JULY 24, 2015
I AM tired of writing about slain black people, particularly when those
responsible are police officers, the very people obligated to serve and protect
them. I am exhausted. I experience this specific exhaustion with alarming
frequency. I am all too aware that I have the luxury of such exhaustion.
One of the greatest lies perpetrated on our culture today is the notion that
dash cameras on police cruisers and body cameras on police officers are tools
of justice. Video evidence, no matter the source, can document injustice, but
rarely does this incontrovertible evidence keep black people safe or prevent
Sandra Bland, 28 years old, was pulled over earlier this month in Waller
County, Tex., by a state trooper, Brian T. Encinia. She was pulled over for a
routine traffic stop. She shouldn’t have been pulled over but she was driving
while black, and the reality is that black women and men are pulled over every
day for this infraction brought about by the color of their skin.
We know a lot about Ms. Bland now. She was in the prime of her life,
about to start a new job at Prairie View A&M University. She had posted on
Facebook earlier this year that she was experiencing depression. She was
passionate about civil rights and advocacy. According to an autopsy report, she
committed suicide in her jail cell after three days. What I find particularly
painful is that her bail was $5,000. Certainly, that is a lot of money, but if the
public had known, we could have helped her family raise the funds to get her
As a black woman, I feel this tragedy through the marrow of my bones.
We all should, regardless of the identities we inhabit.
Recently, my brother and I were talking on the phone as he drove to work.
He is the chief executive of a publicly traded company. He was dressed for
work, driving a BMW. He was using a handsfree system. These particulars
shouldn’t matter but they do in a world where we have to constantly mourn
the loss of black lives and memorialize them with hashtags. In this same
world, we remind politicians and those who believe otherwise that black lives
matter while suffocated by evidence to the contrary.
During the course of our conversation, he was pulled over by an officer
who said he looked like an escapee from Pelican Bay State Prison in California.
It was a strange story for any number of reasons. My brother told me he would
call me right back. In the minutes I waited, my chest tightened. I worried. I
stared at my phone. When he called back, no more than seven or eight minutes
had passed. He joked: “I thought it was my time. I thought ‘this is it.’ ” He
went on with his day because this is a quotidian experience for black people
who dare to drive.
Each time I get in my car, I make sure I have my license, registration and
insurance cards. I make sure my seatbelt is fastened. I place my cellphone in
the handless dock. I check and double check and triple check these details
because when (not if) I get pulled over, I want there to be no doubt I am
following the letter of the law. I do this knowing it doesn’t really matter if I am
following the letter of the law or not. Law enforcement officers see only the
color of my skin, and in the color of my skin they see criminality, deviance, a
lack of humanity. There is nothing I can do to protect myself, but I am
comforted by the illusion of safety.
As a larger, very tall woman, I am sometimes mistaken for a man. I don’t
want to be “accidentally” killed for being a black man. I hate that such a
thought even crosses my mind. This is the reality of living in this black body.
This is my reality of black womanhood, living in a world where I am stripped
of my femininity and humanity because of my unruly black body.
There is a code of conduct in emergency situations — women and children
first. The most vulnerable among us should be rescued before all others. In
reality, this code of conduct is white women and children first. Black women,
black children, they are not afforded the luxury of vulnerability. We have been
shown this time and again. We remember McKinney, Tex., and a police officer,
David Casebolt, holding a young black girl to the ground. We say the names of
the fallen. Tamir Rice. Renisha McBride. Natasha McKenna. Tanisha
Anderson. Rekia Boyd. We say their names until our throats run dry and there
are still more names to add to the list.
During the illfated traffic stop, most of which was caught on camera, Mr.
Encinia asked Ms. Bland why she was irritated and she told him. She answered
the question she was asked. Her voice was steady, confident. Mr. Encinia
didn’t like her tone, as if she should be joyful about a traffic stop. He told Ms.
Bland to put her cigarette out and she refused. The situation escalated. Mr.
Encinia threatened to light her up with his Taser. Ms. Bland was forced to
leave her car. She continued to protest. She was placed in handcuffs. She was
treated horribly. She was treated as less than human. She protested her
treatment. She knew and stated her rights but it did not matter. Her black life
and her black body did not matter.
Because Sandra Bland was driving while black, because she was not
subservient in the manner this trooper preferred, a routine traffic stop became
a death sentence. Even if Ms. Bland did commit suicide, there is an entire
system of injustice whose fingerprints left bruises on her throat.
In his impassioned new memoir, “Between the World and Me,” TaNehisi
Coates writes, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is
heritage.” I would take this bold claim a step further. It is also traditional to
try and destroy the black spirit. I don’t want to believe our spirits can be
broken. Nonetheless, increasingly, as a black woman in America, I do not feel
alive. I feel like I am not yet dead.
Roxane Gay is the author of “An Untamed State” and “Bad Feminist” and a
contributing opinion writer.
A version of this oped appears in print on July 25, 2015, on page A21 of the New York edition with
the headline: On the Death of Sandra Bland.
© 2015 The New York Times Company