With each beating, each killing, each hashtag, each non-indictment, and each acquittal reminding us daily of the precariousness of Black life, much of White America remains unfazed. What else is new?
Last week, White folks expressed more outrage over the NFL punishing Tom Brady, the cruel slaughter of Cecil the lion, and the alleged shooting of his brother Jericho (a rumor that was quickly dispelled), than over the five corpses of Black women who died in American jail cells in July: Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman, Joyce Curnell, Ralkina Jones, and Raynetta Turner. White folks haven’t cried this much over the death of a big jungle cat since Scar killed Mufasa in The Lion King. And with Jimmy Kimmel, no less.
To add insult to injury, sympathizers of the Cincinnati cop who shot an unarmed Sam Dubose in the head at point-blank range during a traffic stop, were busy flooding his attorney’s office with calls asking how to contribute money to his “defense fund.” Meanwhile, others showed more concern over the fate of Cecil’s orphaned cubs, than they did over the future of Eric Garner’s children and the sons and daughters of scores of other unarmed Black people killed by police.
After reading the opening lines of this piece, some of you are probably already calling me an angry Black woman for pointing out those facts. But I don’t care if you disapprove of my anger in response to the infuriating circumstances that my people are enduring daily. I’ve already wasted too much of my life trying to dispel racist stereotypes about my sisters and me.
Proving to White America that we are respectable Black women is a futile mission destined to fail. Once I personally kicked that agenda to the curb and stopped measuring myself with other people’s tape, then I started to realize what it means to practice emotional freedom, without apology.
In June, the day after receiving a major journalism award for my work on race in America, I was thrust back into reality. Joy and pride once again became sadness and anger when I heard that Dylann Roof walked into a Charleston church, a place I had stood in just three days earlier, where he massacred nine Black people who sat in prayer.
How could I not be angry? Most of Black America was grieving and enraged. The news of Charleston was difficult to process, even more so while riding a D.C.-bound train packed with White people, most of them dressed in business attire, who seemed oblivious to the tragedy. It took everything I had in me to keep from erupting in rage in that Amtrak car.
I thought about racial terrorism and its larger history while a nearby White woman worked a New York Times crossword puzzle, and sipped her Starbucks coffee. I raged thinking how not even churches are safe from the pathologies of White supremacy. Others talked on their cell phones about trivial shit or tapped on their laptop keyboards and tablets.
It was clear I was not among friends or a community that shared my sadness, anger, or angst about what it means to be Black in America in the 21st century. A pair of women sitting behind me chatted and laughed loudly. They were free of worry, they were fearless and enjoying their privilege to live, to exist apart from the horrors of racial violence. Their joy made me resentful. Fighting waves of grief and tears of sorrow, I got up to change seats to get away from the noise of White privilege.
Before I even moved, a tall White man, dragging his suitcase, made his way toward me.
“Moving?” he asked in a smug, authoritative voice.
I sighed, rolling my eyes as I gathered up my belongings. “That’s what it looks like,” I said in a curt tone. My message was clear: “Not today, I’m not in the mood.”
“Is there a problem here?” he asked, as if I were a child.
“Listen, don’t be questioning me!” I snapped. “I don’t have to explain shit to you. I’ve got Charleston on my mind this morning. So if you don’t want to get cussed out on this train then you need to just stand patiently there and don’t say a mumbling word.”
The train car got quiet.
The other passengers braced themselves. No one said a word. In that moment, I didn’t care if those White people saw me as the stereotypical angry Black woman. I wanted them to feel my wrath, suffer my pain, and be as sad and enraged as me.
I wanted to stand up in that train car and yell: “Haven’t you people heard about what happened in Charleston? Nine black people are dead! Yet again, one of your cousins walked into a Black church. He sat there and watched them pray; they welcomed his creepy-looking ass into their sanctuary and yet he killed them in cold blood! Haven’t you heard that a 5-year-old girl child survived by hiding under her grandmomma’s dead body? Hell yeah I’m angry. Why in Black Jesus’ name aren’t you?”
I am an Angry Black woman, America’s favorite stereotype and frequent object of ridicule. Black women are already considered unfeminine, unpleasant, undesirable and generally unworthy of any kind of protection, love, respect or consideration. We are routinely considered “sassy,” loud, aggressive, and demanding.
