For weeks, Sandra Bland’s image has been the face of injustice. A host of stories — not all of them about black suffering — continue to be told over the image of Sandra Bland’s vulnerable black body. Stories about uppity negresses resisting arrest. Stories about the entrenchment of white supremacy in policing. As well as stories about (black) distrust of official stories.
When that first footage of Bland’s arrest was released, critics, including Selma director Ava DuVernay, quickly pointed out that the film was doctored, edited so that certain actions are elongated and repeated while others images and voices are lost in the cut. Since then, questions have arisen about the mugshot, questions that dissected the image to determine whether Bland’s expression shows discontent or death. And now more footage has been released, this time showing Bland’s days in jail, including her booking (to prove that she was not dead in the mugshot), now dissecting the minutes and hours and days that led from her unlawful arrest to her untimely death. While we haven’t (yet) been shown verified photos or film of Bland’s dead or dying body, we have been treated to the official autopsy report, complete with an annotated diagram of the featured injuries to Bland’s body.
Pro-black movements have frequently recruited the image to tell the story of black suffering, and the use of Sandra Bland’s image in the struggle for black lives mattering is part of that history. African-American and other movement organizers have struggled with the visual defense of human rights since their codification in the mid-18th century. Since then, the photograph and its inheritor, film, with its apparent removal of the human hand from its production processes, has a secure way to envision and reproduce what happened as it happened.
But what is read in the photographic image is not secure. Before antilynching advocate Ida B. Wells and the NAACP circulated the famous photographs of lynchings, those images traveled through very different circuits. Through exchange of hands and via postal mail, white viewers consumed these images, reading in them the spectacle of their own racial power. Reconfiguring the political work of those images required a shifting of focus from the black victim to the white mob and tireless discussions of the capacities of blacks’ suffering and for whites’ cruelty.
Sandra Bland’s image is arguably at the heart of the outrage over her death, but it, too, lies at the crossroads of stories telling competing truths. Well before the fateful arrest, Bland made images testifying to her persistence and survival. The subsequent display of her subjugation by police officer Brian Encina is often poignantly juxtaposed against those photos and videos that show her smiling and speaking out about the degradation of black life. In a landscape littered with spectacles of black vulnerability, many folks reasonably find these latter images to be a salve and a welcome representation of the “real” Sandra Bland as whole, vital, and happy.
These latter images of Bland would seem to satisfy my desire to see Bland’s dignity restored and to return the power of presentation to the woman herself. However, even these images are put in service to disturbing counter-stories about Bland’s death.
Bland did struggle with depression. Concealing and devaluing that fact has been one strategy in debunking the suicide finding. But deflecting from that truth with the image of Bland’s smile has the effect of denying her struggle and the reality of depression amongst African-American women. As Kirsten West Savali recently noted, “one cannot look at Sandra, or any other person, and say that she doesn’t look like someone who would commit suicide.” Bland acknowledged her journey with depression. Part of her humanity included her wrestling with despair. We would do well to take the invitation to improve our compassion and to acknowledge the reality of depression for those who also endure it so that we can survive.
We would also do well to resist calling on femininity and narrow notions of beauty to do the work of challenging police brutality. Reflecting upon her own vulnerability in the wake of Bland’s death, Roxane Gay of the New York Times detailed the strange mental reckoning entailed in the subjection of black gendered bodies: “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.” Gay could be misunderstood here as wanting to cling to femininity — a femininity she realizes is coded as white — like a life-preserver protecting her from deadly undertow of anti-black violence. Instead, she recognizes that this life-saver has never really been thrown to her — not because she isn’t seen as a woman but because she is not white. Black people will not be saved by reaching for femininity or other “respectable” conditions that have been coded as the exclusive province of whites.
What can we claim to see in the image of Sandra Bland? Before the Bland case arose, Claudia Rankine suggested that what makes these recent images of black suffering so powerful and necessary is that they serve to remind us and to make plain just what it is we are fighting for. Recent years have provided us with numerous photographs and films of African-American bodies bearing the brunt of unjust, brute forces of domination and oppression. They stand as memorials to the lives lost.
Altogether less certain, however, is the role of the image in determining the future. For some, they function to ignite those involved in the movement toward the protection of black people’s bodily integrity and dignity. Getting there has required and will continue to require a shifting of focus from black suffering to the ugly and unsustainable systems of governance that depend upon black suffering, a denial of depression, and the ideal of femininity to survive.