BLACK RAGE: HISTORICAL STUDY Essay, Research Paper BLACK RAGE: A HISTORICAL ANALYSIS Outline Thesis Statement: Throughout the history of the United States, as seen through an
BLACK RAGE: HISTORICAL STUDY Essay, Research Paper
A HISTORICAL ANALYSIS
Thesis Statement: Throughout the history of the United States, as seen through an
analysis of African-American literature and rhetoric, black rage has not only existed, but has grown. As the momentum toward equality is clearly evident in the black race?s struggle, the question of where (or when) this rage will subside (if ever) remains unanswered. In examining black rage, four distinct periods of American history should be considered: slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Era, and contemporary America.
1. Throughout African-American history, a presence of ?black rage? is identifiable through both African-American literature and rhetoric.
2. This rage has emanated from a state of racial inequality and has gained
momentum throughout history.
B. The Problem
1. When dealing with the concept of racial equality, the question must be asked: Can two races live together in equality?
2. It has yet to be proved that a state of equality can be obtained in the United States for African Americans.
3. Given the momentum that exists within African-American society to gain more freedom, is a reversal in racial power inevitable?
II. Slavery in America: Slavery is the source of black rage.
A. Perhaps the earliest voice of black rage is that of David Walker
B. Nat Turner?s insurrection solidified white America?s fear of rebellion.
C. Perhaps the most militant voice of black rage during slavery is that of Henry
D. Fredrick Douglass, though a more moderate voice, also demonstrates the rage of his race.
III. Reconstruction and Jim Crow: With slavery abolished, equality was still not
accomplished, further embittering African Americans and fueling the desire to
A. T. Thomas Fortune explains the plight of the black race during Reconstruction, proclaiming that nothing has been solved; slavery is gone, but the black man is not free.
B. Marcus Garvy stands alone as one who has vehemently sought to channel the rage of his people militantly.
C. Langston Hughes epitomizes the plight of the black race in America in his poetry.
D. Sterling Brown?s ?Strong Men? outlines the black struggle in America, illustrating a momentum of black rage.
E. James Weldon Johnson and Ralph J. Bunch justify violent channeling of rage to overcome oppression.
F. Claude McKay advocates violence and fighting back.
G. W. E. B. Du Bois, though a more moderate black voice, prophesies the coming of an inevitable race conflict in America.
IV. The Civil Rights Movement: The Civil Rights movement, perhaps the greatest
demonstration of black rage in American history, produces an explosion of rage
A. In the struggle for civil rights, the rhetoric of revolution dominates as one major theme of black rage.
B. Accompanying revolutionary thought, black rhetoric or rage also strongly advocates the use of violence.
C. Black Power, advocating revolution and violence, dominates the forefront of black-rage demonstration.
D. One organization that aims to channel black rage militantly beyond the efforts of others is the Black Panther Party.
F. The struggle for social power between white and black America was brought to a head during the Civil Rights Era.
G. While many during the Civil Rights Movement supported a nationalistic movement with a separate black government, the possibility of black dominance in America, a reversal of racial power, was also voiced.
H. Perhaps encapsulating the entire struggle of rage during the Civil Rights Movement are the works of Malcolm X.
I. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also sought to channel black rage to effect change.
V. Black Rage in Contemporary America: In contemporary American society,
African-American equality has yet to be realized, and rage still exists.
A. The battle for civil rights is not over.
B.. Black rage is still present.
C. Can a state of equality ever be obtained between whites and blacks in America?
D. Understanding what it took to gain civil ground in the past, what is it going to take in contemporary America?
F. The Los Angeles riots as well as conducted research demonstrate that rage is still present and waiting to act.
VI. The Conclusion
A. Review of the major issues
1. Slavery is the source of black rage in America.
2. With slavery abolished equality was still not accomplished, further
embittering African Americans and fueling the desire to overcome.
3. The Civil Rights movement was perhaps the greatest demonstration of black
rage in American history.
4. In contemporary American society, African-American equality has yet to
B. The answer, the solution, the final opinion
1. White American society is unwilling to give up control, and Black American
society is unwilling to settle for anything less than total equality.
2. The momentum of rage and desire to overcome inequality will force the issue
and produce a reversal of racial power in America.
A Historical Analysis
Revolution? In America? America was founded and built upon the very principle that it is acceptable for an oppressed people to rise up in rebellion to secure freedom, independence, and self-government. In the Declaration of Independence, America?s most esteemed founding patriarchs exclaimed to King George, ?We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . .? But not black men. The black race has been enslaved, dehumanized, trampled, kept down, suppressed, quieted, and stripped of human rights from the very conception of this glorious country, America. And what was expected in response from this race of oppressed people? Submission and abeyance! How long did the oppressors expect to keep an entire race of men down? Indefinitely! So they thought.
The ?Negro problem? has plagued white America ever since the framers refused to recognize the black race?s rightful and just claim to human rights and equality. Slavery divided the nation in the bitterest battle ever fought between the shores of the country. The Civil Rights Movement threw the nation into turmoil and riot never before experienced between her borders. No, black people would not quietly submit and accept the unjust conditions imposed upon them. They would not rest as long as they were enslaved and dehumanized. They would not quietly submit to ?separate-but-equal? inequality. They would (and they will) overcome.
Black rage, coined and defined in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, has existed throughout the history of America. While rage may be defined as expressed solely in acts of physical violence and fury, rage also indicates a ?violence of feeling, desire, or appetite . . . a violent desire or passion? (Webster?s 1187). And this is exactly what constitutes ?black rage.? William Grier and Price Cobbs, in their 1968 revolutionary analysis Black Rage, relate the rage experienced by the black community to the intensity of their feelings about the oppression they have experienced. They write, ?Observe [that] the amount of rage the oppressed turns on his tormentor is a direct function of the depth of his grief, and consider the intensity of the black man?s grief? (210). [THESIS:] Throughout the history of the United States, as seen through an analysis of African-American literature and rhetoric, black rage has not only existed, but has grown. As the momentum toward equality is clearly evident in the black race?s struggle, the question of where (or when) this rage will subside (if ever) remains unanswered. In examining black rage, four distinct periods of American history should be considered: slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Era, and contemporary America.
