Between Sandy and Ms. Sophia

I’ve seen my fair share of the Spielberg directed adaptation of Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’. I even created a mashup of it for an artist once, which consisted of watching the film forwards and backwards roughly 18 times listening carefully to dialogue to find moments where words overlapped perfectly in sync with the lyrics of a song. Safe to say I know this movie pretty well. And yet at the moment I can’t escape one particular scene that is haunting, reminding and foretelling of what black women have been saying in plain sight for all to see for years.

I cannot count the times watching ‘The Color Purple’ with my mother and two older sisters during family gatherings. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years — or seemingly any occasion Ted Turner felt like having a marathon on his networks. But this scene always made my mother, in particular, uncomfortable. It made all of us uncomfortable, and as it progresses — for those who haven’t seen it, time elapses to where beaten by time and incarceration Sophia is a faint glimmer of herself. It made us all uncomfortable. Mother would always get tense at the scene. She would say with almost routine caution

“Lord, that girl should have known better than that. I’ve seen people get worse for less.”

I didn’t doubt that she had seen worse. My mother grew up in North Carolina in the 50s and 60s. She sat-in at a lunch counter once with my aunt when she was barely a teenager. She lived in New Haven, Connecticut when the Black Panther Party was mobilizing there. But it always amazed me how quickly the line between art and reality blurred and crystalized in her mind through that one scene in this particular movie. When I first heard her say this when I was about 7 or 8 “getting worse for less” was something that was part of her history, her experience and something I’d maybe never quite understand. As I watched the film as I aged I realized the danger of “getting worse for less” was less and less a thing of the past and was as much mine and my sisters’ reality as it was our mother’s.

There are a lot of disgusting, enraging things about the Sandra Bland case. What amazes me most about the arrest and death of Sandra Bland — were the insignificance of events preceding her life being interrupted. Driving. Officer speeds up behind her. Changing a lane without a signal. Having seen and first hand experiencing similar tactics from law enforcement makes it doubly hard to watch. But while the similarities are glaring to me, it makes me wonder — when white America sees a scene like “Ms. Sophia and the Mayor” unfold in a film like ‘The Color Purple’ do they see the real life parallels of police brutality? Do they feel sympathy? Is it wonder? Is it curiosity or confusion? Or sheer disbelief that this doesn’t happen anymore or anywhere outside the imagination of fiction? I imagine many are adamant that they wouldn’t possibly be among the mob of angry whites in that scene surrounding Oprah Winfrey’s character in the film. The are adamant they would somehow be different.

Yet to the question “what side are you on?” there was a considerable backlash

It’s strange in an interaction where Sandra Bland didn’t ever appear to cause physical harm to an officer during a routine traffic stop, gets arrested, injured, and is facing 2–10 years felony charge over a traffic stop — that sympathy dwindles. On the topic of state sponsored violence against black bodies, what side of history are you on? If seeing a woman in a fictional account languish in prison is distasteful, what is acceptable about Sandra Bland’s last moments being taken away as a free woman in this country? In the case of Sandra Bland if she were not ultimately found hanging in an isolated jail cell 3 days under mysterious circumstances after a questionable arrest — she could have similarly lost years of her life languishing in a cell. The President’s own recent admission that our criminal justice system requires severe revision is evidence of that, if nothing else were. Where then is the sympathy or action? Calls for respecting 1st Amendment rights are silent. Calls for violated Miranda Rights are silent. And while Americans no doubt have and will be able view both of these accounts and countless others, through the lens of film & fiction and the other via dashcams, cellphones and social media…

…the line between fiction and reality becomes blurred.

Not much unlike the fictional character of Sophia who appears a fraction of her former self after incarceration — Sandra Bland’s last photograph, where her face even seems completely tranformed, shows how damaging her final days were in that jail. What becomes crystallized is the difference in how we treat the grievances and complaints voiced by black women: It is safe, even palatable, in the confines of fiction and entertainment. Once it crosses into the realm of reality the damage of invisibility, silence, indifference or hostility becomes a common response. The thing is, Alice Walker told this story a long time ago. Ida B. Wells told this story before her. Sojourner Truth before her. Harriet Tubman fought to change the narrative. And the story was told again and again with the deaths of Eleanor Bumpers, Kathryn Johnston, Sheneque Proctor, and a list of black women’s names that continues to grow. Why did it take Sandra Bland’s life for us to again have this conversation? Why should it take another black woman’s name or life for us to listen? If the time wasn’t “then” and isn’t now, when?

What can a single person or “ally” do?

1) Make it a policy issue, raise it with candidates, mail your local officials, state officials, engage others at townhalls, referendums, etc.

2) Join an organization. Two as of late are decidedly focused on policy per brutality and the justice process, but there are countless others that are willing to utilize whatever skill you can offer

3) Spread the word and understand that while police brutality is an issue bleeding outside the confines of blackness and affects people across the intersections of race, gender, and mental health — it is one that is heavily centered and focused against black lives.

4) Make space for the voices of the people who you advocate for. This as much about listening as it is getting others to listen.