I.Normally I sit up frontBut for this classI sit all the way in the back,In the corner.It’s hard for me to see the screenBut it keeps me out of sight& I have a good pulse of the roomIn case the spirit catches meAnd I decide to participate
This happens oftenAnd lately, I notice my professorMisunderstanding my answers,Avoiding eye contact with me,Praying someone else’s hand goes upBut no one’s hand is upAnd no one can see my hand up in the cornerShe sighs, “fine, Valencia”
All eyes turn to me,& I thought I deserved a seat in the classroombut the Brown decision is still a myth.I’m not a threatI’m a studentwho just wanted to take a shot.Statistics don’t intimidate me,I’ve been fighting not to be onemy whole life…But I guess she’s fighting harderjust to stand teaching meI hear her sigh againAnd wonder why she’s so tired of me
II.I’m getting more and moreTired of this womanSlide after slideShe guides membersOf the cohort through statisticsAs painlessly as possible
But after hearing it for the third timeIt’s finally starting to make senseThe gears are turningAnd I power through the exerciseWith my peers
The class reviews,We get to a question and the classIs quite stumpedAfter a few minutes of no responseMy hand slowly creeps into the air“Jasmine,” she says.While looking right at meAlthough Jasmine is also black,She’s on the other side of the roomAnd her hand isn’t raised.
III.I sit quietly waiting for herTo realizeShe’s confused the twoBlack women in the classAnd sit puzzled,Wondering if this is reality
After an awkward silenceShe is corrected byAnother student…The tension in the airMakes it hard to breatheshedoesn’t apologize.I guess she didn’t mean tohurt mebut her intent doesn’tinvalidate her ignorance
She asks me to speak,& like clockworkthe answers flow out of methese words are the thoughts in my head,the air in my lungs
Although it’s a guess,I think I’m on the right trackBut when I speakYou don’t hear me,You don’t even know my name
IV.After calling on otherStudents,She finds herself repeatingMy syntaxI’ve zoned out of this sessionBut I hear“Valencia was actually right”
and it snaps me out of my hazeand into a rage becauseShe doesn’t speak my language,She doesn’t understand my mind
She turned my academic sanctuaryInto a torture chamberJust by simply being in it
Almost every time I see a new justice initiative, I repeat the same cycle: I scan the list of what justice means to the organizers.
Time and time again, I see justice declared for people of color, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, sexual assault survivors, and more. Justice is declared as a need for women, but not often for women with disabilities like me. A fire rises in me. I tweet something snarky. I delete it. I try again. I’m disappointed, but I feel let down so often that I can’t bear the weight of that discouragement. Anger is far more comfortable.
Disabled people are so marginalized that when marginalized groups gather, we’re still on the margins. Even in the Christian Bible, when disabled people enter the scene, they’re on the edges. Sure, those men lowered their disabled friend through a roof to see Jesus, but most sermons I’ve heard preached about that passage focus on the friends, not the man on the mat. I took notice. Either hide your disabilities, I learned implicitly, or stay in your place on the edges.
I’ve lived with scars, internal and external, and injuries to my knees and spine since I was a child. Unlike my daughter with cerebral palsy and son with autism, I wasn’t born that way. Childhood abuse made me disabled. Because no one told me that I had been innocent, I thought my disabilities were my fault. I made him mad, but I wasn’t ever allowed to be mad about it. I didn’t say no when he came to my bed in the middle of the night. I should have been tougher, so I didn’t break at their will.
I believed all of those lies. I believed I deserved my limp. I believed I was still bound by the family rules that whispered, Don’t say or do anything to make the family look bad. The shame I never should have carried and my societal observations about where disabled people belonged taught me to play small, to blend in, to pretend nothing was different about my body.
That’s not an option for every disabled person, but it was for me. I’m privileged not only in that way but also by being in majority culture as a white, straight, cisgender, U.S.-born, college-educated woman. Now my surgical scars and intermittent use of canes, rollators, and wheelchairs all give me away as being disabled, but I still live with privilege even in the disability community.