Slavery in America
The oppression imposed by the white race upon black humanity in America has not been without consequence. The oppression has caused a state of rage, black rage, within the heart and soul of the black race that has not gone unnoticed nor unanswered. From the beginning of this country, rooted in the bitter guile and dehumanization of the slavery, threat — reality, rather — of black resistance, rebellion, and victory has been more than manifest in America. Gabriel Prosser , Denmark Vesey , David Walker, Nat Turner, and
Frederick Douglass, as well as many others, have all struck fear in the hearts of whites; America realized that she would not forever be able to keep the black race subjugated. Rage spoke out. It spoke out through the written word. It spoke out in powerful oratory and condemning proclamation. It spoke out in physical and violent uprising. The inner feeling of rage caused by the grief of oppression transformed itself into physical, violent rage. Yes, black rage, speaking out against the atrocities of oppression and enslavement of a race, would be heard; it would be expressed.
Perhaps the earliest voice of black rage is that of David Walker. According to Arthur Smith and Stephen Robb, editors of The Voices of Black Rhetoric: Selections, Walker?s ?protest speeches and essays marked him as the most dangerous individual the pro-slavery forces had ever encountered. Walker spoke boldly, talking revolution and insurrection? (10). In his Appeal, Walker petitions heaven against slavery and reminds America of nations throughout history — Egypt, Rome, Spain — that have suffered destruction because of such inhumanity. He emphatically and undeniably implies that America will face the same destruction (27-8). For his proclamation, Walker died a mysterious, yet murderous death in 1831. But though the prophet be destroyed, the message of ?rage? would endure.
Since Walker?s appeal, the threat of slave insurrection intensified, leaving a growing fear in the heart of white America. Nat Turner, though not the first threat of slaves taking up arms in rebellion, solidified that fear. Threat became reality. In 1831, Turner led a slave insurrection in Tidewater, Virginia, killing over sixty whites. Benjamin Quarles, author of Black Abolitionists, explains that Turner?s insurrection and Walker?s Appeal, as well as other militant abolitionist sentiment, combined to express the realist ideal of black armed revolt abolishing slavery (17-18).
Perhaps the most militant voice of black rage during slavery is that of Henry
Highland Garnet. In his 1843 proclamation, ?An Address to the Slaves of the United
States of America,? Garnet advocates resistance to slavery at all costs, even unto death.
He proclaims, ?You had far better all die — die immediately, than live slaves . . .? (36).
Advocating rebellion and the shedding of blood, Garnet asserts that ?there is not much hope of Redemption without the shedding of blood. If you must bleed, let it all come at once — rather, die freemen, than live to be slaves? (36). Arguing from a historical context, Garnet illustrates a pattern of rebellion and resistance, noting Vesey, Turner, Joseph Cinque , and Madison Washington (37-8). Although Garnet warns, ?We do not advise you to attempt a revolution with the sword, because it would be inexpedient,? he does proclaim, ?Let your motto be RESISTANCE! RESISTANCE! RESISTANCE! No oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance? (37-38). But to what extent would RESISTANCE lead?
While voices of black rage have persisted throughout American history, so too have more moderate voices of nonviolence and conciliation. However, these voices have often served to channel black rage, contributing to the race?s determination to overcome. One such example is Frederick Douglass. In an 1847 address to the Anti-Slavery Society in England, Douglass, while maintaining that he was a ?peace-man,? opposing violence, clearly demonstrates that ?all Christian means? have failed (?The Right? 66-7). In his
famous ?Fourth of July Oration? of 1852, Douglass warns America of her impending crisis. He proclaims,
Oh! Be warned! A horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation?s bosom; the
venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic;
for the love of God tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and
let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever. (82)
But the warning would not be heeded. Douglass?s comment signifies that the rage, the fury, the impending inevitability of crisis, is a result of white America?s persistent failure to peacefully concede. And in 1861, Douglass issues this judgment against America:
The American people and the Government at Washington may refuse to
recognize it for a time; but the ?inexorable logic of events? will force it
upon them in the end; that the war now being waged in this land is a war
for and against slavery; and that it can never be effectually put down till
one or the other of these vital forces is completely destroyed. The
irrepressible conflict, long confined to words and votes, is now to be
carried by bayonets and bullets, and may God defend the right! (my emphasis)
Once considered a ?peace-man,? Douglass here advocates bloodshed and violence, harnessing rage to overthrow oppression. As would be seen throughout American history, Rage has risen indeed to the height of ?irrepressible conflict.?
When considering the extent to which rage will lead, one must ask, what if white America did not engage in civil war? What if white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison , John Brown , and many others did not adamantly stand against slavery? Would blacks have waited, continuing in bonds, until white deliverance arrived? Or, would they have risen up in rebellion likened unto the Amistad and once and for all declared themselves free and autonomous from white oppression? History will not afford us the answers to these questions. One thing is certain, however: a momentous movement towards that end can be historically traced and noted. According to Quarles,
Since American institutions . . . lacked the strength or will to subdue
slavery, other and more revolutionary techniques would begin to take hold
of men?s minds. Thus in the two decades prior to 1860 the notion of an
armed confrontation mounted in intensity, however inapparent on the
surface. On the eve of the Civil War, then, the idea of physical violence to
free the slave was far from new. Since the time of Nat Turner this idea of a showdown by force of arms had been a recurring theme in Negro thought.
