My sisters: why are we angry? What makes us so angry that we are nearly always a step away from a snap, crackle or pop at any perceived slight, dis or insult? What didn’t we get that we needed years ago? What hurt are we carrying around so deep down inside of us that it courses through our veins?
Why must we respond, retort, get whomsoever told? Why must we have the last word? We will talk over another Black woman’s words and strive to defeat her with our own words and our tone-of-voice (too often loud and shrill).
“You may start it, but I’m going to finish it.” This saying was oft repeated during my girlish days. James Brown even immortalized the sentiment in his song – “don’t start none, won’t be none.” The reality is that nobody has to really start with us – some of us walk around ready for a fight, almost delighting in the anticipation of one. We have chips on our shoulders at the ready.
Why are we so angry (the young ones), dry (the middlers), and brittle (the old ones)? Well – I believe I know why, but what I don’t know is why we fully embrace our anger especially for each other.
When we are angry, nobody had better step to us because we will not back down no matter where we are – in front of our kids, in front of a stranger, or at the job. Don’t let someone give us the wrong order or be slow in serving us. We will go off, especially if the clerk or waiter or teacher is white. But do you know who we hate-on more than White women? Other Black women. – our sisters. Perhaps their faces are too much like ours in that they reflect our hurt, anger and disappointment; they reflect our struggle with our parents, our men (or not), our children, our neighborhood, our lives. Perhaps we see our invisibility in them or our stereotyped image – at once whore and neutered.
We act out our anger no matter what the cost. I witnessed three Black women lose their jobs (and another one put hers in jeopardy) in a few short weeks because of simmering anger that led to inappropriate public behavior at their workplace. None of them could afford to lose her job. Not one of the incidents should have gotten so big that they yelled, cursed, threatened each other and almost came to blows. They were each so tightly wound that small things didn’t stay small. Perceived insults that should have been able to be brushed off like lint from one’s shoulder were magnified until they burst out as rage.
I witnessed these three women lose their jobs and yet their White supervisor is still working. And you can bet that when she leaves the job, it will be on her own terms. Any havoc she wreaks will be wrought through memos and performance evaluations. And the White guy who was bought in as a temp to cover for the first Black woman who got fired, is still working there. (Funny how these two particular White people are nervous about our inner-city community but that doesn’t prevent them from coming in and getting that money. They just stay inside the building rarely venturing out until they dash home at the end of the day.) These three sisters didn’t have enough sense to protect their jobs, to not go there, to back down because the cost was too great not to. We have to learn self-protection and self-preservation.
If we cannot forget these insults, can’t we at least forgive? Can’t we give it and each other a break? Come on now. Wars and other historic atrocities like apartheid have been forgiven. Yet we Black women* can and do carry grudges long past what should have been a reasonable shelf life that, like tainted can goods, poison our system and our outlook ‘til we can rarely see or feel the sunshine in life. I was with a close friend once, who ran into a former nemesis from high school, who it turned out had been a former student of mine. She smiled when she saw me and then frowned when she saw my friend – now in her forties. My friend said, “We were kids – get over it.” Makes sense to me.
I know why we are so angry. We learned it from our mothers who learned it from theirs. The anger is ancestral, its roots in slavery/captivity and its crushing, unrelenting aftermath.
- We’ve been done wrong.
- We’re disappointed.
- We ain’t gonna let nobody get over on us.
- We will not back down.
Why do we envy each other’s successes? It’s like we think that someone else having happiness, someone else having a light that shines diminishes or robs our own light. The reality is that everyone has her own light that flickers and flames depending on whether it’s our turn to shine or not. When it’s your turn – for love, a job, a favor – it’s your turn and nothing can stop it. And when it’s not your turn – for love, a job or a favor – it’s not. But guess what? Time keeps on moving and it’ll be your turn again – the cycle repeating until your time, on earth at least, is up.
