After Sandra Bland by Rachel Charlene Lewis
My partner is driving ninety miles per hour on our road trip from east to west coast when we’re pulled over to the side of an empty highway through Kansas. Her white, freckled skin is glowing in the early evening sunset, twists of pink and purple and orange billow uninhibited against the flat planes on either side of the highway. It is mostly quiet but for one or two cars passing us every dozen or so miles. They are mostly trucks, their drivers mostly older white men.
When the police car flashes us down, Nicki’s instinct is to hit the gas and turn a corner. I sit as still as I can in my seat as she speeds, wondering if there’s any way that the officer was calling to some car we didn’t see as Nicki leads us down an empty road with no end in sight. There is nothing around us. The sun is still swirling cotton candy hues on our skin, but their dance is brighter over her paleness, more vivid.
My brown skin doesn’t take in the light the same way.
The week Sandra Bland dies, after she is pulled over for a minor traffic violation, after she says she does not have to leave her car, after she has a taser pointed at her body, black, after she is heard, crying, screaming, after her body stills, hanged in a jail cell, after she becomes a hashtag, after images appear of her body, flat, eyes flat, skin dull, after we suspect she’s been killed and set up for a photograph, after I stare at the image of her on my phone, over and over and over again, trying to find life within dull skin and flat eyes, I find no life but instead find myself slipping from my skin, organs and eyes flattening, body losing size, color, and shape, becoming nothing more than the space between molecules in a pane of glass, or a bubble, glimmering. I stop. I cease. I look nothing like Sandra Bland and yet feel her energy within my body.
I feel it like a warning. I did nothing to deserve it, did not protest her murder beyond the silent shouts of the internet, and yet I feel her energy transferring from her body, molecules of heat drifting from Illinois to California, aching for the feeling of making someone else breathe. Maybe none of this is about me. Maybe this is what happens when someone isn’t ready to leave.
I think about what it means to accept. I think about what it means to take. From dead body. From dead body, black. From dead body, woman. From dead body, murdered. Justified. To turn dead black woman body into lesson, fuel, warning, fear.
There are so many other black bodies looking for life. I wonder why I feel hers so deeply. I wonder why her energy would seek mine, only half black, light skinned, full queer. I learn that she is homophobic and do not care. I rub her molecules to my cheeks like marbles, hot. I wonder when she knew she was going to die. Was seeing the cop enough? Seeing the anger in his white face? Did he look excited? Was he looking for a chance to strip a black body of its heat?
On a voicemail following her arrest, she says, “How did switching lanes with no signal turn into all of this?”
But don’t we know how? And didn’t she?
Her energy remains, tangled and looking for a home that suits it.
Roxane Gay teaches me what it means to drive while black. Black Twitter is talking about cops murdering black people. Underneath layers of anger and frustration is a layer of fear thick enough to coat your teeth, to drive your fingertips to begin typing, answering the question: how do you avoid getting killed by cops?
The answers are varied, but also not. If you are a black man, be afraid. If you are black and queer, be more afraid. If you are trans and black, be more. Trans, black, undocumented, more. Trans black undocumented woman, more and more and more. The more marginalized identities you possess, especially the more visible, the more transparent the plastic baggie holding your license, registration, and proof of insurance must be. The more you stray from features accepted as norms and thus humanizing, the closer your baggie must be to the window. Make it so you don’t need to move. Stick it outside of the car, duct-taped to the window so that as you roll down the window to respond to the officer, it lands neatly in their cupped hands. Nothing is too much. Nothing is enough.
My white parent doesn’t talk to me about driving while black. She does not know that my siblings and I are more likely than she and her siblings ever were to be thrown in a mental institution because an officer doesn’t believe a black woman could own an expensive car. She does not know that we are more likely than she and her siblings ever were to be pulled over for a minor violation and to end up dead.
My black parent is too far away to talk to me about driving while black.
I do not drive.
I want to drive, know it is a necessity, a necessary skill if nothing else if my dreams of being an ultra queer soccer mom are ever to become a reality. I want to throw a pastel blouse over my tattoos and hand tiny oranges and vitamin-enriched water bottles to my little ones; I want to pack them up into my mini van and head home to where their other mom waits, singing and putting the finishing touches on a vegan casserole. But I’m too anxious to drive.