Black fire-eaters did not go out of style with David Walker. (224)
Reconstruction and Jim Crow
In the heat of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation announced that slaves throughout the South were free, that slavery had finally come to an end. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution proclaimed that ?equal protection of the laws? should be provided to all persons, regardless of race. Yes, the black race has finally
received the freedom for which they longed. The rage would now subside, wouldn?t it? The wrong had finally been righted, hadn?t it? No. Throughout the Reconstruction period and the era of Jim Crow, black rage continued to express itself through the literature and rhetoric of an embittered, underprivileged black race, a race kept down far too long. No, equality and total freedom were not ensured nor afforded the black race. As a result, rage continued.
And so did white oppression. Plessy vs. Ferguson declared that separate but equal was the new law of the land — the new way of dealing with the ?Negro problem.? The Ku Klux Klan governed the South. Ghettos contained blacks in northern cities. All was well in the mind of white America. All was peaceful in the good-ol? U. S. of A. But was it? What about the rage of a race of people that were still oppressed and grieved? No, the rage had not been eased; it had grown in bitterness and guile. Blacks were risen from slavery, promised equality, promised ?forty acres and a mule ,? only to be denied, to be shoved back down.
Yes, black rage persisted. In fact, it was louder and more profound during Jim Crow than it was during slavery. In the title poem of her 1942 book, For My People, Margaret Walker Alexander writes,
Let a new earth rise.
Let another world be born.
Let a bloody peace be written,
. . .
Let the dirges disappear.
Let a race of men now rise and take control! (my emphasis) (436)
In fact, with white concession of emancipation arose greater black boldness to express the rage, the ?violent desire or passion? that boiled in the hearts of the black race for nearly three centuries. William Monroe Trotter, in his 1902 rebuke of Booker T. Washington?s conciliatory efforts, calling him a ?Benedict Arnold of the Negro race,? proclaims,
O for a black Patrick Henry to save his people from this stigma of
cowardness [sic]; to rouse them from their lethargy to a sense of danger; to
score the tyrant and to inspire his people with the spirit of those immortal
words: ?Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.? (202)
Rage had taken new, revolutionary form.
Two distinct voices of black rage during the Jim Crow era are T. Thomas Fortune and Marcus Garvey. Fortune, in his 1884 essay ?The Negro and the Nation,? explains the plight of the black race during Reconstruction, proclaiming that nothing has been solved; slavery is gone, but the black man is not free. His essay concludes that revolution to throw off the white tyrant is inevitable. He states, ?The throne itself must be rooted out and demolished? (134). He, as did Douglass, also warns of an impeding crisis:
I declare that the American people are fostering in their bosoms a spirit of rebellion which will yet shake the pillars of popular government as they
have never before been shaken . . . . All indications point to the fulfillment of
such declaration. (133-4)
And like David Walker, Fortune reminds America of humanity?s history. Reiterating the threat of revolution, he states,
When you ask free men that question [?What are you going to do about the
oppression?] you appeal to men who, though sunk to the verge of despair,
yet are capable of uprising and ripping hip and thigh those who deemed them
incapable of rising above their condition. The history of mankind is fruitful
of such uprisings of races and classes reduced to a condition of absolute
The enslavement of the black race may have changed facades, but the theme of upward mobility remained strong and defiant, more resounding with rage than ever before.
Marcus Garvey stands alone as one who has vehemently sought to channel the rage of his people militantly. He exclaims,
Shall we not fight for the glorious opportunity of protecting and forever
more establishing ourselves as a mighty race and nation, never more to be disrespected by men? Glorious shall be the battle when the time comes to
fight for our people and our race. (332)
Garvey, a pioneer of Black Nationalism, envisioned an autonomous African nation free from white rule and oppression. His vision included ?marshaling the 400,000,000 Negroes of the world to fight for the emancipation of the race and of the redemption of the country of our fathers? (325). Dismissing the possibility of obtaining equality in America, he concludes that ?so long as there is a black and white population, when the majority is on the side of the white race, you and I will never get political justice or get political equality in this country (my emphasis)? (330). Perhaps most significant about Garvey?s rhetoric is his expressed desire to dominate racially. His vision included a ?government that will place [the black race] in control, even as other races are in control of their own governments? (326). Inherent throughout African-American literature and rhetoric is this dominant theme of overcoming oppression and obtaining not just equality, but obtaining autonomy and, more notably, control.
Epitomizing the plight of the black race in America, Langston Hughes writes,
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun
or does it fester like a sore
and then run
or does it sag like a heavy load
or does it EXPLODE? (?A Dream Deferred? 305)
Will the ?dream deferred? one day explode? Will rage one day boil out of control? Will the momentum to overcome the most miserable of oppressed conditions subside only after achieving racial dominance? In his poem ?Dream Variation,? Hughes metaphorically implies the probability of a racial reversal of power in America. He exclaims, ?Till the white day is done,? illustrating that white dominance will one day end. And when he writes ?Night coming tenderly / Black like me,? Hughes boldly proclaims, ?That is my dream!? (373). Though this night, this day when the black race will rule, is coming ever so ?tenderly,? it is, nevertheless, coming. Does Hughes alone have this dream? Or, is he speaking for a race of men and women who also have a dream? No, Hughes is not alone.
Sterling Brown, in his poem ?Strong Men,? outlines the black struggle in America, recounting the many victories over foes — from slavery through prohibition. Like Hughes, Brown questions the inevitability of a final overcoming. Concerning the strength of the black race, Brown explains that after every battle, ?The strong men keep a-comin? on / Gittin? stronger . . .? (413). Having overcome slavery, having successfully dealt with the hypocrisy of Reconstruction ?freedom,? Brown writes,
Today they shout prohibition at you
?Thou shalt not this?
?Thou shalt not that?
