the problem with the passive past tense

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. 

(Photo: Johnny Silvercloud, Flickr)

or somebody loves you someone cares

for Sandra Bland


was stopped

was found

was arrested

was pulled over

was stopped

was found

was found dead

who stopped

who found

who arrested

who pulled over

who stopped

who found

the black woman sound

too loud

and slammed her

on the ground


the cops

who found

the black woman sound

of dignity too much to bear

who thought

the sound too much

then said

they found

her silent

hanging there

A Note: The passive voice is the language of the state. The status quo. The enforced state of being. It generates the mythology that violence of the state is inevitable. Nope. Actually, people, often wearing uniforms provided by the state, and other times simply wearing the dominant white supremacist mind state, “rip rape exacerbate.” Black people, Black women, and Black queer and gender non-conforming people every day. People do that. The state does it to and through people. The problem with the passive past tense is that it obscures the relationship between subjects and action, between what we do and how it impacts other people. For example, the ubiquity of the phraseology that a person “was raped” in legal and journalistic representations of rape links the action (rape) to the victim or the survivor only and invisibilizes the person who took action, who raped someone. Making action invisible, not only forecloses robust accountability for people who harm other people, it also disempowers us all by hiding the myriad actions we could take to end cycles of violence. If someone did something, we can do something else, we can do something now.

In the case of Sandra Bland, the idea that she died at her own hands, was only one aspect of a linguistic and grammatical spell, that sought to disappear actions of the entire apparatus of state and racial and gendered violence that attacked her. It sought to hide the hands of the people who pushed her and locked her in, the mouths of the people who screamed at her, the guns of the people who pointed them at her or wore them near her.

In the intellectual and literary lineage of Hortense Spillers, my commitment is to what she calls a “new American grammar book,” and my hope is that it can function as a spell powerful enough to unravel the state of violence called America. Sandra Bland was already a practitioner of this magic. In her work as an independent media producer, through self-made motivational vehicles, she offered a reminder that love and care do not function in the passive voice. As the tagline for her motivational videos she did not say “you are loved. you are cared for,” instead she said “somebody loves you, someone cares,” begging the question “who?” she often implicitly answered the question “who?” with “me.” Her videos were acts of love for an emergent community. However, the openness of the statements “somebody loves you, somebody cares” instead of “I love you. I care,” implicates everyone. Will we love? Will we care? Or not?

For me, this poem implicates all of us, including the unnamed workers of the state who policed, processed, and interacted with Sandra Bland and who police and process multitudes daily with the force of routine. They could have loved, they could have cared. What actions did they take instead? What lies about love and care not being possible in this state did they tell and believe? For me, this poem implicates all of us, including those of us, unnamed, who grieve, and process and sometimes close ourselves off. What lies do we tell and believe about what is and is not possible in this state? Who loves? Who cares? (Me. You.)

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Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Alexis Pauline Gumbs is an acclaimed poet and a passionate community cherished scholar of Black feminisms, mothering, daughtering and Afro-Caribbean literature. She is the author of 'Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity' (Duke University Press, 2016), 'M Archive: After the End of the World' (Duke University Press, 2018) and co-editor of 'Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines' (PM Press, 2016). Alexis is visiting Winton Chair in Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at University of Minnesota Twin Cities (2017-2019), where she is working with Black feminist performance and theater artists to create embodied activations of her books. Follow her on Twitter @alexispauline.

Comments on “the problem with the passive past tense

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    Passive voice perturbs the he** out of me, especially surrounding rape. What is wrong with “A man raped a woman?” “A woman was raped” doesn’t have a man (or anyone else, for that matter) anywhere near her. She alone is responsible? Even so-called feminist writers use passive voice when referring to rape. Language is everything. Shame.

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    Thank you, love.

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