My heart broke as my brother and I sat in our parents’ TV room watching a recording of what happened to Serena that day on the courts at the US Open. The umpire issued a violation to Serena for allegedly receiving coaching from the stands. What the umpire says is inaudible on the video, but Serena’s voice rings out clearly, as does her raw emotion. “You owe me an apology. I have never cheated in my life! I have a daughter, and I stand for what’s right for her,” cries Serena, verging on tears by this point, “I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose.”
It was painful to watch what happened that day. Serena Williams wanted, no, demanded, an apology; but I, like many Black women in American, knew damn well she probably wasn’t going to get it.
I could get into the details of what happened on the tennis court that night in Flushing, NY, but it is widely documented (a quick “Serena Williams argues at US Open” Google search yielded “about 1.37 million results in 0.31 seconds”). Some understood it as a stand against the patriarchy and rallying cry for women, while others saw it yet another in a long history of Williams’ bad behavior. Regardless of the ongoing media debate, there is one thing of which I am sure: to be a Black woman expressing her anger in America is to be a woman in a particularly risky position.
To be fair, it’s not like the expressed anger of women is celebrated anywhere. The anger of Black women, however, has a long and carefully crafted history in America. In her Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil, Emilie Townes identifies Sapphire as the trope, or
shorthand stereotype, of the angry Black woman. Born in the minstrel shows of the early 19thcentury and maturing on television as a regular character on the 1950’s Amos and Andy show, Sapphire is “malicious, vicious, bitchy, loud, bawdy, domineering, and emasculating (Townes, 2006). With a mind as sharp as a surgeon’s blade and a tongue to match, Sapphire cut her people down to size in both short and extremely accurate order.
Sapphire worked across racial lines and didn’t tolerate white nonsense either. Neither intimidated by white nor afraid of Black men, Sapphire is dangerous. Her anger is evidence of the threat
she posed to authority within her community and, more importantly, to the dominant white community. Mammy, another common trope of the Black woman, is a
sweet, loving, non-sexual woman dedicated to serving her White family. So:
If you’re in the dominant group: Which of these women do you want to thrive and replicate?
If you’re a Black woman: Which identity will you put on to safely move through your day?
I’ve been Black for 49 years now, and without a doubt, I experienced the most racism during my four years at BU. And I’m not talking undergrad; I’m talking about 2014-2018 when I returned to school to get my master’s degrees. During that time I was told: my anger undercut my intellect; by another student that I bullied my classmates and should be asked to leave the School of Theology; I need to find a Black woman supervisor because my White supervisor wasn’t comfortable telling me what to do; and finally, that I was “so angry.” Granted, those experiences (and others) were gut punches, and I spent a fair amount of time crying hot tears in my car as I drove home from campus. But it’s the last one that brought me all the way down to my knees.
It’s a long and painful story that brought my field supervisor (a White woman almost exactly my age) and me at my second-year advanced placement site to that moment. It was the official last week of field placement, the year-long internship required to complete the MSW program. Actually, I interned at this agency for two years and landed a full-time job there after graduation. However, I was just trying to make it to graduation. I still had finals to complete, my ongoing internship work and responsibilities, a husband, and a son playing his senior season of lacrosse with a recently diagnosed hole in his heart and graduation of his own. In other words: I was riding on a shit storm. We still hadn’t worked out the transition from intern to paid employee except that I would take a week off between graduation and my official start date. I was working well beyond the 20 hours/week that field placement required, and I was growing increasingly concerned that I set an unreasonably high expectation and I’d set myself up to fail.
When we finally talked, I immediately knew something was off. Our ordinarily warm relationship was unexpectedly chilly, and my supervisor seemed put off by my asking for clarity. “You’re so angry, Nikki,” she said looking at me through sad and worried eyes. I froze. Angry? I wasn’t angry. I was tired, frustrated, sad that school was ending, and, worried about getting to the end; but, I wasn’t angry.
