On “the importance of listening to black rage and valuing its political, social, and artistic potential.”
The Rebirth of Black Rage in Black Lives Matter
From his jail cell, in 2010, former Black Panther Jalil Muntaqim writes: “My poetry is not fairy tales / or lullabies or sing-a-longs, / Naw—it is a rebuke of the / ostrich syndrome—a swift kick / in the ass to make you stand up straight and take responsibility for your failures, demanding you / live life fully and love completely . . . ” (1). Muntaqim’s poem is raw with anger, and understandably so. He had been incarcerated for nearly forty years after allegedly assassinating a police officer in 1971, and he continues to sit in jail today. Muntaqim’s arrest came at a time when rage, specifically black rage, held a necessary role in pushing for justice through the Black Power movement. Exhibiting anger as opposed to civil disobedience was a revolutionary act that refused to appeal to white America’s moral conscience. Today’s struggle for racial justice, Black Lives Matter (BLM), is exhibiting black rage in ways unseen since the Black Power era faded out of the US political landscape in the 1980s. This comes with consequences, as the media continues to portray BLM and relevant efforts’ black rage as uncivilized and unproductive—as a directionless response to racism. In this paper, I analyze how black rage can, in actuality, be a constructive tool necessary to achieve justice as well as a catalyst for artistic expression, as illustrated in Muntaqim’s collection of poems, Escaping the Prism: Fade to Black. Tracing the history of black rage to the Black Power era, I examine the importance of listening to black rage and valuing its political, social, and artistic potential.
Black Struggle in 2016
“In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. . . . We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” —Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow, 2)
Race relations in the United States have changed since Muntaqim and his fellow Black Panthers were imprisoned. Forty years after Martin Luther King, Jr., was gunned down for dreaming of an equal America, a young senator from Illinois named Barack Hussein Obama became the first African American to become president. We have entered an age of “colorblindness,” as Michelle Alexander calls it in her book The New Jim Crow, an age nearly void of public lynching and legal discrimination but nevertheless plagued by systematic and subtle racism. In 2016, a number of obstacles are still pitted against the black community: the excessive policing of ghettos and profiling of people of color, the gentrification of black neighborhoods, the systematic entrenchment of poverty, and the unwillingness of the majority of white Americans to confront their privilege are just a few examples of how racism is still alive today (van Gorder).
When the examples above are plaguing our community and imposed by an oftentimes violent, militarized police force, should not an angry reaction be justified? When Michael Brown’s unarmed, dead body is left on the streets of Ferguson for four hours, how can one make sense of it other than with sorrow, rage, and protest? In 2016, the black struggle is in a “constant state of emergency,” as BLM activist and rapper Tef Poe calls it in the documentary series The Mike Brown Rebellion. In a situation so life-threatening and so grim, it would be more surprising if the victims of such egregious violence did not act out in anger.
But when BLM supporters took to the streets in 2014 following the death of Michael Brown, some criticized their anger as unproductive—even harmful—for progress within a larger political landscape. In an op-ed in USA Today, former presidential candidate Ben Carson wrote BLM was focusing on “the wrong targets,” citing that “anger is distracting us from what matters most.” Jesse Lee Peterson, founder of BOND, an American religious nonprofit, called BLM an “angry, godless, hateful group being held up as something good,” and compared them to the KKK (World Net Daily). But anger serves a vital purpose in political progress, which Carson and Peterson are missing. As Sonali Chakravarti argues in Sing the Rage, anger articulates concerns that are central to any society as it rebuilds after mass violence. It is a way to confront the limitations of the political sphere and “facilitate the boundaries between the public and private spheres,” allowing new perspective to emerge in dominant political discourse (Chakravarti 4). Black rage is a visible force in BLM, and it is one with political merit.