My scope broadens when I’m in the car and it isn’t just me in my body, anymore, it’s me in a box of metal, and it’s hundreds of other tons of metal trying to navigate at speeds I don’t want my body to move at. And then it’s me, brown. And then it’s me, queer. And then it’s me, woman. I want none of it. Nothing. I scrape my identities from my skin and tie them tightly to the muffler of the car I’m too afraid to have. Still, they jingle loudly like a bunch of cans dancing with celebration. They do not know shame.
Roxane Gay says everything goes in a baggie on the console. I think of sweat stains marring the bag like tears. I think of it slipping from the officer’s hand, falling to the concrete road. I wonder if anyone would see me balled up in the officer’s fist, would live-tweet my murder. Would argue against my death being suicide.
I know Roxane Gay would be one of those people, so I jot her advice down in the part of my brain that will activate alongside the part of my brain that will say, hopefully soon, driving makes sense. Let’s do it, now. We will be moving in forward motion, me and my tiny piece of Roxane Gay. Always going the speed limit. Always prepared to be torn apart and made transparent.
The car stops. The officer approaches.
Nicki is panicking. “Shit.”
Everything beyond us is so quiet. I miss the truck drivers. I miss their eyes, having someone else know we’re here, alive. I am rubbing my thumb against the space between my pinkie and empty ring finger. I wish I’d straightened my hair, kept now in natural, thick, kinky curls piled atop my head. I usually straighten it for road trips but knew it would be hot on the five-day drive from east to west coast and I would just sweat out my hard work. I look down at the brownness of my arms, my right arm a shade deeper.
The officer approaches. I can hear his shoes on the road.
Nicki whispers, “What do I do?”
I say, “Get your license. Get your registration.” I don’t drive, but I know this much.
The officer is right there. I’ve never seen one in real life, not up close. He leans into the window. I push my thumbnail into my hand. I don’t know what else to do.
He starts to talk. He says the general things. He asks for Nicki’s proof that she has a right to drive on this road. We were going to drive a more southern route but wanted to avoid Arizona because we could both pass for Latin@, there, and we don’t drive with our birth certificates. We chose the northern route to be safe. I don’t feel safe.
Nicki has to look for her proof. I watch her white hands flip through her wallet. The officer takes the things. He looks at them, examines. We wait. Nicki’s chin is shaking like she’s trying not to cry. I want to reach over and pinch her thigh, shut her up, but I’m too afraid to move.
“Do you have your insurance card?” A question I wonder if she’d get if she were black.
Nicki reaches up. Flips down her mirror. Unpins a card from the soft fabric. Hands it to the officer.
He looks at it. His gloved hands crease as he flips the card around and around. I watch his fingers twist and turn, my head bowed.
“This isn’t an insurance card,” he says.
The Counted, a project by The Guardian, says that 860 people have been killed by police in the nine months of 2015. I sit at my desk with chamomile tea floating in my mouth and I look at their faces. I push the liquid past my teeth and suck it back again. I scroll, and scroll, and scroll until all of their faces blur to one black and white mass.
I exit out of The Counted and look my brother up online. In an image posted to social media, he throws up his hands and he doesn’t smile and he leans back, hips forward, chin up, a dare. I think of him, fat-cheeked and warm and dancing with me in the kitchen on Thanksgiving, striped red socks half hanging from his feet. I think about what the cops would see, hands moving too quickly, shoulders too broad, body too big, too brown, to be anything less than a threat.
Last year when my brother went to the mall with our mom and saw an empty car with its trunk open, he went to close it. Bags were inside and he didn’t want anyone to steal them. He’s a good boy, was raised to always help. My mom reached for him like he was being ripped from her grasp and said, “No, Joey, you can’t do that,” and she didn’t know how to explain hundreds of headlines in the past year to a too-tall 14 year old.
When she called me, her voice was trembling. She finally understood why I made us talk about race at the dinner table when I came home for the holidays. She’d always loved to say that she didn’t see race. We were all so beautiful, and hers. She didn’t notice people giving us looks when we all went out together. Didn’t notice the men staring down my sister and I, assuming we were out on our own and not with our mother. Didn’t understand why I felt such isolation in a college of blank, white faces. She said race didn’t matter, just love.
On the phone, she sounds like I’ve felt since the Internet took over reporting what the mainstream media won’t. She said, “What am I supposed to tell him?”