In the past few years, I’ve learned to wield that privilege to break the rules. I can be angry when society says disabled people don’t even get accessibility to that emotion. No, I won’t stay where I’m put. No, I won’t apologize when I request reasonable accommodations. No, I won’t applaud someone for finally treating disabled people like we’re fully human, because that’s simply what we deserve.
And no, I won’t hold my tongue or check my anger when your movement declares justice for all but only advocates for abled people. Your justice is unjust if disabled people aren’t included. We know our place, and it isn’t on the margins of your movement. No, we belong, and we’ll fight to be seen.
And? Our deaths wouldn’t be noticed by many of you. How do I know that? Because historically they haven’t been. We’re conspicuous when we show up, but few fellow social justice warriors notice when we’re absent. I’m not even mad about that anymore, just profoundly sad. My anger at being ignored has faded into grief.
ADAPT – a disability rights organization formed in the 1980s – is why we have wheelchair lifts on buses. They refused to stay in their societally-assigned places. They were angry. Protests involved physically blocking buses with their wheelchairs or crawling up the stairs of those buses as bodily demonstrations of how transportation access didn’t yet include us. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990, largely due to the efforts and advocacy and anger of ADAPT members.
In the past couple of years, ADAPT protestors are the ones you’ve probably seen in the news, their wrists often cuffed behind the backs of their wheelchairs and their bodies assaulted as they’re forcibly removed from government buildings. They’ve been fighting for healthcare, not just for disabled people, but for everyone.
If you have access to healthcare, thank ADAPT for what they did with their anger on your behalf. (Also, follow ADAPT on Twitter and elsewhere. Maybe you didn’t know anything about them until 2017. It’s time to remedy that.)
Black Lives Matter, Including Disabled Ones
My three must-follow recommendations of disabled black women are Vilissa Thompson (creator of #DisabilityTooWhite), Keah Brown (creator of #DisabledandCute), and Imani Barbarin (creator of #DisTheOscars). On October 21, 2018, Barbarin tweeted, “Imma get in trouble for this, but IDGAF: Black people, your advocacy MUST include disabled black people. While you may think that we convey weakness and that disabled is the one thing we can’t afford to be, because of medical racism, disabled is the BLACKEST thing you can be.”
As I read her thread, I ventured over to the “what we believe” page of Black Lives Matter, remembering some subgroups of black lives were specifically highlighted there. Queer lives and trans lives are, as are women. Disability only appears in a list declaring that all black lives matter, but no specific action steps or commitments are named to demonstrate being for the lives of black disabled women like Thompson, Brown, and Barbarin. (For additional reading on this topic, Thompson wrote this excellent piece about disability solidary and black lives for the Huffington Post two years ago.)
I’m not here to dismiss #BlackLivesMatter. I’m all in. I want to champion ways in which the intersection of disability and race is done well, like this website of resources for students who are young, disabled, black, and proud, created by the HBCU Disability Consortium. Yet Luticha Doucette’s words are true, published last year in the New York Times: “Black Lives Matter has come under much deserved criticism by black and Latinx disability rights activists for lack of inclusion in their ‘woke’ spaces. We cannot be fully woke if we refuse to acknowledge our disabled brothers and sisters.”
To close out her Twitter thread, Barbarin declared, “We are a huge part of the black community because lack of access to healthcare in addition to local factors and the presence of discrimination while in doctors’ care means that we often aren’t believed about our symptoms or bodies until they become more serious diagnoses. So, get it together, we aren’t going anywhere. We need to be included. Period.”
For more of Barbarin’s insights on this issue, including a link at the end to donate to her Patreon, see this must-read piece: Black People Don’t Have to Inherit Their Ableism. It’s well-written but she also provides the source of where this ableism among the black community in the U.S. originated: white supremacy. It’s all connected when we strive for justice. And I can write this, as a white disabled woman, without being dismissed as an angry black woman, once again because of white supremacy.
