Can you look at someone and tell that she or he wants to die?
In the wake of Sandra Bland’s death, the most vocal reason given for why she didn’t hang herself in a Waller County, Texas, jail cell after being brutalized and arrested by state Trooper Brian Encinia is this: Sandra, who was passionate about the sanctity of black lives; Sandra, beautiful, intelligent and accomplished, who had everything to live for, did not look like a woman who would kill herself, and therefore it’s ridiculous to even entertain the notion.
The implication there is that something would have had to be visibly wrong with Sandra for suicide to be a possibility, and that’s a dangerous way to think. It perpetuates the stigma that black women who kill themselves are weak, and in too many of our communities, weakness in black women is not acceptable.
To be clear: I’m struggling with the idea that Sandra Bland killed herself, not because she didn’t look as if she would but, rather, because suicide is typically not a “spur of the moment” decision. And even though studies show a higher rate of impulsive suicides in heightened situations, including being in jail, there are still many troubling questions surrounding her arrest. The fact that she was actively trying to make bail raises too many questions to accept an autopsy report submitted by the same state that is arguably responsible for her death.
Whether a guard entered her cell and hanged her, or she decided that a life at the mercy of a white supremacist system that can decide on a whim whether to place her in chains (something the always brilliant Tamura Lomax discusses at the Feminist Wire) was too much to bear, Sandra Bland began to die the moment Encinia attempted to drag her from her car and forced her out with a Taser pointed at her head.
Still, one cannot look at Sandra, or any other person, and say that she doesn’t look like someone who would commit suicide. People who are having suicidal ideations often go to great lengths to hide that they plan to kill themselves. These people can perform joy for unsuspecting loved ones and still take their own lives.
And they shouldn’t be considered weak if they do.
Black women in particular are often too afraid to seek treatment for mental illness because of the stigma that surrounds it, a stigma that also applies to suicide. We are led to believe that it is an act of cowardice and selfishness. For the religious, it’s considered the one sin for which one cannot seek God’s forgiveness. We are supposed to be superwomen unable to succumb to pain, and if we do, then we have failed in both life and in death. So we hide that pain away and we hope that no one can really see us, judge us and find us aberrations of strong black womanhood.
Image activist Karyn Washington, author Erica Kennedy and natural-beauty pioneer Titi Branch are all examples of what the average person would call “strong” black women who didn’t “look” as if they would commit suicide, and yet they all did. And though many people were shocked, the act was not spontaneous for any of them. According to friends and family, they all lived with some form of mental illness, and that is the case for too many black women who suffer in silence, afraid to be viewed as defective.
Without a doubt, the intense stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide is something to consider when grappling with whether or not Sandra Bland hanged herself. Even if she wasn’t suffering from a broken arm, as her sister stated in a press conference, which would have made hanging herself extremely difficult, black women are least likely to commit suicide.
This is fact, not cultural signifier; nor is it due to some racialized rule to which we must adhere, no matter how it’s framed.
History and statistics show us that the “sociopolitical experiences” of black women, including “racism, discrimination and sexism,” heighten the possibility of mental illness and can lead to its onset. Our low suicide rate, then, is not because we are stronger than other people, even though we have been forced to withstand more trauma to ensure our survival. It is because we are too often ashamed to seek treatment, yet too afraid to die—and that’s no way to live.
Make no mistake: We have to keep asking questions about Sandra’s death. We have to continue to seek justice. We cannot, however, do that by perpetuating stigmas about mental illness and suicide. Sandra herself spoke out about this, saying, “I want you guys to know that I’m a human. And if there are any of you out there dealing with these same things—depression, post-traumatic stress disorder—it’s OK, it’s OK to talk about it. I think that those illnesses are something that the African-American culture turns a blind eye to and act like they don’t affect us, and they do. They really do. So I’m coming out here, #SandySpeaks, and letting you know that yeah, I deal with it. And some of you watching this probably deal with it, too, and it’s OK.”
Sandra’s willingness to discuss this does not mean that she wanted to die; she could just as easily have wanted to live. Both living and dying can be revolutionary acts, and in many cases, strength is required for either choice.
I know that many of us are hurting. We’re raging and in pain over Sandra’s death and the casual brutality inflicted upon black bodies, as if there is no humanity attached. We’re saying, look at this beautiful, accomplished woman who lived her life full of fiery conviction. She was not unhappy. She would not kill herself.
These responses, though well-intentioned, amplify a flawed narrative that must be interrupted and redirected. Even though I still have serious doubts that Sandra killed herself, it is not because of how she looked or presented herself to the world.
There are beautiful, accomplished women who lived their lives with fiery conviction who committed suicide, and there was no way to look at them to know whether they were considering it. There are also those women—maybe not so self-assured and successful by society’s skewed standards—who took control of their lives in the only way they felt they could.
None of these women should be held up as examples of someone who Sandra Bland could never be, or somehow guilty of something that she would never do. All of them, even in death, are no less deserving of our support, understanding and love.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255.