Recently, I assigned Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to my composition students. After brief small group discussions, we reconvened as a class to talk about King’s response to his critics, his arguments, and his ability to connect with his audience on an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual level. Near the end of the discussion, I asked my students, “How do you respond to King’s letter as people of faith?”
I noticed that one of my more forthcoming students hesitated to raise his hand. He waited for other students to share their thoughts, and he nodded in agreement. Finally, he raised his hand and said, “It makes me angry that people use faith to justify their hatred.”
Usually, I try to keep the discussion focused on my students’ reactions and ideas. However, in that moment, I felt comfortable enough to reply, “Me too.”
Being Black and being a woman, I have a complicated relationship with anger. Sometimes I am reluctant to show anger, irritation, or frustration for fear of being labeled an “Angry Black Woman” or “Sapphire.” I fear these labels because I am often the only Black woman, sometimes the only racial or ethnic minority, within an otherwise homogeneous space. Representation matters so much more when the burden of representing an entire community falls on one individual, when interacting with me may be the only meaningful interaction someone may have with a Black woman.
Unfortunately, I am frequently angry when existing in most spaces.
I am angry when a family member says he wishes Black people would stop rioting.
I am angry when my body is randomly selected and my hair is searched at the airport.
I am angry when a white male student emails my supervisor because he feels I can’t effectively assess his work.
I am angry when I am the only Black woman in a PhD program.
I am angry when my fellow worshippers tell me that it is not our church’s fault that it isn’t racially diverse, but it’s because our community isn’t racially diverse.
I am angry when I am asked my opinions on “race problems” and then told to “calm down” when I explain why America has “race problems.”
I am angry when simultaneously I am made highly visible and invisible.
Emotions demand to be expressed or used. In the past, I have dealt with my anger by running, and I have been blessed enough to live close to several parks with running trails. Instead of letting my anger sour and fester into resentment or bitterness, I push it into my lungs, my breath, my legs, and my stride. I have found it better to disperse my anger, let it dissipate in sweat, than to inflict it on other people.
However, I have been rethinking my negative relationship to anger.
Running out my rage has been physically productive and beneficial, but it is avoidance at a very basic and primal level. It is the literal “flight” response that enables survival. In “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger,” Audre Lorde wrote, “I know the anger that lies inside of me like I know the beat of my heart and the taste of my spit. It is easier to be angry than to hurt.” I have been building up physical endurance to the pain in my lungs, my muscles, and my feet as well as learning to endure the shame of being prodded, poked, and searched like a thing. My lung capacity has grown as I have learned to expel breath in a steady rhythm and contain frustrated screams. I treat my anger like an ugly thing I need to hide from the world so that I might continue to exist in the world.
I am tired of doing so.
Emotions demand to be expressed or to be used, and I am wondering if I can begin to use my anger to build something instead of expressing it in a way that is slowly eating away at my joints. It is true that angry people are capable of horrible things, but it is equally true that angry people act.
One cannot engage in civil disobedience unless one is angry.
One cannot march unless one is angry.
One cannot say, “No, I will not move,” unless one is angry.
Being Black and being a woman, I have reasons to be angry, and I will allow myself to feel the hurt that comes with anger. As a writer and a teacher, I will create practices and spaces that enable my students to feel their anger, to use it to construct a view of the world that prompts creative conflict and action. I will use my anger to build.
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