?Reserved for whites only?
You laugh. (413)
The poem concludes:
The strong men . . . coming on
The strong men gittin? stronger
Strong men . . . .
Stronger . . . . (413)
Yes, strong men are coming on. Yes, rage is growing; rage is festering.
Although a desire, a passionate rage, has always pressed upward to overcome racial oppression, many have argued the improbability of success. But like conciliatory voices of the past, these voices also define and expound upon America?s black rage. James Weldon Johnson, in his 1935 book, Negro Americans, What Now?, advocates integration as the only logical ?way out.? But he also writes,
Our history in the United States records a half-dozen major and a score of
minor efforts at insurrection during the period of slavery. This, if they heard
it, would be news to that big majority of people who believe that we have
gone through three centuries of oppression without once thinking in terms
of rebellion or lifting a finger in revolt. Even now there comes times when
we think in terms of physical force. (149)
Although he does not advocate violence, as a black literary spokesman, he admits the presence of, as well as the justification for, rage. He concludes, ?We would be justified in taking up arms or anything we could lay hands on and fighting for the common rights we are entitled to and denied, if we had a chance to win? (149). Johnson claims he does not support violence as a logical solution to the race?s plight — but the thought is there.
In like manner, Ralph J. Bunch draws similar conclusions in his 1935 essay, ?A Critical Analysis of the Tactics and Progress of Minority Groups.? He concludes that because of the vast outnumbering by whites, and because ?the Negro masses are so lacking in radical class consciousness . . . any possibility of large scale identification of the Negro population with revolutionary groups can be projected only into the future? (167). Not now. But how long? How near in the future?
Dissenting thought, capitalizing on the rage of an oppressed race, insisted on bringing ?the future? closer. Claude McKay writes, ?If we must die, O let us nobley [sic] die, / So that our precious blood may not be shed / In vain . . .? (344). Promoting violence as the only defense against violence and the only means to overcome oppression, McKay proclaims,
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like me we?ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back! (334)
Rage, which may have originated from grief of oppression, when pressed to the wall, will strike back.
W. E. B. Du Bois, realizing that black society would not rest long in a state of inequality, explains,
What, then, is this dark world thinking? It is thinking that as wild and
awful as this war was , it is nothing to compare with that fight for freedom
which black and brown and yellow men must and will make unless their
oppression and humiliation and insult at the hands of the White World
cease. The Dark World is going to submit to its present treatment just as
long as it must, and not one moment longer. (The Souls of White Folk 183-4)
How long? Not long. Du Bois, having a prescient understanding of race relations in America, notably explained in 1903 that ?the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line? (Souls of Black Folk xxiii). Oh how true this statement proved to be as black America continued to press upward and white American continued to dominate and oppress!
The Civil Rights Movement in America
By the time the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s was in full swing, white America wondered in awe at the demonstration of black rage they witnessed. Many were aghast, wondering where all the penned up anger came from. Race riots and violence ravaged the country. Black spokesmen rose up from various organizations — Black Panther Party, SNCC, Nation of Islam — and proclaimed BLACK POWER! The rage witnessed was astronomical. Rage had finally boiled over. Martin Luther King, Jr., explained that the ?sweltering summer of the Negro?s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality? (?I? 103).
The Civil Rights Movement has produced an explosion of black rhetoric, specifically rhetoric of rage, more extensive and complete than at any previous time in American history. Prior to the era, blacks were never free to openly speak and criticize white institutions and government. Because of this new freedom to speak in open forum, internal black rage has finally been released, heard externally through unprecedented expression and demonstration.
In the struggle for civil rights, the rhetoric of revolution dominates as one major theme of black rage. In his address to the 1966 graduating class at Howard University, Adam Clayton Powell, Congressman from Harlem, boldly proclaims, ?We are the last revolutionaries in America — the last transfusion of freedom into the bloodstream of democracy. Because we are, we must mobilize our wintry discontent to transform the cold heart and white face of this nation? (278). Rage again has evolved, this time to the height of advocating violent revolution. Maula Ron Karenga, in The Quotable Karenga, writes, ?Blacks live right in the heart of America. That is why we are best able to cripple this man. And once we understand our role, we won?t talk revolution, we?ll make it? (196). Rooted in the bitterness of slavery, thought of rebellion and overcoming oppression has never subsided. Rage, a vehicle to express discontent, has never been absent from black-American history.
While many have advocated revolution, some doubt whether a revolution, because
of its impracticability, will ever become a reality. Robert F. Williams , in ?USA:
The Potential of a Minority Revolution,? writes,
Is it possible for a minority revolution to succeed in powerful America? . . .
Cynics [say] that to even raise such a question is insane . . . [that] violent
resistance to brutal racial oppression can lead only to suicide. How do they
know? . . . [Some said] that ?the American Revolution can never succeed
against the military might of the crown.? . . . Yes, a minority revolution has
as much, or more, chance of succeeding in racist USA as any place else in
the world. At the very outset, all revolutions are minority revolutions.
(my emphasis) (328)
At the very outset, all revolutions are minority revolutions. Yes, even a ?black? minority can effect a revolution. Once dismissed as an impractical channel for black rage and means of finally overcoming, revolution is very much a part of black thought throughout the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. Black rage has become more impassioned with fury, eclipsing the earlier, more conservative mindset that disregarded the possibility of a violent revolution. Black rage has obtained a new height of demonstration and boldness.
Accompanying revolutionary thought, black rhetoric of rage also strongly advocates the use of violence. The demonstration of black rage, previously confined to moderate words and philosophy, has risen to vehement protest and physical violence. H. Rap Brown, in his 1967 address entitled ?Colonialism and Revolution,? denounces ?white-American racist colonialism? and advocates violence and revolution. He asserts, ?The question of violence has been cleared up. This country was born on violence. . . . Violence is part of the revolutionary struggle. . . . Power, indeed, must come from the barrel of a gun? (312). Echoing this thought, Williams asserts,
You cannot have progress here without violence and upheaval, because it?s struggle for survival for one and a struggle for liberation for the other.
