DECEMBER 3, 2021
“KEEP CALM AND carry on,” the cliché insists. But in the face of racism, it’s the wrong approach. In her new book, The Case for Rage: Why Anger Is Essential to Anti-Racist Struggle, Myisha Cherry urges instead, “Get angry!”
The Stoic philosopher Seneca famously saw anger as a madness, “hideous and wild […] raging with an utterly inhuman lust for arms, blood, and tortures.” He assumed angry people behave badly — but Seneca’s assumption says more about him than it does about anger. Cherry argues that Seneca was talking about uncontrollable rage. Yet emotions are multidimensional and multifaceted. Not all anger is destructive; not all anger drives people insane. Anger can also be loving and charitable, and love itself is not all we need for a more just world. Love, like anger, can be a fickle beast. In an extreme and obsessive form, love is madness and violence. Love isn’t always good, and anger certainly isn’t always bad.
Emotions help us make sense of ourselves, guide our actions, motivate us, and spark meaning in our lives. Cherry argues for a very specific type of anger that she calls “Lordean rage,” inspired by Black feminist scholar and poet Audre Lorde. In her essay “The Uses of Anger,” Lorde calls for women of color and white women to articulate their anger, listen carefully, and transform differences into a source of power to fight racist oppression and hate.
Cherry also turns to Martin Luther King Jr., Ida B. Wells, and Sojourner Truth because, she says,
African Americans (with the exception of Native peoples) have had one of the longest relationships with US racism, and thus Black thinkers provide us with a rich archive of reflections, examinations, and exemplar actions that can help us think about anger and race.
Unlike negative and destructive types of anger — such as narcissistic or vengeful rage — Lordean rage has a “special power” that arouses a “lust for peace and equality” and makes us “greedy for a better social and political system.” When Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his persuasive “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963, he was angry. But his anger was an expression of love and care for the moral well-being of both the hated and haters.
Cherry is a moral psychologist and philosopher of race, and she brings both dimensions of her expertise to bear on her analysis. Just as a mixed martial arts fighter needs to know techniques from boxing, jujitsu, Muay Thai, and other forms, so too do antiracists need a cache of skills to fight injustice. Cherry doesn’t reject violence as a tool, nor does she unpack how acts of violence in the name of Lordean rage may be justified. Her scope is limited to showing how rage can be ushered toward nonviolent expressions of anger which, she argues, are also morally appropriate because, as Aristotle also argued, expressing anger can prevent injustice when it defends people’s dignity against wrongdoers.
Ida B. Wells and Sojourner Truth were multiply oppressed — subject to racism and sexism — but they spoke out audaciously. They believed in justice, in themselves, and in a better future. When Truth gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech while “raising her hand and voice in wrath” (according to the New York Daily Times), Cherry speculates that Lordean rage — “fresh, hot, and righteous rage, aimed at seeking justice” — fueled Truth’s confidence and optimism.
Consider, too, Frederick Douglass, whose impassioned speeches helped people understand and imagine the horrors of slavery and inspired potential allies’ anger too.
For people claiming to be allies, the most uncomfortable section of the book may be the chapter “Rage Renegades: A Special Message to ‘Allies.’” On one hand, Cherry hopes that those in solidarity with oppressed people will utilize Lordean rage. But on the other hand, allies are part of the racist systems they claim to be fighting against. Cherry points to “Naked Athena,” an anonymous non-Black woman of color, who practiced naked yoga between federal agents and demonstrators at a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in Portland. Though she came in support of BLM, she stole attention away from the movement. Naked Athena, according to Cherry, was a bad ally. At another Portland protest that year, police tear-gassed Navy veteran Christopher J. David, beat him, and broke his bones. In an interview, he stated that had he been Black, he would not have received as much attention. According to Cherry, David was a good ally.
Like David, true allies amplify Lordean rage. They don’t appropriate it like Naked Athena. True allies stay out of the spotlight rather than center their own experience at the expense of others. Their rage is not performative, and they don’t take breaks from being allies; true allies stick around after the feel-good protests. They educate others about racism and give marginalized people time and space to be angry. True allies know they don’t know how oppressed people feel. They are not white saviors; as Cherry writes, “[N]onwhites can indeed fight for racial justice for themselves.” And true allies apologize when they misstep.
Seneca recommends avoiding irritations in your life — which is a great plan if you can avoid irritations. But as Cherry points out, it’s easy to avoid a person who annoys you; racism is a different story: “[T]hose who bear the brunt of racism and oppression most directly don’t get the luxury of ignoring these problems, peaceful as it might be to spend a day without worrying about them.”
Instead, Cherry’s advice for managing Lordean rage is: “Let it out!” Expressing anger is healthy. But don’t let go of the rage too soon, lest its motivational steam dissipate. The struggle for racial justice is long and arduous, and Cherry advises setting goals and planning. She doesn’t tell you how, but she does consider the protestors who continue to seek justice for Breonna Taylor. She asks:
Are they bringing awareness to her case? Are they demanding that the officers be brought to justice? Are they resisting feeling rules that say Black women are not worth our care? Are they doing their part to make sure that policies that made it legal for police to enter her home are changed?
Cherry says The Case for Rage is for both academics and activists. “[M]y aim is to be philosophically grounded and accessible,” Cherry writes, and she succeeds. Her prose is without ivory tower pretension. She uses academic jargon carefully and amply explains technical terms. The Case for Rage is a hybrid textbook and handbook: the language is clear and direct, and her argument is impeccably structured into six interwoven chapters with subtitles, timely examples, and helpful bullet-pointed guidelines such as, “Be careful not to use anger to engage in the same supremacy that you are fighting against.”
For people who are angry at racial injustice, the book is bound to be inspiring, refreshing, and validating. Cherry offers the intellectual permission to resist implicit racialized rules: oppressed people should be seen and heard, and rage is legitimate in the face of racialized harm.
While Lordean rage can disrupt the status quo, Cherry urges antiracists to create solidarities within supportive communities of “moral critics.” Ideally, these moral critics hold one another accountable and make sure their Lordean rage is directed toward productive antiracist ends, not further harm.
Cherry knows there will be dissenters. Not everyone will see how anger can be bridled and transformed for good. And the “anger police” will always try to silence those who are rightfully angry. Anger police can be “quite bossy,” Cherry warns — they preach civility and rationality to assert their power over the terms of engagement.
The problem isn’t with anger or the expression of anger, Cherry emphasizes, but with people who refuse to hear the cries of the oppressed, who fail to empathize, and who would do well “to look inward and ask some difficult questions.” In the meantime, racism persists and, Cherry argues, “rage must be just as resilient as the racism to combat it.”
Skye C. Cleary, PhD MBA is the author of How to Be Authentic: Simone de Beauvoir and the Quest for Fulfillment (St. Martin’s Press, forthcoming 2022) and Existentialism and Romantic Love (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and co-editor of How to Live a Good Life (Vintage, 2020). She teaches at Columbia University, Barnard College, and the City College of New York.