Sister Insider: Holding space for Black women’s anger
A Preliminary Note on My Whiteness
Every new passage in this essay begins with an excerpt from the work of a Black feminist poet. I specially cite the words of Audre Lorde and bell hooks, since they have written about anger and its uses in much detail . Lorde (2007) was a Black, lesbian, mother, partner, feminist, socialist, poet and writer (p. 72). Through writing, she sought to address the particular injustices of racism, homophobia, sexism and classism intersecting in her life and to explore an intersectional feminism that would foster solidarity across differences. These objectives return in the works of Gloria Jean Watkins, a fellow Black, feminist, socialist, poet and writer who is better known by her pen name ‘bell hooks’ (2000, p. 117-118). Like Lorde, hooks composes texts which are theoretically insightful, emotionally expressive, and above all, powerfully angry.
I also write my own subjectivity into this essay, for it is important to know when I identify with the anger myself and when this anger is unimaginable to me. In the end, my life has mostly taken place at the centre of society, on the inside, where there is excessive space for my feminist tales of anger (Sullivan, 2006, p. 10). I have come to realise that it makes me take up space of women living at the margins and that if I truly strive towards radical equality for all, I must do the alliance work as an “attempt to shift positions, change positions, reposition ourselves regarding our individual and collective identities.” (Anzaldúa, 1990, p. 143). That is why most importantly, my essay must be read as an attempt to reconsider my own space by holding space for Black feminist tales of anger.
I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of Color remains chained. (Lorde, 2007, p. 190)
We become angry when we realise that this pain of ours is an outrage which must be fought (Ahmed, 2004, p. 174-175). This makes anger a great vehicle for change. As a response to an unjust past, it can open up ways of achieving a more equal future (Lorde, 2007, p. 194). Thus, it comes as no surprise that the act of expressing our pain through anger has been integral to the feminist movement. Feminism was founded upon women telling one another about those corners of our lives in which we silently suffered the blows of a patriarchal society, and then realising that this was not just our story but the story of being female. By sharing our pain, we could recognise its structural nature. We became uncontrollably angry in response.
With anger, we walk out of hiding and onto the barricades. With anger, we challenge the existing sexist structures, both in our public institutions and our private homes. With anger, we demand that our voices be heard, our pain be acknowledged, and our call for change be acted upon. However, it is with anger too, that we are silenced.
Opponents of feminism have used the trope of the angry woman to discredit our societal critique (Tomlinson, 2010, p. 1). They construct us as emotional, embodied subjects who are “motivated by a purely negative passion” (p. 170) rather than by reason (Ahmed, 2004). Doing so in a modern civilisation that is premised on the divide between the inferior body and her emotions on the one hand, and the superior mind and his ratio on the other, will render everything we say dismissible. I write here about a female body in relation to a male mind on purpose, for the man/woman dichotomy and the mind/body dichotomy are intimately connected (De Beauvoir, 2009, p. 25-26).
When we become angry, we risk dismissal of our pain on the basis of the anger with which we express it. This does not only corrupt our words before they reach the ears of others, it also cuts off our voice right at the source. Because if anger is not listened to, it churns inside us till it is no longer a productive emotional force but has changed into the self-destructive emotions of bitterness and hatred (Campbell, 1994, p. 50; Lorde, 2007, p. 231). We begin to doubt whether our pain is deserving of outrage. We come to question the very significance of our own experiences. Ultimately, we will turn back to silence.
The women who are most affected by the trope of the angry woman, are the ones that have the least resources to express their anger (Campbell, 1994, p. 52-53). Amongst them are Black feminists like Lorde and hooks. But even with the odds of racist and sexist oppression stacked against them, these women write their essays as poems touching upon the deepest layers of fury inside their being. Yet there has been little room for Black feminist anger within the academic tradition and the feminist movement (Griffin, 2012, p. 139; hooks, 1990, p. 195). I find that outrageous. Therefore, this essay will hold space for Black feminists’ tales of anger. I am aware that as a White woman I cannot make a “homeplace” (p. 78) in the way that Black women create this safe space for sharing (hooks, 2015). But I hope that by hearing their pain, their anger, and their silence, I can begin to do the alliance work that is necessary1 (Anzaldúa, 1990, p. 143).
No other group in America has so had their identity socialized out of existence as have black women … When black people are talked about the focus tends to be on black men; and when women are talked about the focus tends to be on white women.