Black Rage in Black Lives Matter
“We’re not stopping. This is the resistance. This is the Hunger Games. And whoever’s listening to this shit, ya’ll either need to get on board, or move the fuck out of our way. This is not the Civil Rights Movement, this is not ‘We Shall Overcome.’ We are nonviolent, but we’re aggressive. They’re gonna have to kill us. They’re gonna have to shoot us. Because we know what justice looks like—we know what we need.”—CJ of Hands Up United (Interview in The Mike Brown Rebellion)
Black Lives Matter is a rebirth of black rage. In an article written for The Nation, Mychal Denzel Smith writes that in the 1990s, “the aspirations of the black political class had shifted from the anger that animated the civil-rights and Black Power era to seeking influence through electoral politics, where black rage does not translate into votes.” In popular culture, the same repression of anger took place: rap hits went from Ice Cube’s “I Wanna Kill [Uncle] Sam” to 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop.” The days when “Fuck Tha Police”-esque narratives had a place in mainstream pop culture largely disappeared in the 1990s and early 2000s, but today, with a resurgence of political fervor in black communities, black rage is resurfacing in America’s social and political landscape—and Black Lives Matter is on board.
The BLM movement began in 2013 as a hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter. It was co-created by three women—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—following George Zimmerman’s 2013 acquittal for the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin. Though Black Lives Matter draws inspiration from the Black Power movement, it is significantly more inclusive of other marginalized groups and believes in embracing all Black lives, “regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, immigration status or location” (“Guiding Principles,” BlackLivesMatter.com). Whereas Black Power idolized the masculine and the tough, BLM aims to widen its net of allies and supporters and avoids prescribing a certain “type” of Black person to aspire to. A key phrase of BLM, “All Black Lives Matter,” illustrates their philosophy of being unapologetically Black, no matter what kind of “Black” you are.
BLM’s primary tactics aim for direct action, which involves public protest, performance art, “die-ins,” and intervention (Hegg, “Tactics of Black Lives Matter”). As Stephen Hegg writes, the point of direct-action tactics is to “disrupt the routine and perforate complacency; to make people uncomfortable enough that the issue must be confronted.” Rather than appealing to the political sphere which is inaccessible to them, BLM activists disrupt that sphere, forcing points of contact at political rallies, speeches, and events that will garner attention. Though such tactics are more likely to receive negative backlash, they work: The day after two BLM protestors interrupted presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ speech at an August 2015 rally, the Sanders campaign added racial justice and prison reform planks to its platform. On Hillary Clinton’s campaign trail, both she and her husband came face-to-face with BLM protesters; at her convention, Clinton put the mothers of several African-Americans killed by police violence in the spotlight.
Black rage has proven itself as a powerful catalyst for change, yet popular discourse surrounding its most influential tactics is primarily negative. Ferguson protestors were called “thugs” and “looters” on live television and in Facebook comments, and Sanders reacted to his speech’s interruption by issuing a statement saying he was “disappointed” because “no other candidate for president will fight harder” than he will for issues like criminal justice reform (Hegg). These reactions are simply missing the point, though, of expressed anger. It is not enough for the privileged to say, I’m trying my best, better than most; leave me alone; that ends the conversation early and perpetuates respectability politics, or the pressure on marginalized groups to be compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept differences. Black rage, at its best, is a radical critique of racism, a public expression that unites Black communities to fight together. Even further, it is a creative tool and a catalyst for artistic expression, a topic I discuss in my next section on the poetry of black rage.
Rage as Art: The Poetry of Jalil Muntaqim
“Sometimes, I think he will have to kill / someone, just to maintain his mental balance. / As repulsive as it sounds, I would be / able to justify his actions logically / with little imagination.”—Jalil Muntaqim (“Talking to Depression”)
A former member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, Jalil Muntaqim is one of the longest held political prisoners in the world today. Muntaqim was incarcerated on August 28, 1971, after allegedly assassinating a police officer a week earlier, and he continues to sit in New York’s Attica Correctional Facility today (Muntaqim, freejalil.com). Despite his imprisonment, he has refused to stay silent: He teaches classes in sociology, poetry, and legal research; writes poetry; and publishes a blog online. His collection of poems and essays, Escaping the Prism: Fade to Black, is especially illustrative of how black rage can be used artistically and creatively in the struggle for racial justice.Black rage is the conceptual basis of Muntaqim’s poem titled “Out-Post,” written in 2009 (137). The poem is a declaration of non-loyalty to America, as it is a nation that has a history of the rape, murder, and pillage of Black people. It is a poignant critique of America’s negligence with racial injustice, and explores themes such as the silencing of marginalized voices, the importance of remembering history, the exclusivity of patriotism, and the power of self-sufficiency and anger. Below, I highlight a few key passages that exhibit black rage and offer further analysis:
“Malcolm X once said, ‘I am not interested in
being American, because America has never been
interested in me … No, I’m not an American.
