In the long history of dope, poignant, black thoughts that have been expressed by dope, poignant black thinkers, one statement almost perfectly encapsulates the black experience in America. “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” James Baldwin’s words echo through time, tracing a clear line of anger and grief from cotton fields in Virginia to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Black people thrive in times of strife because, for most of our history, the absolute margin has been our home.
It was in this place of pain that some of us decided to do something truly revolutionary; we embraced it. We used our experiences to craft a curriculum of critical consciousness. We opened our eyes, minds and hearts to the idea that our pain might be our truth. We turned the hurt of our every day into a weapon that could fight back against oppression.
In short, we got woke.
I, like many other black folks in my circle, wear our woke status as a badge of honor. Our high consciousness is our prize for actively resisting the lies and indoctrination of the dominant culture. There is this sense that, by continuing to fight for a world made free, we are doing good and necessary work. However, there are those that disagree.
Since becoming more vocal in my dissent of white supremacy, I have lost friends (both white folks and people of color), started pointless arguments and have isolated myself from many good people who choose to go through life with the passive assumption that all is right in the world. At least once a month, someone (usually a “well-meaning” white person) will take upon themselves to advise about how I am alienating white allies who claim to be sympathetic to the plight of my people. Similarly, from time to time, I receive more emphatic requests to stop “posting all that black stuff” on social media.
Those fools I can handle, and do handle, with no shortage of joy or enthusiasm.
However, it has been the calls to stop from those who are closest to me that have caused me the most distress. I’ve been told by friends and family that my activism will make me less employable, would drive away potential lovers, and, in general, would make me a less happy, less adjusted person (as if that were even possible). I found out, in all those little moments that the unseen casualty in fighting for your righteous mind is a loss of confidence in those around you.
It wasn’t until I started speaking up for myself that people told me to shut the hell up.
To an extent, I knew some of those relationships would fracture. A friend of mine once told me, “You can’t take a stand without stepping on a few toes.” What has been infinitely more impactful are the ways critical thought has shaped my day-to-day interactions. I constantly have this low-grade anxiety that comes with being way too aware of how racism works. It is miserable living with not knowing if and when you’re going to walk into some land mine of bigotry. It has ruined movies I used to love. It has decimated my interest in conversations mid-sentence. It has even caused me to buy obscenely expensive and inedible hot sauce because “I can buy whatever I want in your raggedy in-the-middle-of-nowhere-ass store.”
I’ve always appreciated the “waking” metaphor of embracing and exercising critical consciousness. There is some wondrous dream lost in alleviating oneself of the comforting sleep of ignorance. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us in Between the World and Me, the dream was never an option for blacks in America because “the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made of our bodies”. And thus it falls to the insomniacs to rouse the narcoleptics, knowing full well that our fight is one against nature and history.
Beyond that loss, there is the very real feeling that one is losing their mind. To see the interconnected and unrelenting brutality of the world is all-consuming and terrifying. I remember listening to a lecture by Angela Davis in which she was detailing the ways in which America has always defined itself in adversarial terms. America's inception was its casting out of the British. It propagated its expansion by romanticizing the slaughter of its native populations. After it tore itself in half and tried to put back the pieces, America invoked the image of our people as the newest threat and sought to push its newly freed people to the margins. Out of sight and out of mind. And from there endless wars. The Germans, the Russians, the Vietnamese, South American governments that didn’t acquiesce and the Middle East. All were named villain in an attempt to maintain the mythical status of America. In that moment of recognizing the necessary violence and dehumanization needed to sustain the most powerful nation on Earth, I felt removed from any notion of hope for change. How could anyone or anything stop this beast from eating whatever it pleased?
This despair stayed with me for years, and in many ways it still does.
So what does one do with this knowledge? How do we move beyond that fear that writhes in our stomach like adders? If the election of Donald Trump has done anything, it has shown that these fears are not unfounded. His campaign was sustained almost holistically on the creating enemies out of everyone who did not fit his narrow definition of "American". For myself, and many that I know, there is some salvation to be found in anger. It is the unyielding, unrepentant fury at a broken world that pushes me forward. It is justified, focused outrage that wills me to drag those sleeping masses kicking and screaming out into the light of day.
But this anger cannot be all there is.
In my passion, I have often neglected the fact that love and beauty are necessary too and indeed are the goal of this continual fight against oppression. I wish I could figure out how to find a balance. Being in a rage almost all the time is neither healthy nor satisfying. For now, I take solace in the fact that, every once in a while (if I am very lucky), I am able to help someone else wake up too.
That and I listen to a lot of Run the Jewels.