I grew up in a hyper-polite family. Deference was our default setting. Add to that Christian meekness and the British-Caribbean inclination to maintain a stiff upper lip despite the tempest around you, and I internalized pretty early on that I should neither complain nor assert myself angrily.
I watched women in my family smile and abide by philandering husbands. I saw that my parents never raised their voices or seemed to argue. My grandfather, who valued discipline and military precision, was a master in asserting a quiet breed of authority.
So, I learned to swallow my anger. I found more socially acceptable outlets for it, namely athletics. I reveled in the opportunity to exhibit my emotions with freedom. However, socially and interrelationally, I remained meek and kept a calm veneer. I learned to smile through disappointment and fear. And should I feel anything akin to anger, I taught myself to let it out alone, venting into the wind or a pillow.
As I got older, I didn’t want to be that angry Black woman, so I channeled my irritation and anger through humor. (Isn’t sarcasm just the butter knife of ire?) I figured that while I was laughing, or making others laugh, no one would call me angry.
But then I began attending a church that endorsed the value of all emotions — even the difficult ones. I was reminded that humans are emotional beings. What matters isn’t what I feel, but what I learn from it and how I choose to express it. Anger and sadness are not emotional states to avoid, but to explore for more information. Each emotion I experience tells me something about who I am and what I value. If I probe my anger, disappointment or sadness, I can gain the knowledge to ask for something different or to take action.
There are a lot of messages, some overt, some camouflaged, that suppress and devalue the anger of women, and the anger of women of color to an even greater extent. Even the trope of the angry Black woman is almost inherently linked with an eye roll, as if to say, “There she goes again. Making a big deal out of nothing.”
Black anger is often demonized, but it isn’t evil. Even the God I believe in (a God who IS love) gets angry. It’s an important feeling. Anger gets its bad reputation when it’s used to excuse violent behavior. But it can also be a powerful source of motivation, a catalyst for positive change. Was it not anger that kept Rosa Parks in her seat? Was it not anger that bent Colin Kaepernick’s knee? Women don’t have the vote because they remained patient and calm. No one marches for justice because it’s easy or fun. Anger often motivates politicians, voters and protesters alike. It’s a phenomenon we’re seeing today.
As a writer, I have often avoided volatile subjects. But every time I’ve stepped outside of my comfort zone and written about something that stirred my emotions, I have been glad I did. Frustrated with the insensitive questions I kept getting, I wrote about being a Christian woman who chose not to have children. It was a scary piece to write, but it also received a lot of positive feedback and led to new and exciting opportunities.
I don’t often engage in political debates on social media because it usually feels like a fool’s errand. However, when someone I’m in relationship with writes or likes a post that I find offensive, I say something. (I had to do this recently with my white father-in-law.) I highlight the language I find problematic and explain why. I ask for clarification. Sometimes I offer a history lesson. When I notice disturbing trends, such as “all lives matter” in response to “Black lives matter,” I go deeper. My blog is a very small platform, but it’s an outlet for my anger where I can think things through.
Black anger is often demonized, but it isn’t evil. Even the God I believe in (a God who IS love) gets angry. It’s an important feeling
And those outlets are important for all of us. What can we do when we’re a witness to, or victim of, injustice, inequality or inhumane treatment? What can we do when we’re overwhelmed by the news? Find a safe space to grieve, vent and get support. Let our anger, sadness or disappointment propel us to action. Speak up and come to the defense of the abused. Stand beside the marginalized. Protest or support protestors. Write our representatives. Put our money (or our hands) where our mouths are and donate time or resources to the causes that share our values.
Emotions in and of themselves are neither good nor bad. It’s trying to force them on others that can be problematic. No feeling grants carte blanche to harm another person or that person’s property. It is better, I now encourage others, to use your feelings to focus your energy. Let them guide you to what you value. What are you willing to protest for? Will you take a stand, kneel, walk or boycott? Will you vote or run for office yourself? Will you join or invest in a group whose mission aligns with your ambitions for your community or country?
Unfortunately, the stakes have become too high to stay silent. Lives are literally on the line. I can’t defer to my fear of hurting feelings. I’m not aiming to be cruel or vicious, but I will be clear and honest when I disagree, when I disapprove and when I am furious. Because keeping the peace when it’s a false peace is counterproductive. It serves no one to act as if I’m not bothered. It hinders the types of difficult conversations that lead to growth or at least the spreading of different voices and perspectives. Debate doesn’t have to degenerate into disrespect. Done well, it should leave everyone involved aware of another argument, even if no one is persuaded to change positions.
I used to be afraid of being seen as an angry Black woman. And while it’s still not a title I relish, it’s one I’ve stopped avoiding. Anger is an emotion I’ll continue to grow into. I will speak up when something bothers me — in my family, friendships, church, community or country.
I’m a writer, so I write. Whatever infuriates me will feel the wrath of my words. I can say it now: I’m Black and I’m angry. I am angry on behalf of every Black life that was ended extrajudicially. I’m angry on behalf of America’s racist present and history. And I’ll write about my rage for as long as it’s necessary, even if it alienates friends or followers or makes some of the white people in my family angry or uncomfortable. For, in the words of Alice Walker, “no person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.”