Rage is back with angry protests across the US over George Floyd’s brutal, knee-pressed-on-the-neck killing. But just a decade ago, a book by columnist Ellis Cose called ‘The End of Anger: A New Generation’s Take on Race and Rage’ had argued that African Americans had entered an era of post-rage. So, what changed?
The book came out during Barack Obama’s first term as US President, when polls were showing a resurgence of hope. There was “an abundance of upbeat news” in the community, Cose wrote in his book. It also signalled a post-prosperity defanging of Black rage.
This book sharply contrasted with another book that Cose had written in 1993 called ‘The Rage of a Privileged Class’. It was about how Blacks, no matter how talented or gifted, would never be able to crash what he called America’s immovable glass ceiling on their aspirations.
Something had profoundly changed between these two books — in a span of nearly two decades — for Cose to go from rage to the fraying of Black anger.
Being Black-ish on TV
The notion that younger Blacks, who are growing up in wealthier families, experience and display less rage was gaining ground for some time. In their defiance of the despair and the pessimism of their parents’ generation, Cose writes, they were rendering race déclassé.
This idea was also mirrored in popular culture in the past decade.
Kenya Barris’ shows Black-ish and #BlackAF crystallise this so-called post-rage era perfectly. They showcase the new generations’ conversations around colour, capitalism and culture, without anger. They show young wealthy parents who have moved up the social ladder, but are struggling to tell their children to embrace Black-ness. They make inside jokes about race and stereotypes. Their kids don’t even flinch when the ‘N’ word is used in chat groups.
Then what explains the return of the rage in 2020 with such ferocity? The fact is that even during the Obama years, it was building up slowly, one Black Lives Matter protest at a time – Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott. And now, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.
Author Issac Bailey wrote in The New York Times this weekend in an article titled ‘I’m Finally an Angry Black Man’ that he had carefully constructed a life without anger for himself. But he is angry now.
“I knew that cops had been killing black men and black women without consequence long before November 2016…That’s why I didn’t blame Mr. Trump for the state of things — but knew that his elevation to the highest office in the nation was a tipping point. It felt like an attempt by white America to turn back the clock to the 1950s. I knew that we, black people, wouldn’t quietly go back to the back of the bus, even as they shamed us for peacefully kneeling to protest.”
Now Bailey “found himself in a perpetual state of rage he couldn’t shake, things were ripe to explode”.
The ultimate trigger was when two videos came out in the same week in May, inflaming America like never before.
First a video of a White woman named Amy Cooper in Central Park calling up the police to report an African American birdwatcher for ‘attacking’ her. And all he had done was ask her to leash her dog. It was a classic ‘white caller crime’, a phrase describing racially motivated police complaints. Then the video of George Floyd showing police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling and pressing down on his neck for over eight minutes.
The two videos stitched up American racism from two ends of the spectrum – a White caller and a dead Black man. Between the two, an enabling police system in riot gear.
“If you don’t speak up and don’t say anything, you’re just like the officers that stood by and watched,” Randy Fikki, a protester in Kansas City, told CNN. Many young White people also started saying “White silence equals violence” now.
The anger this time wasn’t just about seeking justice for a killing. It had gone back to the basics – to as far back as slavery. And it breached the race, class and anger divide.
It doesn’t matter if your kids now grow up in mixed neighbourhoods and code-switch in predominantly White schools. It doesn’t matter if the Obama years had lulled you into a sense of hope and progress. It doesn’t matter if Harvard University MBA students had earlier told Cose that all ceilings were now shattered.
When the video of George Floyd’s killing came out, a young boy asked his mother Alicia Smith, a community organiser, “Am I going to live to be a grown-up?” That fear of a little boy is as old as the slavery era, as old as the Jim Crow years and the Civil Rights Movement.
Now, it’s about the right to live. You can only stand up for justice, if you are alive and not shot dead jogging in Donald Trump’s America.
Burden of 400 years
‘Because of Slavery’ is the title of every episode of Kenya Barris’s Netflix show #BlackAF — even if the plot is about Black fathering or ‘adultification’ of young Black girls or vacationing in Fiji.
The episodes are wittily titled: Because of slavery; Because of slavery too; Still… because of slavery; Yup, you guessed it, again, this is because of slavery; Yo, between you and me… this is because of slavery; Hard to believe, but still because of slavery; I know this is going to sound crazy… but this, too, is because of slavery; I know you may not get this, but the reason we deserve a vacation is… because of slavery.
After all, even the high number of African American deaths due to coronavirus isn’t really because of obesity. It is because of slavery.
“Ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dream to be is because you kept your knee on our necks,” civil rights leader Al Sharpton said at George Floyd’s memorial service. “It’s time for us to stand up and say ‘Get your knee off our necks’.”
The rage has returned. It isn’t just about Donald Trump. It isn’t just about George Floyd. It isn’t just the rise of White supremacists. It is the sum of all these parts and more, slow-cooked over the past decade since Cose’s book of hope. Because “I can’t breathe” now. Literally.
The author is Editor, Opinion, at ThePrint. She has studied American Civil Rights Movement in college and during her museum work. Views are personal.