Always the powers in command are ruthless and unmerciful in defending
their position and their privileges. (Negroes 173)
Just as the Civil War was required to end the devastating oppression of slavery, so during the ?60s spokesmen of black rage have determined that a violent uprising is required to secure civil rights. Defying the philosophy of nonviolence as a means of obtaining a dream utopia of ?equality,? Williams concedes,
The most noble of mankind must surely aspire for a human level of
endeavor, wherein mankind can establish a utopian society divested of
brute force and violence. The irony of this great dream is that if it is at
all possible, it is possible only through the medium of violence. It is
possible only through Revolution. (?USA? 326)
The inevitability of rage exploding is both realized and apparent as never before.
Black Power, advocating — screaming for — revolution and violence, dominates the forefront of black-rage demonstration. It is important to understand, however, that the whole idea of Black Power and Black Pride originated, not as a venting of rage to cause people to rise up in anger, but rather to provide self worth and a realization that as humans, blacks must demand comparable treatment. Nonetheless, this seed of innocence soon produces a channel for rage. In his 1967 speech ?The Meaning of Black Power,? Franklin Florence defines Black Power as an ?active? attitude. He proclaims, ?And I say tonight, freedom and justice are not gifts — you must take them — rise up, you mighty black people — organize and take power? (165).
Indeed, Black Power encompassed a wide variety of thought and rhetoric during the Civil Rights Movement. Leroi Jones, recalling the separatist philosophy of Garvey, exclaims, ?Black Power cannot exist WITHIN white power.? Continuing, he proclaims, ?One or the other. There can only be one or the other. They might exist side by side as separate entities, but never in the same space. Never. They are mutually exclusive? (138). The decision, according to some, has to be made as to which one will prevail. (Recall that Garvey determined that equality can never be ensured for blacks as long as a white majority exists in America.) Others recount the thought of rising to racially dominate. In ?How White Power Whitewashes Black Power,? Nathan Hare explains that ?Black Power means the exercise of influence over the behavior of White oppressors to the benefit of blacks — by any means available . . .? (217). Any means available. So, nationalistic thoughts of finally prevailing in victory reappear. Rage, as is evident, has neither subsided nor been appeased. Nor has the momentum to overcome ceased from pressing upward against white social dominance.
One organization that aims to channel black rage militantly beyond the efforts of others is the Black Panther Party. The Party holds that only a ?true revolution? will effect the changes required to rid black society of white oppression (Straub 66). One goal of the Panthers is to organize blacks in a common effort to overcome despotism. Bobby Seale, Chairman of the Party, explains in a 1968 address that black people should not ?sit down and let a spontaneous riot happen in the streets where we are corralled and a lot of us are shot up, unorganized. . . .? He exhorts, ?Black people, organize!? (185). No doubt, rage is present. But how to channel it? Could blacks organize?
Concerning the task of organizing, Eldridge Cleaver, a militant revolutionary of the Black Panther Party, explains,
Black people have never been able through any mechanism to express
what their will is. People have come along and spoken in the name of black
people; they have said that black people want to be integrated; they have
said black people want to be separated; but nowhere at no time have black
people been given the chance to register their own position. (68)
The leaders of the Black Panther Party seek to provide the avenue, the means, and the organization for militant mass-resistance. Expressing an ?any-means-necessary? mind set, Stokely Carmichael proclaims,
We?re going to organize our way. The question is how we?re going to
facilitate those matters, whether it?s going to be done with a thousand
police men and submachine guns, or whether it?s going to be in a context
where it?s allowed by white people. (41)
Regardless of the means, RAGE will be heard. As Carmichael points out, white resistance, in most cases, will determine where and to what extent rage will lead.
The struggle for social power between white and black America was brought to a head during the Civil Rights Era. Williams explains,
The oppressor?s heart is hard. The experience of history teaches that he
only relents under violent pressure and force. There is little hope that he
will see the handwriting on the wall before it is too late. . . . America is a
house of fire — FREEDOM NOW! — or let it burn, let it burn. (?USA? 333)
Paralleling similar warnings provided to white America prior to the Civil War, as well as during Jim Crow, Williams? admonition reflects both the presence and reoccurrence of black rage throughout American history, continually insisting on pressing upward against white dominance.
The fact is, white society fears, and has always feared, losing power. White America has been resistant and forever reluctant to relinquish her position of social, economical, and political dominance. At the same time, black America is likewise reluctant, reluctant to give up the fight. Demonstrating the upward mobility and momentum of the black race, Carmichael announces, ?We are on the move for our liberation. We?re tired of trying to prove things to white people. We are tired of trying to explain to white people that we?re not going to hurt them? (41). Hurt them? Yes, white America fears being hurt — physically, economically, and socially. The question remains: Will white America continue its resistance until black rage inevitably boils over? ?The question is,? exclaimed Carmichael, ?will white people overcome their racism and allow [us to organize] in this country? If not, we have no choice but to say very clearly, ?Move on over, or we?re going to move on over you? ? (41). Concluding this thought, Williams writes, ?The fact is that racist white America is not worried about the possibility of Negroes being exterminated. It is more worried about the loss of its privileged position in its racist caste society; its system of white supremacy and world government? (?USA? 325). After all, the United States was built and founded on the double standard Jeffersonian principle that all men are NOT created equal, that the black race (or any other non-white group) must be held down at all costs.
