I don’t think the world could bear the brunt of Black rage. For years we have swallowed so much pain, fear, and hopelessness. Nothing exemplifies this more than Richard Wright’s 1937 essay “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.” He recounts the multiple times he’s been assaulted, demeaned, and forced to cater to the white ego. For allegedly not addressing white men as “sir” or “mister,” he gets beaten. He watches white men assault Black women and is forced to stand by. His choice in this is to do what they want or die. Wright chooses to survive.
That’s what Black folk do best. We survive. We’ve been surviving some 400 years of chaos. While white folk live their normal lives, Black people are trying to get by in a world that once bartered our lifetimes for currency.
Meanwhile, the NYPD receives budget increases each year even as it murders unarmed Black folk across the decades, from Amadou Diallo in 1999 to Eric Garner in 2014. Redlining heavily impacted Black folks’ ability to accrue generational wealth through homeownership. When we finally earned back some of that wealth, Black Americans were disproportionately affected by the Great Recession. The United States decided to bail out the banks. We were left to our foreclosures.
In the middle of a pandemic that disproportionately impacts our communities, we are forced to beg white people to stop killing us. We’re angry it’s come to this.
But it has come to this.
Peaceful protests around the country have turned violent in response to police brutality. Protesters have been pepper-sprayed, beaten with batons, and run over with cars. The days of “turn the other cheek” are over.
Now we are tossing back canisters of tear gas toward those sworn to protect and serve. We are taking back our streets. “Black-owned business” is spray-painted on boarded-up storefronts, a prayer of protection from property destruction. Even the president felt the rage coming for him and retreated to his bunker when the protests were nearly at his door.
America has always been a powder keg. Now, it’s exploded into a rage room. This time, though, Black people are ready to tear it all down. Maybe that’s what it takes for a country to stop killing us.
Anger is an emotion that prepares us for action or conflict. It is one of the emotions triggered in a “fight or flight” situation. However, anger can be destructive when mismanaged or suppressed.
Sidelining anger has side effects. It makes chronic pain more intense. It raises your blood pressure and your heart rate, symptoms Black folks experience significantly more of, especially when living in a constant state of survival mode. It’s no wonder we experience increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Constantly triggering this adrenaline reflex wears down the body.
And when you compound the racial wealth gap and socioeconomic differences, it’s hard to see how we can get ahead.
As children, we are more often faced with disciplinary action in school. Black girls are often adultified as early as age 5 and are pressured by adults to become more passive. As adults in the workforce, we’re required to suppress our emotions or perform excessive niceness in order to succeed. We live with this frustration and eventually see the physical manifestation of it in our health.
But anger does have health benefits when properly addressed. Anger is the emotion that teaches us to advocate for ourselves. And yet Black people lose, socially, when it comes to suppressing rage. Say we do try to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps (a myth) like the world tells us to. If we manage to, whether through advocating or standing up for ourselves, we’re suddenly seen as aggressive — a perception that can be deadly.
While expressing emotions is often discouraged for men of all races, anger is one of the few that are permitted. For white men, anger gets sh*t done. It displays power. But for Black men especially, it is a line they must navigate very carefully.
Black masculinity has always been a threat to white supremacy. It has divided Black men into two categories: the “good Negro,” happy to please and obey, or the voracious, animalistic Mandingo. The latter perpetuates the idea that Black men cannot control themselves in manners of aggression or sexuality and thus must be surveilled carefully in order to keep in line.
Unable to exhibit anger or passion without being seen as threatening, Black men struggle twofold in terms of expressing vulnerability. This frustration and constant need to protect themselves has no more room to grow. It only festers and boils over, especially with the knowledge that compliance does not always protect them.
For Black women, anger is also complicated. If we raise our voices too high, move our necks too much, we get labeled immediately. We become the Sapphire, the angry Black woman, ghetto, uncontrollable, and unprofessional. Even if we choose the wrong tone, suddenly it is being policed. This is a means of gaslighting to dismiss the ideas and righteous anger of women.
The easiest example of the double standard with anger lies in Serena Williams. She’s been needlessly critiqued for years, racially caricatured and undermined despite her skill. When accused of cheating in a 2018 U.S. Open match, she began to argue with the umpire. In response, she received multiple fines and penalties, including the loss of a point. In response, male tennis players recounted their experiences on the court, admitting that they rarely received penalties or fines for losing their tempers at officials.
When Black people are told “violence is not the answer” or “I support the cause, but looting is not right,” I’m hearing a plea to follow the rules. But Black people are angry. We can no longer listen to white people telling us we can’t be mad, especially because for years white people told us we couldn’t be.
We were told not to be angry in 2012, when Trayvon Martin was murdered. Now, in 2020, we’re told to be calm in the face of a police officer who kept his knee on the neck of a man for nearly 8 minutes simply because he was accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill.
There’s no acknowledgment that Black Lives Matter has organized peacefully for 7 years with no real reform. Colin Kaepernick protested peacefully by taking a knee, and he lost his job.
We did things the nice way for so long and continued to be sidelined and ignored. So yeah, we took up some bats and smashed open windows. Police cars were set on fire. All this came after peaceful protesters were tear-gassed and assaulted. None of this was unprovoked. It has been a buildup of the last 400 years.
If we destroy this country, we’re destroying what we’ve unwillingly built: the capitalist system that allowed the United States to become the booming economic power it is today. If we take apart this country, I must remind you, we are only using the gasoline this country gave us.
Maybe if people had listened, there would be no photos of Minnesota’s third precinct on fire. There would not be videos of women running out of alarm-soundtracked Targets with arms full of lamps.
We gave generations time to fix this mess. This country took entire bloodlines. Now those lost lifetimes have given us the vitriol to feel our anger.
If we dismantle this country, we’ll rebuild it. Not for you. Why would we preserve a system that kills every community but theirs in order for one to survive? We’ll walk among shattered glass, tossed stones, and broken buildings to rebuild it for us. We’ll use 400 years of frustration, hunger, and pain to create a better world. We’ll make this a reality: a world where nobody has to break things, people, or lives in order to be heard.
We’ve already lost millions of lives to anger unheard.
Gabrielle Smith is a Brooklyn-based poet and writer. She writes about love/sex, mental illness, and intersectionality. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram.