Who is this figure who strikes both dread and relentless criticism with the simple mention of her title? How is it that she has become the symbol of all things gone individually and collectively awry? Why is it that anyone can invoke profound disdain by simply speaking the three words that describe her?
Angry. Black. Woman.
These three words are powerful because they somehow produce a curious mixture of fear and social diminishment. The words are used in a way that strongly imply that Black women are always unjustifiably angry and ready to erupt.
We’ve seen how the inference of the Angry Black Woman (or ABW) has been wielded to undermine Michelle Obama. First, was the New Yorker Magazine, “Terrorist Fist Bump” cover–Michelle Obama with a big Afro, and a defiant raised eyebrow—not to mention the bullet strap and AK-47 on her back! And then more recently, the First Lady was motivated to speak out about the depiction in a recently released unauthorized biography that says that she is angry, unhappy and meddling.
Minny Jackson, the fictional character in the popular book and movie, The Help, is the quintessential ABW—anger always simmering barely below the surface, threatening to boil over, until she is driven to do the terrible thing which is to bake a special ingredient into her bosses favorite pie. This perception of the ABW is devastating because it effectively devalues a whole portion of humanity and ignores the powerful history of African American women as agents of change in this country and the world.
I recently had the pleasure of attending Houston’s opening night of The Ballad of Emmitt Till. This play explores the fourteen-year-old African American boy who was tortured and killed by white southerners who accused him of whistling at a White woman. As an African-American mother, I was completely riveted by the portrayal of Mamie Till, Emmett Till’s mother. In the midst of her devastating loss, upon viewing her son’s mutilated body, she moved through her sorrow to her anger. And in her anger, she decided on an open casket funeral so that the world could see the atrocity that was bestowed upon her son. The story and image of Emmett Till’s body was picked up by the media and spread worldwide. Anyone who has seen it, will never forget it…and how it happened. It helped galvanize the civil rights movement and became the “emblem of the disparity of justice for African Americans.”
This is the story of a boy, and as Diane Peavy of Dramturg, says “one of the most important stories of the last half of the twentieth Century.” But it’s also a story about an Angry Black Woman who changed the world. We have overwhelmingly benefited from Angry Black Women who act on their anger. Since this is Black History Month and the focus this year is on the contributions of African American Women, you do not have to look very far backward or forward, to see Angry Black Women in action. Black activist mothering has a long tradition from Ida B. Wells and the Black Women’s Club Movement. The anger over the Jim Crow laws and the proliferation of lynchings moved ABW to take to the streets. (I won’t even go all the way back to Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth–we all know about their anger and how it fueled their stories.) We must remember Marian Wright Edelman–her level-headed, but relentless defense of children is legendary. And how about the new breed of ABW? Don’t you dare get in Gina McCauley’s way when it comes to advocating for girls and women. Tonya Lewis Lee–whose indignation about the sky-high infant mortality rates among women of color moved her to become an advocate and national spokesperson for the Healthy Baby Campaign. And be careful to avoid getting Dani McClain of Color of Change.org miffed, or she might unleash her formidable ability to move individuals, groups and corporations to do the right thing.
The Mom’s Clean Air Force honors the Angry Black Woman. We encourage African-American women and mothers to look at the disproportionate impact air pollution has on their communities. Because we MCAF mothers know that when you see the numbers of brown and black children with chronic breathing and toxic-air related illnesses, you ought to get angry. We all need to put on our butt-kicking boots and act out. That’s what anger is for—to right wrongs and take a stand for justice!