Black Rage as Catharsis

George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020, and we stand in unequivocal support of the protests and uprisings that have swept the US since that day, and against the unconscionable violence of the police and US state. We can’t continue with business as usual. We will be celebrating Pride as an uprising. This week, Autostraddle is suspending our regular schedule to focus on content related to this struggle, the fight against white supremacy and the fight for Black lives and Black futures. Instead, we’re publishing and re-highlighting work by and for Black queer and trans folks speaking to their experiences living under white supremacy and the carceral state, and work calling white people to material action.
no justice. no pride.


As I sit at my desk preparing to write this, all I hear are the overhead sounds of helicopters circling my neighborhood, monitoring the protests below. I live in Pittsburgh. This is the third night of protests in response to the killing of unarmed Black man George Floyd in Minneapolis. While marching, protestors also said the name of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old woman who was killed by police while sleeping in her home. In Pittsburgh, protestors marched through downtown and on Monday June 1, through East Liberty, a historically Black neighborhood that has been devastated by the effects of gentrification. I keep my eyes glued to a live feed and listen to the cries of “hands up, don’t shoot” that accompany the large mass of moving people through my neighborhood. This cry has been on replay in my head for days, the same with “I can’t breathe,” the last words of both George Floyd and Eric Garner.

To be Black in America is to be perpetually breathless, is to have hands around your throat, is to be mad as hell.

I’m mad as hell. Every day since George Floyd’s murder I have had to show up to work at a job that doesn’t care. When police in East Pittsburgh shot and killed unarmed Black teen Antwon Rose Jr., my company sent out an email encouraging us to take alternative routes to and from work to avoid traffic due to protests. While I’m incredibly fortunate to still be employed and making a paycheck during a global pandemic, my skin is hot at the fact that capital is valued higher than human life in every facet of American living. Black life, in particular, has no value to America. Not when a man can be choked to death for over 8 minutes and only see the officers responsible arrested after a Target was looted. Black people have influenced and shaped what is profitable, what is cool, what is popular for decades, only to have that culture snatched, chewed up, and spit out as some morphed, digestible form to the rest of America. We have been told that we have no culture, that our entire legacy has been slavery and struggle, that we need to forget the past and be successful like other minorities. Black people have been physically abused and gaslit for centuries. We have reached points when we have had enough in the past, and right now is another one of those points.

Let me correct myself, to say that I am mad is an understatement. I am filled with rage. 

My skin is hot at the fact that capital is valued higher than human life in every facet of American living. Black life, in particular, has no value to America.

Rage is a touchy subject, even for me. I grew up in a house where I wasn’t encouraged to feel my own emotions. Feelings were bad. It was “shut up and stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” So, when I got angry, I became afraid of myself, what I was capable of doing. I wrote in my diary about my anger and swiftly put it under lock and key, forgetting it once it was on the page. I didn’t want to be angry or rageful because I thought those things were equal to physical violence and people I love getting hurt. It has been a long road of coming into my emotional body. I have to feel things now, I get to have feelings thanks to the work I’ve done with countless therapists and friends. There is a grief behind my rage that has to be allowed to breathe as well, but at the forefront is that rage, leaving an almost metallic taste in my mouth. My mind and eyes feel sharpened with a focus that came to me once before, after the acquittal of the killer of Trayvon Martin. I was a sophomore in college then and I remember being at the gym and immediately going to the nearest heavy bag, hitting it with an onslaught of fraught, rage-filled punches.

I think many Black women struggle with rage because of the myth of the angry Black woman, I know that I did. Much of my young adult life was dedicated to not being a stereotype. I didn’t want to be the Black woman with the perpetual chip on her shoulder, mad at everyone, even the people who try to love her. Myths like these have kept Black people away from the right to their feelings and emotions. Trying to stay calm and respectable in the face of injustice is one way that we rob ourselves of our full humanity; we try to dodge people seeing us as less than human by treating ourselves as less than human. Feeling that rage is a part of the scope of our humanness, it must be addressed, I have learned this the hard way.

Trying to stay calm and respectable in the face of injustice is one way that we rob ourselves of our full humanity; we try to dodge people seeing us as less than human by treating ourselves as less than human.

In the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd, Black people are ready to address their rage. One way that rage may manifest is a riot. I’m using the word riot intentionally here to talk about the purposeful use of property damage and violence as a means to draw attention to and overthrow oppressive systems. The damage a riot causes is nowhere near as devastating  as state sanctioned lynching Black people have endured for centuries. A riot is an expression of rage and exhaustion. An expression that we have the right to. Of the protests that have erupted over the past few days, let it be known that in every case, the police started the violence. When a crowd of however many shows up in jeans and T-shirts and police are present in riot gear, armed with rubber bullets and tear gas, mounted on horses, only one group of people have come truly prepared for a riot. To be a police officer is to be steeped in a legacy of violence, to be a cop is a violent act. Protesters who destroyed property were only responding to the force they were determinately met with. If you’re reading this and you know a cop, or maybe you are a cop, you’re probably upset right now. The truth of the matter is I don’t care. Your father or uncle or friend that is a cop is of no concern to me. They may be a nice person to have a drink with or maybe they are sweet to you, but once they put on that uniform they become agents of the state hell-bent on protecting property above Black lives. You might think you know a “good” cop but as long as they continue to put on that uniform, that cop is my enemy.