Google “angry Black woman,” and you get almost 400,000 hits, compared to less than 30,000 for “angry White woman.”
This isn’t surprising because the Angry Black Woman stereotype is popular because it is comforting. It assuages White guilt, provides a balm for White shame, and deflects blame from the source to the victim, all the while creating the illusion that our frustration and righteous indignation at racism, sexism, microaggressions and systemic violence are erased.
America’s obsession with denying and quelling Black women’s anger—real and perceived—is tied to respectability politics that exist to placate White fears and feed racial hostility. Why should we—long considered brood mares, caregivers and mammies for White America—be allowed to do anything except fulfill our obligation to comfort, nurture, feed, heal, support, prop up and protect our oppressors?
How dare we move beyond Mammy, The Help, and Aunt Jemima to rail against the injustices that we confront at every turn? If we are angry, we can always be pointed to as the source of our own problems. And if we are angry, we are said to deserve to be dehumanized and oppressed. This angry Black woman trope serves to rationalize our exploitation and abuse, the denigration of everyone from Serena Williams and Michelle Obama, to the Black women challenging racism in the workplace. The stereotype turns the focus from the source of the problem to our reaction, which is viewed as pathological and counterproductive. And thus we are blamed for our own destruction.
One of the first instances of the Angry Black Woman archetype can be seen with The Amos ’n’ Andy Show. Sapphire, the ball-busting, neck-rolling emasculating character tore down her husband over and over again. She represented the stereotypical Jezebel from 19th-century minstrel shows.
Not a lot has changed over the years. Television history has been recycling the image of loud, aggressive, always-angry Black woman since the 1970s and ’80s, from Good Times and The Jeffersons, to What’s Happening (even Dee, the show’s youngest sister was mad all the time) and Gimme a Break. And we’ve seen our most powerful TV titans summarily dismissed as we did last year, when The New York Times’ TV critic Alessandra Stanley claimed that Shonda Rhimes—the most successful showrunner on network TV, with three hit shows—was nothing more than an Angry Black woman.
More recently, after Amandla Stenberg, of Hunger Games fame, set folks straight on Twitter about cultural appropriation, #BlackLivesMatter, and the politics of race, she was met with the usual dismissal of “wow she is angry,” and a focus on her tone, language and approach, rather than her truths and analysis about racism.
Of course, there are satirical pieces about how not to be an Angry Black Woman, slyly suggesting that we continually smile and shut up; that we support “our men” and community; that we remain passive, never reacting to anything all while keeping our blackness and the needs of others as priorities.
Look no further than Sandra Bland, who wasn’t allowed to be irritated without deadly consequences. In turn, her anger has been used to justify the brutal treatment she received for #ChangingLanesWhileBlack. That is, had she just smiled, been gracious, spoke with love and kindness to massa, oops, I meant the officer who pulled her over, then she would still be alive today. What about the other five Black women who have died in jail cells, each one under suspicious circumstances? What about Rekia Boyd and Renisha McBride and a long list of others?
When we respond to inhumanity, degradation, and outright hatred with anger, we are made to feel shamed and wrong for what is really a healthy response and sign of sanity.
I am sick and tired of people expecting Black women to take the high road while the world’s foot bears down on our necks. Sick and tired of being pushed to forgive in the name of instant, unearned grace. Sick and tired of people arguing to preserve their right to disrespect us, kill us, and keep us locked in the constraints of being the moral conscience of a nation, even in the face of vicious violence and dehumanizing immorality.
Far too long, we have been fighting to dispel the Angry Black woman stereotype. But that’s not the solution because the truth is, we are angry. Our rage is righteous. Our ire is understandable. Yet our anger is misunderstood.
To acknowledge our rage forces White America to look in the mirror. Unwilling and uncomfortable with what it might see, it turns the focus to our reaction, our purported irrational anger, and our “unproductive” or “unprofessional” responses, while others stand by silently and complicit in our social and physical deaths. We have to embrace and express the truths of our righteous rage while refusing to be confined, controlled or defined by that narrow racist stereotype.