I said, “You have to tell him the truth. You can’t protect him from this.” I thought of the dozens of white mothers I’ve argued with in the comments section of articles about race posted to Facebook. These mothers say that they don’t see color, that it’s racist to see race. They say that their beautiful, stunning, exotic biracial children are the future of anti-racist America. I tell them they are failing their children. I wonder if my mom sees these comments. What she thinks. How she feels.
I said, “How’s Olive?”
“She’s the sweetest,” my mother says of the new puppy. Lightness returns to her world. I love my mother. I know what it means to recognize injustice, and to hurt from it. I take breaks from it, too. This is me giving her a break.
“Is she still a wimp?” When I was home for break, I sat with her on the floor, holding her slick brown body in my arms until she fell asleep. She couldn’t sleep alone. I can’t either.
“She’s still afraid of everything,” she says. “She still shakes when she steps off of the rug.”
We laugh. I imagine Olive standing at the edge of the rug, dark eyes lifting to my mother. My mother gesturing forward. Olive’s small body shuddering as she lifts her front paw, afraid of the space between the half-inch of carpet and the slick flatness of the hardwood floor. She has a hop to her step as she takes the leap. She looks around, surprised to still be whole.
My mom says, “It’s our fault,” and we laugh, because it is, and because it’s sad. I think of my own anxiety, and of my mother’s. I think about how she taught me to fear without meaning to, without knowing why. Without knowing the ways our fear of the outside world would differ.
The officer says, “Do you have an actual insurance card?”
“I don’t know, sir,” Nicki says, and I think this will help us. People tend to respond well to the softness inherent in her soft, light skin and big, light eyes as long as she isn’t wearing a backwards hat and showing off her muscled, tattooed arms. Her hair is loose, and her arms covered, so she maintains her innocent, southern girl appeal. “That’s what my mom gave me.”
“Okay,” he says. It seems to be working. “Look and see if you can find one.” He heads back to his car.
The anxiety digging its fingers into my chest lets off. I lean forward to pop open her glove compartment and search for what we need. I don’t know what the card looks like, but all I see is an instruction manual for her car, a bunch of receipts from mechanics, tissues.
“Shit,” Nicki says. Her voice is quiet. She sucks on her gum though I know the flavor must have disappeared hours ago.
“I don’t see it,” I say. I can see her gum lying nearly colorless on her tongue as she breathes through her mouth, the air coming and going in aggressive spurts.
The police officer comes back.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Nicki says. “This is all I have. I can call the number, but I don’t think I have the right card.”
The officer sighs. Looks off into the distance. Split second: he wouldn’t call for backup. We are young. Girls. Small. Pretty. Between us, mostly white. Non-threatening. Still, I imagine a wave of blue and red lights marring the slowly deepening pink sunset and turning the entire scene into a single bruise.
As we enter the street we grew up on, my younger sister Sara turns down the rap music blaring from the speakers and rolls the windows up. We near our Levitt home in Maryland, a copy of many others but for a minor extension that marked us as different, the upstairs bedroom we shared. The extension was a marker that made us stand out even more than we already did as the neighborhood’s only interracial family, and then, the divorced little white mom with brown and yellow kids.
When we pull into our driveway, Sara looks at me. We swear we’ve completely stopped looking alike. She gets Latina more than me or my brother. Her skin doesn’t tan and remains a light, golden yellow. Still, our skin and hair and bodies mark us as same despite these obvious facial differences because people, especially white people who’ve had little access to brown and black people, tend to mark us all as same. Don’t notice eyes or noses or mouths, just the thickness of our bodies, the kink to our hair, the way our skin reflects and absorbs light.
Sara pushes back her hair, dyed a blond so light that her baby hairs are practically white, and the straightened locks move in a single wave to her shoulder. Locked safely inside of the car where no one can hear us, she says, “Did I ever tell you about the time with the cops?” Though she knows she never has, that we’ve never talked about that. But she’s a storyteller. She likes an introduction. Since this is before I become attuned to police brutality, I listen, excited to be let in on my little sister’s secret rather than terrified of the trauma she must have faced as a result of the interaction.
She says, “Laurie and Diamond and me were hanging out at the park a few months ago with Jake and Alex. We were all just hanging out or whatever. Then the cops pulled up, and we were all high as fuck. We started hiding our shit. It was all out by the time they walked up. They made Jake and Alex sit down, but they left us alone. They had all these questions.”
