June 8, 2020
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time,” James Baldwin, during a televised interview in 1961.
“Let us be enraged by injustice, but let us not be destroyed by it,” Bayard Rustin, from his essay entered into the Congressional Record in 1969.
“My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, on that anger, beneath that anger, on top of that anger, ignoring that anger, feeding upon that anger, learning to use that anger before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight of that anger. My fear of that anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also,” Audre Lorde, The Uses of Anger, keynote speech given in 1981.
I could write an entire essay with just that word and it wouldn’t be enough to express what I am living with, living on, living beneath, living on top of. It wouldn’t be enough to unpack how I’m ignoring, feeding upon, or learning to use that anger. Right now, I don’t have eloquent words to discuss how we got here, or where we go from here, what white people need to be doing, or how Black people can do for ourselves.
What I have is my rage.
I’ve tried to distract myself with work and avoid fully expressing this rage. I’ve tried to make an academic exercise out of my rage. I’m trying to not do that now as I write this essay. This is not academic and scholarly, nor is it professional. My rage is not academic or scholarly or professional.
Like Baldwin said almost 60 years ago, I have to go back in my mind quite a ways to remember not feeling this particular anger--to remember not being relatively conscious. I grew up Black in Harlem in New York City in the 70s and 80s. Although these weren’t the exact words used back then, I grew up being taught to understand that my Black wasn’t the problem but their anti-Blackness was. I grew up Black--not just in identity but in knowledge of self, others, and my community--and because of that, I was forced into a racial consciousness that meant I was destined for a lifetime of rage. I am not upset about that socialization. It’s helped me far more than it’s harmed me. As Lorde said, ‘my response to racism is anger.” What other response is appropriate?
I felt that anger rise learning about colonialism and the slave trade--the real story. I’ve felt that anger rise with each news story about another Black person killed or threatened by white supremacist violence, including policing and white vigilantism. And, I’ve felt that anger dissipate when life and work was once again able to consume my energies. But that anger never dissolved.
So this anger I feel now isn’t really new to me. This anger is an old comrade, a confidante, a co-conspirator. Yet, there’s something new to this anger now that wasn’t there before. The situation for Black people in the world hasn’t changed. I can’t see why this time feels different but I do know this: This rage isn’t dissipating.
Maybe it was too many names in too quick succession. Some of those names were from months and weeks ago, but the news came out one after another after another: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop, Christian Cooper, George Floyd, Tony McDade, David McAtee. Because time has warped during these “quarantimes” (h/t Dra. Carmen Rivera), I don’t know if it was in the space of two weeks or three, but every time I turned around, there was another name, another hashtag, another story, another video clip; another police officer not fired, not charged, not found responsible; another police department, another mayor, another city council promising reforms. Maybe it was all this death on top of the disproportionately higher Black death as a result of COVID-19, a result of systematic, structural white supremacy in health care access and divestment in community services among BIPOC communities.
Perhaps I am worn out by the spectacle made of Black death by white media, politicians, racial capitalism, and racist malfeasance in educational spaces. I am worn out, wrung out, and there’s no energy left to contain the rage. I’m old enough to not just pop off, cussing folks out in the middle of a meeting, but that is a cracked, thin veneer of civility. Like Howard Beale, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.”
Perhaps, though, really, I prefer the rage. The rage I can pound out through my feet on the pavement as I run. The rage can make me feel powerful. The rage makes it easy to say no to the umpteenth request, no to being conciliatory, no to smiling, no to being gracious. The rage I can have to myself.
The truth is the rage is better than the pain and the sadness. I can’t pound out the sadness. The pain doesn’t make me feel powerful. The sadness and the pain have to be worked through, not worked out. The sadness and the pain need community. And the community is in pain right now. What if I drown in the pain and the sad overwhelms me?
As my dear kin, Dr. S Simmons said to me recently, the pain is close to where compassion and empathy abide. If I can’t feel my pain, if I block feeling it with anger, then how can I be compassionate and empathetic? I need my compassion and empathy. My community needs my compassion and empathy. And yes, even those earlier on the journey that I am still on need my compassion and empathy. Sadness, pain, compassion, empathy--feeling these, operating in them, is all about being vulnerable to an outside world that rejects folks like me. So, rage is easier.
Yet, I have to acknowledge that as much as this latest slate of murders and near-death encounters enrages me, I am also deeply sad and in pain.
This shit hurts. I am the same age as George Floyd.
This shit hurts. I am a Black Trans man like Tony McDade.
This shit hurts. Breonna Taylor was in her home like so many Black women are when they are murdered by police. I live alone when my son isn’t home from college. What if I needed help? Who can I call?
This shit hurts. I run like Ahmaud Arbery.
This shit hurts. Like Christian Cooper, I see white people whose dogs aren’t leashed in public places all the time. But unlike him, I don’t stop and say anything. Because of just what happened to him.
This shit hurts. Nina Pop is another Black Trans Woman whose death is being ignored, whose murder isn’t recognized as a Black Lives Matter issue by too many.
This shit hurts. I’m tired of having to fight to have Black Trans people named.
This shit hurts. Who is being included and excluded in our “mobilized outrage” reflects who is too easily disposed of even within the Black community.
But this is also an existential sadness. I am sad that in 400 years we haven’t gotten beyond a month, a couple holidays, a few ineffective laws constantly undermined and threatened with erasure, and endless diversity and inclusion trainings by companies and educational institutions that were designed to keep out Black bodies and any other body that isn’t white, cishet, middle-class, abled, and Christian.
I am saddened by the generational trauma Black people bear and the fact that there’s not enough competent, accessible therapists to help us hold all of that trauma.
I wall off the pain and the sadness because it feels self-indulgent. The rage feels useful in a way that the pain and the sadness do not but rather seems to fuel despair. But perhaps everything doesn’t need to be useful. Perhaps some things can just be felt without instrumentality.
Yet, if pain and sadness were instrumental, perhaps it is for reminding me that I am human. That I am not made of walls. That I am flesh and blood and bones. That I am not all hard edges and blunt force. Perhaps this is what Rustin meant when he told us not to be destroyed by injustice. I must not give up my claim to be fully human, to hold my rage and my pain together in my heart.
As much as it hurts, I will share my pain and my sadness within my community along with my rage. I will commit both my rage and my pain to the struggle. Anger fuels critical hope but pain does also. I will commit myself to hope in the face of despair.
So, through my rage and my pain: I believe (in) Black youth. I believe (in) Black women and femmes. I believe (in) Black queer and trans folx. I believe (in) Black futures.
ACPA Senior Scholar
Co-Author, A Bold Vision Forward: The Framework for the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization
Professor, Colorado State University