Sandra Bland and the Transgression of Empowered Black Womanhood

This undated handout photo provided by the Waller County Sheriff’s Office shows Sandra Bland. The Texas Rangers are investi
This undated handout photo provided by the Waller County Sheriff’s Office shows Sandra Bland. The Texas Rangers are investigating the circumstances surrounding Bland's death Monday, July 13, 2015 in a Waller County jail cell in Hempstead, Texas. The Harris County medical examiner has classified her death as suicide by hanging. She had been arrested Friday in Waller County on a charge of assaulting a public servant. (Waller County Sheriff’s Office, via AP)

1. From womanish. (Opp. of "girlish," i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, "you acting womanish," i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered "good" for one. Interested in grown up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression: "You trying to be grown." Responsible. In charge. Serious.

-From Alice Walker's Definition of a "Womanist" from In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (Walker, 1983)

I spent a lot of time attempting not to view the dash cam video of Sandra Bland's arrest. But it seems to be everywhere on social media. I finally broke down and allowed myself to watch it in spite of my own internal trigger warning. Needless to say, the video was overwhelming to watch, especially knowing that there was no happy ending to this scene. In the video, we hear Ms. Bland engage in a verbal altercation with the officer, who eventually arrests her. In spite of her tone and resistance, besides failing to signal when changing lanes, nothing else Ms. Bland said or did was against the law. She knew her rights. She stated them clearly. She asserted her citizenship and spoke her truth. What's more American than that?

The problem is that in America, more than the act of changing lanes without signaling, being black, female and living and speaking unapologetically has always been seen as a punishable transgression. Sandra Bland was a "by-the-book" Womanist. She was "outrageous, audacious, courageous... [and]... willful." She was unafraid to move cross-country to pursue a job in a state that was not hers. She was unafraid to post videos online that spoke openly and honestly to white people about racism. And in the end, she was equally unafraid to address a police officer and make clear her rights as a citizen. She was a tried and true Womanist. Unfortunately, the Womanist Spirit that Ms. Bland embodied has always been seen as an affront to the white supremacist patriarchal sensibilities that dominate American culture.

Actively living into the fullness of who you are as a black woman has always been seen as a transgression. This is what makes Alice Walker's terminology and her writing in general so radical. "Womanist" is a term that began as a prose piece that opened her book In Search of Our Mother's Garden. Since this book was published in 1983 this term has been used to give voice and validity to the particularity of black female power. Our power manifests itself in our voices, our spirituality, our use of language, our bodies, our gardens, our status as warriors, our extreme functionality in spite of all that seeks to kill us and in our "womanish" behavior.

In a society where the particularity of white male power is the only power that is given authority and room to thrive, the Womanist spirit has always had to be suppressed. And what could be seen as powerful and beautiful and divine is always seen as a threat to white maleness, white femaleness, to black maleness and even to black femininity. This sort of suppression of the Womanist Spirit is often physically, spiritually or emotionally violent. The violence may come from the white male officers who feel the need to repress the Womanist spirt to reaffirm a paternalistic white supremacist patriarchy. Or it can come from a black man who uses the term "angry black woman" to silence and shame. Or it can come in the form of a black man who physically, emotionally or sexually abuses strong-willed girls and women in order to assert his version of patriarchy. And unfortunately, the violence can be internal in the form suppression and repression of our our social and spiritual "bigness" to accommodate societal norms that seek shrink us.

Alice Walker's work wasn't only a response to the Euro-centric nature of Feminism or the male-centric nature of the Black Power movement. It also gave voice to the Sandra Blands of the world. It flipped white supremacist patriarchy on its head and for the first time, made it acceptable to live out the fullness of black womanhood. Alice Walker's words allow black women who embody the Womanist Spirit to dream of a life that is void of the fear, silencing and the politics of respectability. It allows us to dream of a world where being a womanish Womanist is not a crime punishable by death.