Do you recognize Sandra Annette Bland? Do you see yourself when you look at the face of this 28-year-old black woman, this young adult who died in a police cell on July 13, 2105? Do you see your daughter, your baby girl, your smart, beautiful baby girl, your baby girl? Do you see your sister, your aunt, a member of your youth group, a cousin, a mother, a colleague, your “sor” — sorority sister? Who do you see when you look at Sandra Annette Bland?
Love gave birth to Sandra Bland. Love awoke her soul. Love nurtured her, journeyed with her, conversed with her, and serenaded her with songs that spoke to her spirit, mind, body, and soul. “Sandy”, as she was known by many, was “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14*) by God, and one of a kind. Like a handprint, she left her own particular mark on the world. No one can replace her. No one. And yet, so many of us see ourselves in Sandy, for her features are familiar and yet belong uniquely to her.
Love gave birth to Sandy. In his genius, God created her luscious brown skin. Like so many black women, Sandy changed her hairstyle when she felt like it. Each hairstyle mirrored her flair and zest for life. Each hairstyle indicated her belief in herself, her evolving sense of identity, and her understanding of her various selves. She did not feel she had to wear her hair in a perfect do before she shared her views with the world. She cherished her beauty and that of other black people. When documenting her views through her YouTube posts, she addressed her black followers with the saying “Good morning, beautiful kings and queens.”
When Sandy speaks about injustice
Sandy spoke her mind on her own terms. She did not speak in riddles or tropes. Self-editing found no voice in her reflections. Through her YouTube posts, Sandy presented the world with penetrating observations for us to contemplate. She did not insist that others conform to her perspectives. She understood that there were those who held different views to her own, but she demanded that they support their opinions with facts. In this, Sandy was very much a young adult and a reflection of her generation, and that is a good thing, for she reminds us to never underestimate the keen minds of young black adults. And so, for those who object to the concept and movement #BlackLivesMatter and insist that all lives matter, Sandy dared such critics to “Show [her where] in American history [when] all lives have mattered” (ibid.). When taking these detractors to task, Sandy refused to position herself as a living SparkNotes on race, race relations, and racial injustice in America. Instead, Sandy held critics of the #BlackLivesMatter movement accountable by calling them to dissect their opinions, scrutinize history, and to not sleepwalk through their ideological preferences.
When Sandy speaks about life
Sandy spoke her purpose into being. She was in touch with the fullness of her complex humanity. She refused to be silent or be silenced. Transparency underscored her testimonies. As New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow observes, Sandy “wanted to use her testimony to help others” (July 26, 2015). An ally “with whom Bland was working to start a women’s empowerment forum online… said that Bland told her that she wanted to share her travails because ‘it takes a lot of will and resilience when you’re going downhill to stop yourself’” (ibid.). Sandy shared her victories and struggles with others and did not hide them from the world. Her vulnerability, her tenacity, creativity, and ingenuity underscored her messages. She embraced her joys, fragility, and strengths. She faced the social ills in our nation head on. According to Charles M. Blow, those who knew Sandy described her as “Fearless.’ ‘Activist.’ ‘Life of the party, in a good way.’ ‘Vibrant and full of life.’ “’Passionate.’ ‘A strong woman; a strong black woman.'” Sandy rebuffed presenting herself as a black superwoman. She could be gloriously sensitive to her humanity and those of others. She did not airbrush her triumphs or shy away from battles. She thought of the needs of others and confronted social injustice. As the obituary in the funeral program commemorating her life announces:
Unapologetic in her confidence and commitment to causes she believed in, Sandy introduced the world to #SandySpeaks on January 14, 2015 vowing to utilize social media as a platform to address societal injustices she felt impacted her community personally but were rarely discussed candidly. She expressed a genuine interest in lending a voice to the next generation regarding police brutality and racial politics, doing so on a weekly basis and reaching many viewers. (Ivana Robertson, Vibe, July 25, 2015)
We can follow Sandy’s example and honor this young black woman who had the courage to be honest about her very human life. We can follow Sandy’s example by not ignoring the trials and stories of the marginalized, the hurting. She was more honest and possessed more integrity than most people I know.
When Sandy speaks about God
When Sandy expressed her views, her life sang a song of action and resiliency. She envisioned a future for herself, others, and the “next generation.” Her life speaks poetry. Her words are vital, practical, confessional, multilayered, and full of life. They invoke an economy of words for maximum impact. Her faith in the God of the Bible permeates her reflections. Sandy “kn[ew] not everybody believes in God” and she was “fine” with that, but she desired that her audience know that when she spoke she was “gonna talk about God because [God] ha[d] truly opened [her] eyes and shown [her] that there is something out there that we can do.” Sandy had the humility to know that only God could open her eyes to wisdom. And so, Sandy stayed ‘woke’ to God. She knew God had much to teach her. With eyes wide open, she allowed God to shape her faith and outlook. In this, like us all, Sandy was a work in progress. As I reflect on Sandy’s precious life, I am reminded that God never checks with others to validate whether we have been hurt or violated. He acknowledges our anguish and the realities of injustice. He does not look to others to justify our existence or qualify our worth.
