“I have this lady’s records from Chicago, and from ’89 to 2014, she’s no good.” The older African American gentlemen turned around from the podium of the Prairie View City Council to glare at Sandra Bland’s supporters and sorority sisters and repeat, “She’s not. She’s not. She’s not.”
With his finger inches from my face, it felt for a moment as if Twitter had taken on human form in the middle of Prairie View City Hall to unleash all its vitriol.
That is what Sandra Bland’s friends have been enduring for months as they refuse to be silent and refuse to let Sandy be silenced.
Having gotten off a plane that morning from Sandra Bland’s Chicago, that he claimed to know so much about, I focused deeply in prayer to maintain my composure. I closed my eyes and saw the faces I had just left: the faces of Sandra Bland’s mother, sisters, brother, nieces and nephews; the faces of a family just as transparent about their strengths and questions and convictions and love for one another as Sandra Bland had shown herself to be. I knew that my name was coming up after one more person, slotted to speak after the two most vocal opponents of the recently renamed Sandra Bland Parkway.
Laying aside for the moment the fact that Sandra Bland was 2 years old in the year 1989 that he claimed to have researched, the richness of personality and passion that Sandra Bland brought to the world and the extravagantly loving manner in which her family journeyed through life together still had me reeling.
I have been accused on more than one occasion of portraying Sandra Bland in just as narrow and unrealistic a manner as this man: as a saint rather than a sinner.
To see her as one or the other, however, would be to completely miss the point both factually and theologically. Like every person in that room had the capacity to be, Sandra Bland was both. For “all fall short” but at the same time all who seize God’s love are “forever made perfect” through it.
What made her compelling for so many in my generation was not that she was a saint. My generation has grown up respecting sincerity and authenticity far above the value we place on the perfection we do not see as realistic and the self-righteousness we have experienced as hurtful. Instead, she grasped the hearts of many with the boldness, sincerity and vulnerability with which she shared herself; the urgency with which she expressed love and concern for others and their well-being and personal growth; and the commitment she had to taking action to make the world better even if she had to take action alone.
Through her #SandySpeaks videos there remained a constant refrain: she wanted people to know that they were loved and valuable. To be told you are loved and to be told you are valued, not only by a human being, but also, as Sandra Bland said, by God, is perhaps the deepest longing of the human soul.
It is understandable, as reporters in the room were quick to note, that there was a generational divide in the room. The older members of the Prairie View community had been assembled with City Councilwoman Paulette Barnett to oppose Sandra Bland Parkway in what would ultimately turn out to be an utter failure of a reversal when the City Council voted 4-1 to keep it Sandra Bland Parkway. Their ignorance of Sandra Bland’s impact was understandable because they did not know Sandra as many of her young adults friends did; neither were they likely to have gotten to know her by having explored her #SandySpeaks videos.
Yet, neither generational difference, nor lack of technological access, nor lack of personal connection could ever justify the lack of compassion with which they spoke about a person, a child of God – yes, a young woman whose impact has transcended borders and languages – but more importantly, a child of God whose freedom, rights and life would come up equal on God’s balances to both the Mayor of Prairie View and the current occupants of the Waller County Jail. We can never allow frustration to extinguish our ability to clasp onto one another’s humanity and hold it as if it was sacred – because it is.
As for me personally, do I think Sandra Bland was a saint? Of course not, no one has ever claimed that. It is not necessary for her to be a saint in order to honor her, respect her, and be impacted and changed by her witness.
What is true is that I like her. I really do. Enough to give her space in my life for as long as she needs it. In fact, she is so likable that she has become a litmus test of sorts for many. She easily reveals the misogyny on the one hand, and the racism on the other, of the people who seem incapable of speaking of her with a tone of respect befitting a beautiful life lost. It is highly likely that those who do not feel an easy affection for Sandra Bland would also find themselves struggling to appreciate the magnificence of Maya Angelou:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumpin in my living room.
It is easy to celebrate her if you understand that all the things that people criticize about her in the last moments we see her speaking are exactly what the world needs in order to become a better place: an unapologetic black woman who loves herself, knows her rights, and is not willing to bend the knee to injustice.
The fact that that unbending knee was knocked out from under her is more painful than can be bourn for those who understand its importance. The fact that that unbowing head was slammed to the ground is enough fuel to fire the call for justice for years to come. The fact that that unapologetic voice seemed to be silenced, only causes the sound of her voice to travel further across the planet.
I thank God that Sandra Bland did not have to be perfect in order to impact the world. It gives me hope that maybe you and I can make a difference too.