In a world of abundance we pay attention to the crumbs nearby when in fact bounty surrounds us if we would endeavor to walk someplace unfamiliar and often not too far away. (“Seek the truth inside your fingers and let them point the way,” I wrote in a poem when I was in my teens – an early observation whose wisdom I’ve only recently begun to truly understand.)
We have to make peace with each other. We have to! We have to make peace with ourselves. We have to forgive – ourselves, our sisters, our parents, our community, our race, those others, the world, the God. We have to make peace. We have to be peace.
We have to lift: our minds, our goals, our aims. We have to move: our bodies, our obstacles, our fears. We must love: ourselves, then others; our children, then the children of others; our homes, then the homes of others; our friends and neighbors and those not known to us. We have to otherwise we are doomed because without sister love how can we go beyond surviving to thriving?
* I know Black women aren’t the only women who hold grudges – but that’s who I’m talking ‘bout right now…my me.
The chip on the shoulder is a big problem, but when it is gently removed, even in a direct but friendly way, the former bearer of the chip will become a dignified person, at least for a little while until she believes, once again that she is going to be forced to defend her psychic turf. As a white male sales clerk, I am a regular recipient of consumer anger, black, white and everything else, but it is true some black women have a special way about them, and it’s pretty much as you describe. People believe that they are targets. Guess what, they are. So an honest salesperson who’s pretty much like their customer (color and sex aside) takes a beating until the customer realizes that not everyone in this world is trying to get over on them or is otherwise adversarial. Getting over it is part of growing up, not getting over it is a sign of a person who, for whatever reason, lacks the ability to be introspective and self-critical. Then again, sometimes it’s just a lapse into old, learned bad behavior. The question is really about which character traits individuals and cultures ought to embrace and which to discard. The chip on the shoulder doesn’t work for anyone, especially the one carrying the chip.
So, I know you’re speaking to black women, but there’s nothing you spoke unique to them only. Sometimes I grow weary of all the anger around me; and then realize it’s also anger inside me. How can we just let it go? Whatever it is, and we all got something…but it sure is runing NOW all this something we got from back then and sometimes it makes me weep and I just want peace from it. Can we have tea?
Candelaria, thanks for writing this and for letting me know at BlogHer. I’m also happy to see that the first two comments are so thoughtful and balanced about perceptions of others and race.
I think the old chip on the shoulder that some people associate with black women is related to self-fulfilling prophecy phenomena. Sometimes because we’ve had experiences that lead us to expect more of the same bad treatment, we trudge through the world expecting to be treated badly and so we put up our defenses. Ironically, these experience also help shape bad images we have of ourselves and low expectations for our own behavior. Since we expect that we’ll have to defend ourselves we project a war-like position and see others in the same pose, even when they’re not. Consequently, we’re always at war with the world, ready to snap in an instant because we believe that if we don’t protect ourselves no one else will. Hence, the “get whomsoever told” attitude arises. It’s the I won’t let you take my dignity thing that results in us acting undignified. In reality, we aren’t as dignified as we think because we’re don’t have as much self-confidence as we think.
I recall Sojourner Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I a Woman.” Now that was a woman of dignity, and that speech is one that we like to hold up as black feminist rallying cry, but in it Truth also speaks of the challenge of having to look out only for herself, of being a black woman and therefore not having anyone else to take care of her the way a wealthy white female of her day was cared for. I don’t think she was happy about living with the injustice, but I doubt she walked around ready to jump on anyone that looked at her funny either. She knew she couldn’t survive that way.
Many of us never grow out of resenting that others have what we don’t have or being angry that we must fend for ourselves. (Sometimes we feel we have to fend for ourselves even when we have people to help us, btw.) We think we’ve accepted life as it is, but we haven’t. We’re still pissed off due to our own perception that we’ve drawn the short stick and think we can’t do anything to work around the drawing.
I hope that when we see others in such pain, we recognize their neediness and show compassion, but I don’t think we should reward the anger ever. I also think that when we realize we’re in snap mode more often than not, we need to look inside and cut ourselves and the world a break.
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