Aesthetic Insurgency: Sandra Bland’s Presence in Poetry

This post is part of our online forum in honor of Sandra Bland, coinciding with the third anniversary of her death. The forum includes historical and contemporary perspectives–and creative pieces–on Black women’s susceptibility to state-sanctioned violence. 

“Black in Texas” by Lee Carrier. Mixed Media. Over There Some Place Exhibit, Houston Museum of African American Culture. February 2018 (Photo by author).

Forethought 1: I am struck by the emotional and intellectual weight of writing about Sandra Bland’s life and death. I am spiritually agitated, existentially unsettled. I’m angry that there’s no justice in her case. I am angry that a small town cop gets fired for blatant racism, and thereafter becomes the Waller County Sheriff—the Sheriff in whose jail Bland died—a recipient of more power, weapons, and money. Yet, I write on with a distinct sense of scholarly purpose, an ethical commitment to documenting Bland’s life in history and memory through narrative and poetry.

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Forethought 2: I live in northwest Houston, 20 minutes from the site of Bland’s arrest, and approximately 30 miles from Waller County Jail. Since I became involved in some of the direct actions of the Sandra Bland Movement—I sat vigil in Waller County for several months after Bland’s death, marched in solidarity with other activists at the Waller County Courthouse during grand jury proceedings in late 2015 and early 2016, and participated in forums and community discussions—there is a sense in which I’m writing about local history.

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Forethought 3: At the time of this writing—three years after her death—we still don’t know all that happened during the 64 hours of Bland’s containment inside of Waller County Jail from July 10-13, 2015. We know very clearly the events of her traffic stop, and the verbal bullet of Brian Encinia’s threat, “I will light you up!,” that led to her detainment. But we still don’t know what happened inside Bland’s cell. Many contest the medical examiner’s report that ruled her death a suicide. As her mother Geneva Reed-Veal has said, as Sandra’s sisters, especially Shante and Sharon have confirmed, and as Sandra verbalized herself through “Sandy Speaks” videos, she had much for which to live.

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Forethought 4: An expansive aesthetic insurgency has materialized in the three years since Bland’s death. Aesthetic refers to creative expressions such as music, visual art, and poetry. Insurgency calls to mind the role of the Black radical tradition’s “freedom dreams” which, in the words of historian Robin D. G. Kelley, “locate and overturn blatant, subtle, and invisible modes of domination.” Visual artists crafted commemorative Bland portraits, and musicians produced sonic responses to her death, while the Houston Museum of African American Culture staged an exhibition on Bland’s life and death.

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From the standpoint of historical and cultural analysis, I want to think about how poetry featuring Sandra Bland functions as an artistic platform to resist police violence against Black women. U. S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith states that as an art form “Poetry . . . is saying, come here. This has happened to me. This is how it made me feel. This is who I am in the wake of this thing.” In this case, poetry works at multiple registers—cultural, intellectual, rhetorical, and affective—in recognition of Sandra Bland.

Forty-nine minutes, eleven seconds. That is the length of the dashcam footage of Bland’s traffic stop that the Texas Department of Public Safety released (click here for the transcript). Encinia first speaks to Bland at the 2:41 mark (“Hello ma’am . . . the reason for your stop is because you failed to signal the lane change.”). After 15:45 we don’t hear Bland’s voice because she is awaiting transport to Waller County Jail. The digital record of her July 10 arrest is the primary visual archive around which many poets perform aesthetic insurgency.

Justice 4 Sandy Button. Distributed by Shante Needham (Sandra Bland’s sister) at Houston Museum of African American Culture. February 2018 (Photo by author).

White literary scholar James McCorkle’s poem “Light You Up” emphasizes the video’s verbal and physical climax: Encinia’s bombastic threat followed by Bland’s forced removal from her car. “Though he did not technically kill her,” McCorkle’s narrative poem reads, “he sentenced her to death, what he said sent her to Waller County jail, where she was executed.” The title’s metaphorical meaning prefigures violence and fire, the destructive power of heat where “it is said before something, or someone, is set afire and burnt.” McCorkle follows “burnt” with names like Sam Hose and Jesse Washington, which makes the historical connection explicit: Bland’s death is a modern lynching. The fires of death also symbolize white supremacy’s obsession with the control of Black bodies (“What are the dreams of arsonists when the body is to be the fuel . . . What is left to burn? To burn with hate—to arson the bodies of others is to burn is to lay waste to destroy.”). Rhetorically, McCorkle wonders how many other Sandra Blands he passed when he saw Black motorists pulled over by police officers. He thus names his white privilege and how immoral and unethical white silence is. “We have the clearance, the documents, the assurance to pass, to drive by to be on our way. To leave behind.” In this ordinary way, white supremacy’s “clearance” passes the burden of survival away from white bodies, an existential pathway McCorkle’s poem lets linger disquietingly.

