For if Dreams Die…
Many thanks to The Nation for publishing Debbie Nathan’s insightful article “What Happened to Sandra Bland?” as the cover story of your May 9/16 issue. I applaud Nathan for the extensive research that made it possible for her to answer that question, and for her desire to share her findings with your readers.
As I worked my way through the story of Bland’s life, from one painful episode to the next, I remembered the lines of Langston Hughes’s famous poem “Harlem,” which also began with a question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” Hughes wrote his poem in 1951, before the civil-rights movement had reawakened the hopes that Martin Luther King Jr. described in his “I Have a Dream” speech. But that dream of dreams still awaits full realization.
Unfortunately, since the 1980s, too many clueless (and/or spiteful) white Americans have been crushing black hopes with alarming speed and effectiveness. By the time Sandra Bland was born in 1987, the dream was fading fast. Despite her talent, intelligence, and determined efforts, the promise of her early life was never fulfilled. She faced one traumatic episode after another. As a woman who has also battled with depression, I realize that my white privilege, bolstered by religious faith, has spared me from the devastating consequences that Bland had to face. And after reading about her lifelong struggle with clinical depression, I can see why the blues finally got her. Last year, on Thursday, July 10, Bland was pulled over and arrested for failing to signal a lane change—a clear case of DWB (driving while black). She was placed alone in a holding cell because she couldn’t make bail. After three days there, she hanged herself.
By the time I finished Nathan’s article, I found myself moved to change two words in Hughes’s poem. After more than 400 years of dreams deferred, it’s time we asked ourselves a new question: “What happens to a dream denied? Suicide.”
Thinking symbolically, I see Sandra Bland as a canary in the very toxic coal mine that we call the United States. But now that almost all of us (the 99 percent) are also experiencing the death throes of the American Dream, it is time to admit that we are the ones responsible for its demise. We need to acknowledge the racism and white privilege that Jim Wallis has called “America’s Original Sin” and heed his prophetic call to “build the bridge to a new America,” demonstrating love for our neighbors and developing innovative projects that will move us, together, toward restorative justice.