I think of Jake and Alex, both long-limbed African boys with deep brown skin. I see my sister in contrast, high yellow. She and her friends where lipstick, would look girly, appealing, nonthreatening. She will tell me, in the years to come, of how Jake and Alex get pulled over all the time.
“It was dark, kind of, and the sun was going down. There were other people at the park but they didn’t say anything to them. They were white kids, like white soccer boys.” I wonder if they would have approached the white boys if they’d been the ones smoking. I wonder what drew their attention to my sister and her friends first: the smell of weed? Or the yellow-black spectrum of their skin tones against the sunset?
“The cops kept asking questions until it was dark. It was kind of scary. Laurie said we should run, and we were high so it made sense. We dipped. Fucking Diamond disappeared and when she caught up to us she said she hid her phone in the leaves. We were like, What the fuck, but we didn’t have time to stop. We hid for a while until Jake texted us and said the cops were gone.”
I imagine them, heads swirling, feet snapping branches on the uneven path where we used to practice running a mile for middle school physical education exams. Dyed heads blinking through the spaces beneath alder and ash trees, giggles pushed against throats tight with fear. I imagine Diamond, lanky with a purple-lipsticked mouth, pausing her sprint to sneak her iPhone deep into the dirt. I imagine its whiteness coated in thick and dewy brown.
It seems like every black person in the news has just been murdered and every death feels like a piece of me has been removed. I can’t stop thinking about my own death. It feels so close, always.
I’m scrolling through articles before bed. My laptop balances on my thighs and I feel safe tucked into the sheets with pillows lining me on either side. So I shout, “Nicki, you need to get an new insurance card.”
She is at the bathroom sink down the hall a few feet from our bedroom. “What?” She says.
Last week, my sister came to visit and we drove to and from Laguna Beach, a two-hour drive. I didn’t know how to tell Nicki that I was afraid my sister’s presence would throw off our equation. Nicki’s whiteness is enough to take away some of my black and add humanize me some, but with both Sara and me in the car, the dynamic would shift. Our ethnic ambiguity would skew how she would be perceived. We would lose the safe space provided by her whiteness.
I spent the entire ride staring alternately at the mountains and the speedometer, leg shaking.
“I mean,” I say, trying to soften. “I would feel better if you had the right insurance card.”
“I have to update my policy,” Nicki says. White foam circles her mouth.
“Baby,” Nicki pauses. She holds up a finger. She walks to the sink and I hear spit hit the ceramic basin. She walks back, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Her palm faces me, blue-green veins popping beneath the thin skin of her thumb. Her hand lowers.
“I have to update my policy, but I don’t have the money right now. I need to get a license here first.” The flatness of Kansas is a far memory in the comforting suffocation of smog that hides the distance and mountains that hold tight in Southern California.
Still, I say, “Can’t you just call and get a new card?”
She’s sliding toward me on the bed. She’s holding me like she knows something is up. “I’ll try. I’ll call tomorrow.”
“Okay,” I say. “I’m sorry to be annoying. It just scares me.”
She knows I’ve been afraid of cars for other reasons, but never blackness. It is the one thing that we don’t share. She calls me out on how quickly I slip my hand from hers when we pull up to a crosswalk or stop at a light beside a truck. She watched me do this in silence for months before finally calling me out on it, saying, “Are you afraid to hold my hand in the car?” When I asked what she meant, she said, “I’ve been running an experiment. It’s happened like thirty times now.”
Now, she says, “It’s okay to be scared,” even though it makes no sense and my fear serves no purpose. I know awareness won’t save me. It hasn’t saved anyone else.
Nicki and the officer are talking, but my eyes are stuck to the dash and a heat is rising slowly over my back. My knees start bouncing and they can’t stop and it feels like I’m making the entire car vibrate but I know it isn’t. The dash isn’t moving. Am I? I want to push my hands on my knees and stop myself from shaking more with each breath. I think about cows. We’ve seen so many cows. They are so still and calm, safe in their people-less pastures.
The officer is gone, left us with nothing more than a ticket, and Nicki is crying, and we are silent. We are driving to a new home but home is so far. I need corners and pillows and soft and warmth, but all we have are barely visible cows dotting the land miles away. I don’t know what to say or if I know how to speak again, yet, so I stay silent. Nicki is in tears and trembling and driving slow.
