I was learning to drive when the Sandra Bland case happened. Bland was pulled over in Texas for not signaling in time. The situation quickly escalated when she would not get out of her vehicle and the officer threatened to use a stun gun on her. Three days later? Bland was found dead in her jail cell.
This was the first time I feared the reality of being a disabled black kid in a nice car with braids down to my waist, learning to drive on Long Island. This was the first time I realized my skin color could lead me to be the next Sandra Bland.
I never got my license.
As the video that Sandra Bland took of her arrest comes to light four years later, a new hesitance arises. Why would a ticket for a traffic violation lead to a suicide? Why did it take four years for this video to be publicly released? Why did Waller County jail fail to provide adequate mental health training, or perform timely checks, or do any of the other million things that could have prevented the death of an outspoken black advocate with epilepsy?
I too, like Sandra Bland, am a disabled black activist. Even with an education behind me and living as a writer in New York, I am still as afraid today as I was in my late teens, if not more so.
I am not afraid to be black, but I am afraid that my blackness will be seen as a target. My fear isn’t irrational. The same fear guides and directs the actions that the majority of black people take.
We all have heard the warnings from our fathers, mothers and aunties. We all know: Drive slower in the Deep South, don’t drive around primarily white areas alone at night, don’t engage with the police if you can avoid it, don’t sag your pants, don’t talk “too black,” don’t sell loosies on the corner, don’t wear a hoodie, don’t walk around your own neighborhood with Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.
I belong to a culture of preventing my own death through hesitation and careful planning, tip-toeing around whiteness and the police, not rocking the boat. I don’t have a choice in the matter. Yet sometimes, those preventive methods fail. It is a horrible, restrictive way to live, to be constantly afraid because of who you are.
It is a trauma that black bodies before me felt, even as they lived their lives to try to prevent that experience for my generation. I know I will likely have a conversation with my future sons about the police, the same conversation my brother Collin had, the same conversation my father had, and my grandfather had.
In my first interaction with the police at age 13, I was dismissed as “trouble” when I tried to report sexual harassment. As two white police officers told me that I was “well developed” for my age and that’s likely why an older man tried to touch me, I realized that I was part of a communal blackness. Not the deep-rooted heritage of cookouts and culture, but rather the collective fear based on how the outside world perceives us at first glance.
I haven’t trusted the police since. I don’t know if I ever will.
Nearly all young black boys have a conversation with their parents about how to deal with the police. Nearly all black people drive differently in the South. Nearly all black people fear becoming Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile or another martyred someone who died because of their blackness.
Don’t bring attention to yourself, and most likely you won’t die. This is the norm of being black in America, and it’s fucking exhausting.
That exhaustion changes our life. Hearts racing when we see police or decline to engage with white women who will weaponize our race as a threat, we have to navigate blackness in a world designed for whiteness. My success will always be attributed to affirmative action by white people, my failure will always be blamed on my blackness. No matter what, in a white hegemony, I cannot win.
I am tired of making my blackness palatable to white individuals, the police and the world. I’ve been tired for years. My future children will be tired, my brothers and sisters are tired, and my father as well.
There needs to be major, systematic reform so that black children, black women, black people with disabilities, and black men are no longer being killed by police, white supremacists and neighborhood watchmen without accountability. The least we can do is #SayHerName. For Sandra Bland, for the countless other black bodies that have been snuffed out by a culture that devalues our lives, for the countless black children to come, we must demand change.