Including Disabled Narratives in the #MeToo Movement
The National Council on Disability released a report in January 2018 titled “Not on the Radar: Sexual Assault of College Students with Disabilities.” In it, they cite research showing that 31.6% of disabled female college students were victims of sexual assault, compared to 18.4% of their non-disabled peers. Federal studies on campus sexual assault from the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women and the National Institute of Justice don’t even include disability as a demographic, while they do include race and sexuality. Furthermore, many college-based sexual violence education and prevention programs are not accessible to disabled students and are staffed by individuals with little to no training about disability.
This should make you angry. It makes me furious.
As Anna Wafula Strike, a British Paralympic wheelchair racer born in Kenya, wrote earlier this year, “As disabled women, we are constantly having to validate our existence, which is frustrating and exhausting. It often feels as though every box is ticked while we, disabled women, are left blank.”
The Women’s March Wasn’t Designed to Be Inclusive
I haven’t been able to attend a Women’s March event because of my disabilities, but I would have shown up if I could have… even though their platform has consistently excluded or insulted women with disabilities. Mia Ives-Rublee is a disabled woman and an Asian adoptee who reached out to the Women’s March organizers to make sure the 2017 event would be accessible. That question led to her becoming the leader of the Disability Caucus for the march.
This is common. When disability hasn’t been considered and a disabled person asks about inclusion, the answer is far too often an acknowledgment that nothing is in place and an invitation for the question-asker to take the lead. I’m grateful Ives-Rublee had the skills and desire for the role (and continues to lead the way), but I’m still angry that neither their platform or plans included us until we pointed that out.
My anger threatened to boil over when the logistics leader for the Women’s March boasted that the event would be “the largest assembly of people with disabilities in U.S. history.” I don’t love how he spun a movement that didn’t include us with their platform to be a disability-focused event, but I don’t even know if he was right about his facts. The annals of U.S. history include very little about disability, after all. Even when they do, the focus is usually on disabled men – with language like “the fathers of the ADA” – as pointed out by disabled women leaders Rebecca Cokley and Rebecca Vallas in this interview.
We don’t know because we aren’t taught. We’re not included even in lessons about diversity, as the diversity of ability and disability is usually absent from that education. I learned about the art of Frida Kahlo in a grade school lesson about diversity, but I didn’t learn about her physical disability and wheelchair use until I dug into disability studies.
I also remember learning about Helen Keller in school. The last detail taught, though, was when she learned to say water. I can still picture the movie we watched in class, with a cute white actress saying “wa-wa” over and over.
I don’t remember learning anything about her life after that. I haven’t forgotten; it simply wasn’t taught. History rewrote Keller’s story as one in which she, a disabled woman, stayed in her place on the margins. In reality, though, she grew up to be a socialist activist, included on a list of communists by the FBI in 1949. I wasn’t taught that because it didn’t fit with the narrative in which people with disabilities stayed in the shadows.
News flash: We aren’t in the shadows anymore. We’re here. We’re angry. We’re not going away.
And when you say you stand for justice, we’ll be there, holding you accountable to include us or admit that your brand of justice isn’t just at all.
I grew up believing that anger was a terrible thing.
Anger was a grown man looming over you with wild eyes, screaming at you for dropping a dish. Anger brought the humiliation of being yelled at in front of friends, teammates, and even other adults who never, ever lifted a finger to protect me. Anger made me wish that he would finally just hit me, because it felt like I deserved it.
Anger also wasn’t for me. The truth was that I was full of anger all the time. I was a little ball of rage, spiteful at a cruel and unfair world where anger was an excuse for a grown man to scream at me over spilled milk, but there was no excuse for my anger. “Jesus wouldn’t want you to be angry,” said my mother to me one day. She didn’t comment on what Jesus would want of the man she married.
