Can joy and anger fully reside in one being? Does one negate the other? Can we fully express our rage as well as nurture our joy? If I take a moment to feel the sun on my skin and laugh a belly laugh with a girlfriend over ice cream, does that mean that I have stopped crying inside for Tamir Rice or Sandra Bland? If I enjoy dinner with my husband and decide to not talk about what’s going on in the news, does that mean I’m not woke?
I recently asked a fellow black woman about the angle she takes when talking to her daughter about race. In response I was treated to the most elaborate circumvention of a question that I have ever seen. After looking at my confused eyes, laced with disbelief and sadness, and realizing that I was disappointed with her response, she gave up and said with a sigh, “I guess I just don’t want to raise her to be an angry female.” Those words rang in my ears. I wondered if being labeled an “angry female” is all that conscious black women have to look forward to.
I asked her what is wrong with being angry if black people are being systemically oppressed? Then, I told her that the knowledge about the history of black people in this country has done more than make me an angry woman. It has given me pride, a sense of identity, and a rich cultural heritage, among other things. My anger is primarily due to microaggressions and the cases of cultural racism that I witness. There also resides in me an undying joy and love for life.
Nonetheless, her comment got me thinking.
I frequently hear black women say they are tired or exhausted because of the burden that consciousness entails. We are indeed tired of hearing about our sisters being mishandled, mistreated, maligned, and murdered. We are tired of hearing about our brothers being gunned down by cops and vigilantes. We are tired of worrying about our children and whether they will grow up with the fact of their humanity constantly under attack. I see the fatigue, the depression, and the lurking helplessness that sometimes appears in our eyes.
It is a sad time for black women in this country. I would love to say that this time is unique and unlike many times our foremothers faced after being stolen and brought to this country. But we know this is not true. Today, as we carry rage and sadness, and feel an insurmountable distrust of the legal system because of the death of Sandra Bland and other black women who have died in police custody, we are not so different than our foremothers who experienced similar emotions related to systemic racism in their time. This sadness/anger seems to be a frequent visitor in the lives of black women who choose to be conscious of the injustices of racism, and even some who don’t choose.
We have too many cultural images of black women that paint us as perpetually angry or as inhumanly helpful and subservient. In these racially charged times, we will frequently reach our boiling points. We may become depressed. We may feel suffocated by the insidious racism we witness. To feel and express this rage is our right. Indeed any change that has come for black people in American has been due, in part, to the widespread outrage and anger that mobilized a people to fight and demand change.
Depression is natural, but we cannot let ourselves despair for long. If you are dealing with depression, get help. Reach out to people who love you unconditionally. Get therapy and make spending time with positive people a priority. Explore your creativity—write a poem, paint, spend time taking photos and make a project out of it…the possibilities are endless. If we are to heal as a people, we must heal and nurture ourselves individually. Our spiritual, emotional, and mental health is not optional.
I am convinced that some of our foremothers mastered this. This is why when I need the kind of healing laughter that seeps into my bones, I seek the solace of sisters. We know instinctively that our rage and our joy are not mutually exclusive. I just think that sometimes the anger gets so heavy that we forget that joy is always there underneath it all.
As we will undoubtedly continue to witness injustices that bring us to our respective boiling points, we each must examine what joy and rage look like in our lives. Each has its place and we cannot (nor should we) suppress our anger in attempts to appear “happy.” It doesn’t work that way. As we give our rage its rightful place, we give ourselves the freedom to express the full breadth of our joy. This is our right—the fullness of our humanity, which no one can take.
Another version of this essay was published on The Body Is Not an Apology