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.
The summer of 2015 seemed to be a never-ending collision of bad news and public grieving. On June 17, news of the murder of nine Black men and women attending Bible study at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, shook the nation. The days following the murders devolved into a political debate over the use of the Confederate flag, and the defiant, racist symbolism of its presence on South Carolina’s state flag. Still others maintained that history and heritage informed their support of the flag.
In the aftermath of the shooting, historians Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, and Keisha N. Blain launched #CharlestonSyllabus on Twitter to place the massacre–and the flag–in historical context, and to foster public healing and activism. Then on June 27 the heroic climbing skills of Bree Newsome brought the Confederate flag down. That brave, defiant act and her subsequent arrest sparked new hashtags such as #BreeNewsome and #FreeBree.
The news of Sandra Bland‘s arrest and death several weeks after the Charleston massacre further ignited much anger, pain, and frustration in Black communities across the nation. The news of Sandra Bland’s arrest on July 10 was especially difficult for those of us at Prairie View A&M University, where Bland had just signed papers to start a new position. I vividly remember the unfolding events on campus as they occurred three years ago. An unidentified PVAMU student had uploaded a personal cell phone video of Bland’s arrest on YouTube. The user’s friends shared the arrest video just as Bland’s friends and fellow PVAMU alumni gathered on social media to question the reported cause of her subsequent death on July 13. Like so many others across the nation, PVAMU students, faculty, and staff began to ask critical questions, probing the details that had been provided in media reports. The young woman so many people on campus knew did not match the narrative the Waller County Sheriff’s office provided.
I did not know Sandra Bland. She graduated from PVAMU the semester before I joined the faculty in fall 2009. However, her friends were my first students. When they came to me after her death I knew I had to do something to help. I had spent years teaching about social change and social movements. On many occasions, I told my students that communication in general and rhetoric, in particular, were powerful forces for social change. I had held countless class sessions on the power of individuals to create change through organizing. How then could I go back to the classroom in the fall, continue to teach and advocate for social justice and not do something?
When the moment came, I put my theoretical and methodological training on womanist rhetoric and social justice to work. As I have argued elsewhere, the central aspects of womanist rhetoric is authentic womanist voices, gendered cultural knowledge, and womanist ethics. These include, among other things, an emphasis on Black love and social justice. These two core themes–Black love and social justice–guided my social activism and teaching in the weeks and months following Sandra Bland’s death. For me, this represented the intersection of my scholarship and activism.
In an attempt to better understand Bland’s case and the broader responses to it, I started by putting to use my work in digital humanities. I created and collected seven TAGS hashtags sheets related to Bland for a total of 321,654 unique tweets. I applied womanist rhetorical theory and method to analyze these large data sets to understand the ways communities and cultures have navigated Bland’s life and memory. I discovered conflicting narratives within the data. In the thirty-six months since Bland’s death, several other high profile cases of Black people being killed by or dying in police custody sparked the creation of hashtags. In each case, Black Twitter curated grief through artistic relief. For every negative story and every moment of tragedy, Black Twitter rides in with futuristic imaginings, justice images, and humanistic centrality of Black people’s right to exist.
Mixed with Black Twitter’s powers of imagination and re-imaging of the Black body are its powers of respectability. For example, the tweets on both the death of Sandra Bland and the murder of the AME 9–Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr., Rev. Sharonda Singleton and Myra Thompson–were congested with “if they had only” comments. For Bland, it was about the way she spoke to the police officer. Tweets about the AME 9 suggested they should have expressed more curiosity or scrutiny about the visitor. These statements falsely assumed that vigilance or ‘respectable behavior’ can shield Black people from the violence of the state. They also obscure the fact that it is up to others to see Black people as human with access to civil society.
Through her work as a citizen journalist and emerging activist, Bland emphasized this point, calling for others to recognize the humanity of Black people in this country. She used social justice language to communicate new and reimagined future possibilities. Through her social media presence, Bland resisted respectability narratives and emphasized the need for us to be unwavering in the fight for social justice.
Sandra Bland’s message and her legacy has served as inspiration for my own work in and outside of the classroom. In collaboration with several scholar-activists, I have been active in various social justice initiatives with Sandy Speaks On, a group of students, faculty, and local activists who are committed to honoring her memory and legacy. Since 2015, I have delivered several talks, and presented research on these initiatives to help others move forward in the wake of Bland’s death. One presentation took place at Sam Houston State University at the forum #SayHerName: The Sandra Bland Movement. I spoke alongside of LaToya Smith, Sandra Bland’s friend and sorority sister, and Hannah Bonner, a Methodist clergy person involved in much of the direct action protest and social media activism. Over the years, I’ve continued to work with Sandy Speaks On to engage in social change and raise money for the Sandra Bland Scholarship. I also participated in the vigil and protest actions with my students and community–all while the university administration at the time opted for silence instead of action.
Despite the early failure of the administration, I found much hope in the actions of my students who took to the streets to speak up for change. They created new organizations and pushed to have a more culturally and critical responsive administration. Student groups such as the Prairie View Panther Party began as a means for students to organize political capital on and off campus. They sponsored social action workshops, candidate forums, and political discussions to ensure that students remain informed of and able to exercise their rights. The group selected student leaders and faculty mentors and set their sights on achieving a number of goals—primarily to effect electoral change. Perhaps their most significant development was when one of these students leaders became the first student regent from Prairie View A&M University on the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents. These students, spurred to action in the wake of Sandra Bland’s death, worked to ensure that what happened to her would not happen again, and that the campus would not choose silence over action.
Sandra Bland’s death was challenging for me–and I still struggle to drive down Sandra Bland Parkway as I make my way to campus. But her legacy has taught me a way forward. My students, Sandra’s sorority sisters and family, my colleagues, local activists, and others have demonstrated the ways, means, and reasons to press on. Sandra Bland’s death has emboldened me even more to work for a socially just community. This will require each and every person and social institution to recognize, defend, and affirm the full humanity of every citizen. No system or society can be socially just if it does not understand the humanity of everyone. Because of Sandra Bland, we must be unwavering in this fight.