Anger can be corrosive. In her 1986 memoir All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, Maya Angelou writes: “I always knew that fury was my natural enemy. It clotted my blood and clogged my pores. It literally blinded me so that I lost my peripheral vision.”
Not all anger is corrosive, however. I don’t believe Dr. Angelou is being careless when she uses the word “fury” over “anger”. I believe she understood the positive power anger can have.
In her 1981 essay “The Uses of Anger”, Audre Lorde writes: “Anger is loaded with information and energy.” It is not necessary for us to cling to our anger in order to absorb this information and energy. But letting go of our anger before we learn from it (or take energy from it) can also be unhealthy.
In a world smothered by oppression and injustice, there are reasons around every corner to get angry. As the saying goes: If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. Terrorism, state violence, neglect, child abuse, police brutality, gang violence, white supremacy, gender-based violence, grinding poverty, hunger in a world of plenty — the list goes on and on. Sister Souljah once recorded a song with the powerful refrain: “Why aren’t you angry?”
I often feel the same way. How can people know about all the horrible problems in our world and still be so happy? One answer, of course, is that many people don’t know about these things. Most people don’t know about the massacres in Indonesia and East Timor. Most people don’t know about the innocent civilians killed by US drone strikes. Most people don’t know about police officers who die on the job. Most people don’t know about unarmed people (often black and brown people) killed by police officers. Until camera phones became ubiquitous, it was difficult to raise awareness — or media attention — about such cases.
Worst of all, some people are willfully ignorant about these problems. We have easier access to news and information than humans have ever had before. So couldn’t we all learn about our world if we wanted to? The truth is that many people choose to remain ignorant. Like all choices, this does not happen in a vacuum, and hearing an angry lecture about the evils of ignorance doesn’t usually get people to pay attention to the news. As a professional educator, I am quite familiar with the rage that comes from confronting willful ignorance.
Even when we learn about injustice, it’s common for us to distance ourselves with abstraction and hyper-intellectual analysis. We often refuse to engage with these problems on a human level. If a problem is close to me, hearing someone insist on emotional distance and sterile discourse can be frustrating.
So anger at injustice is a natural response; it is also proper. In certain doses, it can be healthy. Anger can drive us forward and motivate us to take action. At a Harlem rally for Fannie Lou Hamer in 1964, Malcolm X said: “Usually, when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.”
Lots of people — especially those who care for others and wish to fight against injustice — succumb to depression and despair. Sometimes they turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain. I would rather see people get angry than depressed. Anger can motivate, while depression drains us of motivation. Of course, it’s not usually a conscious decision. Still, recognizing the value of anger can forestall feelings of sadness or depression.
I have been involved for decades in various struggles for change: police brutality, gendered violence, LGBTQ rights, international economics, third-world solidarity, education reform, labor rights, anti-war, and dozens of others. I’ve tabled at events for hours without getting a single signature. I’ve tried to put leaflets into the hands of disinterested consumers, unwilling to care about slave wages in the factories that create the stuff they buy. I’ve marched and chanted and blocked traffic and shouted and lobbied and organized and made phone calls and sat in meeting after meeting after meeting.
This stuff can drain you.
It’s absolutely essential for people (especially young people) who fight the power to learn how to be angry for a long time. Otherwise the rage and fury will clot your blood and clog your pores. No one will protect you from the exhaustion and emotional toll these struggles will take; you must protect yourself. And in my experience, bitterness and bile are supreme enemies against which you must be vigilant. Nothing will make you burn out more quickly than succumbing to the belief that there’s no point.
If you want to take action — real, meaningful action — against injustice and violence, you need to be prepared to run marathons, not windsprints. In a 2004 piece entitled “My Last Talk with Gary Webb”, Richard Thieme wrote:
The passion for truth and justice is not a sprint. It’s a long-distance run that requires a different kind of training, a different degree of commitment. Our eye must be on a goal that we know we will never reach in our lifetimes. Faith is the name of believing in the transcendent, often despite all evidence to the contrary.
I want more people in the streets with us, demanding justice. I want young people to get woke and speak out and fight back. But I want long-distance runners, not short-distance sprinters. I want soldiers in the fight who can nurture themselves and avoid burnout.
Resistance culture is a street soldier’s best friend. Music from Public Enemy and Lowkey and Ana Tijoux and Rage Against the Machine and The Indigo Girls help the scars of injustice sting a little less. Writing from bell hooks and Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that we’re not alone. Poetry from Maya Angelou and Saul Williams and Audre Lorde gives us the power to keep our heads up.
Movements for change last when they can provide alternative ways of thinking and nurture investments of time and energy. We have a responsibility to ourselves and each other to stay angry in a way that is conscious and sustainable.