How I Learned That Unapologetic Black Anger Can Change the World for the Better
At the Socialism 2015 conference, Martinez Sutton, the brother of Rekia Boyd, a 22-year-old black woman killed by an offduty white Chicago cop who recklessly fired five shots into a crowd of people because he was supposedly upset that they were playing loud music, shared his story of anger and pain at a legal system that twisted justice in order to protect one of its enforcers of death and destruction on the black and brown body, as well as the poor of all colors.
Sutton told the audience that he and his family will not forgive the cop who killed his sister. He called out how this expectation that black and brown folks should always forgive those who malign and hurt us is an absurdity. Some people on the panel and in the audience cried. Sutton’s hands shook, and the timbre of his voice changed, as he told us about his funny and smart sister would not find justice from an illegitimate, and at times incompetent, court system that mistreats black people as a matter of policy.
Jeralynn Blueford, Bridzette Lane, and Dionee Smith-Downs and others also told the attendees their stories of sons and brothers killed by America’s police and legal system, as well as how the State conspired to rob the dead (and their surviving families) of their dignity and freedom.
These were moments of profound meaning to me, those instances of righteous black pain, sorrow, hurt, prophetic vision, anger, and a determined will to create a more just world that were shared by the family members—mothers, sisters, brothers, fathers, and other kin—of those black folks whose lives were snuffed out and stolen by America’s police and prisons.
Their sharing is an important intervention against how all too often the names of black people killed every 28 hours by America’s police and their allies are abstractions: they have no bodies, no energy, no life force, consciousness, spirit, or cognition. Likewise, statistics and discussions of police thuggery and civil rights violations as “mere” matters of public policy often obscure the pain and destruction shoveled upon the victims and their families by police violence.
The beautiful black folks who shared their pain with such dignity and honesty at the Socialism 2015 conference inflicted emotional and psychic harm on themselves by revisiting their traumas in an effort to educate and inform the public.
These acts of emotional self-flagellation in the interest of the Common Good are among the highest and most noble types of civic virtue.
Jeralynn Blueford, Bridzette Lane, Dionee Smith-Downs and Martinez Sutton gave me (and I imagine the other the black and brown folks in the audience) a type of gift and permission. They let us know that it is okay to be angry. We ought not to forgive white America for acts of white racial terrorism and thuggery be it by Dylann Roof, the police, the courts, or how too many among the white “silent majority” approve of anti-black violence by the State and its racist criminal justice system.
Of course, we who are black in America discuss our anger and other emotions with one another in (semi) private spaces.
But, it is the public performance, the day-to-day quotidian experiences of living as a black person in a racist society, where we wear a mask to hide our anger, our not forgiving white on black and brown racial transgressions--be they racial terrorism or the cumulative impact of racist micro aggressions and discrimination--or how racial battle fatigue can make one tired, annoyed, and disgusted.
The mask also helps to conceal the feelings of disorientation and malaise generated by how black America is now experiencing a sense of temporal displacement where it often feels more like Jim and Jane Crow 1955, than age of Obama 2015.
Wearing the public mask that hides black anger, pain, and upset at a white society which has repeatedly failed to complete the necessary acts for full forgiveness (such as critical self-reflection about the nature of white privilege, and subsequently making those who suffered under its violence and bigotry, economically and politically whole) is a necessary life survival skill in the United States and the West.
Why? Because in the recent past, black people who were judged to be “angry”, “disrespectful”, or otherwise not suitably appreciative of White America’s “generosity” were targets for violence and murder.
In “post racial” and “color blind” America, those punishments have “evolved” to include losing one’s job, not being promoted or hired, being publicly shunned and shamed, or chased out of the public square. There is a legion of black folks, both famous and not, who have had to fall on their swords, pleading, apologizing, and explaining that they are not “angry” or “hostile” towards white people, for to not conduct this routine of white absolution could mean that one’s future is permanently imperiled.
This is grotesque ritual. It is not the reality of those sentiments that can bring punishment and retribution; rather, because the bar is set so low, the mere perception that a black person is "angry" can have serious and negative consequences for the latter's safety, security, livelihood, and well-being.
President Barack Obama wears the mask as well. As the United States’ first black president, he has been a target by the right-wing media and the Republican Party for almost every racist stereotype that can be used to demean African-Americans. Obama has faced birtherism, overt racial attacks, and efforts by the white right and the Republican Party to mark him as illegitimate because a black person is for them, by definition, incompatible with being a “real American” and president of the United States.
As a human being who has suffered repeated attacks on his personhood and family because of his race, President Obama is deft at concealing his anger and upset at such unfair treatment. The mask Obama wears is not perfect; there are moments when the full range of his human emotions slips out.
