As I sat down to watch “I Am Not Your Negro,” I thought to myself: “I am going to get angry.” I never anticipated anything else would occur. One is, after all, faced with very few options when confronted with issues of grave injustice: to 1) turn a blind eye; 2) weep in sorrow; or 3) bristle with righteous indignation. In this case, my response was a fourth: smoldering rage. Smoldering, because I was watching a film about a struggle that I had not myself experienced. I am a child of the nineties, not the thirties, forties, fifties, or sixties – my context is different. Rage, because the world presented on the screen had allowed too much, responded too late and with great inadequacy.
Empathy is a moral virtue, fine and good, and perfectly human. Unless one is completely numb to the world, a psychopath incapable of grasping the human experience, to see a person in pain is to – at some level – feel it. To empathize deeply is to manifest this pain on the physical plane. In a melancholy, heaviness of spirit, or an acute awareness that one is carrying a burden too heavy to bear. The weight of ancestors sitting on one’s shoulders, recovering from the lashes of a deep, damp, dark South, whispering their troubles in one’s ear.
“Black rage” is not to be ignored, feared, chastised, or put to the side to fester. We are human, after all, and as such subject to a range of emotions. The challenge is to figure out what to do with them, when they surface.
Where am I to place my black rage?
Am I to hide it in the flash of my smile,
The glint of my eye,
The folds of my tongue?
Behind a “pretending mask,”
That makes blunt words, soft,
Curves sharp sounds,
And turns yelling, screaming, and fuming,
Into monotony, and dead-sounding things?
Where, in the world, am I to place my black rage?
Am I to disguise it with decorum,
Camouflage it in aloofness,
Drink it, dance it, laugh it away?
Or wear it like a cape?
Royal blue, black and proud.
I’m black, and I’m proud.
There are many ways that we have seen “black rage” channeled, throughout history. In the arts (literature, poetry, and music) and in activism. These two spheres have often collided.
Nina Simone: “Mississippi Goddamn”
Billie Holiday: “Strange Fruit”
Most recently, this “rage” has been channeled in the form of civil protest and social media campaigns such as Black Lives Matter and “black Twitter.” Marches in the streets, admonitions in town hall meetings, and the destruction of property. All different sides of the coin of social unrest. But there is latent danger in “Speaking Truth to Power.” Who can forget that, as a result of her role in the Civil Rights movement, Nina Simone’s career was destroyed at the height of it? Or that the men below, the subjects of Baldwin’s film, were robbed of their lives before they hit forty?
Born: July 2nd, 1925
Assassinated: June 12th, 1963
Born: May 19th, 1925
Assassinated: February 21st, 1965
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Born: January 15th, 1929
Assassinated: April 4th, 1968
Writing may seem a safe enough space for protest, but words carry with them great power. Dr. Maya Angelou realized this when she went mute as a child, for years after her rapist was murdered. She thought speaking his name had killed him, which makes sense considering the Biblical verse that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Yet words alone are not enough to effect systemic change. Activism is also required (something I struggle with, as a thinker), which is why Baldwin embarked on his journey back to America. In the film, he stated he had to return to “pay his dues.”
I recommend “I Am Not Your Negro” to anyone who has not seen it yet. But my recommendation comes with a warning: you will be left feeling uncomfortable. One is, after all, faced with very few options when confronted with issues of deep injustice: to 1) turn a blind eye; 2) weep in sorrow; or 3) bristle with righteous indignation. In my case, the response was a fourth: smoldering rage.
Update to this post: Joey Bada$$’s new video, “Land of the Free,” is the DEFINITION of what protest music looks like, in our context. You have to check it out. And if you think for a second that young people are not ANGRY about race relations in North America, you’re playin’ yourself.
T. M. G.