I don’t want to be an angry black woman. Trust me. No-one wants to carry around this bile, bubbling just under the surface of every interaction one has.
I also don’t care to fulfill whatever stereotypical view people hold about black women. There are so many of those, aren’t there? About our sexuality, our bodies, our hair, our children, our emotions… Swallowing my anger has always been a useful way of deflecting and defending against these broad strokes with which the world paints women like me.
But this past month, something within me broke open. Maybe it’s the pandemic. Along with most of you, I am making my way through this new world, in which small everyday decisions – where to get groceries, say – are now imbued with a gravity that is at once paralyzing and urgent. I, too, have been obsessing over masks and hand sanitizer, and whether or not I spent too long indoors in a public place and did I wash my hands immediately after I got home and before I picked up my baby… Life in the age of COVID-19 has worn down my usual defenses. By the time George Floyd was killed, I was porous. All of the world’s struggles come flooding in. And then that video.
Have you seen it? How can you not see it?
The New York Times did us all a brave public service by gathering all of the versions of that video. They found and compiled footage from every bystander and security camera. They put together all this to paint a picture of what happened in Minnesota. We all know what happened as George Floyd died – he gasped for breath, he cried out, he called out to his mama. But the Times video is a careful logging of a sequence of events happening around and to Floyd that rolled slowly towards disaster. It is maddening to watch, filled with a series of bad and then worse and then fatal decisions by the police. At several points, any one of the officers present could have put the brakes on this disaster. By the time they tried to do that, it was too late.
The main thing that has stayed with me since watching that video is the face of the officer who had his knee on Floyd’s neck. He kneels there for eight minutes – in the soft flesh of another human being – eyes wide, looking into the bystanders’ cameras as if they are the ones out of place in this grotesque scene. He has the look of a man who has no presence of mind in the moment in which he is living and Floyd is dying. Simply put, the lights are on, but there’s no-one home. He is clearly following an interpretation of an official playbook he has memorised and used often. Knee on the neck is the stuff of the everyday for this guy. He probably doesn’t even see the pattern. The fact that many of the necks on which he finds himself kneeling upon are those of black folk is lost on him. He’s part of a system, a cog in a wheel. Only we can see the pattern. And we see enough to know that the system is broken, the cog corrupted. It does not serve to protect all of us. Only those of us who are not black.
I tell you all this to explain my openness, my brokenness. Weeks after the Floyd video and the protests and the empty internet fights with the ‘all lives matter’ crowd, I find my anger seeping through. That well-hidden, safely maintained reserve of tears and bile and blood, is leaking through.
Occasionally, it bursts forth. When confronted with the views of a woman who feels that George Floyd’s criminal history justified his death, I snapped and dared her: say it out loud – you think a human being deserved to die face down in the street like so much trash. Go ahead and say the words out loud so we can all know just how awful a person you truly are. In the comments thread of an acquaintance’s self-congratulatory post on how ‘inner health’ is a matter of individual work and will save us from this pandemic, I hesitated at first, then went all in. Most of the people suffering and dying are black and poor and this view is incredibly ignorant and borderline racist.
I am no longer engaging in polite ‘dialogue’ with racists. I see it, I call it, and let the chips rain down like so much hellfire. I am too open to pretend anymore. I am no longer giving the benefit of the doubt to people who won’t even acknowledge my humanity.
You better believe I am an angry black woman. I live in a world replete with visions of possible ends to my children. Everything I do is informed by this anger and fear for my children’s lives. You know how you feel about living in the pandemic? How everything is suffused with a sense of dread, the source of which is murky and wily and could be hiding around the corner? That’s what it is like to be a black woman.
But I’m done masking up to protect everyone around me. I am no longer protecting the world from my anger. I am angry. So what? I have news for you: Every black woman you know is furious. And if we fit a stereotype, so be it. Ask yourself why we’re so angry that our anger is the stuff of legend? What is it about being in this skin that makes us want to crawl out of it with rage?
I used to subscribe to Jay Smooth’s idea of confronting racism. Focus on the racism, not the racist. No point in name-calling and antagonizing the source of the racism.
Now, I feel like maybe I am more like Kimberley Jones. In her diatribe against racism, she rages:
You broke the contract when you killed us in the streets and didn’t give a fuck. You broke the contract when for 400 years, we played your game and built your wealth. You broke the contract when we built our wealth again on our own by our bootstraps in Tulsa and you dropped bombs on us, when we built it in Rosewood and you came in and you slaughtered us. You broke the contract. So fuck your Target. Fuck your Hall of Fame. Far as I’m concerned, they could burn this bitch to the ground, and it still wouldn’t be enough. And they are lucky that what black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.
That last line made me shudder but it’s also the part that resonated deeply with me. We should be burning it to the ground. We could be. Instead we smile politely and indulge flights of fancy about what constitutes ‘allyship’, and engage in pointless rhetorical debates.
The problem with that is that it facilitates continued white comfort. I am no longer willing to accept that. If you’re comfortable, then you’re in the wrong. Look around you. Give a damn. Don’t get so comfortable that you can no longer see human discomfort, even with your knee on the neck of another person.
It may literally be the difference between life and death for black folk.