What do you do when you have rage? What do you do as an academic, who calls herself a cultural critic, but in some ways has so much emotion invested in what is happening around you that you do not know how to intellectualize a response? I applaud poets like Claude Mckay who wrote his poem “If We Must Die” as a response to the race riots of 1919. He is angry and thoughtful at the same time:
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
In fact Brittney Cooper in her stunning essay “In Defense of Black Rage” at Salon.com reminds us of Mckay’s words while also making an intellectual case for the emotion of rage. A key takeaway from her essay is
But we are the dispossessed. We cannot count on the law to protect us. We cannot count on police not to shoot us down in cold blood. We cannot count on politics to be a productive outlet for our rage. We cannot count on prayer to soothe our raging, ragged souls.
Every week we are having what my friend Dr. Regina Bradley called #anotherhashtagmemorial. Every week. We are weak. We are tired. Of being punching bags and shooting targets for the police. We are tired of well-meaning white citizens and respectable black ones foreclosing all outlets for rage. We are tired of these people telling us what isn’t the answer.
The answer isn’t looting, no. The answer isn’t rioting, no. But the answer also isn’t preaching to black people about “black-on-black” crime without full acknowledgment that most crime is intraracial. The answer is not having a higher standard for the people than for the police. The answer is not demanding that black people get mad about and solve the problem of crime in Chicago before we get mad about the slaughter of a teen boy just outside St. Louis.
We can be, and have been, and are mad about both. Violence is the effect, not the cause of the concentrated poverty that locks that many poor people up together with no conceivable way out and no productive way to channel their rage at having an existence that is adjacent to the American dream. This kind of social mendacity about the way that racism traumatizes black people individually and collectively is a festering sore, an undiagnosed cancer, a raging infection threatening to overtake every organ in our body politic.
I am reminded of Elizabeth’s Alexander’s question, “Can you be Black and look at this?” that becomes the title of her essay in the collection Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art. This question, though she asks this of viewing the Rodney King videos, in particular, becomes the question we all must ask ourselves when confronted with any sort of racial violence. Not only can we be black and look at the killing of Michael Brown, but can we be black without in someways participating in the killing, without also becoming victims of sorts? It seems that in this case we are both witness and participant. In the end we aren’t just looking.