When President Obama delivered the eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney and the other victims of the Charleston massacre he spoke of pain, forgiveness, justice, the political power of the black church, and racial healing.
While he spoke to supposed power of forgiveness and interracial unity, Obama, the civil rights attorney and expert on American history, must have been mindful of how in that same church during 1822, Denmark Vesey, black freedom fighter and martyr, harnessed anger and rage in an effort to free his people from bondage.
Vesey was angry at how black Americans did not have full control over their own personhood, denied freedom by American law, and lived in a condition of white on black tyranny and perpetual war that was chattel slavery. Denmark Vesey channeled that anger by taking up arms and organizing a slave revolt. Vesey knew, like many tens of thousands of other black American bondsmen who freed themselves, that he had to be the agent for his own and his people’s freedom.
How did the white people in Charleston, South Carolina respond to Denmark Vesey’s freedom struggle and revolt? Vesey and his fellow warriors for freedom were captured, tortured, and publicly executed. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was burned down by a white mob.
White Southerners lived in a state of existential fear and terror of slave revolts. Consequently, the slaveholding South was a military state. Whites in the South and elsewhere knew that white on black chattel slavery was a condition of existential violence and war, conditions that are almost always responded to with violence, revolt, and resistance—in ways both large and small.
During the centuries-long American slaveocracy, and then almost 100 years of Jim and Jane Crow American apartheid, black anger and resistance was to be snuffed out and suppressed at any cost.
But why, 50 years after the height of the civil rights movement, does the idea of the “angry black man” or “angry black woman” still captivate, arouse fear in, and cause upset on the part of White America?
In many ways, this fear is unfounded and illogical.
Black Americans never engaged in racial terrorism against white America. Black America’s central demand was to be fully included in the country’s democratic project as equal partners. Black America’s struggles have improved and expanded American democracy, not hobbled, imperiled, or weakened it. Black America never engaged in the campaigns of ethnic cleansing, pogroms, land theft, and mass murder such as the white on black lynchings of an estimated 4,000 African Americans, or the 50,000 blacks killed in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, horrific violence that was/is the exclusive domain of white folks in the United States.
White anxieties about “angry” black people are born of many wellsprings: there are two of particular note.
Social scientists have done research demonstrating how white Americans believe that black people possess superhuman or magical powers. There is also empirical work demonstrating how black people are stereotyped as being more resistant to physical pain and discomfort than white people. Together, those processes create a barrier and lack of empathy across the color line: many white Americans view black people as being inherently different from them and some type of racial Other.
If this barrier was broken, and white folks en masse could feel empathy with black people as equals, with shared concerns, and similar life experiences, then the white racial frame, and how it helps white folks to navigate reality, would be disrupted if not shattered. White America would be forced to reflect, its members asking themselves, how would I feel if I was subjected to wanton, unjust, institutional violence and terror because of the color of my skin? What would it be like to live in a society where you are the outgroup? Or how would we, as the white community, feel and respond if we were subjected to the same unfair treatment that is routinely suffered by black and brown Americans?
The likely answer would be “angry.” Alternatively, that anger may overflow into violence and revenge as well. Anger is the natural response to ill-treatment, arbitrary dispensations of unfair justice, poverty, violence, and the routine violation of one’s civil rights by the police and other State actors. To understand the basis of the anger expressed by black folks, and to do nothing about its cause, is to be complicit with white supremacy and social injustice. A person is ethically and morally compromised by such a choice.
Ultimately, white folks’ fear of black anger is an act of psychological projection because White America would not tolerate for a moment the treatment that it routinely dispenses on black Americans and other people of color.
Anger and upset at injustice and ill treatment are natural, human responses. Like any other people, black folks have a full range of emotions. Black America is asked to suppress and hide its anger; White America is rarely if ever asked to do the same thing.
For example, black America is asked to forgive and forget racial terrorism. White America never forgives or negotiates with terrorists. Instead, the United States hunts them down and kills with due haste and without apology.
White supremacy has forced black Americans, as a historic matter of survival, to wear a mask that is used to hide the full range of our emotions. In many ways, to publicly deny a full range of our emotion is a profoundly unnatural and unhealthy behavior. The mask also means that all too often, black justice claims are compromised, massaged, and repackaged as to avoid making white folks too uncomfortable. This is an act of surrender to white racial fragility and white privilege—moves that in the long-term accomplish little as power concedes nothing without a demand.
The black brothers and sisters at the Socialism 2015 conference who shared their anger, pain, and determination to not forgive police thugs or a racist and classicist “criminal justice system” that stole the lives of their loved ones have reminded me, and many of the others who heard their generous sharing, that righteous anger can change the world.
Angry black people have steadfastly improved American democracy. It is time that we stop running away from such a label as some type of insult or slur, and instead own it as a complement and honorific.