No, anger was only for the man of the house. According to family legend, I was a spitfire of a child, full of passion and talkative and angry at older siblings who teased me mercilessly, until one day when I was trying to hit my brother, who is a full nine years older than me, and my dad snuck up behind me and grabbed me by the back of the neck.
Legend has it that I changed that day. I didn’t talk much anymore. I started spending a lot of time in my room. I don’t even remember the fiery little girl they talk about. But I grieve her still.
The anger never really went away, though. I simply hid it until I could lash out at friends, classmates, and, most often, myself. It was never enough. In adolescence, it mixed with depression and anxiety and soon found release in violent fantasies that I feverishly wrote into disturbing fiction that my close friends were unfortunately given to read. Worse, it began to twist into a sense of superiority. In a way, I feel as though I got a taste of what turns white boys and men into mass murderers. I can almost understand.
What saved me was a therapist. When my insomnia got so bad that I broke down into uncontrollable sobs in front of my mother, my poor mental health could no longer be ignored. I was put on antidepressants and sent to see a strange woman who raised her eyebrow at my mom’s excuses and gave me a knowing look. I dreaded every session, but I was in love and determined not to disappoint her. It took me many months to finally figure out that my therapy was for me.
But even then, I kept my anger hidden. We talked about my mom more than my dad. I learned how to manage my anxiety and how to sleep again. I learned that I have intrinsic value as a human being. I learned that no one is allowed to treat me badly. I learned that I had every right to be angry. She was the first person to ever tell me that I didn’t have to forgive anybody if I didn’t want to.
I saw this therapist for two years before I left town for college. I left confident, hopeful, and excited for the future. College was a wonderful time.
But it wasn’t all Bundt cakes and wine coolers. In my hubris, I went off my antidepressants and crashed a month after I had finished tapering off under the supervision of a doctor. In my pride, I didn’t go back on them. I experienced my first heartbreak shortly before I graduated. I had to get a bizarre and terrible-paying job to make it through the rest of my apartment lease before I moved back home.
I met an incredibly passionate, fascinating man who was just as big and hairy as my dad and held his own anger, but never turned it onto me. After we both moved home to the Seattle area, we desperately scoured the internet for jobs at the peak of the Great Recession so we could move out of our parents’ houses and into an apartment together. We slogged through underpaid, emotionally demanding and/or unbearably dull work in order to be together as much as possible.
At one of my unbearably dull jobs, I discovered feminism, and found in it a treasure trove of anger. A rage jackpot. Here was a community of justifiably angry women telling me that I should be angry and handing me terabytes of blogs, Tumblr posts, Facebook rants, books, podcasts, essays, and artwork all full of beautiful, perfect feminine rage. I learned that anger had been denied to women for centuries. It wasn’t just my family. It was almost every family. It was a system and a culture.
This wasn’t just an outlet for my anger. This was a wonderful reason to explore, revel in, and even learn to love my anger.
“You’ve turned into such an angry feminist.”
No, I’ve turned into a feminist. I was always angry.
Then came the day that I flung a glass at the man I love. I did it out of anger. We were fighting about our relationship. It had nothing to do with feminism, but I was angry. He said something that hurt, and there was an empty glass sitting next to me on the couch. I swung my arm, sweeping the glass toward him, sending it flying through the air close to his head.
A few weeks later, I went back to therapy. This therapist was different from my first, but she was just as amazing. She described herself as a feminist therapist. We talked about my dad and about anger. When my boyfriend and I started fighting about anger and what it was and what it meant to me, my feminist therapist told me something simple that changed my life.
Anger isn’t good or bad. Anger is not a moral stance. Anger is a tool. Anger is the alarm system that tells you when you’re being treated badly, when there is an injustice happening, or when someone is not respecting your boundaries. Anger is a motivator that helps you get stuff done, overriding your fear, shouting in your ear that you deserve better. Every one of us owns this tool that, collectively, can move mountains.
