Black rage is suppressed

Virginia legislator James H. Gholson said in an 1831 speech “Our slave population is not a happy one, but it is a contented, peaceful and harmless one.” And because ideas don’t die easily, some white Americans have been repeating some version of that lie ever since. Around the time of the Civil War, Southern slaveholders promoted images of smiling and singing enslaved Black people to suggest that we were content in captivity: The “Mammy” and “Tom” tropes promoted images of jovial, demure, massa-loving’ Black folk who didn’t want to be free.

Those deceptive Black caricatures prevailed over white America’s imagination well into the Civil Rights era. “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person,” said Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, who was born in 1945, as he described pre-Civil RIghts race relations  to GQ in 2013. “Not once. Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: ‘Were they happy?’ They were godly…no one was singing the blues.”

African Americans were most certainly singing the blues before and during the Civil RIghts era. Robertson was in his  twenties when Nina Simone released “Mississippi Goddam.” a response to the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham – “an angry, violent song ‘cause that’s how I feel about the whole thing,” Simone told an interviewer. The song was so edgy for its time, some DJs refused to play it. But it became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. She sang it at the famous 1965 march Martin Luther King Jr. led from Selma to Montgomery. Simone said she was so angry after singing that song, her voice “broke” and she never sang the same again.

During that same time period, Malcolm X urged an audience in Los Angeles to reject the racial etiquette of Jim Crow and tell white America “how Black people really feel, and how fed up we are without that old compromising sweet talk. Stop sweet-talkin’ {white people}! Tell him how you feel! Tell him about the hell you’ve been catchin’!” Psychiatrists Price M. Cobbs and William H Grier explained to journalist Art Brown, “All Black people are angry. Black people in this country have had it.” And James Baldwin famously told a radio host, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage, almost all of the time…It isn’t only what is happening to you. But it’s what’s happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most white people in this country, and their ignorance.” 

Many white Americans today live in the same kind of ignorance my predecessors complained about in their time. White people are desperate to believe that Black people aren’t angry, and they have their own, modern happy-slave tropes to reassure them of that: their token Black coworkers, their nebulous Black friends, and magical Negroes. They’ve convinced themselves that racism was abolished long ago: therefore, anger isn’t warranted anymore. On that basis, they treat Black rage like a rare delusion some Black people experience from dwelling too long in a exaggerated past. 

At the same time, they remain just as committed to suppressing Black rage as their ancestors were. They may not use a noose or a whip to make sure Black people put on an agreeable face, but they have their means. Black rage is suppressed today by tear gas and rubber bullets in the streets, by pink termination slips at the office, and by Facebook messages to close friends telling them “it’s kinda not cool” to understand why Black people riot. We’re left with an ultimatum; if you want to succeed in this world, you’d better turn that frown upside down. 

From “All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep: Hope – And Hard Pills to Swallow – About Making Black Lives Matter” By Andre Henry