Many cities across America have also seen protests of the stay-at-home orders that have been imposed in response to Coronavirus. When white, right-wing, gun-carrying men and women showed up to state capitals and yelled in the faces of officers, they weren’t met with rubber bullets or tear gas. Officers instead showed remarkable restraint, turning the other cheek. This show of restraint is only reserved for white skin or photo ops of white officers dancing and hugging black teens, the same ones they’ll profile when the job calls for it. This is why many of us say there are no good cops. Because they hide their badge numbers and turn off their body cameras, because they protect their own when they know they’ve done something wrong. How could my response to this be anything but rage?

This is why many of us say there are no good cops. Because they hide their badge numbers and turn off their body cameras, because they protect their own when they know they’ve done something wrong. How could my response to this be anything but rage?

One of the reasons I sat down to write this is because I saw something that scared me. And that is the sanitization of Black rage. As protests continue, there will be a focus on “peace” and a call for actions that don’t look like what we’ve been seeing these past few days. They will want to see us silently kneeling only to still find issues with that form of protest. They will want to see us singing songs of unity and togetherness, but when the time calls for real unity, they are nowhere to be found. They will say we are animals and apes and thugs even when we’ve done nothing, but fight for our breath. Sanitizing Black rage is at its heart, an attempt to get the white majority to see us as human. But, as I said earlier, we rob ourselves of our humanity by trying to cut off our sharpness, to sand down our edges. They will find holes in every method of disobedience because they want us obedient.

At a protest in Pittsburgh on May 30, 2020, a cop car was set on fire. I would be lying if I said that not only the symbolism, but the real, tangible visual of a cruiser burning did not touch me somewhere in my heart. Something about that old method of policing going up in smoke, burning to ashes, felt right. Many people disagreed with the act and others like it that occurred throughout America on those nights, but for many of us, it was cathartic. Narratives started popping up that only white people wanted to see cop cars burning and only white people were involved in the retaliation, that “outside agitators” and anarchists were to be blamed. These narratives are agency-robbing and also ignore the fact that there are Black anarchists. Of course, in some situations, there have been white people that have co-opted the Black struggle to live out their angst fantasies, there are undercover cops sent in to instigate violence. But if and when there comes a time where Black people do take to the streets en mass and start an uprising, these narratives will only serve as detractions from our rage. To quote Martin Luther King Jr.’s “A riot is the language of the unheard” speech and then turn around and say that there were no Black people involved in riots or that we would never engage in such activity is antithetical to the point you are trying to make. Great care has been taken to hide the faces and identities of many of the protestors during these demonstrations, but it would be wrong to say not a single one who rebelled was Black. Black people have a long history of revolt and violent revolution, not every war has been won by sitting calmly as tear gas and hoses are turned on us. From Stonewall to the King assassination riots, it has been proven that uprisings work.

Black people have a long history of revolt and violent revolution, not every war has been won by sitting calmly as tear gas and hoses are turned on us.

I would never disparage the merit of peaceful revolution, it has its place in the struggle. Sanitizing the struggle by insisting everything must be peaceful is a disservice. I understand that we don’t want bloodshed or more lives lost, but there was bloodshed and lives lost when we were peaceful. There have been so many innocent lives lost even as we have reacted in a calm, measured way. Let us not forget how many peaceful civil rights leaders were assassinated. They will always find a reason to resort to violence, anything that we throw back is a matter of self-preservation.

This is not a call to riot, it is an attempt to legitimize and validate those who do as a form of protest. I want Black people to be able to feel the entirety of their pain, to let it manifest in ways that don’t harm us instead. Without feeling the extent of our rage, we can’t truly imagine the scope of our joy. In a world where we are begging to survive, we must allow ourselves whatever emotions come with that struggle. Whether we lay quietly in the streets or run through them, we cannot let the establishment convince us that any of those things are more violent, more atrocious than the centuries of oppression we’ve endured. White supremacy thrives on keeping us obsessed with respectability when there is nothing respectable about kneeling on a man’s neck while he cries for his life. Right now I feel called back to the young woman I was after Trayvon Martin’s death, I want to punch and scream, to break the nearest thing to me. There has to be a place for that fire along with a place for meditation and calm. There is a time for everything, and right now is a time for rage.

Dani Janae is a poet and writer based out of Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not writing love poems for unavailable women, she's watching horror movies, hanging with her tarantula, and eating figs. Follow Dani Janae on Twitter and on Instagram.

Dani has written 27 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. Ohhh my god. How did you take so much of what’s been going on in my head and untangle it so well:

    ‘Rage is a touchy subject, even for me. I grew up in a house where I wasn’t encouraged to feel my own emotions. Feelings were bad. It was “shut up and stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” So, when I got angry, I became afraid of myself, what I was capable of doing.’

    I could have literally written this. I suppressed my anger for so long that I literally had myself convinced that I wasn’t capable of it. I’ve done – am still doing – work around that to be sure. But the word ‘rage’ has just been on repeat in my head and I’m reminding myself that it’s okay to feel it, and that I can channel it instead of letting it burn me down again.

    ‘While I’m incredibly fortunate to still be employed and making a paycheck during a global pandemic, my skin is hot at the fact that capital is valued higher than human life in every facet of American living.’

    This too. The absolute cognitive dissonance of sitting at a desk every day, thankful that I can pay rent; guilty that my job is so fucking pointless compared to the work being done on the streets; trying (again!) not to beat myself up just for existing in this world as a trans Black person. I just.

    Anyway. Thank you.

  2. I feel like my entire life has been an exercise in learning to redirect rage or even to replace it with something else and so the unlearning has been quite a ride. It is incredibly useful to redirect my anger into something “productive” like my writing but sometimes it’s just as useful to just let it manifest as something else. I only wish I had the courage to scream but I am still perpetually terrified of my own voice.

    Thank you for writing this <3 You’ve synthesized everything I’ve been feeling these past couple of weeks.

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