This post does not contain images because I don’t want to animate the stereotype, but in Google image searches for “Sapphire” and “Angry Black Woman,” Michelle Obama was prominently featured.
In a brilliantly provocative paper at ASALH this year, Dr. Gwendolyn Pough invited us to rethink the black woman stereotype of Sapphire, the emasculating black bitch who’s always ready to fight. Pough notes that the “angry black woman” is the least investigated of the stereotypes of black women and the one people are most likely to assume is true. Pough’s paper was a jumping off point for a lively discussion about the political utility of black women’s anger and the questions it raised reverberate in my mind. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, also had the uses of anger on her mind and wrote a piece for Womenetics, imploring black women to get angry and use their intellectual gifts to create the world we want.
Anger has been a really tough emotion for me to grasp. When I was little, my anger wasn’t valid because I was a child. As I got older, the sapphire script was something I actively avoided. It seemed that as a dark skinned black girl, I was always already being told that I was angry. I smiled a lot. I learned to self silence to the point that I don’t even always tell friends when little things hurt my feelings. I didn’t express anger, opting for sadness with no tears, as opposed to righteous indignation.
On a recent flight from Ithaca to Atlanta, I was subjected to additional searching. This included the TSA officer taking my lunch, a burrito, out of the paper bag it was in and swiping the chemical detection cloth over the paper bag and foil covered burrito, putting the burrito into the small tray for wallets and pocket change and running it through the conveyered x-ray machine two times. Needless to say none of the other passengers I saw who had food were subjected to the same. I was livid. Ithaca has a small airport and all the other passengers on my flight witnessed this extra search of my things. I was so flustered, I dropped my hat and it was the other black passenger who pointed to where it was. I was hot with anger and embarrassment but I didn’t say anything. I called a friend and we discussed the incident briefly, coming up with non-confrontational things I could have said like, “Wow, so people are trying to hide things in food now?” I couldn’t think of anything in the moment. I swallowed the incident down and boarded the plane.
I worry about this now default reaction of mine when confronted with moments like this. While the incident itself wasn’t physically violent, I felt it in my body. I got hot; my stomach churned. I had some kind of internal reaction the incident that left me feeling unwell. This doesn’t happen every time of course but microaggressions are sometimes so frequent, it’s hard to gauge their impact. There are black women and other women of color in my life who have had bouts with or sucumbs to cancer that I link to this swallowing down of the daily assaults on our personhood. It adds up and that ish is toxic.
Sheri Randolph, a panelist with Pough, also mentioned colorism as it related to anger as the people mentioned in the talk, Melissa Harris Perry, June Jordan, Audre Lorde were all lighter skinned Black women whose anger erupted in the public sphere. Was/is there more room for their anger than mine? I try to think of dark skinned black women’s anger in public and how it is read and what seems to be different is the assumption of anger initially. Michelle Obama has perhaps never lost her cool but is always already assumed to be angry. But as an audience member in the room said, “Anger darkens,” meaning any expression of anger moves you further to the dark side of the color line. Both Jordan and Lorde died of cancer though, so whatever room they had was not enough.
One audience member during the session reminded us that because even speaking directly or pointedly as a Black woman is read as anger, many of us hold back and suppress feelings in general. This silence won’t protect us but it seems like it is harming us as well. This blog is a safe space for my anger but I need more than this corner of the internet to unfurl my tongue and release my truths.