Trinidadian poet Lauren K. Alleyne’sHeaven?,” which she dedicates to Bland, and Black poet Patricia Smith’s “Sagas of the Accidental Saint” from Incendiary Art meditate on the habitation of Black female bodies and the survivors who remain to say the names of the dead. “Where does a black girl go/when her body is emptied of her?” asks Alleyne, “And what gift is lost when/a black girl is made a body,/her light dimmed into shadow,/gone?” A lynched voice no longer audible (“where does it sing its story/when the knots of history/make a grave of her throat?”), and a body and soul unable to think, to dream, or to feel. Alleyne wonders if love can survive in such precarious conditions. Like McCorkle’s verse, an interrogative mode frames her poem. She demands answers to the senseless deaths of Black women, while wrestling with questions of memory and commemoration (“How many angels weep/when a black girl is torn/into wings?”).

Smith names the grief of Bland’s mother, the survivor of a modern-day lynching (“I’m the mother of the hung . . . I am flesh and bone and pulse,/that in the night I wail with want of them.”). Yet the presence of her pain announces resistance to state violence against Black women: “I’m here to say their bodies weren’t at war/with you. I’m here to say their bodies weren’t/at war with you. I’m here to say their wars/were in their bodies. And the battlefield/was always yours, was always yours, was all.”

Poems by Courtney Lamar Charleston, a Black poet from Chicago, and Marcus Wicker, a Black University of Memphis scholar, similarly explore the materiality of Bland’s life. But they also engage her memory in a religious register that gestures towards theodicy. Emphasizing the senses of sight, sound, and touch, Charleston’s “Facing the Music” from Telepathologies in essence recalibrates the visual and verbal narrative of Bland’s traffic stop. By “facing the music” the poem demands a truthful reckoning with the precarity of Black life and with God’s presence/absence in the spaces of seemingly perpetual Black death. “People assume that God has hands” Charleston writes, “like our own hands,/which are used to touch each other’s life in cruel or/unusually beautiful ways.” Yet, he says, the Bible depicts God speaking, so God “has a voice, as a poet does,/and everything orbits said voice like a chorus of charge.” In Bland’s traffic stop, hands and voices become entangled in ways that enact violence (“And I imagine it was one word or anther that excited/your arresting officer”). In Charleston’s rendering, if the poet has a voice, then the poet speaks back to God and back to the state to resist its obsession: the elimination of Black life.

Wicker’s “Conjecture on the Stained-Glass Image of White Christ at Ebenezer Baptist Church” from Silencer performs a similar kind of poetic refusal. It refuses to muffle Bland’s memory while it contends with the presence/absence of divine justice in the context of white supremacist state violence against Black people. “If in his image made am I then make me a miracle,” Wicker says. “Make mine the body of a 28-year-old black woman/in a blue patterned maxi dress cruising through Hell on Earth, TX/alive again.” Like Alleyne’s poem, Wicker’s work moves interrogatively, while it, in concert with McCorkle and Smith, configures Bland’s death as a lynching. “If in his image made are we, then why/the endless string of effigies?/ . . . Why crucify me in HD across a scrolling news ticker, tied/to a clothesline of broken necks as long as Time?”

If artists have a unique pulse on the essence of the historical moment, then their cultural production gives space to the refinement of that which is true, to that which is possible. These poems speak toward the last moments of Bland’s life, and they name the conditions which contributed to her death. Yet their very presence as historical and cultural artifacts perform a powerful aesthetic insurgency that fuels freedom dreams. We need these poems, and we need them now.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies. In 2018-19, he is a W. E. B. Du Bois Visiting Scholar at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As a scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, his publications examine the American prosperity gospel, the history of evangelical Christianity, televangelism, African American religion, Black intellectual history, and the work of W. E. B. Du Bois. He has published several books, including Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History with Amy Helene Kirschke (University of Missouri Press, 2014); and Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (New York University Press, 2015). At present, he is at work on several projects related to W. E. B. Du Bois, along with a short biography of James Baldwin for Rowman & Littlefield’s Library of African American Biography series.

Comments on “Aesthetic Insurgency: Sandra Bland’s Presence in Poetry

  • There are numerous Sandra Bland poems that I did not have space to explore in this piece so I list them below.

    In addition to Simone John’s powerful poems from Testify featured in Monday, 7/9’s post, and Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ profound piece from 7/10, perhaps we might crowdsource a fuller bibliography of poetry about Sandra Bland….

    Tiana Clark, “Sandy Speaks,” in Equilibrium (2016).

    Kevin Young, “Not Guilty [A Frieze for Sandra Bland]” from “Triptych for Trayvon Martin” in Brown: Poems (2018).

    Diamond Sharp, “Purgatory Room” in The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic (2018).

    There are also a few spoken word performances:

    FreeQuency “Say Her Name” (2015), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64ZQu_RhTTg

    Hannah Hasan, “Spoken Word Poem for Sandra Bland” (2015), http://allyourprettywords.tumblr.com/post/125951324823/spoken-word-poem-for-sandra-bland-hannah-hasan

    Kai Davis, Nayo Jones, and Jasmine Combs, “Sandra Bland” (2016),
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpSC_IusogI

  • Gorgeous post.

    I’m going to add my own poem to this list. Check out “upon reading the autopsy of Sandra Bland,” finalist for the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, in Obsidian 43.2

    I live in Austin, TX, am a professor at Southwestern University and have been thinking about and organizing around Sandy’s death for these three years.

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