This article first appeared on For Harriet and is reprinted by permission.
I still can’t sleep. I keep thinking about Sandra Bland. Never mind the fact that 5 women have died in police custody since her death. Even as Ferguson threatens to re-ignite just as we pass the year anniversary of Mike Brown’s death; still Sandra’s face perpetually materializes behind my eyes when I start to doze off. I imagine that she is someone I used to know. An old friend. A cousin I haven’t spoken to in a long time. I want answers for her sweet smile. I want to hear her talk about her awakening black consciousness. I want to hear her say, “Sandy speaks,” as she offers strangers encouragement on her Facebook page. I want justice for the cruelty of her past depression being used to make suicide seem plausible. I want to join her mother when she says, “This is war,” who reminds me of Emmett Till’s mother using his murder as a call, not a moment of forgiveness.
I want answers.
Who is responsible for the death of Sandra Bland? What if Sandra Bland committed suicide? Does that mean the Waller County, Texas police department is not liable for her death? If she was murdered, will anyone be held accountable?
If Sandra Bland killed herself, she was undoubtedly depressed. In fact, she stated in a jail pre-screening interview, that she had been previously depressed. To some, this along with the fact that she was found hanging in her cell is all one needs as proof of suicide. No further questions necessary. But who is responsible? Why does ruling her death suicide seem to be reasonable cause for the Waller County police department to wash its hands of responsibility (not counting the responsibility it bears for neglecting to place her on suicide watch)?
Can we consider the extreme anxiety that being unjustly imprisoned must have caused a person who had been suicidal in the past? What of the additional anxiety and fear that she may have felt knowing that incidents of police brutality on black bodies frequently go unpunished? When the state trooper, Brian Encinia, put his hands on Sandra Bland to pull her out of the car, might she have thought of Freddie Gray, and feared that she may be yet another black body murdered at the hands of a power hungry cop?
What about Sandra Bland’s anger? Was her attitude out of line? Because of social media and camera phones, the American public, by and large, has only just begun to witness what black people have experienced for generations— physical, mental, and emotional terrorism regularly meted out by law enforcement officials on black bodies and black communities. The fact of this psychosomatic terror may be news to millions of white Americans, but it wasn’t news to Sandra Bland.
I sometimes think of what the late playwright, August Wilson, called “blood memory” when I think of intergenerational trauma. Intergenerational trauma is a fairly recent domain of research in the mental health field, but there is a substantial amount of evidence that an individual may carry trauma in the DNA that was experienced by preceding familial generations. This type of trauma also includes intercultural trauma and can be experienced by people of related cultures and communities.
Eureka! Finally there is a word, a proven, documented phenomenon that explains what black and brown people have known in their bones for centuries. There is a name for the anger that lurks around the corners of my eyes, daring to come forth, sometimes even when I am most joyous. There is a name for the shame that lingers too long when someone of my race that I don’t even know behaves in a manner that is true to a stereotype perpetuated in the media. There is a name for the uncanny thrill I get when I walk into a room and sense the hush of white people taking in my presence because they only relate to me as “other” and perceive me as a threat even without knowing me personally.
And these are only the little things.
There is a name for when we weep for nine murdered parishioners as if they were our own brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins; why the pain seems deeper than we can face without losing sanity. There is a name for the personal edge of the rage we feel when find there’s no justice for a boy who went out for Skittles and Amazon iced tea with his head covered by a black hoodie. There is a name for the anguish in our ribs that disturbs our sleep when we find that the marches and protests amounted to $5.5 million dollars but still no justice for a man selling loose cigarettes on the street. There is a name for why I can’t sleep at night thinking about a woman I have never met named Sandra Bland. The atrocities go on, but this pain that goes past my feet and into the ground and connects me with ancestors I don’t even have names for at least has a name.
So yes. Sandra Bland was angry. Maybe she wasn’t experiencing inter-generational trauma. Maybe she was just angry at having been pulled over for an infraction that many drivers commit multiple times a day—changing lanes without a signal. Maybe she was angry at being told to put out her cigarette or step out of her vehicle or being threatened with a taser. Regardless the cause, her anger was justifiable.
Having already experienced the brutality of the highway patrolman and having been in jail for three days, what might have gone through the mind of Sandra Bland who was already predisposed to depression? Could she have feared years in prison with unthinkable injustices heaped upon her daily like Kalief Browder? Could she have feared an unfair trial and skewed media coverage like the New Jersey 5? These are things we will never know.
Who is responsible for the death of Sandra Bland? If she indeed killed herself, it will be concluded that the answer to that question speaks for itself. But does it? If the investigation into her death uncovers foul play, can the family of Sandra Bland expect that justice will be served? Unfortunately, we all know how that story goes and the sad ending is not worth the energy to recount.
Sandra Bland’s name is another drop of our blood memory. But maybe this memory will not only call up terror, rage, and mental anguish. Maybe this memory will open the door to heal trauma, stare down mental illness, and retribute police brutality. Maybe this memory will mobilize us to confront forces that confine us to mental spaces that have damaged us longer than we consciously remember.
[Headline Image: a young black child is standing in front of several people holding a large white sign that reads, “NBUF What Happened to Sandra Bland” written in marker.]
Joy Notoma is a writer and performer living in NYC. Her current work includes interviewing people who have been affected by religious shunning and reviewing writings of incarcerated people. Check out her long form travel blog truthandtravel.wordpress.com.