While many during the Civil Rights Movement supported a nationalistic movement with a separate black government, the possibility of black dominance in America, a reversal of racial power, was also voiced. Nathan Hare writes,
A broad-based black power movement need [not] fear the white-voiced
deterrent that black power may simply replace white power. If that is the
case, then turn-about is fair play. This will depend on the willingness of
white power to cooperate in the just correction of grievances and
inequalities without delay. It is their decision, and this is not a plea, for I
have no faith that — given the nature of its existing institutions, belief
systems, and practices — white America can fully rectify the situation. (223)
Continuing, Hare asserts, ?Black men must bring an irresistible black power force to clash with the immovable object of white oppression with such velocity that America will either solve her problems or suffer the destruction she deserves? (my emphasis) (223-4). And this is the key to understanding black rage in America. Can this ?velocity,? once in motion — and it is in motion — be stopped? Will the resulting behavior caused by white oppression — black rage — subside at a place called ?equality?? Or, will a reversal in racial dominance occur? Racial dominance has been tried and proven time and time again. Equality has not.
Perhaps encapsulating the entire struggle of rage during the Civil Rights Movement are the works of Malcolm X. In one speech, he proclaims, ?Until the problem of the black people in this country is solved, the white people have a problem that?s going to cause an end to this society, system, and race as you know it? (?Harlem? 71). To Malcolm, black rage is not a black problem created by the black race, but a white problem conceived in the very root of white oppression. In another speech, he states, ?[The black man] can see where every maneuver that [white] America has made, supposedly to solve this problem, has been nothing but political trickery and treachery of the worst order? (?Revolution? 53). The Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, constitutional amendments, civil rights legislation, Brown vs. the Board of Education — have all failed to give a race of men and women what they rightfully deserve in white America: ?peace, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.?
Malcolm insists that the only viable solutions to America?s ?Negro problem? are violence and revolution. Concerning the impending violence seen throughout the nation, he says, ?Well, Negroes didn?t do this ten years ago. But what you should learn from this is that they are waking up? (?The Black? 49). Rage, though dormant at times, is very much a part of the black American fabric. ?It was stones yesterday, Molotov cocktails today; it will be hand grenades tomorrow and whatever else is available the next day . . .? (?The Black? 49). To those who dismissed the possibility of mass demonstration of rage, Malcolm explains,
One thing that you have to realize is, where the black community is
concerned, although the large majority you come in contact with may
impress you as being moderate and patient and loving and long-suffering
. . . the minority who you consider to be Muslims or nationalists happen to
be made of the type of ingredient that can easily spark the black
community. (?The Black? 48)
And to those who advocated nonviolence and a peaceful ?revolution,? Malcolm proclaims,
Black people are fed up with the dilly dallying, *censored* footing,
compromising approach that we?ve been using toward getting our freedom.
We want freedom now, but we?re not going to get it saying ?We shall
overcome.? We?ve got to fight until we overcome. (?The Ballot? 38)
Taking the same impatient ?now? approach as others in the movement, Malcolm tells us that freedom does not come without a fight.
Again and again, in speech after speech, Malcolm advocates the use of violence, channeling the rage in bitter retaliation. He says, ?You don?t do that in a revolution. You don?t do any singing, you?re too busy swinging. It?s based on land. A revolutionary wants land so he can set up his own nation, an independent nation? (?Message? 9). But what land? What revolution? Malcolm warns,
There are 22 million African Americans who are ready to fight for
independence right here. When I say fight for independence right here, I
don?t mean any nonviolent fight, or turn-the-other-cheek fight. Those days
are gone. Those days are over . . . . If George Washington didn?t get
independence for this country nonviolently, and if Patrick Henry didn?t
come up with a nonviolent statement, and you taught me to look upon
them as patriots and heroes, then its time for you to realize that I have
studied your books well . . . . (?The Black? 49)
Explaining the nature of a revolution and highlighting the inevitable fate of America, he also exclaims,
Historically you just don?t have a peaceful revolution. Revolutions are
bloody, revolutions are violent, revolutions cause bloodshed and death
follows in their paths. America is the only country in history in a position to
bring about a revolution without violence and bloodshed. But America is
not morally equipped to do so. (?The Black? 56-7)
Malcolm reemphasizes that black rage in white America is a white problem. Yes, white America has the ability to concede, to once and for all end the momentum of black rage in the United States. But could they admit and allow defeat?
Calling on the arguments of Garvey and others, Malcolm X also envisions a racial reversal of power on a global level, beginning in America. He says,
Not only is this racial explosion probably to take place in America, but all
of the ingredients for this racial explosion in America to blossom into a
world-wide racial explosion present themselves right here in front of us. America?s racial powder keg, in short, can actually fuse or ignite a world-
wide powder keg. (?The Black? 46)
Is America a ?powder keg? waiting to explode? Will good prevail? Will white society finally come to terms with itself and allow all persons to enjoy what is rightfully theirs? And, can the rage of a race, the black race, be diffused before the apparent inevitable occurs? These questions remain to be answered.
As Malcolm X has sought to channel black rage to effect change, so too has Martin Luther King, Jr. During his life, no doubt, King understood the rage of his race. He says,
There is the danger that those of us who have lived so long under the yoke
of oppression, those of us who have been exploited and trampled over,
those of us who have had to stand amid the tragic midnight of injustice and indignities will enter the new age with hate and bitterness. But if we
retaliate with hate and bitterness, the new age will be nothing but a
duplication of the old age. (?Facing? 562)
King describes a duplication of the old age — this time black over white. Although he does not want to accept it, King knew what both history and reality teach. Desiring to divert the rage of his people, he dismisses the rhetoric of violence and hate, proclaiming,
I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the
starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. . . . I refuse to accept the cynical
notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into
a hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality . . . . (?Nobel? 110)
But will they? Will King?s refusal make his dream a reality? Dreams and belief do not a reality make.
