A Crime of Womanism: Sandra Bland and the Transgression of Black Womanhood

  1. From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color.  From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “you acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman.  Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior.  Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one.  Interested in grown up doings.  Acting grown up.  Being grown up.  Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.”  Responsible.  In charge. Serious. -From Alice Walker’s Definition of a “Womanist” from In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose  (Walker, 1983)

I spent a lot of time attempting not to view the dash cam video of Sandra Bland’s arrest. But it seems to be everywhere on social media. I finally broke down and allowed myself to watch it in spite of my own internal trigger warning. Needless to say the video was overwhelming to watch knowing that there was no happy ending to this scene. In the video we hear Ms. Bland engage in a verbal altercation with the officer who eventually arrests her. In spite of her tone and resistance, nothing Ms. Bland said or did or didn’t do was illegal. She knew her rights. She stated them clearly. She asserted her citizenship and spoke her truth. What’s more American than that?

The problem is that in America, more than the act of changing lanes without signaling, being black, female and living and speaking unapologetically has always been a serious punishable transgression. Sandra Bland was a “by-the-book” Womanist. She was “outrageous, audacious, courageous… [and]… willful”. Unfortunately, the Womanist Spirit that Ms. Bland embodied has always been seen as an affront to the white supremacist patriarchal sensibilities that dominate American culture.  Therefore being a black woman and claiming your “womanish” power was seen by the officer and I’m sure by many onlookers as a crime punishable often by violence and death.

Actively living into the fullness of who you are as a black woman has always been seen as a transgression. This is what makes Alice Walker’s definition of Womanist and her writing in general so radical. Womanism has always been about giving voice and validity to the particularity of black female power. Our power manifests itself in our voices, in our spirituality, in our use of words, our bodies, our gardens, in our status as warriors, in our extreme functionality in spite of all that seeks to kill us, and in our “womanish” behavior.

In a society where the particularity of white male power is the only power that was allowed room, the Womanist spirit has always had to be suppressed. And what could be seen as powerful is always seen as a threat to white maleness, white femaleness, to black maleness, and even to black femininity. The result of the suppression of Womanist Spirit is often physically, spiritually, or emotionally violent. The violence may come from the white male officer in the Sandra Bland case and officers like him who feel the need to repress the Womanist spirt to reaffirm white supremacist patriarchy.  Or it can come from a black man who uses the term “angry black woman” to silence and shame.  And unfortunately the violence can be internal in the form suppression and repression of our voices and our social and spiritual “bigness” to accommodate societal norms that seek shrink us.

Alice Walker’s work wasn’t only a response to the Eurocentric nature of Feminism or the male-centric nature of the Black Power movement. It also gave voice to the Sandra Blands of the world. It flipped white supremacist patriarchy on its head and for the first time made it safe to live out the fullness of black womanhood. This piece allows black women who embody the Womanist Spirit to dream of a life that was void of fear of being seen or heard and politics of respectability. It allows us to dream of a world where being a Womanist is not a crime punishable by death.

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