The following post is from Bethany Stewart of our Circle Mobilizing because Black Lives Matter team. It was originally published at their blog here.
Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time contemplating what it means to be black, a woman, and thus a black woman in America. Needless to say, I’ve been pretty angry as well. In the age of social media, I’m bombarded with images of black people being arrested and assaulted by police due to the complaints of inconvenienced white folks. Additionally, in the upswing of the “Me Too” movement, I am also inundated with women’s stories of sexual assault and constant mistreatment during day-to-day activities. These stories are important and I’m glad that we feel empowered enough to share and challenge each other with them. But, I find myself often feeling that my life is meaningless in this system of oppression both of women and black people.
Usually, soon following that feeling of meaninglessness rises a twinge then burst of rage. I’m already a pretty angry person; you would never know that by looking at me, though. I’ve spent most of my life befriending my imagination thus, when people see me, I often have a genuine smile on my face. This is usually due to a joke or elaborately comedic situation that I’m conjuring up in my head. I pride myself on my appearance. I have a knack for fitting in wherever I go specifically by making others laugh. I was a cheerleader, graduated college Magna Cum Laude, go to church every Sunday, volunteer in multiple capacities, etc and so on. I have purposefully crafted an existence that exudes all the makings of a sweet apple pie, American girl… or maybe I should say sweet potato pie? On the surface, I appear to be a pretty happy go lucky young Black woman. And yet, under these superficial fixings lies a deep rage and anguish. As James Baldwin so eloquently put it many years ago “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” I find myself falling into this rage often and always as these stories bury me in sadness.
Part of my rage lies in the teachings of respectability politics of the 90s. You remember all the television shows, The Cosby Show, Family Matters, Fresh Prince of Bel Air? They all exclaimed the same message, that if you’re educated and essentially white enough, you can break free of the bondage of American racism. If the age of social media and camera phones has taught me anything, it’s that nothing can set me free from systemic and historic racism in America. No degree saved Sandra Bland from arrest and death, nor could Lebron James’s athleticism save his family from racial intimidation at their home, nor could a white partner save Serena Williams when she nearly died during childbirth due to the neglect of her medical staff. Nothing can cleanse me from that lasting filth of American racism. And I’m pissed. I’m pissed most of all for my sisters whose bodies have been sacrificed the most. Our bodies were used as breeding grounds for captives during slavery, as experiments for the advancement of medicine during slavery and well into the 20th century, and even now our stories of sexual assault are going unnoticed because white women’s stories are deemed more important. I’m forgotten, I’m unnoticed, I’m unheard but most of all, I’m PISSED.
And yet, I’m guilty too, I’m guilty for feeling such rage as a Jesus-follower. As James 1:19-21 expresses to us, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” Be slow to anger, I tell myself. And yet, I feel stifled and unable to express my full humanity when I’m “slow to anger.” So often, Black people are asked to do the right thing, perform exceptionally and grit and bear the injustices imposed on us as people. I will say that silencing black rage is an act of privilege and racism in itself. I deserve to be angry, I am human, I am worthy of both my anger AND humanity! I recently looked up this same scripture in the Message translation, “Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.” I like the image of anger straggling behind me while compassion and understanding leads me. This image takes a bit of that shame away and allows me the freedom to be angry that I so desire. I’ll even take this image a step further and say that I imagine my anger physically pushing me towards more compassion and understanding for my sisters that have been deemed undesirable. That anger straggler is pushing me right into the “forgotten.”
And thus, I’m reclaiming my rage like Auntie Maxine reclaimed her time. What I’m recognizing is that my rage and righteousness can be reconciled. God is calling us to align ourselves with his righteous anger when his children are treated as if they are not his creation. I can be angry and not sin as Paul notes in Ephesians. I’m calling my rage into submission and laying down a bed of Jesus’s redemption, love and compassion for Black women specifically by fighting against the system of mass incarceration. Circle Mobilizing Because Black Lives Matter has spent several months working with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund (PCBF), a grassroots organization that advocates for the abolition of the cash bail system (a system that often penalizes the impoverished and Black or Brown) while providing those who are currently incarcerated with the funds for freedom. Most of those that we bail out return to court to have their charges dropped altogether. This year, the PCBF raised close to $90,000 to bail out 15 Black mothers and caretakers and unite them with their families and children for Mother’s Day. Seeing those women set free filled my soul with a deep joy and I’m thankful for it. Yes, I’m reclaiming my rage. That rage acted as a fertilizer for a beautiful garden of Jesus’s compassion. Reclaim your rage, it’s a pretty righteous act of rebellion.