The End Of Anger: A New Generation's Take On Race And Rage
By Ellis Cose
Hardcover, 320 pages
List Price: $24.99
Revising the Racial Contract
For centuries, black Americans lied to white Americans. It was a matter of simple survival. Slaves did not speak in anger to their masters. Yes, America saw slave rebellions — the most famous was led by Nat Turner in Southampton, Virginia, in 1831. But rage was generally held deep within. So most whites, during the years of slavery and for decades thereafter, believed that blacks were content. "They tell us in these eager days that life was joyous to the black slave," wrote W. E. B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. But the truth, said DuBois, could be found in the "Sorrow Songs," the Negro spirituals: "They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world."
Blacks could not forever hide their anger in spirituals and whispered resentment. In 1940, as the war against fascism in Europe threatened to engulf America, Richard Wright published Native Son, the story of a black man, Bigger Thomas, who is filled with rancor and rage. After World War II, as black Americans increasingly equated Jim Crow with Nazism and black soldiers who had fought for whites' freedom abroad were humiliated at home, black anger spilled fully out into the open. Ever since then, whenever African Americans have spoken in public about our experience in this country, anger has been a recurrent and dominant theme.
"There are ... as many ways of coping ... as there are black men in the world, but no black man can hope ever to be entirely liberated from this internal warfare — rage, dissembling, and contempt having inevitably accompanied his first realization of the power of white men," wrote James Baldwin in "Stranger in the Village" in 1953. He returned to the theme in 1955 in Notes of a Native Son. "There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood — one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it," he wrote.
Black Americans are no longer fuming — or at least, not anything like we once were. The angry black man — Bigger Thomas and his ilk — has become marginalized, irrelevant, passe. In this era, public anger (fringe kooks notwithstanding) rarely has an explicitly racial edge. We are witnessing, in short, a fundamental shift in the nature of the black-white relationship in America, undergirded by a major evolution in some core American assumptions. As white racism has become unacceptable, unremitting black anger has become inappropriate — a huge change from where things stood only a generation or two ago.
As psychologist Linda Anderson observed,
Fifteen or twenty years ago, I think our own ambivalence and anger — built-up rage — really was more prominent than it is now. I think we're at a place where those of us who are positioned. . . to make change and acquire wealth, to a certain extent — there's no time for it. We are working so hard to take advantage of the window of opportunity [created by] being in this culture where we have Obama in place.
In Black Rage (1968), psychiatrists William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs argued that anger was a natural and pervasive reaction to the condition of blacks in America. "Aggression leaps from wounds inflicted and ambitions spiked," they wrote in their book, published just four months after Martin Luther King's assassination.
It grows out of oppression and capricious cruelty. ... People bear all they can and, if required, bear even more. But if they are black in present-day American society they have been asked to shoulder too much. They have had all they can stand. They will be harried no more. Turning from their tormentors, they are filled with rage ... We believe that the black masses will rise with a simple and eloquent demand to which new leaders must give tongue. They will say to America simply: GET OFF OUR BACKS!
In December 1993, Colin Ferguson emptied two clips from a semiautomatic pistol into commuters on a Long Island Railroad train — killing six people and injuring nineteen others. Notes found in his pocket explained his action as a result of the rage he felt as a black man. A month or so later, I returned from an overseas trip to scores of phone calls from reporters seeking my comments on the bloodbath. To my astonishment, they informed me that Ferguson's attorney, William Kunstler, had cited me as an authority on his "black rage defense" and urged them to call me. My credential was having recently published The Rage of a Privileged Class. The book had nothing to do with demented gunmen, but it did speak to an anger — rooted in racial slights, lack of respect, and generally shabby treatment — that was rarely voiced but often felt by middle-class black Americans.
Excerpted from The End Of Anger by Ellis Cose. Copyright 2011 by Ellis Cose. Reprinted courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.