“I know a few things to be true…I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. My body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing. I am the sin of memory and the absence of memory. I watch the news and my mouth becomes a sink full of blood.” -Warsan Shire, from Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth
As tragic and shameful and heartbreakingly reoccurring events in Ferguson, Missouri are, it has also been a very telling unfolding of events within my connected social spheres as well. The most telling of these is the silence of (too) many. The inability of people to sympathize with those in Ferguson, and instead label them violent rioters and people too bent on making ‘everything about race.’
Not everything is about race. But Ferguson–that is about race. This is about individuals feeling more comfortable throwing ice buckets over their heads (albeit for a great cause for a deadly illness), because that is so much ‘easier’ and less controversial than making a statement about Ferguson and related social issues. People with ALS are majority white males. They live amongst mainstream population and have a face that people can recognize as potential family members. The same is not true of race. With places like Ferguson, it is people who look different from white America, live in segregated neighborhoods, don’t attend your schools, and don’t frequent most people’s circles. It is the recipe for creating an ‘other.’ The ingredients to shutting out mouths that are screaming to be heard, impossible to think about how we got here in the first place.
I don’t hate America. And I am greatly put off by those who believe that to criticize something means to not understand or love it. No, quite the contrary. America is one of the great loves of my life. And like with any great love, you are well aware of their shortcomings and wish to build a life with them in which you strive to be better together. America can be for everyone–but there are those who have re-imagined America in a very dangerous light, who will go to lengths to reshape it and change already marginalizing glass walls and ceilings into cut off islands with no views at all.
An extremely socially conscious acquaintance wrote via social media, “Peace has been redefined as marginalized folks suffering silently, without recourse, as we pray for the offenders to recall our humanity.” That has been the narrative. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Follow these rules when the cops stop you so you survive. Here’s the Black Male Code. Black women cover your bodies so as to not bring that unwanted attention your bodies crave for. Don’t throw your sexuality around like that or you’re asking for ‘it.’ Like Toni Morrison’s sugar-brown Mobile girls in The Bluest Eye, they aim to take the very essence of life. The attempt to be drawn in closer to white society by conforming to the rules, kills the very soul that makes you, you. And people have gotten so damn tired of waiting, so damn tired of conforming to rules meant to eradicate, not welcome. As Martin Luther King, Jr. himself once said, riots are the voices of the unheard.
I have throughout my life tried to be as aware of the plights of others as I can possibly be, take the time to share in their history, their heartbreak, their first-person narrative. My close friend Scott calls it gathering perspective. And I have especially been in tune with the plight of those who look like me, because I have felt it–although in more nonviolent ways–myself. I fully recognize that I am one of the lucky ones. I have privilege that others may never have, and with that privilege I find that I do not have the luxury as others do to not talk about things as complex and ugly as what is happening in Ferguson and across the country. I have to say something when I see something, and I have to be willing to take what others may say and face those labels head on. Because at the end of the day, that’s my existence on the line. And if my voice makes you uncomfortable, then in the words of Jesse Williams, I was not put on this earth to tuck ignorance in at night. If my wearing of my blackness offends or off-puts you, then I would have to ask you politely (because that’s the woman my mother raised me to be) to look away.
The truth is, it is easy to label a black woman with a voice as an ‘angry black woman.’ When I was living in Miami, I was in an organization that I felt very strongly about who took over that organization because it meant a lot to me. I inserted my opinion quite firmly into the discussions while we chose the new leadership, and in the end, I guess you can say ‘I won.’ Afterward, one of the other board members who was decisively in the other corner told a mutual friend of ours that he believed that what he had built would be undermined by my pushy ways. And again, I have seen it happen over the years where people ask me why I care so much, or why do I write or talk so emphatically on these subjects that ‘no one wants to talk about all the time.’ They tell me to be careful because I may seem militant or angry.
See how that worked? Because the trope exists, it is very easy to shrug off the addition of a black female voice of dissent by slapping on the word ‘angry’ to anything I say. But I’ll say this. If I’m angry, and if any black female seems a bit less happy than what one may prefer, there is so many reasons to be. Namely right now, our ability to bring life into the world without fearing that our reproductive rights do not matter.
So while it used to irk me to have someone even hint at the fact that I belonged in a barrel of ‘angry black women,’ it no longer bothers me. In fact, I embrace it and turn it back around, because to be angry means to feel the real rage that is bubbling in America. To be angry means to see what has been ripping apart the seams of this country for centuries. To be angry means that I have yet to sit down and accept that these are just the way things are. I can’t do that anymore than I can not sit quietly and idly by injustices. To do that would be to spit on the faces of my students, who desperately need to view contemporary heroes, or even just to hear someone say ‘that’s not normal.’
To have an opinion is to risk being labeled, misunderstood, marginalized, ostracized, and more.
It is also the only way that I have found to feel the depths of my humanity.
I’ll end this by including a quote from my favorite college professor. A man who taught me that as long as there are people who are dedicated to ensuring that the voices between the lines of history are recalled, that we can continue to redefine America into what it has always hoped to be:
“…but what’s really at stake here, for me, at least, is that I think we all need to hold ourselves accountable (and be held accountable) in public (and in private), and I think social media is a powerful way to do that. It’s not perfect, of course, no medium ever is. But I worry about all the silences and the obfuscations, insofar as injustice is concerned. That said, I get why people are hesitant to speak on certain topics–to venture into the territory of American race and racism or Israel/Palestine–is to risk being condemned, caricatured, misunderstood. But to me, the pursuit of justice requires us to get over our fears, to gird ourselves for these crucial battles, to break silence and speak our truth, especially when it means speaking truth to power. It’s the only way things will change, the only way they ever have. We all do this in our own way; I have no easy answers to any of this. I just want to be able to stand the image I see in the mirror each day, even as I look around at the world and feel so much anguish.”
My only hope is that those who find me ‘angry’ or ‘too outspoken’ will force their chins up and make themselves stare at the person standing before them in the mirror. And I hope when they do, they have the courage enough to break their silence, irregardless of what may happen after.
I know I will.