(hooks, 1990, p. 7)
Black women find themselves at the intersection of racism and sexism, where they bear the pain that most cannot imagine (Griffin, 2012, p. 146). This is the pain of slavery. This is the pain of scientific exploitation. This is the pain of unwanted sterilisation. This is the pain of domestic violence. This is the pain of a history which remains hidden, relegated to the spaces in between the lines of the public discourse. This is the pain of having no place to share one’s pain, neither with White women nor with Black men, not even with the sisters who experience the same suffering (hooks, 1990, p. 9; Lorde, 2007, p. 222-223).
This is a pain that has been imprinted on Black women’s bodies, so that their fingers can trace the physical wounds back to the times in which they were stomped on, whipped, hit, opened up, cut, raped, shot and murdered, because they were less than a man, less than a woman, inhuman, only the useful property of someone else (Bakare-Yusuf, 1999, p. 316-317). Are there words to describe a body in such pain?
In Ain’t I a Woman (1990), hooks writes about the Black women who did find the words to express their pain (p. 160). However, she also tells about the painful exclusion of these women from the social movements that they had hoped would listen to them, namely the feminist movement and the civil rights movement. On the last pages, she reflects on how this exclusion has translated into her own life as a Black feminist (hooks, 1990, p. 189). She turns to the perspective of the ‘I’ to voice a pain which arises from Black men prioritising racial equality over equality of the sexes and White women appropriating the equality of the sexes for their own particular interests. But hooks (1990) remains determined to engage with a feminism that is not simply “a movement to ensure that women will have equal rights with men; it is a commitment to eradicating the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels.” (p. 194).
The Anger: Raging towards Better Futures
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. (Lorde, 2007, p. 194)
Fear surrounds the Black woman who is outraged at her pain, for expressing her anger means feeling the fulness of its weight and risking its dismissal by others. The anger can be forcefully returned to her, for example when White women respond with a guilty defensiveness that destroys any possibility of genuine communication (hooks, 2000, p. 55; Lorde, 2007, p. 190). We – that is, I and my fellow White women – are offended that someone could accuse us of being complicit in perpetuating racism and thus do not wish to hear it (Ahmed, 2017, p. 157; Applebaum, 2010, p. 2-3). From behind our “brick walls” (p. 135) of whiteness, we lash out at the ones who are trying to point out the racist fault lines in society: Black feminists (Ahmed, 2009, p. 49-50; Ahmed, 2017). So, Black women are afraid, and live with their anger in silence. The pain remains unnamed while they are “metabolizing hatred like a daily bread” (p. 238), until they come to regard themselves with the same hate that racism and sexism have fed them from the day they were born (Lorde, 2007). Black women then aim the anger at their own self, at their sisters in whom they see the self reflected which they so wish to obliterate. This is the anger of the Black woman we do not hear.
However, if she does talk back angrily, it is “a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible.” (hooks, 2015, p. 29). In her essays collected in the anthology Sister Outsider (2007), Lorde writes about the need to translate her anger into action (p. 239). We may read our pain as outrageous and become angry in response, but that response is focused on the past alone. Only if we act on our anger, can it be visionary, “loaded with information and energy” (p. 200), can it open up the future (Lorde, 2007). Lorde therefore urges Black women to come out of silence (Ahmed, 2004, p. 175). The fear of anger taught her nothing. The fear of anger turned her away from the future. It was when she made anger an active part of her being, that it raged her towards the radical change that could subvert the ideology of domination. This is the anger of the Black woman we do hear, what all Black women’s anger could be.
she’s been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn’t know the sound
of her own voice
(Shange, 1975, p. 4)
Black women that are angry find themselves in a dilemma. They could act on it, angrily demanding change, but this comes with the risk that opponents can dismiss their societal critique by calling it a form of anger (Ahmed, 2004, p. 177). The risk is much higher for the Black woman than for the White woman, because she has been structurally stereotyped as the “overbearing, bossy, sharp-tongued, loud-mouthed, controlling and, of course, emasculating” (p. xxxiii) sapphire (Cole & Guy-Sheftall, 2003; Griffin, 2012, p. 144). The sapphire is rooted in a racist-sexist mythology that “designated black women the epitome of female evil and sinfulness.” (hooks, 1990, p. 85). As a result, White men, Black men, and White women could all justify their own innocence in the face of oppression; they had no other choice but to enslave, abuse, and ignore the ‘devilish bitch’. The image of the sapphire is a variation on the trope of the angry woman, and still very much part of the public discourse, circulating through media outlets and casual conversations alike2 (Griffin, 2012, p. 147-148). Thus, Black women already become characterised as angry before a word has left their mouth. They speak out of anger, therefore their anger will not be heard for what it is: outrage at an injustice. How is one supposed to defend herself against such an argument? Certainly, it cannot be with anger.