I’m one of 22 million Black people who are
victims of Americanism.’” (lines 1-5)
Muntaqim begins “Out-Post” with this quote by Malcolm X, an explicit nod to the efforts of Black Power activists who exhibited rage as opposed to civil disobedience. Beginning with this reference frames the rest of the poem as a salute to—or at least an alignment of—Malcolm’s beliefs. From the start, Muntaqim refuses to unite himself with America, and instead calls himself a “victim” of “Americanism.” The term “Americanism” is incredibly potent, as the use of “-ism” conjures other concepts, such as racism and sexism. Americanism can then be understood as a grim combination of (a.) maintaining a hierarchy of privilege, with the poor Black person at the bottom, and (b.) calling that maintenance “patriotic.” Muntaqim denounces nationalistic pride for America, as it is a system of oppression masked by an illusion of freedom.
“With 1 million New Afrikans in U.S. cages,
they sit with inverted rages, unable to
reproduce; our number is reduced in
stages, rotting in cages—as their ages
are lowering to meet biological stages—The
phases are planned in tanks that think, as
they expect you to stay hood-winked, because
they believe they still have an out-post
in our minds.” (lines 42-50)
After bringing up slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment, Muntaqim introduces a modern example of systemic racism, mass incarceration. He refers to the victims of mass incarceration as “New Afrikans,” declaring an allegiance and unity among all people of African descent—a core belief in Pan-Africanist movements. Referring to their rage as “inverted,” Muntaqim implies such rage is turned upside-down and rearranged by people of power to distract victims from taking action. An example of such inversion could be respectability politics, or the recommendation, instead of getting angry at your oppressors, fix what the oppressed is doing “wrong.” Such a mindset directly relates to the poem’s primary symbol, the “out-post,” in that the oppressor monitors the oppressed and tricks them into forgetting the injustice committed against them (in this excerpt, Muntaqim calls this “staying hood-winked”). In staking “an out-post in our minds,” the oppressors aim to have Blacks forget the very history that influences their subordinate position today.
“Becoming independent to thought, putting
your self-interest first is one step up
a ladder that each step could make you
madder in knowing how the enemy’s out-post
in your mind denied you the time, the reason
or the rhyme, to know your rightful place:
sublime in honor of the world’s combined
populations, no matter the race or nation.” (lines 54-61)
Here, Muntaqim offers his personal solution: break from the mental out-post and fight. Remember what atrocities have been committed to people of your color, and get angry about it. Anger should not be repressed—in fact, the madder you are, the more aware you become of the tricks committed by the enemy’s out-post, and the closer you are to personal liberation. Muntaqim insinuates that the hierarchy of race is not a universal given, but a constructed system: you are lesser because white people told you you were. In reality, you are worthy of being valued just as much as any other race or nationality.
Tracing Black Rage: Black Power and the Black Panther Party
“‘Each time the people saw Martin Luther King get slapped, they became angry; when they saw four little black girls bombed to death, they were angrier; and when nothing happened they were steaming. . . . [W]e cannot be expected any longer to march and have our heads broken in order to say to whites: come on, you’re nice guys. For you are not nice guys. We have found you out.’”—Stokely Carmichael (Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity)
The term “black rage” emerged in 1968, when psychiatrists William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs released a study on the psychological effects of racism. Titled Black Rage, the book was released following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and immediately received significant attention. Years before Black Rage was released, though, black rage was being exercised popularly, primarily under the influences of Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, and the Black Power movement. Under this movement, protesters “did not appeal to white America’s moral conscience through passive resistance. . . . It approved black anger at the vicious cycle of white supremacy” (Ogbar 156). These activists saw limits in King’s nonviolence and instead advocated for black autonomy, which manifested itself in a variety of ideologies such as black nationalism, black self-determination, and in the most extreme cases, black separatism. As a leading SNCC advocate of Black Power, Willie Ricks, explained, “the people began to consider King out of touch with the struggle. . . . Many viewed him as an Uncle Tom by 1966” (Ogbar 147).