Let’s allow grieving Black mothers to publicly bust out of the demands that she forgive with grace and nobility. Let us embrace and praise those who speak their truths, who shoot rhetorical darts at those murderers of their children, husbands and loved ones.
Let’s remove these historical constraints and make it okay for Black women to defend ourselves. Against the police. Against racist attacks on and offline. Against the attacks that fly at us from every direction, daring us to release our rage.
Let’s stop viewing our anger as a negative and appreciate it as a gift. Neuroscientists’ research reveals that anger is a powerful means of social communication, and a natural part of any person’s emotional resources. Anger helps us reach our goals, allowing us to be more optimistic, creative, and to solve problems. Anger is a source of fuel for motivating us to meet life’s challenges and persuade others to do the right thing. According to the Mental Health Association, anger is a natural response to threats, attacks, and injustice. Releasing built-up anger is essential for our mental well-being.
The American Psychological Association notes the role of anger in progressive social change and the movement for justice. “Imagine what the women’s suffrage movement would have been like if women had said, ‘Guys, it’s really so unfair, we’re nice people and we’re human beings too. Won’t you listen to us and give us the vote?’” wrote social psychologist Carol Tavris, in her book Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion.
To paraphrase Malcolm X, “There’s a time and a place for anger, where nothing else will do.” From Sandra Bland and the other jailhouse murder victims to the teen girl slammed to the ground at the McKinney, Texas, pool party, Black girls and women are never supposed to talk back or express their annoyance, irritation or piss-ivity with anyone who deems themselves an authority figure or superior. Which, face it, is just about everyone.
Black women’s anger is not the issue. Racism is the problem. White supremacy is the impregnable threat to our existence. The Black woman’s tone is not the problem—the complicity, silence, and lack of outrage from White America, even the most so-called liberal White folks, is both the problem and reasons for our anger.
It is time to embrace the anger. It’s time to listen to those young sistas telling us that if they die in police custody: “Burn everything down!” “Rise the fuck up!” Indict the system!” “Avenge my death by any means necessary!”
I am done with hope, prayer, waiting for change to come, forgiveness, and begging politicians to add “stop killing Black people,” to their campaign agendas. Anger is something that I believe in. Forget, “Yes we can!” How about “Yes we rage?”
We must refuse to bottle up our emotions for everyone else’s comfort and convenience anymore.
We must no longer swallow, eat and internalize our oppression, causing epidemics of hypertension, obesity, heart disease, stroke and diabetes, all of which are the consequences of dealing with racism, including the demand not to be angry … EVER.
We must lay down the burden of always needing to perform a lie, turning our anger inward so it eats away at our bodies, our minds and our psyches and we end up unleashing it on our children, loved ones, and ourselves.
We must reject White folks’ propaganda that has us believing that we are bad, unrespectable people for expressing the anger, irritation, disappointment and frustration that any sane human would feel in our circumstances. We must be unapologetic about defending ourselves against racists who dehumanize us and our daughters by publicly calling us “black bitches,” “whores,” “cunts,” “sluts,” “gorillas,” and other vile slurs.
We must rebuke the contempt that is thrown at us for our perceived inability to regulate our emotions. Hell, if White America knew the depth and breadth of our simmering rage, they would bow down in awe at our self-control. But far too many White people, who are immune from such attacks, have the privilege to sit back and judge our responses to racist vitriol while pretending not to see or hear what provoked us in the first place.
Why does everyone want Black women to stop challenging and rejecting that stereotype? Because our anger is the path to change. America needs to see our anger, hear it, and most importantly feel it. The anger of Rosa Parks and Ella Baker helped drive a movement that changed our nation. The anger of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth helped to end slavery. Our anger, our rage—once we embrace, articulate and direct it—is the most potent and powerful weapon we possess.
Anyone who is not angry about the growing list of injustices and terrorism aimed at Black Americans is either a psychopath or complicit in our murders.
To feel our anger at injustice is to be wholly alive. Our ability and willingness to express that anger, is to be committed to progress. To wield our anger strategically is the key to the justice and freedom. And to fully embrace our anger is the most healthy, sane, self-loving, nurturing thing that we can possibly do.
Photo credit: Ashley Sakuma for MSNBC