Many Black women have experienced the suffering inherent to dismissal. If they are not allowed to be angry about their pain, they become unable to translate it into action. They suffer from a “nightmare reliving of unscrutinised and unmetabolized pain.” (Lorde, 2007, p. 269). They will not express their anger again. Some will not even try to do so in the first place.
This is how silence enfolds the Black woman. It seems like in the end, whether she is publicly raging or quietly suffering, it will always enfold her. Lorde and hooks may write about the angry force that moves Black women from a past of domination towards a future of equality, I feel quite hopeless when I think about the force with which this anger has also been turned against them. I cannot help wondering whether staying angry is too high a sacrifice.
If I step into the space that resistant cries have created, maybe, just maybe, something about my resistant voice in this moment will be heard, taken in, and taken seriously. Maybe.
(Griffin, 2012, p. 139)
As I listened to the anger of these Black feminist poets like Lorde and hooks, I was in awe of their vulnerability. It is one thing to live with pain, but to take up a pen and write about the wounds which are still bleeding as the ink dries on the paper, must be an act so excruciatingly raw, only few will have the courage. However, every time I neared the end of their essays and read that one sentence urging women to remain with the anger, a painful question would return to me: is it worth it? For two centuries, angry women have spoken up (Lorde, 1990, p. 159). Yet most of us have not learned “to hear the anger of others” (Ahmed, 2004, p. 178). Angry women are still dismissed, ridiculed, threatened, and silenced. So I wondered: do we give up too much and change too little when we stay angry?
In my search for an answer to this question, I happened upon an essay by Rachel Griffin. She wrote her own Black Feminist Autoethnography (BFA) by telling “all that I can about my anger – in anger, through anger, with anger – … because treading lightly when it comes to racism and sexism is killing me softly.” (Griffin, 2012, p. 144). The method of BFA is centred around Black women reflecting on their personal lived experiences. It recognises every woman has a different story, rooted in the unique ways that race, gender, sexuality, class, and age intersect in her life (Lorde, 2007, p. 176-177). This is exactly what defines the works of Lorde and hooks; they are aware of their subjectivity. With them, Griffin asks women to stay with anger. While she acknowledges that it will not directly alter the ideology of domination in society, it does give Black women agency over their stories (Griffin, 2012, p. 150-151). Through angry writing, they mark their presence and preserve their knowledge, piercing the historical records with Black female voices. Anger then, no matter how forcefully it has been returned to the individual Black woman, is a force for the authentic representation of her sisters.
Authentic representation is everything, as it allows another Black woman to find the strength to express the anger that is hers. Griffin (2012) speaks “not for all Black women but for myself in the hopes that my voice will echo and affirm the experiences of women who look like me.” (p. 145). She made me realise that one angry voice might not incite radical change, but that this voice can be echoed by a thousand others, which together “might just shudder us into new modes of being.” (Ahmed, 2004, p. 175). That is why the pain, the anger, and the silence of Black women is powerful, and why I will continue to hold space for it – holding space as a type of listening “that can foster a willingness on the part of the systematically marginalized to engage in a dialogue” (Applebaum, 2010, p. 6). It means to hear the angry Black woman instead of speaking for her, for once, to use our “white ontological expansiveness” (p. 4) to open up space for her to speak so that she can be heard by others too (Sullivan, 2006). Maybe, just maybe, this will make her express her anger a next time, and another, louder and louder, until there is no way not to hear it.
1Being an ally to Black women does not make me any less complicit in the systemic racist oppression which they suffer. In fact, I agree with Barbara Applebaum (2010) that the only way that white people can join in alliances with the victims of racism, is by recognising our complicity and letting it stick to us as we try to act in morally responsible ways (p. 6). Here, acting is not so much about what I can do to move towards a non-racist culture, but rather about what needs to be done in order for people who do experience racist oppression to be heard (Ahmed, 2007, p. 164-165). The latter is the purpose of my essay; holding space within the privileged space of academia for the stories of Black women, in the hopes that more people will hear them.
2Examples of the Sapphire character abound in mainstream media; she is the outrageous caricature – often portrayed by a Black man in drag – of comedies such as 20th Century Fox’s Big Momma’s House, she is the ‘bitch’ or ‘ho’ that many a rap song condemns, she is the dramatic castmate on reality shows like MTV’s The Real World, she is the seductive but dangerous love interest of the educated white male protagonist of coming-of-age stories such as the Dutch novel Alleen maar nette mensen, and lastly, she is the stereotype that tends to characterise the public discourse around Black women in power like Michelle Obama (Harris-Perry, 2011, p. 403; Madison, 2009, p. 323).
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