At first, she used Facebook in that cute, ho-hum way that most people do: selfies vamping new hairstyles, jocular shots with her sisters and mom—nothing special. Not until just after Christmas of 2014, and the debut of Selma. Within weeks of seeing that electrifying portrayal of the civil-rights era, she transformed her Facebook page. “I’m here to change history,” she declaimed in a smartphone video posted in January 2015.
She apologized that she was about to go to bed. In a T-shirt and with her hair pinned in rollers, she could not have seemed more unself-conscious. Her face glowed with the smile that everyone who knew her loved, and her voice was rich and friendly. “It’s time for me to do God’s work,” she said. She called her new project #SandySpeaks.
In the next few months, she would post over two dozen videos. Typically, they began with that smile and the greeting “Good morning, my beautiful kings and queens!” Her links took readers to articles about black history. (“No, this is American history!” she corrected.) She posted about the economic crisis burdening young African Americans. She suggested that white people get black friends and that blacks befriend whites. That might be hard for African Americans to do, she said, but God was testing their ability “to show love to somebody who can hate you for no very reason.”
In the days after she died, #SandySpeaks went viral. Her videos made her the first black casualty of police brutality whom the world could know and deeply love postmortem. She’s been gone now for almost a year, and we are still asking: #WhatHappenedtoSandraBland? Too often, that question has been merely a call to conspiracy theory: about monstrous jail guards murdering her, perfectly hiding the evidence, even taping her eyes open after death to take a convincing mug shot. The obsession over what transpired during three days at the end of her life has left little room for considering the 28 years before. Black lives matter—and hers was one of them, in its length, complication, and black pain.
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Sandra Annette Bland—Sandy, as everyone called her—was born in 1987. Her mother, Geneva Reed, raised five girls on her own; she had the first at age 15. As an old friend from grade school remembers, Reed’s determination was “thunderous,” even as a child. She graduated from high school on time. She received a bachelor’s in journalism at age 23. Today, she has a real-estate business.
Reed grew up on Chicago’s Near West Side. But by the time she had Sandy, the area was profoundly segregated, poverty-stricken, and violent. So in the 1990s, when Sandy was 9, Reed headed with her daughters to the suburbs—settling in DuPage County, just west of Chicago. DuPage is affluent, quiet, and back then was just 4 percent black.
Deeply religious, Reed joined the DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was feted by the Chicago Tribune as a flagship of the suburbs’ emerging black middle class. By age 13, Sandy was singing in the choir, standing next to her classmate Robert Lega. The two became close, mainly, Lega told me, because Sandy had a wicked sense of humor and never took offense at his gross adolescent jokes. Dee and Lionel Watts were church members who were childless, and they, too, loved Sandy. Dee, a software engineer, became Sandy’s godmother.