Staying Mad

“Extensions” by Kevin “KAK” Williams

As a young girl, I woke up angry nearly every Sunday morning. I loathed getting ready for Sunday school. I hadn’t yet met God, but I knew I would not find him there. I despised the lukewarm, neon-yellow lemonade and animal crackers, which were hardly sufficient exchange for my salvation. Church children are crueler than most, and I was marked by the scarlet letter on my mother’s chest, as she was the beautiful, newly-divorced single mother of four that churchgoers loved to hate.

Despite my chronic rage, each Sunday my Nana Claire (an older black woman who fate had assigned my church-grandmother) forced me into a polyester dress and itchy white stockings. She looked upon my visage of disdain and falsely reassured me that I was “a beautiful handmaiden of the Lord.” I would pout and roll my eyes in virulent protest, but she always responded the same, “I notice that you’re mad. Stay mad.”

And, I did. . I stayed mad. Over many years, I took the anger of a misplaced Southern black girl and nursed it into the rage of a young woman. I had a sharp tongue and a bad attitude. In the classroom, I was quick witted and knew how to hurt feelings. In the hood, I was agile and heavy handed. I stayed prepared to fight and argue, and mostly everyone knew this. Still, I wanted nothing more than to prove it — for someone to test just how angry I truly was.

I was anything but passive aggressive. I let my anger fuel my ambition, cushion my rejection, and mitigate my regret. My rage was my solace and greatest ally. When I lost my seventh grade boyfriend Tyrell to my best friend Ashley, I forwent sadness and leapt into manic fury. I put all of my energy into trying to fight her, and when she wouldn’t engage I simply directed my warpath upon the rest of the world; I argued with my mother, cursed my friends, and fought my sisters. I kept my hands up, and for weeks I did not stop swinging. I would do anything to stay mad.

But make no mistake; I was never alone in my anger. Angry women surrounded me, and I loved them. Growing up I came to believe black womanhood and rage were inextricably bound. As a teenager, I frequented beauty parlors and nail salons where I learned to narrate my indignation. Between blowouts and press on’s I would absorb messy breakups and battles over child support. I saw a woman hold a burning rage so potent it was only rivaled by her burning scalp. I reveled in laughter banked between phrases like “I hate my job,” “Why did I have kids?” and “Girl, he ain’t shit.” For a long time, women scorned were my favorite performance artists. They could take a simple misunderstanding or petty dispute and dress it up in sexy details of infidelity and intricate trickery. Ironically, these exchanges of vengeance and vexation became my greatest joy.

When my father introduced me to the phrase “angry black woman” in his many lamentations over my mother, I was hardly displeased. I was deeply satisfied in realizing anger was not just a personal phenomenon; it was my inheritance. As a black woman, rage was my birthright.

I reminisce on my mother’s daily frustrations: bills on the counter, dishes in the sink, clothing on the floor, and emptiness in her bed. She had a lot to be mad about.

Looking at this world and our position in it, we had a lot to be mad about. I watched black mothers bury their children; black children bury their fathers. So of course, we buried our sadness and comforted ourselves in the warmth of communal outrage.

I think the most tragic (albeit comical) fact is that the world noticed. Much like my Nana Claire, the world always took note of my wrath and told me to keep it. What a spectacle I must’ve been — screaming in that soundproof, boxed glass room from which no one dared free me.

I will not supplicate others to understand my anger. Just know, it could not be toned down or turned off. I looked around — everything was filthy and everyone was dying — the crimson violence rattling through my body was often the only indication I had that I was alive. I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I lived indefinitely between a rock and a hard place, where I was either consumed by a chronic rage or numbed by an indescribable sadness. I was too terrified to step out of the mirror of my anger, only to look upon the world and find there was no love waiting. I was spoon-fed positivity masked in the rhetoric of self-help, though I knew it was always for the sake of others. No matter how much I forced a positive attitude, the universe would violently correct for the absence of the negative.

Anger indefinitely remained my confidant. This cycle of repression continued for years until this past summer when I buried my best friend, Eric Hampton. In high school, Eric and I were the thickest of thieves — skipping class, sharing sour patch kids, bonding over stories of his crazy ex-girlfriends. I did his spanish homework so he could remain on the basketball team. We’d put his car in neutral and “ghost ride” down Oakland’s International Boulevard.

I promised his grandmother I would always look out for him, but life got the better of us. We graduated. I moved to New York City to become who I was supposed to be. Eric had a baby and took up the ancient imperative of the hustler. For years our worlds only spun faster and farther apart; until one July evening when the axis tilted, the waves quit, and the world ceased to spin altogether. My sister called to tell me Eric was dead. He had been stabbed violently in a street dispute. While attempting to crawl towards help, he died on the sidewalk.

The day before Eric’s funeral, my mother came to check on me. When she asked how I was feeling, I lashed out violently. I was angrier than I had ever been. I was angry at Time for wedging herself between Eric and me. I wanted to save him, and the utter futility of this desire made me even angrier. I was angry to be black and I was angry to be alive, because death was always close and always unforgiving. My mother tried to hold me close, but this only deepened my resentment. Realizing she was failing, she decided to leave me alone. Before she departed, I called out in a fit of rage, “I’ve lost so much. What do you expect me to do?” As she closed the door, tears crowded her eyes and she whispered, “Fine, Bianca. Stay angry. Stay mad at the whole damn world.”

And I did — I stayed mad. But this time, it didn’t make it better. I’d become so embedded in the confusion of mourning that I could no longer grip to anger as I once did. Rage was reduced from comfort to a mere slippery slope into exhaustion. The scorn that once kept me alive had begun to tear away at my insides, hardening into a jelly of anxiety and panic.

I suppose that’s the catch — when it all comes down to it, you must choose between staying mad or staying alive. I was foolish to believe I could take everything — comfort, ambition, and hope — from Anger and give nothing of myself in return. I thought I owned my anger, but she had always owned me.

When it came time to collect, Anger wearied me like nothing else could. My body, mind, spirit — she took it all. This cannot be understated: Anger was not simply the chip on my shoulder or weight of my world — it was my world itself. I was angry. My joy, kinship, home, causes, and consequences were all built from my anger, and to let it go might mean becoming nothing. For months, I wondered in agony, “Is there anything to be found on the other side of all of this rage?”

Simply put, “Yes.” It was there all along — a kind of energy required to under-belly all the madness. It was in those church halls, beauty parlor chairs, and project windows. It was in my mother’s scolding and my father’s lamentations. It was right there between Eric and I, and it remains there between me and the rest of the world, too. It was love.

I know now it must’ve been love; because only love could have saved me from my Anger. Only love could return everything that what was taken and offer more in exchange. Only love could remain when all else had subsided. Only love could demand more of me — could beg me to be greater than my anger.

I’ve noticed that it’s love. I’m grateful that it’s love. Now, I’m trying to be free.