Sandy’s faith, her words, her actions confronted the realities of racism and social injustice. When asked whether she “was trying to racially unite [people of different backgrounds] “or… incite” racial divisions between people of different races, Sandy insists that “her goal was to racially unite” people in America, but she cautions “that in the process of doing that some people will be…upset” and will rebel against efforts to forge racial unity. Not one to deny the tensions that emerge when confronting racial injustice, Sandy maintains that “we have to stop just icing these things over.” She stresses that “we have to stop acting like [racial inequities in America] don’t matter, and so [she promises that she will] speak whenever [she] sees something wrong.” She also vows “to call out racism wherever [she] see[s] it.” When interviewing friends and family members of Sandy, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow shares that “It was abundantly clear to me that the people who knew and loved her loved her fierce-ly and loved her fierce-ness” (July 26, 2015). As I ponder Sandy’s commitment to fighting against racial inequities in America I am thankful that the God she followed “will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching” (Isaiah 42:4).
A woman of valor, Sandy engaged in frank talk and refused to enable a faith perspective that condones apathy. In a “SandySpeaks” segment she notes, “we [must] stop sitting around [while] saying, ‘Oh well, we knew that was gonna happen.’” Refusing to establish herself as a lone ranger against social injustice, Sandy calls us to not slumber through our lives, or intellectualize about the experiences of the marginalized, or sit around talking about the discrimination we as black people confront, daily. We can choose to dismiss her words or consider what God wants to teach us through her insights. We can choose to ignore her reflections or ask God how we can live vital and practical lives that spurn turning a blind eye to injustice and the needs of the marginalized. We can ask God to open our hearts to learn from, be led by, and work alongside the disenfranchised, or we can allow pride to swell our hearts and rely on our own understanding when confronted with reports about the latest racial storm to sweep America. Sandy asserts that, “it’s time to stop knowing that that was going to happen. And it’s time to start doing something.” Sandy was, and is, right about this issue.
When Sandy spoke up
Sandy refused to be limited by a world that strove to belittle her worth. And yes, like many young adults, Sandy knew how to talk back. She spoke up because she was intelligent and curious and believed she had something to say that others needed to hear. She knew her rights. She possessed acute listening skills. After an officer pulled her over for an alleged traffic violation, Sandy paraphrased the officer’s statements when he talked at her rather than to her. Sandy did not like how the officer treated her and made her feelings known. She refused to render herself invisible. She refused to be silenced. She was more than willing to listen but she wanted — she needed — to be heard. In this, she is not unlike many of her generation. The difference is that as a black woman, a young black female adult, the cost of speaking up for herself cost her her life. Perhaps Sandy needed the officer to demonstrate to her that he was worthy of her trust, her compliance. We will never know because Sandy, her mother’s — Geneva Reed-Veal — baby girl, her family’s beloved, is now dead.
Sandy matters to God
God is not traumatized by trauma. He can handle our grief. God will lament alongside us even as he shoulders our mourning. Sandy’s life was not lived in vain. To paraphrase the worship song “The Lord is Blessing Me” that was sung during her homegoing service, God “woke [her] up [every] morning” (AllGospelLyrics.com). Sandy mattered to God. She still matters to God. Jesus loved Sandy and still adores her. God enabled her to nurture a critical and keen mind, and in turn, Sandy refused to sleepwalk through her faith or convictions. Sandy was spiritually, physically, and emotionally awake to herself and to the social ills marring the fabric of American society. As we address racial inequities in America we can adopt the words of Sandy by asking God what “is [the] something” that he would have us do? Let us not be “hearers” of God’s words but instead “be doers of the word” (James 1:22–25). And as we pray for Sandy’s family, and grieve in solidarity with these beloved ones, let us be a people who “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).
Rest in peace, precious Sandy. Beloved one, rest in the arms of the God who relishes you. You were, you are, a marvel of creation. Your presence on earth and your words sing songs of liberation and freedom. You knew you were “here to change history.” And you were right baby girl. You were right. So said. So done. #SandyStillSpeaks. Amen.
*All biblical citations taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible.
Dr. Claudia May is the author of Jesus is Enough: Love, Hope, and Comfort in the Storms of Life. She is a specialist in African American and Caribbean literature, popular culture, and Reconciliation Studies, and a spiritual director (see http://www.claudiamay.org/) . Dr. May is a visiting scholar in the Department of African American Studies and African Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a passionate follower of Jesus, a woman of prayer, and a lover of biblical stories and wisdom. You can follow her on twitter @ClaudiaMayPhD