You are sitting in your friend’s car and you both look exhausted.
You have just left an event where women are telling stories about their sexual assaults. You left that event in the gentrified neighborhood that you no longer recognize, and you are in Rogers Park, another neighborhood where gentrification is being claimed in block-sized bites, but tonight, you and your friend Nikki are staring at the dashboard of this parked car as if it is a small universe. Both of you are grieving and venting.
As a friend, I do not feel comfortable telling her story, but I will tell mine and what her advice was to me.
At this point, I am visiting Chicago during spring break and quietly visiting old North Side haunts—The Green Mill, Rogers Park around my alma mater, Wicker Park, and walking around Belmont. It is 2014. I am ABD, an official Ph.D. candidate, and the dissertation is almost done. I am planning to teach and write.
As I’m walking solo in these somewhat familiar streets since I moved out East ten years ago, I miss this place as a woman who is single again and does not want to support someone else’s career. I am weeping because I am tired of being called angry, crazy, and people assuming that I am intimidating. I feel myself literally curling and drooping because I am home. I find myself looking at so many projects and people that I had touched, and I still feel that struggle for recognition, or at least some affection and a better salary.
The longer I talk to Nikki, the more I finally feel compelled to blurt it out. I’m tired of helping these men who move on to someone else. It’s as if they needed what my friend Lauren called “emotional training wheels” until they were done with me. I completed most of the application for the first fellowship one boyfriend got. I typed another’s first manuscript so he could get it to the publisher. Yet another expected me to clean up behind him and never paid a bill on time while he was writing about another woman. I wrote free press releases and updated the press contacts list of the musician with whom I was briefly involved. I just keep telling Nikki never again.
What she suggested was simple. Write it. Write about how angry you are. Write about how unfair it is, and how you’d like them to feel, even if it’s violent. Even if no one ever sees it. You need to do this. As someone who grew up in a house with an abusive father, avoiding my own anger has been tantamount to saying I will be different, but as I’ve gotten older, it’s been more about being “nice” and “professional,” and the ideas of sincerity and loyalty are very different from what they were in the small town where I grew up.
I thought people said thank you, and if you had someone’s back that they had yours.
I thought people would stop asking me about whether or not one of my partners had “helped me write” something, even if I had more publications and degrees than them. I thought people would not be allowed to act like women are dispensable (because there are always more coming), especially when I know I am a human being with unique talents and inherent value. So, yes, I was angry, but instead of yelling, screaming, neck rolling, eye-popping, or even throwing a blow or vandalizing something, I was finally weeping because I have been trying to be strong and never cry and break down in public. Successful people do not do that. That’s what a nervous breakdown looks like, but the reality is such tears are a release of grief and pain.
You see a book that professes to be about the history of women as writers that is written by a woman, but Nina Simone is mentioned in one sentence.
Another woman of color is mentioned in a list of contemporary writers at the end. You ask yourself, was the Combahee River Collective fighting for such slights? You want to throw the book across the room.
How do I begin to talk about how I cursed out loud at the television when I heard women discussing how the pay gap between men and women is not so significant.
I wanted to tell them that my ex-husband and last boyfriend both made more money than me and only had bachelor’s degrees. I want to tell her that even though my husband promised me that we’d have children, I now have none. Unless I find a job post-Ph.D., I will not meet the financial requirements to adopt, much less pay for artificial insemination or freezing my eggs.
I am angry that I cannot make this decision now without someone else being able to withhold a bodily fluid. I am angry that people have insisted that I burned bridges when they stopped speaking to me. I am angry that divorce apparently means that there is some unwritten protocol that makes women (and some men) like me pariahs among people who knew her before the relationship that culminated in a divorce. I have had other divorced friends literally say, “It’s as if people think divorce is contagious and run away.” I am angry that a promise that I only planned to make once was broken casually, like I don’t want to play anymore. I am angry that people have insisted and suggested everything I need to change in order to find someone. You should smile more. You should dye your hair. You should lose weight. You should try online dating. You should do a personals ad. Can’t you be nicer? Can’t you cook more? Can’t you exercise? Have you dated outside your race? The only thing I have been told NOT to do is try Craigslist, and I have no desire to do that.
I think of a friend in college who told me that she was raped by a crush, I look at writing by young women where they describe what people have said girls cannot do, the names that they get called if they try to be attractive or express themselves, or the stories about abusers of all sorts—boyfriends, parents, strangers, and so-called friends.