Of these new organizations to emerge from Black Power, none captured the attention of America like the Black Panther Party, an organization with which Muntaqim became affiliated as a young adult. The BPP was founded in October 1966, drawing inspiration from a broad range of sources, most notably the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Nation of Islam (NOI) activist Malcolm X, armed self-defense supporter Robert F. Williams, and his book, Negroes with Guns. Co-founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale initially sought (like BLM) to act against police brutality, making it the driving force behind the party’s earliest activity. They made a conscious attempt to “make a psychological break from the mentality that tolerated violence against black life but feared violence against representatives of white supremacy,” and formed a party that “refused to suffer peacefully” (Ogbar 85). The BPP carried guns, protested government, cursed, raised their fists, and created free food programs to support black power and autonomy.
Much like today’s aversion to BLM’s rage, Black Power’s anger was not digestible to the privileged. The white press called Malcolm “violent” and “a preacher of hate” because of his exhortations of self-defense and vilification of whites, and U.S. News a World Report led the way in attacking NOI as “violence-prone black supremacists” (Ogbar 45). King called such violence the “antithesis of creativity and wholeness,” insisting there was nothing redeeming about violence, even when used by the victims of violence (Ogbar 46). This backlash is strikingly similar to the criticism facing BLM: though both movements aim to publicize the most authentic expression of Black struggle—in their cases, anger—those on the receiving end retaliate, telling them their experience is wrong. But this refusal to accept the merits of black rage (and, thus, the merits of Black struggle) is violently problematic, as it perpetuates racism. In contrast, listening to anger is necessary for racial justice.
Listening to Black Rage
“Listening is the praxis which connects anger with justice: without it, anger can only be catharsis or monologue, not constitutive of the process of justice. Listening to anger requires openness to difficult content conveyed in an unsettling tone, and since anger can be quickly dismissed or met with defensiveness about one’s culpability, it is one of the most challenging types of communication in political life.”—Sonali Chakravarti (Sing the Rage)
Listening to black rage is crucial in achieving racial justice, but it happens too rarely. Anger is feared, or dismissed, in the political landscape because it is seen as an impulsive catharsis, not a logical agenda, but averting our eyes and ears from anger will teach us nothing. In a presentation at the 1981 National Women’s Studies Association Conference titled “The Uses of Anger,” Audre Lorde states, “I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts.” Indeed, if anger is an authentic reaction to racism, it deserves to be recognized as a call to action, a learning opportunity, a political force. Suppressing anger suppresses the revealing of oppression.
In Sonali Chakravarti’s book, Sing the Rage, Chakravarti denounces a narrow definition of anger in political landscapes, and offers three “dimensions”—cognitive-evaluative, confrontational, and kinetic—to better analyze anger’s complex relationship with politics. In short, the defining characteristics of the cognitive-evaluative account include: emotions are intentional, they are directed toward an object (something or someone), and they are a form of judgment about what one values (Chakravarti 138). The confrontational dimension of anger is disproportionate, extreme, or erroneous—it is likely to encompass other negative emotions such as despair or hopelessness (Chakravarti 143).
For the purposes of this paper I would like to analyze BLM and its kinetic anger. The power of kinetic anger lies in the sound of a wailing mother who has lost her son and the subsequent realization that a stranger has a valuable life, just like ours. Expressing this anger can be cathartic, but that does not mean to do so is irrational. Kinetic anger is evident even in the name “Black Lives Matter,” as it strips the issue of racism to its most elemental state—it is saying, We are all human; you don’t have to be Black to be outraged. Likewise, appreciating kinetic anger, Chakravarti states, is “akin to appreciating the inspiring quality of a mass protest or an impassioned musical performance, even if one does not agree with or relate to the content” (150).
Indeed, the black rage inherent in BLM is a stunning act of shared humanity. Unlike Black Power’s rage, it is concerned with the redrawing of boundaries to include Black lives, trans lives, gay lives, disabled lives, female lives, and more. Its anger is a catalyst for art and for change. Its anger is authentic, valuable, and deserving of attention and action. It is not enough to deem black rage as illogical, and it is not enough to hear black rage and feel guilty—because as Lorde said in “The Uses of Anger,” guilt “becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.”
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