Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change (127). –“The Uses of Anger,” in Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde
There are moments when I can feel anger raging inside of me. I feel it now as the District Attorney in my city pushes forward with his case against Clarence Moses-EL, a man that has served 28 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. And if I’m honest, it didn’t start with the killing of Michael Brown. It didn’t start with Sandra Bland or Michael Marshall or Korryn Gaines or Trayvon Martin. If I think back to identify the moment when the simmering anger spilled over into my belly, and I wanted to pull my hair out with frustration, cry deep pools of tears, scream at the top of my lungs, and run into the streets to ask people “What the heck is going on?!? Are you paying attention?!?!,” it was in 2011 with the execution of Troy Davis. It was then that I slowly gave myself over to the anger, day by day trying to figure out how this well-stocked arsenal could help me do something productive, while recognizing that it also had the potential to eat me alive.
Every year since 2011, either on my own or in the classroom, I’ve returned to Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of Anger.” While some might challenge whether this essay is “anthropological,” I argue that the truths in this text are the result of long-term research, deep analysis, and of “being there” as an insider-outsider in the field. It’s as though Lorde watched us with ethnographic eyes—Black women fighting and organizing in our streets, in classrooms, at work, at church, in courtrooms, pushing back against police violence, the criminal injustice system, anti-Black racism, heterosexism, and feminisms that continue to neglect us. She observed us when she was alive, and now watches from above as we use our arsenals to the best of our abilities. Although I wanted to write this blog post about Christen Smith’s amazing analysis of state-sanctioned violence, suffering, and slow death in Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil; or the wonderful description of citizenship, misrecognition, and racism as shame in Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen; or the trauma of surveillance explained so eloquently in Simone Browne’s Dark Matters, something kept drawing me back to Lorde’s anger.
Making Anger Productive in Teaching and Organizing
As a researcher interested in Black women and emotional wellness, as a professor that teaches critical race and gender studies, and as an organizer with Black Lives Matter 5280, the “Uses of Anger” is a reminder that the anger that shows up as I function in these roles is useful, and even vital for societal transformation. Lorde argues that it is not a wasteful emotion or energy. It is essential to the fight that will eventually get us free.
In the increasingly divisive political climate we are living in (both in the U.S. and globally), anger appears in a variety of ways. I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about how anger shows up in my teaching and activist organizing, and how I can use it effectively to teach inside and outside of classrooms. Although I do not have the space here to detail and theorize the complexities of anger in my classroom (from myself and from students), I will admit that it has been present. I admit this because when we feel anger as professors (particularly those whose anger is racialized as Black and dangerous, and gendered as feminine and irrational), we are frequently made to feel ashamed or urged to be silent about it. We are also encouraged to create “safe” environments where all students, regardless of identity and disproportionate access to power, can be comfortable and learn without offense. I have written elsewhere about my pedagogical approach of “radical honesty,” which encourages teachers and students to be honest about the experiences, identities, and emotions they bring into the classroom, while examining how these are connected to power and privilege. My point here is that it makes sense that anger is showing up in teaching, learning, and organizing spaces in this moment. How would it be possible not to express and experience anger as we seek effective ways to navigate “the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, betrayal, and co-optation” (124)? How is it possible to learn critical race theory, or engage anti-racist organizing practices, or successfully mobilize against structural systems of violence without feeling a fire in your spirit?
Lorde’s essay does a wonderful job of explaining the politics of anger, and that all anger is not mobilized equally. As women of color are made to feel ashamed of their anger, while white women sometimes get stuck in guilt, Lorde argues anger amongst potential allies or accomplices can be utilized to build alliances. She writes, “anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification, for it is in the painful process of this translation that we identify who are our allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine enemies. Anger is loaded with information and energy” (127). With increasing incidents of white fragility and white rage erupting in community organizing spaces and the classroom, I try to remember that while all anger is not equal, all of it can be useful for change if properly channeled. If we are willing to engage in the tough, deep, and necessary conversations Lorde describes in her text, we can move towards a more equitable world. For now is the time. The anger of those organizing against oppression can no longer be ignored or simply denigrated.
To turn aside from the anger of Black women with excuses or the pretexts of intimidation is to award no one power—it is merely another way of preserving racial blindness, the power of unaddressed privilege, unbreached, intact. Guilt is only another form of objectification. Oppressed peoples are always being asked to stretch a little more, to bridge the gap between blindness and humanity. Black women are expected to use our anger only in the service of other people’s salvation or learning. But that time is over (132).—“The Uses of Anger”
Bianca C. Williams is an Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. As a Black feminist cultural anthropologist, Williams’ research interests include Black women & affect; race, gender, and emotional labor in higher education institutions; and Black feminist leadership studies and activist organizing. In her forthcoming book, titled The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism, Williams examines how African American women create self and other through travel, new media technology, and how their experiences allow for a trenchant critique of racism and sexism in American culture. For her work in the classroom, Williams earned the 2016 American Anthropological Association/Oxford University Press Teaching Award. Her writing on her organizing with Black Lives Matter can be found on the blog Savage Minds, in Cultural Anthropology, and Anthropology News. She will be participating in APLA’s moderated discussion on racism, BLM and immigrant rights at the November 2016 AAA Meetings