Navigating an emotion we’re not supposed to have
I started writing this in August, when the air was heavy and still — a time of year that makes me hair-triggered and flustered; I drip with sweat and take long, slow breaths to try to calm myself, willing my clothes to stop clinging to me, wanting to acknowledge my discomfort and the breakdown of my poise and dignity from being too hot. With no filter, I could interrupt any given conversation with an outburst, so aware am I of sedentary summer heat.
I come from a cold place — Michigan — but that doesn’t explain my intolerance anymore than being from Detroit justifies my anger. It’s just an easy excuse that anyone from anywhere else will accept, because ‘cold’ and ‘anger’ are two very general associations about where I’m from. But if you asked my family about these two generalizations, they might look at you blankly. They are neither angry or fans of winter. Why would they be?
The truth is, I don’t know where my anger comes from, but I know that, particularly as a woman, and really, as a member of society, it is a ‘bad’ characteristic. I have spent much of my life attempting to quell and redirect — expending the ‘negative’ energy through ‘positive’ outlets, like talking in therapy/blaming my mother, through running and yoga, through breathing and posture exercises using the Alexander technique, massage therapy, lavender oil, and implementing wait times for myself before replying to something, even if I can’t control the immediacy of my reactions. I’m also on anti-anxiety SSRIs, which, without mitigating anger per se, help to quell the fear, which therapists tell me is the mental source. Physically, it lives in my upper abdomen. The muscles are like rocks, clenching involuntarily, and for whatever reason, it’s worst in the morning.
Anger is a killing thing: it kills the man who angers, for each rage leaves him less than he had been before — it takes something from him. — Louis L’Amour
None of the above has really worked, inasmuch as the anger is still alive and thrives…they’re all ways of coping, not cures. And there’s still a slew of ‘negative’ outlets—alcohol, marijuana, and other downers help to quell (except when they don’t). Reaction is the outlet that seems to release the most endorphins, which was why, when I was younger, I resorted to physical fighting and scare tactics to achieve a sense of power over my emotions. The verbal lashings — my husband calls it my ‘silver tongue’ — have lessened as I’ve gotten older, (at least toward strangers) because feelings of shame trump fleeting feelings of power, and being called a raging psycho isn’t an aspirational trait.
I didn’t start out angry. By all accounts, I was a quiet and content observer as a little kid, though prone to separation anxiety and what I now call ‘doom thoughts’, which are the immediate assumption that the worst has happened. I was, and am, more like an exposed nerve — raw, feeling everything and too much, reacting to terrible things that happen to other people as if they’d happened to me, or in front of me. I struggle with the lack of compartmentalization. Upon learning about the full horror of WWII in 10th grade, I was struck with attacks of crying and even screaming at home that were both alarming and embarrassing to my mother.
By then I’d discovered rap — and as I held my ear up to my stereo speaker (my mother couldn’t stand the sound of the bass) I felt alive with lyrics and aggressive tonality that matched what I felt within. No, of course I didn’t understand life as a black man in Compton — but N.W.A. took anger, helplessness, and dissatisfaction and created power and poetry from it. Dancing to it felt good. Acquiescing to this kind of anger, oddly, made me so happy. And the comedy in it was true comic relief — laughing amidst the rage and absurdity is such a cathartic action.
I was a scrawny girl in 1992— white, blonde, blandly dressed, mostly friendless and a late bloomer. High school was an exercise in pervasive dread. When Brett Belcastro and Ian Smaller — the self-appointed resident kings of hip hop in our school who wore FUBU and Karl Kani — strolled over to me at lunch one day to heckle me about my listening to gangster rap, I was not yet armed with the quickness in retaliation I would cultivate later. Instead, my best friend, Anita, who was the one of the only black girls in school, laughed them out of the lunch room because Brett and Ian were white. I guess their appropriation of ‘how rappers look and sound’ encouraged their condescension toward someone like me.
By ’93 I was fully hooked, sneaking out of my mother’s house and stealing our friend’s mother’s car (none of us had a license) to drive to Belle Isle and listen to Onyx and Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Mary J Blige. We made up dance routines to Digable Planets, tried to harmonize like SWV, swooned over the on-screen love affair between Tupac and Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice. I didn’t drink the gin and juice, didn’t puff on the blunts that were passed around. It was enough to feel I belonged and that the disquiet bubbling inside me had an outlet that didn’t need a target or a victim.
And this is what rap and hip hop have been for me: an outlet that didn’t hurt anyone else. That makes art out of angst. Rap took blues, which gave sadness its soul, and gave a soul to rage. Its catchiness has made anger a palatable and socially cool and understandable thing. So not only is it an outlet, it makes me feel good about myself. It gives words and rhythm to fears and anxieties, even when they’re not my own.
Last Fall I saw Brother Ali at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, and when I saw him arrive out front, I leapt out the door and embraced him. His music — along with Atmosphere, Biggie, Westside Connection, and many others — had helped me grieve my father’s death and deal with the anxieties of being pregnant. But I didn’t have to tell him all that. He hugged me back and said over and over in a low voice, “allah allah allah allah.”
(originally posted in September, 2015)