There’s an image burned into my memory that never goes away. I see it more and more this week as I approach the 100th Day of standing in solidarity with Sandra Bland. When I close my eyes, I see two women sitting side by side, one in a black and white patterned dress, the other in something less subdued, yellow, I think. But I don’t really see the clothes; it’s not the clothes that matter, or the hair, or the shoes. All I really see are the eyes. Overflowing with a kind of grief that I had never seen before.
I had not come to Hope AME on Day 5 prepared to say anything, but had been asked to give a prayer. As I stepped to the pulpit and looked down into the eyes of Shante Needham and Sharon Cooper, the oldest sisters of Sandra Bland, I felt my world shift. When my eyes locked with their eyes, ten words I had not planned to say tumbled out of my mouth, gently but firmly, and hit the pulpit like a gavel striking on velvet: “I’ll do this as long as you need me to.”
Nine days earlier, not far outside the doors of the very church where we gathered, their young, vibrant sister, Sandra Bland, had been taken from her car. She had been threatened, she had been thrown to the ground, she had been arrested. Whatever the charges said, her main crime was not a crime at all, but something the women I respect most strive to practice on a daily basis: the refusal to prioritize a man’s ego over our rights and dignity.
Yet, even so, what happened to Sandra Bland would not have happened to me; because when my parents gave “the talk” to their white daughter it was about how to avoid getting a ticket when pulled over, not about how to stay alive. The “get home safe talk” is not a conversation white parents have to have with their children; which is why I have limited patience for conversations about what Sandra should have done to avoid police brutality as a black woman, because there should not be a different set of rules for her and for me. Yet, there is. And police brutality should not be something she should have to learn how to avoid, because police brutality is something that simply should not exist.
None of those things were running through my head, however, when I looked down into Sharon’s eyes and Shante’s. All I could think about was the pain they were enduring, and the fact that they should not have to be there to pick up the body of their baby sister.
Sandra’s voice in her first #SandySpeaks video was still ringing in my head from the first night, five days earlier, that I had gone to the Waller County Jail with my friends Rhys Caraway and Nina Bernardin to #SayHerName and ask #WhatHappenedToSandraBland. Sandy had said in her first video, “I can’t do this alone, I need y’all’s help. I need you.” She did not know at the time why those words would become so necessary.
Seven weeks later, I found myself standing late at night outside that church, at the memorial that still remains at the scene of Sandra’s arrest. I had not planned to be there, but a friend from out of town had wanted to come. So, after letting her fill me with tacos and sweet tea, I had made the drive out to Waller County for the second time that day.
In the hushed darkness, we lit a candle, and I quickly realized that we had not come there because my out of town guest needed to come; we had come there because I needed to come. Focusing in prayer, I felt my world shift again. I realized that I had promised Sandra’s sisters that I would stand with Sandra, but now I was finding myself promising Sandra that I would also stand with her sisters. Standing in front of the huge, laminated photo of Sandra’s smiling face affixed to the tree, surrounding by stuffed animals and candles, I found myself promising her, “I’ll be there for them. Whatever they need from me.”
Not many weeks more passed before I actually was there with them, in Chicago, at Sandra’s home congregation of DuPage AME. I was not in an easy spot personally. For many weeks through record breaking temperatures in Texas, I had asked myself how long I could do this physically. That night in front of Sandra’s memorial I had found my peace to that question. Yet, now a new question had arisen, which was how long could I do this emotionally? Sitting in the pew, about half way back on the right, I looked up at the large stained glass behind the pulpit.
Once again, I felt my world shift.
This time it was God who challenged me. I felt in my spirit the questions coming fast: You have committed to people, to Sandra’s sisters and to Sandra, but will you commit to me? Will you stay where I have called you and where I have placed you, no matter what anyone says about you?
To quote Sandy, “I know that not everyone believes in God, and that’s alright, but on Sandy Speaks, we’re going to talk about God, because God has really opened up my eyes to the fact that there is something we can do.”
God has really opened up my eyes to the fact that there is something we can do.
And as quickly as that, all of my questions went away. I was no longer concerned about how long I could do this physically. I was no longer concerned about how long I could do this emotionally. Because I knew that I had been asked if I would do this spiritually, and the answer was yes.
Sitting next to Shante, whose eyes had evoked a response from me drawing me deeper into this journey nine weeks earlier, I felt a certain peace wash over me. This was going to take a while, but it was going to be okay. The second week of solidarity with Sandra Bland, a friend had asked me in frustration whether I would be doing this for 100 days. “Of course not,” I had replied incredulously, “That would be crazy. We just need a couple weeks and we’ll have some answers.” Now I knew, that it would take much more than 100 days. It might take a year. It might take more. Yet, I knew in my heart that I could share a year or two or more of my life with Sandra Bland. How could I not, when all of the years of her beautiful life had been taken away.