King, like other black spokesmen, also stresses the coming of the ?inevitable.? Encouraging people to act and to avoid complacency, King himself exhorts, ?We must speed up the coming of the inevitable? (?Facing? 565). But has he understood ?the inevitable?? In his famous ?I Have a Dream? speech, King prophesies the following: ?It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro?s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality? (103). Knowing this, has the nation now entered into a ?fatal? situation? Possibly. King?s vision has yet to be realized, and the ?sweltering? and ?urgency? are still propelling black society.
Yes, King is not a prophet of rage. He advocates peace, brotherhood, and equality. However, much can be learned about rage from his words. Explaining where white oppression has led, King proclaims,
But there comes a time when people get tired. There comes a time when
people get tired of being trampled over by iron feet of oppression. There
comes a time when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of exploitation where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair.
There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the
glittering sunlight of life?s July and left standing in the piercing chill of an
Alpine November. (?Facing? 558)
Arguing against the determination of some to racially dominate, King says,
We do not wish to triumph over the white community. That would only
result in transferring those now on the bottom to the top. But, if we can
live up to nonviolence in thought and deed, there will emerge an interracial
society based on freedom for all. (?Our? 13)
If! What if rage is not kept in check? What if violence is not held back? When asked about receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in an interview, King responded, ?The Nobel award recognizes the amazing discipline of the Negro. Though we have had riots, the bloodshed we would have known without the discipline of nonviolence would have been frightening? (Washington 108). Here, King recognizes, understands, and admits that the potential of black rage is immense — ?frightening.?
Black Rage in Contemporary America
As the transition from the Civil Rights Era to the era of Affirmative Action takes effect in America, members of white society again boasts that they have successfully dealt with the ?Negro problem.? Brown vs. the Board of Education proclaimed an end to Plessy?s Jim Crow. President Kennedy called in the National Guard. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Yes, blacks have finally been granted their rightful human place in white society. They are finally free. They are finally equal.
But are they? Ellis Cose writes in his 1993 book, The Rage of a Privileged Class, ?Why, a full generation after the most celebrated civil rights battles were fought and won, are Americans still struggling with basic issues of racial fairness? (1)? Black men and women in today?s United States clearly understand and agree that a state of equality has not yet been achieved. White concessions have been made along the way, making America better for blacks than ever before; but there is still a long way to go. The battle surrounding affirmative action, the imprisonment of a highly disproportionate number of blacks , the economic plight of the inner cities , the continued misrepresentation of
blacks in Congress, all point to the fact that, yes, a work remains to be done to ensure
But, thankfully, today the rage is gone. Blacks have finally learned to live peacefully, without regret, in white America. But then how does one explain the inner self-destruction of the race through crime, drugs, and murder? Many in America can only hope that the rage of the Civil Rights Movement will never reappear. However, it will. Black rage is not gone. In his 1993 book, Race Matters, Cornell West explains,
The emergence of strong black-nationalist sentiments among blacks . . . is
a revolt against [the] sense of having to ?fit in.? The variety of black
nationalist ideologies, from . . . Thomas . . . to Farrakhan . . . rest upon a fundamental truth: white America has been historically weak-willed in
ensuring racial justice and has continued to resist fully accepting the
humanity of blacks. (7)
Likewise, middle-class blacks, who have fled from the ghetto into corporate America, realize they too are still oppressed by the master. Cose writes,
America is filled with attitudes, assumptions, stereotypes, and behaviors
that make it virtually impossible for blacks to believe that the nation is
serious about its promise of equality — even (perhaps especially) for those
who have been blessed with material success. (5)
Yes, these sources are from the 90?s. Blacks still have rage — rage that has not subsided since slavery was abolished; rage that has not been abolished since integration was made the law of the land; rage that has not subsided since civil rights legislation proclaimed equality in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Where do we go from here? Can a state of equality ever be obtained between blacks and whites in America? Whitney Young foretells well today?s current state of race relations in America in his 1970 address to the Annual Convention of the National Urban League. He explains, ?It is a fact of life that there is developing a national standoff between those of us who are fighting for justice [blacks] and those who want to maintain the status quo [whites]? (408-9). While blacks continue to press upward, whites continue to press downward. ?This is an impasse that leads nowhere,? proclaims Young, ?unless it be to further polarization, further division, further bitterness? (408-9). It is clearly seen and understood from history that whites have never given up ground towards equality without a fight or a struggle. ?White society has shown that it lacks the courage and imagination to break this impasse by moving constructively,? says Young. ?It is up to the black community to show the way? (408-9).
What is it going to take? It took a bloody and terrible Civil War, a devastation that threatened to destroy America, for whites to concede abolition. And what would have happened then, if whites did not fight amongst themselves over the issue of slavery and invariably the condition of the Negro? Perhaps the Negro would have risen up and taken freedom himself; and oh how great the bloodshed might have been! One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, it took a movement full of violent rage and rhetoric, once again threatening to destroy the very fiber that holds the republic together, to force concessions mandating integration and affirmative action. One can only speculate where the Civil Rights Movement would have led had not many of the black leaders been killed off, had not white leaders made their timely, political concessions. Black leader after black leader has proclaimed that they will not stop until equality is achieved, that the black race will not settle for anything less than realizing their just human rights. The work is not yet done.
The battle is not yet won. In Race Matters, Cornell West admits: (1) Black rage is still present; (2) There is a freedom struggle; and (3) If not channeled, this rage may destroy America. He writes, ?Only if we are as willing as Malcolm X to grow and confront the new challenges posed by the black rage of our day will we take the black freedom struggle to a new and higher level. The future of this country may depend on it? (151). Speculating that time may be running out, Young proclaims, ?And for America, this may be the last opportunity she has to deal with leaders responsible to their people, before the terrifying prospect of internal strife, armed suppression, and needless destruction descend fully upon us all? (410). The writing remains on the wall. As Young implies, white America must deal with the black rage existing within its borders or face inevitable destruction.
