How Sandra Bland Changed My Life

On August 25, I stood in front of the Prairie View City Council and I said that I was there because Sandra Bland had changed my life.

Despite the fact that I never met Sandra Bland, and sadly will never get to meet her, it was true. Assuredly, she had help: her friends and family helped to put her life in context, while my friends and family helped keep my life in context.

When I saw pictures of her goofing off with her four sisters, it pierced my heart, thinking of my own sisters who are everything to me. When I saw the joy in her eyes in pictures with her nieces and nephews, I recognized the pure delight of getting to be the fun, young aunt who is free to adore and be adored by children who you have a responsibility to without having the full responsibility for them. When I saw pictures of Sandra with her mother, I recognized the fulfillment of figuring out how to have an adult relationship with the woman who once wiped your nose and changed your diapers. When I saw her sign “All white people are not against us,” I knew that Sandra Bland was wise enough to recognize that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is not about hating white people, it is about loving black people; and the person who believes the former reveals their struggle to do the latter.

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Unlike many people who find themselves in the spotlight, Sandra Bland never had an opportunity to go back over her life and edit it for public consumption. By the time she found herself in the limelight, she was no longer with us. The story she had left behind of her life, both the pain and the beauty, would have to stand on its own.

Yet, stand it does. It stands as the testimony of a bold and loving woman, who was in a moment of emergence. A woman who stood for love. A woman discovering new levels of strength and courage within herself in moments of struggle. A woman who would take a vocal stand against excessive force by police, only to find herself on the receiving end of it. A woman doing the hard work to figure out how to use her voice in a culture that often silences women, and particularly African American women.

In the end, it was that voice that she used to change my life:

“I can’t do this alone, I need y’all’s help.”

My friend Jeremyah brought her words to my attention the day after her death when he told me that the news was saying a friend from school hung herself in jail. The next morning, I asked if there were any updates and he told me his friends believed it couldn’t be true and were asking “What happened to Sandra Bland?” He had asked me to do something about it, and I wrestled all day. By the time I left Bible Study that night, I was visibly distressed; so my friend Rhys, who had also gone to Prairie View, asked what I wanted to do it about it. I said I did not know, but we had to do something physical with our feet and not just our tweets. He suggested we go to the jail and take one of the nine candles we had lit the week before for the victims of the Charleston shooting and light one for Sandra. We grabbed our friend Nina, and headed out into the darkness. We arrived around 10:00 pm, just in time to see a Texas Ranger load his rifle back into their vehicle and drove away. We pulled in and lit the candle. When someone blew it out, I lit it again while Rhys anointed the step with oil.

The next day we still heard her words, “I can’t do this alone, I need y’all’s help,” and we went back again. Others joined us and the vigil still continues. Over the last 49 days of going to the Waller County Jail, we have turned consistently to the scriptures, prayer and Sandra Bland’s “Sandy Speaks” videos to keep our conviction strong.

In doing so there are three life changing lessons for which I would like to thank Sandra Bland.

First, Sandra Band taught me that you can’t truly fight for justice for others if you won’t fight for it for yourself. When Sandra Bland came back to Texas to work at her alma mater, she told her mother, “I know what my purpose is. My purpose is to go back to Texas and end social injustice in the South.” She very quickly had the opportunity to test her resolve when she found herself pulled over by an officer who escalated the situation by making unnecessary demands. Many people have said she should have just stayed quiet and stayed alive. Yet, the fact that African Americans in this nation are expected to bow the head and keep quiet to stay alive, systemic injustices such as racial profiling, was exactly the situation she felt called to end. How could she be silent about her rights and remain consistent? Someday, someone has to say no. To stand with Sandra, there were things I would have to say no to as well. This was explained to me very early on in this journey by a friend, the Rev. Kea Westbrook, who told me that if I was not strong enough to stand up for myself, I would not be strong enough to stand up with Sandra.

Second, Sandra Bland taught me that courage is contagious. Her belief in spreading love and courage was pervasive throughout her “Sandy Speaks” videos. She was constantly sharing what she was doing in her community to try to make a difference and encouraging others to do likewise. With every move she made she invited others into action. She promoted seeking justice as a community, but she was willing to take action even if she was all alone. When she was trying to get a petition signed while eating lunch in the food court, she was asked to leave by security. Her courage inspired another young man to speak up for her and then he was asked to leave as well. When he was sent home, Sandra Bland was worried he would lose his job so she committed to sit outside his work every day if he did: because Sandra Bland also had something to teach us about solidarity. Sandra was willing to do the bold and right thing, even if she was the only one doing it. Her courage commanded a response from others. Her courage commands our response now.

Third, Sandra Bland taught me that if your faith is central to who you are, you cannot be wholly present in the world if you do not talk about it. In her first video she pauses near the end to think about whether she wants to continue with what she has begun to say because it involves her faith. She finally continues, stating that she is going to talk about God in her videos because it is God that has opened her eyes and given her this calling to seek justice. I identify so strongly with that pause. It is a moment I have experienced many times in my life, while working to build solidarity between those who seek justice within the church and those who seek justice but will not go near a church. When those seeking to end injustice through a faith motivation come into contact with those seeking to end the same injustice, while also articulating that the church has had a hand in creating it, it can be tense. It is a difficult space in which to stand. I have rarely had the courage to make the choice Sandra Bland did, not to leave her faith in her pocket when putting her cards on the table. What I very quickly realized in keeping vigil for Sandra Bland was that if my faith is the source of my courage, conviction and motivation in this struggle, then I am weaker without it. I am weaker if I do not talk about it. I am only partly me, and I need every bit of me to keep going in this journey. Every last bit.

So, like Sandra Bland, I’m bringing all of me to the table. Strength. Courage. Faith.

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