You’ve never heard me say that Sandra Bland was murdered.
Words are precious to me. I handle them with care. I work with poets who shuffle them around like puzzle pieces on a table until they find just the right fit. I was raised by a man who took the half-page permission slips that my elementary school teachers sent home with me and made me late for the bus as he pored over each word before signing. I serve a religious tradition where great debates decades long were waged over whether the word transubstantiation or consubstantiation should be used to describe the Eucharist.
So, no, you’ve never heard me say that Sandra Bland was murdered. That is something I can neither know nor prove. And to say something I can neither know nor prove detracts from the validity of what I do know and can prove.
What you will hear me say is that Sandra Bland’s life was taken.
Day by day a system of white supremacy seeks to chip away at the vitality of young women of color in this nation. Day by day, their souls must expand in order to merely survive as some piece or peace is constantly being taken.
In this journey of five months, I have not been driven and motivated by Sandra’s death, I have been driven by her life. What she was. What she could have been. What has been taken from her family. What has been taken from all of us. What can be given back to her of her legacy by keeping her name, voice, image and story alive.
A death is not enough to drive the movement that this nation needs, because if we are driven by death, we will become dependent upon it occurring.
We cannot need the blood of others. We cannot come to rely upon it being spilt.
I was at a meeting earlier this year when a wise woman, I believe it was Rev. Candy Holmes, said that we could not be dependent on the sacrifice of our young, the blood of our slain to motivate the movement. We must struggle and fight for justice without needing someone to die to herald our attention, motivate our action, or mobilize our masses. It is true, I was out in the streets for Michael, for Eric, for Tamir; but I do not want it to cost anyone else’s life for us to stay motivated to end the injustice that exists.
In this journey, I have been counting not on Sandra Bland’s death but on her life. We have a gift in the record she left us, a gift not to be squandered. I have been counting on her leadership, her voice, her wisdom, her authenticity, her weakness, her struggle, her strength. I could not afford to see her as the image that our media tried to leave to us: a little bit shattered in an orange jumpsuit. That was not her. She was not an object of pity, a vessel broken, or a corpse. She was life. Life was what was taken from us. What she offered us was not her death, what she offered was her life. Her true identity and legacy lies not in the fact that she died but in the fact that she lived, loved, suffered, triumphed, struggled, succeeded.
On many occasions, and as recently as 30 minutes ago, I have had to turn to God, turn to Scriptures, and turn to Sandra’s own words to find my way. When I do so, I do not do so fueled by an image of her in an orange prison jumpsuit. I have never allowed my eyes to more than glance at such an image. When I do so, I am fueled by an image of a perfectly imperfect woman who was passionate enough about her calling to answer it with curlers in her hair and these words: “It’s time ya’ll. It’s time.”
And these words: “I can’t do this alone, I need ya’lls help.”
And these words: “It’s time to stop saying, I knew that was going to happen, and it’s time to start doing something.”
And these words: “It’s God that’s truly opened up my eyes to the fact that there is something we can do.”
So no, you will not hear me say that Sandra Bland was murdered. The words you will hear me choose to use are that Sandra Bland’s life was taken. And if we do nothing, we are all complicit. And if we do nothing, it will happen again. Because there is a system in place in this nation that seeks to break down what is most threatening to it: a black woman who loves herself and her sisters enough to take action so that they will all live safe and free.
She lost her life in taking that action. Why? Because the action is necessary. If it was not necessary, she would still be alive today. If the racism and system of injustice that she spoke against and struggled against did not exist, she would still be alive today. It was that system that took her life, by whatever method it did so.
Nina Simone once sang:
I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish I could break
All the chains holdin’ me
I wish I could say
All the things that I should say
Say ’em loud say ’em clear
For the whole ’round world to hear
Later in an interview, when asked what freedom meant to her, Nina Simone answered: “No fear.”
What more was Sandra Bland trying to do but live free so that others might do so as well.
I still do not have an answer to the question we asked for 80 days in front of the Waller County Jail: “What Happened to Sandra Bland?” The reality is that even if the official story is the fact, it has been so steeped in falsehood that you could not blame anyone who could not recognize it as truth. From shifting stories to slander to preposterous tours of the jail cell where the “untouched” objects were constantly moving in the pictures reporters brought out – the water has become so muddy that we cannot see what is at the bottom of it all. The only thing that is clear is that there is more to the story than we have gotten.
In the midst of all that we do not know, this is what we do know:
Sandra Bland should not have been followed.
Sandra Bland should not have been pulled over.
Sandra Bland should not have been threatened with a taser.
Sandra Bland should not have been taken from her car.
Sandra Bland should not have been thrown to the ground.
Sandra Bland should not have been arrested.
Sandra Bland should never have been in the Waller County Jail.
Regardless of what it cost her, we cannot ignore the fact that in the last moments that we have sight of Sandra Bland, she lived free; by Nina Simone’s definition, she lived without fear.
Many critique her that if she had operated with the appropriate fear and deference she would still be with us today. Yet, we cannot build a just world where people can live free through fear. We have to build it by eliminating the necessity for fear, by eliminating a system that judges us differently. That will cost us all something, and white people like myself must pay our hefty portion of the bill that has come due.
There are many people in this nation who could drive through life without ever being aware that what happened to Sandra Bland was a possibility. In Sandra’s words, “It’s time.” We’ve got to let go of wherever it was that we were trying to get to in life, pull the car over and do something.