The Devil and #SandraBland

First, a poem:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

—William Wordsworth, 1806

I rejected religion at 18 not because I fell out of love with Jesus, but because I, like Wordsworth, found the trees and the air and my senses more reliable than the sentiments of the religious folk I ran from. Also: Wordsworth, and my 18-year-old self, were privileged fools. Fools who confused “faith” with the grave pronouncements of rich white men. Fools who confused the undeserved power of the church with the very real power of hope. I remember: in my next phase as an 18-year-old–when I was 31 and newly out of the closet and a new single father in a new city in a new job with no friends in town and no family anywhere–I decided that hope was a ruse; that if you had hope things would get better and then they didn’t that you would end up bitter. Better not to hope at all. Better to just play Sisyphus. Keep the ball rolling. I still think there’s truth there. Things don’t “get” better. Keep the ball rolling.

And yet, in the last two years roaming the underworld as a photojournalist I have found real faith, real hope, real “religion.” I realize now: Wordsworth was an idiot. Had he ever been a “Pagan suckled,” or stood before Proteus or Triton, Wordsworth would have died, almost immediately, crushed by his own privilege, which, in that moment, would have completely failed him. A defenseless human facing the wild world? Such a thing dies, and much sooner than later.

One of my most difficult moments in these last two years trying not just to write what I see but to also capture it with my camera was walking through a mass grave–the simple, unremarkable kind you can find in every county in East Texas, the out-of-the-way places on every plantation where they buried the slaves like cattle. I came there, foolishly, alone, expecting headstones. No. It was an overgrown field, weeds as high as my chest, and nothing else. I was walking over the bones of human beings who lived their whole lives as cattle, and I knew it. Something came over me. I felt as though the weeds were choking me. I felt as if I could hear all those voices crying out all at once. I marched faster through the weeds, making concentric circles inward, thinking: there is a rock here, somewhere, a rock that honors and memorializes all this death. My camera wanted to fasten on something more respectful of these deaths than all these weeds.

Field of weeds where slaves were buried on the former Lomo Alto Plantation directly behind an HBCU named Prairie View A&M. August, 2015. Photograph by Randy R. Potts

Field of weeds where slaves were buried on the former Lomo Alto Plantation directly behind an HBCU named Prairie View A&M. August, 2015. Photograph by Randy R. Potts

There was, of course, no such rock: you don’t expend money and time on headstones for cattle. Instead, you found a portion of fallow ground unusable for anything else, and you tossed the bodies there when they no longer gave you service.

That was my lowest point, and, in it, marching through the weeds, feeling more and more desperate, I started “speaking in tongues,” what linguists calls “glossolalia,” a stream of meaningless syllables poured out of my mouth as tears streamed down my face. It was the only thing that made sense to this backslidden Pentecostal. It was the only response that seemed appropriate. I ended up on my knees in the very center of that overgrown, gloomy circle in a clearing in the woods crying my eyes out. That was the low point.

The high point was this past summer–back, again, in Waller County, about five miles from that field: sitting on the ground five feet from the outer wall of the jail where Sandra Bland died under unknown circumstances. We were a collection of fools: myself, a journalist with an audio recorder and a camera; a minister; two young people young enough to shrug off the imminent danger surrounding us. We spent three days and three nights sitting on the ground outside that jail for every hour that Sandra spent inside.

Encampment outside the jail, July 2016. Photograph by Randy R. Potts.

Encampment outside the jail, July 2016. Photograph by Randy R. Potts.

It was such a small thing. It was such a large thing: the jailers realized, quickly, that fighting us would be more trouble than it was worth. The whole county knew; we were camped out there outside those walls, reminding them of their crime, and they couldn’t do anything about it. I know they talked about us behind closed doors. The first night, I woke up, my face pressed into the trampled grass, and saw the sheriff standing alone in the parking lot looking at us: the same sheriff who, a year before, had called our minister a tool of Satan. He looked, and he paced, and he went back inside. It was around 3 a.m., and something about that moment calmed me and I quickly went back to sleep.

If there is a devil, it’s the thing that animates that sheriff. It’s not the two-bit sheriff himself or the people of Waller County who would scowl at me when I walked around in my #SandraBland t-shirt: no, the devil, if there is such a thing, is shame and anger and the willingness to hide whatever it is they did, the things we will now never know. The devil is not the men who either tormented an activist to the point where she gave up or helped her leave this world more actively; that’s more like spite, the devil’s idiot cousin. No, the devil is what animates them now that the deed is done. And the devil did not harm us in our little encampment. The devil knew: we were stronger.

Wordsworth wanted to be the sparrow–forgetting, in his privilege, that sparrows exposed to the cold cruel world often die. Those who are the sparrow, those whose skin marks them as expendable to police forces around the country, those who know that every time their teenage son leaves the house he may never come back, no matter how many times they’ve been trained to grovel and weep and hold their hands up before officers of the law. The sparrow calls out in the hopes that there is something more profound than blind Triton, something more trustworthy than a changeling like Proteus. The question–who is “He” and why is his eye on the sparrow?–is the wrong question. The question is: will you call out and, in doing so, fright the devil? The devil seems to know that something greater and more profound than he has been known to appear at the strangest times, in the strangest form, filled with righteous anger.

Encampment outside jail, July 2016. Photograph by Randy R. Potts.

Encampment outside jail, July 2016. Photograph by Randy R. Potts.

Randy R. Potts is a writer and photographer living and working in the Red State Confederacy. He recently completed what is likely the first longform piece on Instagram, "The Bible Went Down With The Birdie Jean," 80,000 words and 300 photos, found here, @thebirdiejean.