I understand women who cannot move on like nothing happened. Things have happened and continue to happen, whether they were inflicted on my mother or men in my own life. I find myself counting moments when men are kind without wanting something in return. There are too many times when I have considered myself “lucky” that I was never penetrated without my consent or concern for my comfort. “Lucky” that I have not been frequently cajoled into doing something more than I might want to do. “Lucky” that I was only slapped once and pinned to a bed by a college boyfriend that I lived with, and “lucky” that I was never sexually abused. “Lucky” that a thirteen-year-old boy was only able to halfway cram his hand down my pants before I fought him off at age seven.
As I meet more women with more intensely violent experiences, I imagine that post-traumatic stress disorder is like someone slapping you so hard that your ear keeps ringing. Then again, I kept waking up with nightmares of my own after the divorce, where I was being shaken, laughed at, and pointed at in dreams that left me in tears. No one physically hurt me, and so people say it is not a crisis.
I have found myself turning off Game of Thrones and CSI: SVU where rape is common fodder for the plot line when other women are in the house. Usually, there are not other men in my house, but I know that they may be harboring their own secrets and pain. I am angry for my friends when I change the channel because their stories have been dramatized on a superficial level. I wonder who else is watching, and if they laugh at these scenes. I want justice and healing for each victim I know, but I am also afraid to hear them shaking.
I am watching Kelis’s video for her 1999 single “Caught Out There” since it is one of the pop music representations of anger that stands out in my memory.
This is the video that Nas claims made him want to know his future wife. I want to know why no one asked if he should have reconsidered, but I know that a woman who asserts herself is attractive, even when people do not want to admit that.
When Kelis’s orange and hot-pink corkscrew curls pop into the frame, her face beneath the profusion of curls talks directly to the viewer as she watches doctors desperately attempting to resuscitate a man who is probably her boyfriend. One would think she would look sad or worried, but instead she says:
“Yo, this song, yo, this song is for all the women out there that have been lied to by their men. I know y’all have been lied to over and over again. This song is for you.
Maybe you didn’t break the way you shoulda broke, but I break, you know what I’m sayin? This is how it goes, yo. Damn…”
She offers physical cues of beating this man. While she sings the first verse, his still body lays on the floor, presumably unconscious, as she burns a love letter. She is asking what she is supposed to do when he doesn’t come home. She screams directly into the frame and throws records, books, couch cushions, chairs all over the apartment. “I hate you so much right now” is punctuated with her repeatedly growling arrrrrrrggggghhhh. The next scene shows Kelis in a bathtub looking at Polaroid photos in which her boyfriend is with different women in role-playing outfits in different clubs. Who has not felt like doing some of the things Kelis does in this video when a lover randomly leaves cues of infidelity?
In the next scene with Kelis, her role is a woman in a dank cell in a dark leather straitjacket. The next scene cuts to her with her hair in braids while she’s wearing pink and sitting on the therapist’s couch, and the bruised boyfriend sits in a chair behind her and takes notes. The scene doesn’t shift until she gets up and starts pushing him. Even though Kelis is toying with the idea that an angry woman has mental problems, she is still angry and pushing away this role of a passive analysand where someone who will never be a black woman attempts to fix her.
Gradually, as the video begins to wrap up, women of different races, ethnicities, and ages are marching out of their houses and into the streets with Kelis leading them. They are carrying signs that say “NO!” and “No More Lies!” Some of the women look like mothers and grandmothers, much older, and some of them in church clothes or bathrobes and hair rollers. It makes me think of the older women I know who have told me that times are different now. We do not have to tolerate that same horrible behavior of infidelity, dismissing and omitting women from discussions and benefits in the larger world, and all sorts of abuse. Then again, I keep thinking that women do not have to enact those same behaviors either, which is why I’ve avoided being angry or acting out the fantasies detailed in Jazmin Sullivan’s “Bust Your Windows” or the sadly still relevant imagined violence against police brutality in Audre Lorde’s poem “Power.”
As the accumulated scenes conclude, I realize that the only way I am physically attacking anyone is if they physically attack me. I know I am avoiding beating anyone or vandalizing their property, because I’d just leave. But not everyone leaves, and I understand why they do not, and I understand the anger that does not dismantle male privilege and only temporarily allows one woman to vent about her individual situation. Then, I am reminded of Chris Rock saying he would never hit a woman, but he would shake the shit out of her. It might have been funny, but maybe a man should laugh after someone shakes him.
I have to wonder, what would that anger look like if it was not stereotyped or rendered in creative works?
What if we do not vilify black women as verbally emasculating, sexually available, childishly vindictive, or a stereotypical militant? What if an angry black woman does not have her fist in the air like the horrible 2008 New Yorker parody of Michelle Obama with an afro, a bullet belt, combat boots, and an AK-47 strapped to her back? What if the “angry woman” is silent? What will she look like if she is not crying? That “angry woman” might look like any woman you know.