As a black woman (specifically, a woman who was raised in a black southern church), the women I grew up around were powerful. I grew up watching my mother raise me on her own, work a full time job, go to school, take care of her mother, and still somehow make it to church four times a week. I grew up around women like my aunts and grandmothers, who were funny and beautiful and hard working, who let the stresses of life roll off their back and seemed entirely put together while they hosted big family meals and only yelled to discipline children, and even then, only privately. I grew up in a world where the women I admired most were present constantly, where they worked full time jobs, raised smart and respectful children, supported their husbands, took care of their parents and in-laws, kept spotless houses and flawless appearances, volunteered at church, and did it all thanklessly. Did it all quietly. Happily.
And so I was raised to be helpful rather than prideful, to be ladylike and graceful, to be seen and not heard (this particular lesson never really stuck). To quote Big Fat Greek Wedding, a movie my mother and I watched together a thousand times, I grew up in a world where the man was the head of the house, and the woman was the neck: a woman’s job was to move the head so gracefully the head thought it was his idea. The idea of this confused me from a young age, but as I’ve grown older and learned more about the women who’ve raised me, I’ve begun to understand it. Now, instead of confusing me, it compels me to put in too much emotional labor for other people in my life. It discourages me from speaking up when I feel that someone else has taken credit for my accomplishments or deliberately misunderstood something I tried to explain. And lately, it’s angered me.
Now anger is not something I often saw from any of the women I grew up with. Sometimes I saw it when I was being disciplined, but even then it was rare--I specifically recall the patience with which my mother would explain why she had to punish me before spanking me.
But I saw angry black women on TV all the time. I saw them as caricatures or examples of what not to be. As an angsty artsy middle schooler, I remember seeing Mercedes Jones angerly state her worth and talent over and over on the TV show Glee, only to be shut down and lectured by Mr. Schue for her selfishness, while Rachel Berry ugly-faced her way through solo after solo. I saw a black woman’s anger silenced when she asked Hillary Clinton to defend her stance on mass incarceration and I saw white liberals call this progress.
James Baldwin once said (in a quote that hoteps have since placed on every form of paraphernalia) that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” And so, as I grew up in the age of Black Lives Matter, where black deaths were plastered on televisions week after week, I grew up angry, and ashamed of that rage. I grew up with the voice of my pastor in my ear, telling me to turn the other cheek, to not let the sun go down on my wrath, to forgive and forget. And so I did, and when I couldn’t, I found myself ashamed of the churning in my stomach that occurred when I felt wronged.
But recently on an episode of Another Round (which we really should have talked about already, it’s a podcast by Buzzfeed and possibly some of the best media being made by black women, excluding this blog), Tracy bought a round for Anger. I’m not going to try to describe everything she said, you really have got to listen to it (you should really be listening to Another Round anyway, but the snippet I’m reference is in Episode 63: Heben’s Husband, at 47:50). Her description of her relationship with anger, of her process in her adulthood of learning to embrace and value the redemptive properties of her own anger resonated with me. I thought of all the times I’d felt that churning in my stomach and tried to ignore it, when I’d held my tongue better than I ever thought I could because I was ashamed of the rage I felt. I thought of how sick I’d felt when I heard people praise Mother Emanuel church for their forgiveness of Dylan Roof after the Charleston 9, how scared I’d felt after the Dallas Shootings when people decried the Black Lives Matter movement, and I wondered to myself--when was the last time I allowed myself to feel angry?
I’ve grown up in a society where black people, black women in particular, are constantly surrounded by vitriol, by disdain, by danger, where oppressed people to have to bottle down their anger just to make it through the day. I thought of the many times I waited and waited all week to get to places that were safe to sudden express things I hadn’t even realized I’d been angry about--things professors had said to me, things I’d overheard from people walking by, things I’d suffered through while I watched the rest of the world go on turning. Safe spaces, like the BSU or the WOC group at my school, were some of the only places I didn’t have to worry about fully embracing the full range of human emotions without worrying if I was fulfilling a stereotype, or being irrational, without worrying if my anger and sadness would be perceived as too dramatic or as a threat. Even in these safe places respectability politics, usually from non-black people of color or black men, tried to police my anger.
I write this in the aftermath of the shooting of Korryn Gaines and her son over traffic violations. I write this days after Leslie Jones was chased off twitter by racist trolls and people had the audacity to ask why she engaged them while Taylor Swift was protected on Instagram for having too many snake emojis in her comment section. I write this the year after Serena and Venus decided to return to Indian Wells after being humiliated with racist jeers, I write this as a child who watched live on television as commentators called Serena aggressive and crazy for responding to incorrect calls placed against her at the US open in 2004. I write this piece with Nicki Minaj and Viola Davis and Sandra Bland and the many black trans women killed and forgotten every year in this country (too many to name each here) all in mind, and I am angry. I am angry the way James Baldwin said I would be, I am angry the way Langston Hughes warned y’all about. I am angry the way Ta-Nehisi Coates has been all year in the Atlantic, the way Mercedes Jones and Bree Newsome and Claudia Rankine and thousands of other black women both fictional and real have been. I am publicly, proudly angry. And like Tracy, this anger feels so freeing. It is genuine, and natural, and productive. It is a real part of my humanity and I embrace it.
This anger that I feel is not at all necessarily antithetical to the way I was raised. When I see all the women who I love and admire in my life, I am angry for all the injustices they faced--for the sacrifices they made for the good of the group, a group that often included me. I am angry for the violence they face emotionally and physically, particularly for women in South Carolina. I am angry about the societal injustice they and women like them face, particularly when these women are black and especially when these women are poor, or dark skinned, or mentally ill. The anger I feel for them gives me power, and it gives me agency. I may not be able to change everything about my world, or escape the hardships it presents to women like me, but I can validate my feelings. I can be angry and I can cry for the women in my life. I can make my angry voice heard and known, and I can encourage the other grits in my life to add the ritual of acknowledging anger to our many traditions.