I don’t write much anymore. Not because I don’t want to write. Not because there isn’t enough time. But in this fast-paced world of hot takes, it has become increasingly difficult to keep up. I realize that I am not a hot take kinda girl. I am for the measured, contemplative essay, one that takes great care to craft. Some are able to pull that off daily, and God bless ’em. I can’t do it. My heart isn’t in it. I write when the spirit compels me, when something has moved me so deeply that I am wide awake at 1:30 in the morning banging, on my Macbook Pro in the quiet of my living room.
Today, it is Sandra Bland, the woman who allegedly committed suicide in a Texas jail cell earlier this week. And the Black Lives Matter protest at Netroots Saturday morning. And the criticism of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new release. And how, in one way or another, they all intersect.
Sandra Bland spent the latter part of brief life advocating for preservation of black lives. Her family remembers her as a brilliant, vivacious woman, a woman fighting to change the world, or her corner of it. She used social media to speak out against police violence. A Chicago Blackhawks fan, her final tweets are ones asking fellow fans to join her in prayer for the Charleston Nine. She is the second person in three years to allegedly commit suicide while in custody of the Waller County, Texas, authorities. She is the sixth black woman in 2015 to die during a police encounter. She is the 13th black woman (that we know of) to die since 2014. Sandra Bland’s case is one of the very few to see widespread media attention; usually when the victim is black and female the story is quietly filed away, until a news story needs a statistic, or a thinkpiece needs an tragic anecdote. Perhaps, because in Sandra Bland, we have the perfect victim. A respectable victim. An educated, socially conscious victim. She is not too young, or too old. She could easily be the girl from the old neighborhood, or the sister making plates at the family picnic, or the girl you politely smiled at as you crossed paths in the frozen food aisle at Mariano’s.
Sandra Bland means that the stories of black women felled at the hands of police can no longer be erased. No longer can we write off black female victims as troubled ne’er-do-wells condemned to their fates. No longer can we blame incomplete narratives on the lack of public interest. Her story is in our face, her final moment of life a viral video, her brief existence a Sunday morning show talking point. So when a Black Lives Matter activist disrupts a presidential candidate forum to declare “no more erasure,” you are compelled to pay attention. And it will make you uncomfortable. That’s the point. There is no room for politeness when your life is on the line. There is no hey, um, if you could um, just give me a minute… because we’ve tried that before and got nowhere. This is as urgent as a motherfucker.
News reports covering Saturday’s action have described it as “heckling,” the presidential candidates “shouted down.” or “interrupted and derailed” by BLM. Social media reaction was just as damning, with many white progressives wondering (aloud, of course) why black activists would disrupt politicians at a convention specifically created for…activists. Many black people who have attended Netroots will attest to having that “fly in the buttermilk” feeling. They will regale you with tales of bizarre microaggressions and polite liberal racism. They will speak of the organization’s lip service to diversity, and its struggles to be more inclusive. Which is why that BLM action was necessary, why the sight of a black woman standing between two white male presidential hopefuls, demanding to be seen, demanding accountability, was powerful. Sure, white progressives can try to dismiss this protest as an immature attention-grab, but when a white male presidential hopeful (one with a questionable track record on race relations) responds to Tia Oso’s question with “Black Lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter” the disconnect is clear. And when Tia Oso is met with scorn and derision from white progressives, the disconnect is clear. And when Bernie Sanders cancels a meeting with black activists, perhaps to signal disapproval, the disconnect is clear.
It is necessary, then, to continue to speak up about erasure, even if it means criticizing those we respect. Last week saw the release of Ta-Nehisi Coates new book, Between the World and Me; many met the new release with praise, including Toni Morrison, who compared The Atlantic writer to Baldwin. It is something when one of the world’s most revered writers compares your work to that of another literary giant. The accolades, of course, aren’t unwarranted. I’ve been a fan since his Village Voice days, and have had spirited debates with good friends on the merits of his work. Coates is a beautiful storyteller, an earnest intellectual who readily admits when he’s wrong, and takes great care to get it right. And when a friend did come with criticism, he took it. Instead of making it about himself, or his feelings, he simply responded “you’re right.”
And that’s really all we want. Acknowledgement. For our voices to be heard, our pain felt. To not be shouted down, or told to wait our turn. It is possible to bite your tongue so hard it bleeds, to hold in a scream for so long that the body and spirit and soul breaks down. A demand for accountability shouldn’t be met with paternalism and jeers. A moment of legitimate anger shouldn’t be dismissed as an ill-timed tantrum. We are here. Present. Visible. Loud. And we aren’t going anywhere.