow’s Lemonade Syllabus