By: Maggie Lily. Maggie is an artist-poet-student-hoarder-moth who likes to write like she's the moon and can't decide whether she's 8 or 80. Maggie is also a senior at the University of the Arts where she's president of African Diaspora Collective and exists as a political body making art.
You’re young, black, and an artist and you have something of an awareness of how the society views you and your art. In fact, those perceptions are often made quite clear. So, you ask yourself, how can I be a successful artist?
Let’s ask Hennessy Youngman.
Hennessy Youngman is the no-nonsense character out of the mind of brother Jayson Musson, a University of the Arts graduate. Musson is a musician, a photographer, a painter, and a businessman, but Hennessy Youngman exists outside all of that. He’s the spectral spectator of the art world. Like the lost, fourth Fate he observes and passes judgment. Through YouTube videos of satire and biting observation Hennessy Youngman tells black artists that we must, “Be Angry.” Satire yes, but there’s truth in jest.
“You must have an angry n*gga exterior. You perfect this angry exterior, and white curators, and gallery directors, and the general audience will kinda be more into your sh*t. Unapproachable. Think of that. Unapproachable.” ~ Hennessy Youngman, How to be a Successful Black Artist
There are many black artists that agree with this. Black art leaders like Amiri Baraka agreed with this. As Baraka put it in his poem “Black Art”: “We want ‘poems that kill.’ / Assassin poems, Poems that shoot / guns,” (19-20). But would my generation of black artists agree with this?
How does the generation who didn’t do lunch counter sit-ins, didn’t watch Dr. King on the TV, the generation that didn’t get to join the Black Panthers, the generation that grew up with Cosby show reruns and Kanye West and now Black Lives Matter, see the relationship between our art and anger? How does it speak to the larger image of race relations?
And I asked them, well several of them. Many answers were very unified. Unified in an almost unsettling manner.
Over half of the group was quick to separate anger from black art almost entirely. There were varying levels of this separation.
Most wanted to exchange anger for the more tangible state of being:
“I feel like anger doesn't play as much of a role in black art, as struggle does.”
Or for something less scary:
“Anger isn’t continuous, we’re tired we’re irritable. Anger is a reaction, not a state of being… Anger doesn’t have a role in black art…When I think of anger, I think of an immediate reaction to something that simply upset me."
Some fought anger with anger:
“Get over it – We must see ourselves as beyond [anger]. It’s bringing us backward. We’re expected to make art of our history, but I’m tired of it.”
There were others that welcomed anger.
Many called anger a “catalyst” and essential, but not the only way for black art. As my dear friend, a filmmaker, put it, “Prior to the Civil Rights Movement…that rage couldn’t of been as readily expressed — rather, it was repurposed as more easily digestible emotions, like sadness or desperation, so white audiences could better sympathize. About or after the 60s, however, I think that the new mentality brought on by groups like The Black Panthers gave way for more frank expressions of that anger and hostility felt by so many.”
We feel different from the artists of the 60’s and 70’s, and different from Amiri Baraka and his Black Arts Movement. Young black artists want options. Simply the option to express oneself in any way and be heard. We want to be representative of our own voice, not an entire people’s voice. We have become a much more individualistic generation.
There’s an almost academic way that our current leaders in art like Cathy Park Hong talk about anger and art.
Hong states “…they dismiss us as an ‘outraged mob.’ How convenient that when a writer of color speaks out, she is often dismissed as being ‘outraged.’ Implied in that: we are hysterical, reactive, emotional, not capable of nuance and reason.” OR when my peer expressed, “When you make you political art you are consciously commenting on the circumstances around you, and that doesn't mean constantly portraying anger… I think in order to limit us and limit our work and continue the stereotype of black people are always angry, the masses will continue to describe our work, our people, and our artists as angry.”
This academic method of pointing out the truth, reminiscent of Baldwin or Ellison is good. Very good. It’s attempting to make truth digestible by audiences of intellect, the voices that seem to hold more societal weight. However, that writing doesn’t speak the volumes of my interviewees who rejected anger. In that rejection there is fear.
Fear of what? It’s not a fear of being angry. It’s a fear of being perceived as angry by the white audience. White society doesn't just call us angry – they make us feel uncomfortable about being angry, self-conscious about our own feelings.
I turned these same questions to two people in the psychology world that I deeply respect: Dimitria Vandarakis, a licensed clinical social worker, and Dr. Pamela Johnson, a licensed psychotherapist. As people who work with the mind and emotions, they validate anger. They see “anger as the symptom” of something bigger and more often than not, deeper.
Dr. Johnson explained, “Anger has a message. It can be a tool of expression. The message of anger is that there is a boundary that has been crossed.” This crossed boundary in the context of race relations is a gross understatement, but within individual psychology it’s extremely pertinent. Vandarakis put it this way: “[White] people take black art as angry because they don’t understand it. Because they don’t understand it, they dismiss it. When they dismiss anger really they’re not allowing anger.”
Fear of black people’s anger as their “savage power” has been a fear for ages. It’s George Washington freeing most slaves in his will only because he feared they would revolt. The British in Africa using the facial structure and penis size to determine that black people are no better than cattle and thereby tamable. Today’s news using language like “looter” for black people in crisis, and “survivor” for white people. The Obama fist-bump. All ways that black people are associated with anger, savagery, and violence.
Dr. Johnson went on to say that anger in general is not taught well in the United States. As a child, sadness results in hugs, but anger results in punishment. We’re not taught how to cope with our feelings of anger; this turns anger into an unknowable force to fear.
But fear is not the only problem. Hennessy Youngman speaks to a fetishization of this anger. To clarify, the fetishization of anger is not an acceptance of anger. He describes the angry, black artist as “unapproachable.” The black artist is put on display as exotic other, capable of something raw and savage that the white artist community wants to tame or be taken over by.
So what’s the answer? Don’t be political or you’ll sound angry? What if your very existence is political? Everyday that you’re alive and creating is a political and social miracle. Your body is a statement and that is limiting and tiring. We must forge our own way, and maybe even our own way together. One of my interviewees spoke to this when she said, “In terms of how we show [ourselves] in our art work, I feel as if we are trying to cover all issues, while staying true to our own personal experiences and the collective experiences of our people. We are a generation playing catch up to pick up on the impacts that were made by previous generations, because of that we are trying to tackle everything, while still constantly staying true to our (the artist’s) individual voice.”
It’s hard to find your voice when everyone else wants to define it for you.
They can’t handle our anger because when we’re angry we wake up and we gather. And that’s maybe what they fear the most. They fear us revolting. They fear us conspiring against them. They fear us leaving them out. Leaving them behind. That’s why they must limit. That’s why they must label, and steal from us, and pit us against each other. All emotions, including anger, are apart of the human experience. It is just one catalyst that should unify all people to rise up, to shout, to create. But it is not our entire experience. Our anger is only the beginning.