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Trayvon Martin and contemplative black anger

March 22, 2012

Several weeks ago I read Wesley Morriscritique of Kevin Young’s history of African-American art and representation, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness.

I struggled with Morris’ review, labored over it and read it several more times. Each reading left the same bitter taste in my mouth. Morris offers that this post-racial, post-blackness Era of Obama has “amplified an alternative to black anger,” shifting the “expression of blackness away from outrage to contemplation” and to a “state of black cultural civility.” He further contends that “[w]e’re past James Baldwin’s seething recriminations and Amiri Baraka’s calls for racial insurgency. There’s no collective will to start a riot.”

I struggled mightily with this cultural criticism, particularly the observation that “recriminations can wait.” I’ve since reassessed this critique in light of the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin and I’ve concluded this–black anger remains an essential, valid and necessary expression of blackness. I suspect that it is even more necessary now, when black anger is disregarded simply because a black man is President.

Teju Cole, a PEN/Hemingway Award winner and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, articulates it brilliantly,

[I]n the past few years in the U.S., there has been a chilling effect on a certain kind of direct speech pertaining to rights. The president is wary of being seen as the “angry black man.” People of color, women, and gays–who now have greater access to the centers of influence that ever before–are under pressure to be well-behaved when talking about their struggles. There is an expectation that we can talk about sins but no one must be identified as a sinner: newspapers love to describe words or deeds as “racially charged” even in those cases when it would be more honest to say “racist”; we agree that there is rampant misogyny, but misogynists are nowhere to be found; homophobia is a problem but no one is homophobic. One cumulative effect of this policed language is that when someone dares to point out something as obvious as white privilege, it is seen as unduly provocative. Marginalized voices in America have fewer and fewer avenues to speak plainly about what they suffer; the effect of this enforced civility is that those voices are falsified or blocked entirely from the discourse.

The “collective will to start a riot” exists, but is not articulated, or worse, goes unacknowledged in our dogged pursuit of post-everything. Marginalized voices are further marginalized. Lester Spence is correct to point out that claiming “[George] Zimmerman was racist” or that “America is racist and that’s why Trayvon was murdered” isn’t enough; the framework is much more nuanced, more complex. But the outrage and outpouring of emotions following his murder is also grounded in the collective sadness wrought by sincere belief that you can be murdered in this country simply for being young, black and “suspicious.”

The black calm and black rationality represented by writers such as Touré and Colson Whitehead is necessary in our framing of blackness in the 21st century, but Morris is right to say “[w]e might still need a Public Enemy, Dave Chappelle, or Amiri Baraka.” I’d more forcefully argue we need an expression of black anger–and along with it, black disappointment and sorrow–in the “Obama era.”

What we need is contemplative black anger.

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