Writing for Africa is a Country, Professor of Anthropology Gina Athena Ulysse reflects on the story of Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who was arrested by a state trooper during a traffic stop in Waller County, Texas and was later found dead in her jail cell. Video footage from a dashboard camera found the trooper had threatened Bland with a Taser after she refused to put out her cigarette and the encounter escalated. Her death was found to be a suicide, though her family has doubts.
Ulysse writes that she identified with Bland, and responded strongly to images and videos of the young woman while she was alive.
There is a radiance that emanated from her, which came from a fierce black woman on a quest of self-discovery with all of its ups and downs, a black woman determined to be of significance in this unjust world, a black woman who, as her mother described was “an activist, sassy, smart, and she knew her rights.” She was using her knowledge and skills to creatively create her life. Sandra Bland was not uppity. That may have been a perception of her by a white officer of the law clearly insecure in his position of authority who had no idea who he is when faced with someone like her. Sandra Bland embodied a rare charismatic self-possession that disrupts social orders. […] This way of being in the world is one for which black women who do not submit continually pay a very high price. Within the social limits of white imagination, complexity is never ours, black women like Sandra Bland, black women like us, are be reducible to four, maybe five, stereotypes at the most.
Ulysse, too, has been pressured many times to “keep my mouth shut, stay in my place, not question my seniors, or watch my comportment too often by white men and women in power.” She writes, “Every time I consider Sandra’s reaction, I identify with it. Her response whatever else you may think of it, was an act of self-possession. Her constitutional rights were being violated and she simply would not stand for it.”
As black people, we live with the continuities of slavery and the Jim-Crow era when state sanctioned slave codes determined how we expressed fundamental parts of our “partial” personhood. We are being ruled by neo black codes of conduct enforced by social and legal machinery that demand we submit in the presence of white power or else become part of a landfill of hashtags. Sandra Bland refused because she knew her rights.