Many of us have been told that we’re not allowed to use this tool. It’s not for us. At best, we’re told when to use it, and any use outside of the approved method and target is unacceptable. We all know why. Privileged people have always been terrified of the anger of the oppressed because they know just how powerful it is. They can’t take it from us. But they can tell us that it’s a bad tool. That it’s shameful to use it. That using it without approval makes us bad, even criminal.
Then there are white men, who, like my dad, are allowed to be angry, but don’t know how to use it. They’re full of anger, and the anger alarm won’t stop screeching until you do something about it. So men like my dad turn it onto the closest available scapegoat that can’t fight back. They don’t even know why they’re angry or where the anger is coming from, so they can’t use it effectively. Instead, they use it to hurt people. My dad’s anger exploded chaotically onto his children and we all came away wounded.
I wish somebody had taught my dad about anger before he left me with complex PTSD and generalized anxiety disorder. But I do take some comfort in knowing that I learned to wield my anger in a healthy way. I still channel my anger into passionate, fiery feminist writing that I hope honors the angry little me who was lost from my memories. I use it to push myself past the constant, ever-present fears and demand respect. I use it for the energy I need every day to fight for justice in a world that so sorely lacks it.
And to this day, I preach the miracle of anger. Anger is not a moral failing. Anger is an essential tool for every human being that some would try to deny those they want to oppress. I seek to tell every oppressed, marginalized, and disenfranchised person: Take up your anger as a torch and let it guide you to justice. Like monsters, your oppressors fear its power. Don’t let them convince you that your own anger will hurt you, or that anger in itself is violence. It’s only a tool. Learn to use it and take back what’s yours.
“I’ve never understood the anger and exclusivity of many people of color like this one,” a comment reads.
“They hang out with people of color and sit at the colored table making no efforts to get to know me, then blame me and say they don’t feel welcome.”
The commenter was, supposedly, one of my white classmates at Harvard. The article was an opinion piece I published in my college newspaper, The Crimson, about how the experience of Latinx students at Harvard has for decades been one of marginalization. As an opinion writer, my writing has always been open to scrutiny. There’s no feigning, in editorial writing, that your article’s perspective is absolute or conclusive. It’s open to counter-points, to being pulled apart by readers willing to engage with it. You publish pieces to further conversation on a particular issue, offering the articles as punching bags in the arena of public discourse.
Yet when I write about issues pertaining to my identity—my race, ethnicity, my experiences as someone marked Other at Harvard, in the United States, in a world built on social stratification—I am reduced to being a kettle of emotions. Like the commenter suggests, I’m nothing more than my supposed anger. It bleeds into every sentence I string together, every piece of punctuation used to convey my sense of rage.
Except that my pieces are not very angry. Their tone, though it does vary, is generally balanced and straightforward, especially on pieces that have required archival research or other forms of in-depth reporting. I care about the issues I write about, and I hope that the significance of talking about race, ethnicity, and marginalization shines through in my writing.
But often, because of who I am, I’m reduced to an angry journalist, an angry Latino writer. The amount of research I’ve put into the piece, the sources I’ve cited, the logical argument I’ve constructed—it all falls to the wayside. I am simply angry, whiny, bitter, or, as an email informed me, an “asinine snowflake.”
If these assumptions came simply from the outside—from these nameless, faceless voices on the Internet—they’d be easy to shrug off. Their assumptions of my anger would translate into nothing more than a race-tinged misreading of my articles. The label of angry Latino journalist, though, has seeped into perceptions of my capacity as a journalist.
This, of course, is not a phenomenon exclusive to my experiences at a college paper. April Ryan, a black journalist who covers the White House, has been targeted by the Trump administration. After asking Press Secretary Sanders if the president had ever considered stepping down, Ryan received a number of death threats. “I’m angry about the fact that people are ginning people up to come after me for that,” she responded. “I’m viewing the attacks as partisan. But that question had nothing to do with politics.”
