Can You See Me Now: Raynette Turner, Sandra Bland and the Invisibility of Black Women

When her body was discovered in a cell at the Mount Vernon police lockup on July 27, 42-year-old Raynette Turner became the fifth Black woman to die in police custody during the month of July. Arrested for allegedly stealing crab legs from a local market, the mother of eight became ill the day after her arrest and asked to be taken to the hospital where she was ostensibly seen but not admitted. The following day authorities found her dead in her cell just below the courtroom where her husband Herman Turner waited for more than two hours for her arraignment.

In an interview, Mr. Turner lashed out at police for the lapses that may have contributed to his partner's death. Apparently jail personnel cannot account for a substantial block of time during Mrs. Turner's stay in their custody. While established protocol at the jail dictates that someone must check in on prisoners every 15 minutes, more than an hour may have passed from the time when Raynette Turner was last seen alive between noon and 1 p.m. and the discovery of her body at 2 pm. Hinting at the strong possibility of a "cover up," Herman Turner further protested, "If they [Mount Vernon police] did their job, she would still be alive."

So why did Mount Vernon authorities fail to appreciate the seriousness of Raynette Turner's condition? In addition, how will they ultimately account for the missing checks on a prisoner who was ill enough to be taken to the hospital while in their custody? If past history is any indication, they won't have to account for either because of Raynette Turner's race as well as her gender. Women of color in general and Black women in particular remain largely invisible.

More than a decade ago, Kimberlé Crenshaw described the concept of intersectionality, explaining the interlocking nature of oppressions. She illustrated the ways in which Black women remain marginal. If the dead women were white, would the rash of questionable deaths in police custody have engendered a national backlash and debate?

Even in the unprecedented coverage of the case of 28-year-old Sandra Bland, who Texas authorities discovered hanging in her cell on July 13 following her arrest during a routine traffic stop, she like Raynette Turner remains largely unseen. Their deaths failed to ignite the same degree of passion as the killings of Black men in police custody.

To be sure the Bland's death helped sustain a national debate on the treatment of people of color by police, but there is something unique about the Bland case. In the midst of substantial mainstream media coverage, Sandra Bland remains invisible. In spite of the video of her arrest, the salvaging of her social media accounts demonstrating her support of the Black Lives Matter movement, along with rumors of her struggles with depression that authorities tried to use to explain away her death, the real Sandra Bland remains elusive. Intelligent and attractive, she is not easily reduced to racial troupes. She was neither angry nor "uppity". The video of her encounter with the arresting officer is surreal in much the same way other documented video encounters of African Americans with the police turn bizarre and tragic as tensions escalate. It is a new genre of American horror with old roots. In the days before police body cams and cell phone video, it was the type of racial terror that adults cautioned young people about - the danger of being Black in America.

In its present incarnation, the horror comes not from blood-thirsty lynch mobs or cross-burning bands of terrorists encased in white, but the unpredictable danger of the routine. One sees it in the overwhelming anxiety and fear building in Bland as she realizes that her failure to bow to the officer's bewildering commands will cost her more than a traffic ticket. For those who cannot understand Sandra Bland's shrieks of terror and her attempts to resist miss the point. Ralph Ellison captured it best in his classic novel Invisible Man when the protagonist acknowledges how debilitating it is "to repress not only his emotions but his humanity . . . [to be] invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, . . . the mechanical man!" It is an expression of emotion that competes fruitlessly with the power and privilege of white officers armed with their own fears and a license to use deadly force.

We see it in the frightening rage of McKinney patrolman Eric Casebolt. Americans witnessed his anger in a June video, as he recklessly somersaulted into a crowd of youth, drew his service revolver to chase unarmed teens, and ultimately, trained his fury on 15 year-old Dajerria Becton clad only in a bikini. He slammed her to the grass, kneed her in the back and forced her head to the ground. As one of the partygoers, Tatyana Rhodes, recounted, "He was just aggressive for no reason at all. It was horrible." Horrible indeed: but far from rare.

Noteworthy books by scholars such as Kali Gross and Cheryl Hicks have powerfully documented the historic injustices faced by Black women in the criminal justice system where white supremacy generally trumped justice for poor and working class Black women. Sandra Bland defies simple classification as either. Neither her college education nor her vibrant smile made her a victim. She was female and she was Black. That, like Raynette Turner, made her invisible.

At the same time, complaints of fatigue have surfaced -- in spite of the continued documented cases of police violence against African Americans -- over the din of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Yet in the national news, there is growing outrage over a dentist luring and killing a lion on safari. The incident touched so many people that the Empire State Building cast an image of the lion along with other endangered species on its façade, earning criticism from proponents of the Black Lives Matter movement. They are baffled at the lack of compassion for human life. Perhaps if Sandra Bland, Raynette Turner, and the other women who have died were lions, then the majority of Americans could understand why the deafening indifference to their deaths wounds our pride. Not in the racially divisive sense that some will want to read it but in the broader context of our shared humanity. Basic civility should breed, at the very least, empathy. This is the hallmark of invisibility for one cannot feel for what cannot be seen. Those of us who demand it are chastised for being irresponsible or for fanning the flames of racial discord.

Ellison again masterfully highlighted the conundrum in the prologue, Invisible Man. "I am one of the most irresponsible beings that ever lived. Irresponsibility is part of my invisibility; any way you face it, it is a denial. But to whom can I be responsible, and why should I be, when you refuse to see me?"

We may know her name and we have been introduced to members of her family, but we will never know Sandra Bland or Raynette Turner. We lost that opportunity when they "slipped the surly bounds of earth" while in the control of those supposedly dedicated to serve and protect. In the tragedy of their absence, we are left to contemplate their pain and our own as we attempt to navigate the sea of indifference that threatens to swallow even the shallow memories they leave in their wake. It is an indifference, as a man of color, I understand better now. I have two daughters, one eleven and one thirteen. This past month has been a brutal reminder of the danger they face in the public sphere. We all face the challenge of truly seeing beyond our own entry point the travails of our sisters who make up roughly 13 percent of the female population in the United States, but who remain largely on the margins in the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens -- and often in their own communities.

Black Lives Matter. It bears repeating for our wives, mothers and daughters as well as for our sons.