Until I was.
Then, I knew I was in real trouble.
At first, I was terrified that my supervisor even thought that I was angry because even the idea of me as an angry Black woman is enough to be dismissed. I already experienced what happens when I express emotion or an idea counter to the status quo. So, if my supervisor thought I was angry, I knew I was already behind in the game. But to make matters worse, I actually got angry—like really angry. I was angry because I wasn’t being heard. I was angry because all my prior hard and good work earned me no consideration. I was angry because I was being misunderstood and that no matter how I tried, bringing up the racial overtones of her characterization of me would only be used against me as evidence of my anger.
My internship ended—terribly—with me walking out after being asked to take a week to think about “whether I still thought I was right for the job.” To make matters worse, when I went home that afternoon, I deleted all the agency’s files off my Google Drive to head-off any whiff of inappropriate access to the data. They were shared files, and I didn’t realize I deleted everyone’s copy and was accused of intentionally or “subconsciously” deleting agency data. I explained what happened and how the files were retrievable without success. I even attempted to scheduled two separate mediation sessions to clear my name, but my supervisor declined to participate in either one. I finished finals, my son graduated on a Sunday one week later with mine following that Friday.
I’m still working through the hurt I feel about what happened. Frankly, I felt (and still fight) a tremendous amount of shame about it, too. I am ashamed that I got “too emotional” and gave over to my anger. I am ashamed that I walked away from a full-time job in a brand new career. I am ashamed of that part of me that seems to invite these kind of responses. The story available to me that shaped how I made sense what happened was that my anger was wrong; and as a Black woman I was “vicious, bitchy, domineering” and a threat to the established order.
There’s a part of me that believes I deserved what happened. But there’s another part of me that knows something’s off. Why would asking for clarity generate such a hostile response? Why characterize me as angry rather than any other descriptor legitimately possible? Was my unwillingness to just accept my supervisor’s assessment of me threatening to her?
Which brings me right back to Serena and Sapphire. Serena demanded an apology, but she didn’t get one. Indeed, the umpires threatened to boycott her matches because they felt “unfairly criticized.” But here’s the thing: umpires have power. Serena, by showing her full, most authentic self, anger and all, represents a threat. As such, she is summarily cast into Sapphire’s tribe— untamable, strong-willed, unafraid, and unapologetic.
But the story doesn’t end here…
One final thing about Sapphire—she is always in control of herself when her hands are on her hips and she is practicing the fine art of being loud-mouthed. Her rage is precise and her speech is like chicory coffee—strong, black, and with a bite. These are the characteristics that I contend are needed to untangle and demystify the intractability of
racism. Being polite (dispassionate) about it has not worked (2006).
At 11:11am on September 24th, I will be 49thbirthday. Born under the Libra sign on the Feast Day of St. Thecla, it is no wonder I have what I refer to as a highly-attuned justice meter. I had to introduce a lot throughout grad school, and most of the time I would describe myself as having a “big mouth.” I think most of the time I was doing it as a kind of warning to my classmates that I love to talk. And it probably no coincidence that the Sapphire is the birthstone for September. So maybe I was really warning them that I will stage what Brittney Cooper calls a “homegirl intervention” and call you out on your bullshit—regardless.
I wasn’t angry
until I was.
I was afraid to be angry
until I wasn’t.
And so: A toast to turning to 49 and embarking on 365 days of Fearless Living! May we learn to like our anger the way we like our chickory coffee —strong, black, and with a bite. As
September people, may we wear our Sapphire crowns as our foremother taught us—unafraid and unapologetically. I’m letting go of old baggage so I might move more freely—and it’s so much easier to set worlds on fire. Finally; to anyone who found it necessary to make me feel less than because my Sapphire—the audacity of its size, the spectacular clarity of its color, the high-quality of its cut, and the brilliance of its sparkle—was just too much for you to handle…you owe me an apology.