The GPS breaks the silence by letting us know that we are heading in the wrong direction. To Nicki, I say, “We need to turn around.”
“Okay,” Nicki says, her voice quiet. Her cotton candy voice thinned out, she sounds so much younger than we are. “How much longer do we have?”
“We’ll be at the hotel in an hour,” I say.
Beneath my hand, Nicki’s leg shakes. I can feel the thick flesh of her quad against my palm, the tight skin of her hamstring beneath my fingertips. Her white leg is splattered with light brown freckles and dark brown moles, and is nearly golden in the sunlight. Higher up, her black athletic shorts bunch, crinkling and un-crinkling with each bounce of her thigh. The fabric makes a soft swooshing sound no more perceptible than the sound of her tears sliding down her narrow face.
I brush my palm back and forth over Nicki’s skin. The light dusting of hairs on her upper thigh prick my palm. The hairs are a deep brown that gets closer and closer to a nearly white-blond as you venture up her thigh.
My hand is damp on Nicki’s thigh. I am too afraid to let go of Nicki’s skin to separate my hand and find the source of the leak. I just keep rubbing my hand into her thigh and trying to soothe.
“You alright?” I say.
“I’m fine,” she says. “Are you okay?”
I know that Nicki has no idea how afraid I am. “I’m fine,” I say. We’ll talk about fear and what it means that I can’t take my eyes off of her speedometer another day, one further from this, and from the memory of driving through Salina, Kansas.
My knees are still trembling, so I put one hand on my knee. Nicki is still shaking, so I move the other down to her knee. I touch us both. I try to keep us from moving too quickly, shaking out of ourselves, slithering away like slick black garden snakes, incapable of damage but startling enough for our sudden deaths to be justified.
After Sandra Bland, I am trying to learn to drive. I am on my second permit. They always expire before I get the courage to get behind the wheel. I’m on my fourth practice test when I begin to slip from my skin.
As my body shakes and my eyes threaten to fall out of my face I keep thinking about how Nicki still doesn’t have the right insurance card and I don’t want to make her crazy but I also need her to have it because every few weeks when my anxiety is at its worst I start to worry that we’re going to get pulled over and we’re not going to get a nice cop and we’re going to die. Or I will, and she’ll have to watch.
It’s logical, my fear. People like me are dying right now for driving wrong. I wrap my arms around myself like I can hold myself together or squeeze the fear out of me. In moments like these, I become afraid to leave the house. I do my deep breathing but I keep zooming further and further out of my body. I think about my body to keep myself from going so far away that I can’t return to my skin. The first time I had a panic attack it felt like I was slipping like syrup from my ears. I spent the next few weeks trying to sleep through the agony of my chest aching and everything making me afraid. Now, they feel closer to a tug that I have invited in, a vacation I don’t want to take but need to.
When Nicki comes home from work I say that I didn’t do anything today. She knows how to recognize my departure from my body so she hugs me and asks me if it’s my health. I nod and ask what she wants for dinner. I boil water on the stove and crack spaghetti noodles in half to make them fit.
The hot water splashes on my fingertips and a little more of me pours into my skin. I run through the exercise where I focus on the location of my feet, the scent of the room, whether I’m hot or cold. I decide I’m hot and feel a kinship with the water, constantly threatening to bubble over because I don’t understand how to use a gas stove, how to control the burst of flames that seem to hardly narrow their scope despite the hopeful twist of my wrist.
Nicki and I are curled up in our California apartment when Sandra Bland begins trending on Twitter. A moment ago we were lovers speaking lovely words, but now I am silent and unhearing. Sandra Bland is so heavy in my throat it feels like the depths of me are gushing through my lymph nodes.
Nicki looks up from her laptop. We are beside each other on our beige sofa. It sinks in on itself in the middle. She says, “What’s wrong?”
I want to tear the question from her tongue and throw it away. I can’t. I become silence, nodding, smiles.
She concedes. She lets me escape another moment without telling her how afraid I am. I don’t know how I would explain it. I don’t know how to admit that I found safety in my girlhood. Advocated for the rights of black men to exist without fear of police without realizing their blackness and not just their masculinity was the cause of death. I am vulnerable, now. I feel exposed, now, always.
Rachel Charlene Lewis has been published in The Offing, BOAAT Press, Identity Theory, and elsewhere. She is the editor of Vagabond City. You can find her on Twitter @RachelCharleneL.