One contemporary example of black rage escalating to the point of violence is the breakout of riots in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict in 1992. Ellis Cose explains that a group from the UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Policy was conducting research on black rage in society when the riots occurred. Sentiments of rage were not only recorded following the riots, but also before. Cose writes,
The entire country, after all, seemed in a state of shock over the verdict in
Simi Valley. But that does not account for the sentiments registered before
the verdict, when so many blacks who were doing well seemed to be so very unhappy. So many seemed in a state of raging discontent. And much of
America, I am sure, has not a ghost of a notion why. (6-8)
?A ghost.? Black rage has not subsided; it has not been satisfied; it has been ever present to haunt the very existence of America. It waits to strike out, for the reason to mobilize, for an excuse to act. West concludes, ?As a people . . . we are on a slippery slope toward economic strife, social turmoil, and cultural chaos . . . enforced racial hierarchy dooms us as a nation to collective paranoia and hysteria — the unmaking of any democratic order? (8).
It took over two hundred years to abolish slavery, and one hundred years from the Emancipation Proclamation to begin to ensure civil rights. In another fifty years, when equality has not been realized in 2020, how will America then deal with her ?Negro problem?? And what will become of the rage? Young prophesies, ?But I have confidence that black people will muster the courage and the strength to make one last effort, based on our common sufferings, to stand united against the system that oppresses us? (410). Will America face a racial Armageddon?
While white America has balked at giving up power to the black race, so has the black race refused to give up the fight. James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time, ?The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power — and no one holds power forever? (96). A momentum exists, rooted and grounded in the very core of the institution of slavery, that has propelled the black race over many foes, many obstacles.
The LA riots of the 90s should make white America stop and take note that black people are not going to remain idle. Grier and Cobbs, in Black Rage (1968), explained that the Civil Rights struggle was being fought at that time by black youth. But they also wrote that the time would soon come when ?the full range of the black masses . . . [would] put down the broom and [take up] the sword? (211). Unfortunately, the momentum of black rage has been forced to carry the black race beyond a magical line in the sand called ?Equality? to a final over-coming. Baldwin writes, ?People are not . . . terribly anxious to be equal (equal, after all, to what and to whom?), but they love the idea of being superior? (88). To overcome is to get over, to be over, to rule over. Yes, suppress a race of men and women for 400 years, telling them you are superior to them, and they will turn and say that you have something coming to you.
Thomas Jefferson once explained that slavery is like trying to hold a wolf by the ears. You can surely not let it go, for it will turn on you and rend you to pieces. At the same time, you can surely not continue to hold onto it, for it will soon overpower you in order to be set free, rending you in pieces (Jefferson 85). So, today, in 1998, America is still trying to hold the wolf by the ears. America is still trying to deal with her ?Negro problem? through concession after concession, stopping only to ensure equality is not allowed. This wolf is going to be free one day, and woe be to America! Grier and Cobb wrote,
We should ask what is likely to galvanize the masses into aggression against
the whites. . . . Will it be some grotesque atrocity against black people which
at last causes one-tenth of the nation to rise up in indignation and crush the monstrosity? . . . [Perhaps similar to the Rodney King verdict?] Or will it be
by blacks, finally and in an unpredictable way, simply getting fed up with the bumbling stupid racism of this county? Fired not so much by any one incident
as by the gradual accretion of stupidity into the fixtures of national policy. (212)
According to these black scholars of black rage, the momentum to overcome will one day prevail in victory. The penned up black rage will one day be satisfied, satisfied when there are no longer any white chains and shackles to hold it back.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was a brilliant man. For his work in the Civil Rights Movement, he should be highly commended and honored for promoting peace and harmony. King had a vision and a dream that one day all of God?s children would be able to live together in peace, harmony, and perfect equality. He said that he had ?been to the mountaintop,? he had ?seen the Promised Land.? While this ?Promised Land? may indeed exist, King saw a moral and spiritual vision not of this earth. In his famous ?I Have a Dream? speech, King exhorted,
Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane
of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. (103)
?Soul force? is that which transcends humanity. History has repeatedly proven that humanity is bound by hate, war, and rage. History has repeatedly proven that groups of people — whether religious, racial, tribal, or national — will seek to dominate other groups. America is no exception.
While America today may be experiencing a lull between storms, racial tension has far from subsided, and black rage is far from erased. The proverbial writing on the wall — the history of literature and rhetoric behind us — speaks loudly and clearly that the black race will not settle with remaining in oppression for long. In like manner, the white race in America has proven that it is not freely willing to concede the racial power they have amassed and enjoyed from the nation?s conception. When these social forces confront each other, the latter is bound to give way, as it has time and time again, to avoid national destruction. Will the black force of rage stop at a place called ?Equality?? Will the white force of oppressiveness subtly concede this final point for peace without being forced? Or, will the momentum of black rage continue to push, as Sherman pushed through Atlanta, until every Confederate is crushed and ultimate power over the enemy is finally secured?
One thing is certain; blacks are determined not to be pushed down any further. Grier and Cobb write,
Might not black people remain where they are as they did for a hundred
years during slavery? Such seems truly inconceivable. Not because blacks
are so naturally warlike or rebellious, but because they are filled with such
grief, such sorrow, such bitterness, and such hatred. It seems now delicately poised, not yet risen to the flash point, but rising rapidly nonetheless. No
matter what repressive measures are invoked against the blacks, they will
never swallow their rage and go back to blind hopelessness. (212-3)
The ground gained has been preciously won through too hard a struggle. The taste of oppression lingers yet, much too bitter to taste again. Strong men have pressed too long and too hard to give up now. In fact, indeed, this dream deferred may just one day EXPLODE.
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