Ryan, like many female journalists of color, has had her work as a journalist scrutinized through the lens of her race, gender, and identity more broadly. For decades, the newspaper industry has been staffed, led, and run primarily by white men. The demographics of newsrooms have slowly shifted, but reporters from underrepresented backgrounds still find their assignments and articles scrutinized through the lens of their identity.
Being perceived as “angry” (or a number of related emotions) can be a detriment to a journalist’s career, because it seems to undercut their objectivity. In a political moment when the role and importance of journalism are up for debate, such accusations cut deeply; objectivity is held up as a standard all journalists ought to aspire to.
Yet this is perhaps the grandest lie of journalism: that there is such a thing as pure objectivity.
There is, of course, true and false information. Journalists go to incredible lengths to correlate accounts and shape stories before they are published. But the way stories are framed, the words chosen to couch the facts, and the narratives that are put forward are all shaped by the writing and editorial teams. Perspective matters. Subjectivity is both inescapable and essential to good journalism.
“Objectivity,” in this context, has simply meant “the status quo”—an objective journalist perpetuates certain narratives, covers certain communities, deems certain stories worthy of coverage. The status quo has long been dictated by newsrooms much less diverse than cities in which they are based.
Thus, as journalists of color make inroads in the industry, they are perceived to produce work that is less objective. As Latina journalist Maria Hinojosa puts it, “As journalists we never want to be part of the story… [Yet] as journalists of color, we are part of the story.” The sorts of stories journalists of color pursue are often deemed biased because of the communities they belong to or identify with. In turn, their writing is unjustly scrutinized as emotional, angry, or political—the furthest thing from objective.
This double standard is a national phenomenon. And yet it has also been an intimate part of my career as a college journalist, one that has taken a very real, bodily toll on me in the past year or so.
A year ago, I threw my name in for consideration for a high-level leadership position within The Crimson. I’d served as the editorial chair in 2017, and I was willing to devote another year’s worth of hours, stress, time, and energy to seeing through the initiatives I’d put begun. But I also knew that my involvement with on-campus activism and the body of work I’d produced—often critical, often read as angry—would hurt my chances.
So I played politics, marketed myself in a way that was palatable to the people deciding on my future at The Crimson. I tried to hide my emotions, placing a smiling face in front of the very human confusion inside. My work over the past year was the product of dedication and competence. And yet I worried that my peers, like some of my readers, would boil me down to my comportment—not necessarily as it was in reality, but as they perceived it.
Ultimately my bid was unsuccessful, and, in a decision that still feels unjust, I was left off the organization’s masthead entirely.
I’ll never know how perceptions of me outside of my credentials played into the process. But given the different standards journalists of color are held to when it comes to their emotions and presumed objectivity, odds are that perception played a role.
This could be just another story about the need to overcome failure, or another story about the way the newspaper industry is stacked against people of color. And perhaps it is both of these stories. But when you strip back the argument I’ve presented here, this is most of all a story about how being perceived as angry comes with visceral consequences.
The first time I went to therapy, I spent most of the time talking about The Crimson. I did not tell my counselor about how I so often felt I was walking within a shell of myself, as if my actual being had shrunk inside my own skin. The days I spent feeling grounded, present, and fully aware of the world around me were slipping away.
I still haven’t completely processed my stint at The Crimson. I so desperately wish that as I step through the door of our building, I could stop worrying that others see me dressed in anger, an shining red A on my chest. But misconstruing anger is not an act exclusive to virulent racists or raging conservatives. When your peers are those who assume that anger accompanies your skin, your politics, your entire being, the toll is disorienting.
My experiences have made me seriously question whether or not I can ever pursue a career in journalism. I worry that my anger, this mostly monstrous and imaginary friend on my shoulder, will stand in the way.
Above all, I hope the day will come when I’ll be allowed to be something more than an angry journalist of color. I hope I can shed this anger, an old layer of skin that has never felt fully mine, and experience my emotions without worrying about how it will affect perceptions of my work.
These dispatches are a plea. Allow me to feel the way my white peers can, freely and without inhibition.
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.