I am always enraged by the terror that Black people—and Black women who are viewed as angry and combative—fall victim to by police. The news of Sandra Bland’s arrest and then death is no exception. Almost as disheartening as the news of Sandra Bland’s death has been the response on social media. There is an overwhelming amount of arguments stating that it would be absurd for her to have committed suicide. I, like many people, do not believe that Sandra Bland took her own life in her cell. I believe that she was killed at the hands of the police because history has shaped my expectations for police officers to consider it their duty to tame Black bodies and determine the value of Black life. Yet my disbelief in the Texas prosecutor’s claim that Bland killed herself and my criticism of the Black public’s dismissal of the possibility of suicide juxtapose.
I have watched social media closely and noticed the spouting of statistics citing Black women as the group with the “lowest suicide rates,” which is why we should not believe that Sandra Bland, or any other Black woman, could have taken her own life. The video in which Bland is asserting her Black pride has also been widely shared, with a caption that asks rhetorically, “Would this woman commit suicide?” Many have also suggested that because Bland was on her way to a new job at a respected HBCU, she should have been happy, and thus would have had no reason to commit suicide. This is wrong. We should be skeptical of the assertion that Sandra Bland committed suicide because we have known for decades that police lie, terrorize, and kill Black people, but not because she, as a Black woman, was simply unlikely to commit suicide. Often, issues relating to mental health are all but ignored in many Black communities – and the strong, resilient, Black woman narrative makes it even more difficult for us to imagine Sandra, or any other Black woman, in so much distress that she could take her own life.
Not only is this fallacious—it is dangerous. Dismissing the possibility that a Black woman can be depressed (or suffer short-term trauma, as Bland could have at the hands of sheriffs) silences Black women, discourages us from seeking help for mental health issues, and prevents people who do not identify as Black women from seeing us as fully human. The myth that suicide attempts and completed suicide defy Black womanhood must be dispelled—even if statistics say that Black women do not commit suicide as often as many other demographic groups. Many of the people I have known who have suffered from depression, including myself, are Black women. The topic of mental health has been deemed so taboo that it is not even relegated to the “what’s said here, stays here” beauty salon discussions. I do not assert that Bland suffered from depression, but automatically dismissing suicide as a possibility because of statistics perpetuates the myth that Black women do not or cannot know distress, pain, and desperation.
Social media trends such as #IfIDieInPoliceCustody (sometimes followed by “please know that I did not commit suicide”) presume that there is some cultural thread that Black people, and especially Black women, share that makes suicide impossible. While there may be some racial differences in the way people express themselves during spells of depression or in suicidal crisis, the Black woman who is always strong, determined, and never ever broken or in need simply does not exist.
#IfIDieInPoliceCustody, be skeptical of what my jailers tell you, but do not perpetuate the falsehood that continues to force Black women who deal with depression into silence because you believe we do not or cannot commit suicide. I want #JusticeforSandraBland. I want the Texas prosecutors and police to tell the truth. I want Black girls and women to stop being demonized. I simultaneously want depression and suicide to be recognized as a real and important issue that Black women are not immune to because of cultural expectations.