A Rose and Her Thorns: Reclaiming the Angry Black woman
“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”
(Ephesians 4:26, ESV)
For the longest time, I’ve confused peace with harmony and a tension-free existence. I’ve seen peacemaking as a world without conflict and disagreement. I’ve seen anger as an emotion that ought to be wrestled with in tranquilizing silence.
Yes, I am familiar with the Christian concept of “righteous anger,” however, I've been surrounded by people who aren’t familiar with it. So I've grown tired of trying to make my case for righteous anger in some circles. Especially in circles where Christians aren’t angry enough.
Throughout the years, I've had very few places for my anger to find company, in fact, aside from a few friendships the majority of my existence has been spent cultivating this soft exterior. There are ways in which I know that expressing anger will come with loss and I am afraid of losing.
I am tired of hiding my anger because of fear.
Fear of losing relationships.
Fear of losing comfort.
Fear of inviting discomfort.
Fear that others would be afraid of me instead of angry with me.
But I can say now, without the slightest hesitation that I. Am. Exhausted.
Not only am I exhausted but despite being afraid of losing, I feel as if I have already lost.
Allow me to explain.
Since finishing classes in December, I’ve become familiar with a particular kind of exhaustion. It’s exhaustion related to losing my college experience—which was beautiful and painful. It felt like I had worked so hard to build a chair for four years that I never got to sit in.
I was angry a lot in college, but I tried to hide that anger behind other emotions. Emotions I thought were safer to express. My anger never really went away: it made its escape in passive-aggressive ways: In words that slipped out and hurt other people. Through habits that put my body and my health on the line. In rationalizing and overthinking to develop an unhealthy optimism about things I should have just been angry about straight out, no holds barred.
What I learned and am still learning is that my anger is a human response to any violation of the dignity my imago Dei demands. It’s primal and instinctive—yet I’ve worked very hard my whole life to construct a way around containing my anger. Maybe I’ve been able to master avoiding responding with anger in the moment, but I’ve also created a way of existing that leads me to overflow and explode with anger when I experience high levels of stress. When that happens, no one and nothing is safe—including but not limited to Christmas ornaments (it’s a long story, we won’t go there).
I have always associated anger with power structures. I didn't know how to express my anger in healthy ways growing up. I wasn’t allowed to express it with teachers, my parents, or any authority figure for that matter. There was no one above me with whom I could express my anger, so I modeled what I experienced with my “superiors.” Anger was only to be expressed with those who were subordinate, which included my younger siblings and classmates who were physically smaller than me.
I became a bully in elementary school. I knew how to use words to strike where people were most vulnerable. My ability to snapback was unmatched. I liked to make people laugh and it was easy to do if I could pick a target. I would get physically violent as well but I didn’t like to use my hands, so I would throw stuff at my intended targets—and I usually didn’t miss.
As I got older, I began to justify using anger to fight for things I thought was important. When a bigger bully in my eighth-grade class was picking on a girl because she had seizures, I threw a textbook at the back of his head. When one of my friends my sophomore year of high school told me he was going to repeat his sophomore year for the third time, I was so shocked that slapped him. (Maybe I thought I could slap some sense into him? I don’t know.)
None of these compare the spats between my siblings and me growing up. But I have never been able to process my anger well: not back then, when I did externalize all of it and not now, as I am realizing, in the ways I've internalized it.
When I look at my past, I see someone who was hurt, someone who wasn't heard, who could never audibly talk about that pain to the ones who did the hurting. I see a girl who knew there was power in her fists and in her words to inflict pain on other people. I don't think that girl was ever processing why she was hurting other people, but I know she was trying to recover some loss of dignity and pride.
If I were to wrap this up in a simple Christian-y testimony I would say that I no longer hit people. I try my hardest not to emotionally derail people verbally (at least to their faces). That seems like enough, right?
But what about the ways in which I've grown passive-aggressive? What about when I shut people out because I don't want them to see or experience me being angry? What about the things I've broken over the years because I needed to see something snap so I wouldn't feel it on the inside? What about the stacks of journals I've written in over the years that contain thousands of angry words?
And most importantly: What about the moments I've stayed silent while my anger and indignation boiled on the inside when they should have been expressed? Like when my dignity has been violated?
How many time have I heard "be angry and do not sin," preached to countless people who have been sinned against—people who accept "turn the other cheek" to mean "allow abuse to continue?"
Have I unlearned anger? Unsure. Have I Christianize it and theorized it away. Not likely. I've seen the ways in which not being angry enough has translated directly into perpetuating unjust treatment for myself and others. I haven't unlearned anger as much as I've unlearned a dignified expression that adds to my humanity.
Now, whenever I tell people about my past bullying and violent tendencies it comes with audible disbelief. Something about the person I have become translates to some people this is a "testimony." Some people see progress. However, I don't see myself as being "freed" from this vengeful and aggressive version of myself. I see it as the pendulum swinging in the other direction: I am trapped in the passive and repressed version of myself.
Reclaiming the Angry Black Woman
Being a black woman:
"If you’re quiet in some rooms, you don’t exist. If you speak up, you’re too loud.
If you let them walk all over you, you disappear. When you stand up for yourself, you’re too angry.
Our truth is funneled through the lens of societies perception of women and emotions juxtaposed against the superhumanization of our black bodies.
But the truth is I am an angry black woman."
This is my way of telling people I am angry. I am finding that voicing that anger has become part of my freedom.
Especially the anger that is triggered by a violation of dignity—mine or another's. Especially when that anger, along with other emotions that might come out of me are political or politicized in ways beyond my control. To silence that anger, to internalize it, stifle it and lull it to sleep would not only suck the life out of me, it would make it permissible for others to do the same.
I've found solidarity in Austin Channing Brown's book, I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. Brown's memoir is truth-filled and life-giving. By holding up a mirror to society and confronting whiteness, she's empowering black women like me to stake our claim in this world. "I'm still here," is about more than resistance through existence. It's about taking up space in a society that seeks to shove us into distinct and controllable boxes. It's about breaking out of those boxes and making a fuss. Reading this book I felt a host of emotions, but I also felt a renewed validation: I no longer needed to wear the "mask that grins and smiles," especially when pain and hurt lay behind it unaddressed and unseen.
I'm Still Here has allowed me to see the ways black anger—particularly black female anger—can inspire creativity and revolution.
Black anger is feared. It makes people afraid of us. But it also makes us vulnerable.
Our existence is a threat to whiteness, and our anger by default is weaponized in the adamant pursuit by society to extinguish us. Consider the various examples of black lives taken by police. Consider the narrative we've been fed through excuses like "she looked suspicions" and "he could have had a gun." They all seem to be saying collectively:
Whether or not you have a gun, you are the gun.
As a black woman, I struggle with the stereotype of the "Angry Black Woman." I've seen the ways she has been portrayed in the media, and I've seen the ways people recoil at the slightest hint that I might be angry—it can feel powerful in some moments. But when your anger is reduced to comic relief it can be difficult to get your point across. It makes me angry that my anger, which emerges from my black female body will never be isolated from a public and cultural narrative forced upon me.
But since I will never be fully separated from the "Angry Black Woman," I choose to embrace her. I choose to see the pain that waits beneath the cracks of her solid emotional exterior. I choose to knowledge the ways she's been used to silence women like me into submissive roles in society. I choose to be loud in resistance.
When I reclaim her, I reclaim myself.
I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown (I mean, obviously.)
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Check out Austin's blog to see where the inspiration for this book came from.
Explore this blog post I wrote on embracing my racial and gender identity.