Own Your Anger as a Black Womxn: Finding inspiration in Mam’ Winnie

Hundrends of mourners gathered at the Orlando Stadium to attend the memorial service of the late struggle icon Winnie Mandela at Orlando Stadium, Soweto. Picture: Itumeleng English/ African News Agency(ANA) 536 11.04.2018

As a womxn of colour, I am familiar with silence. I know when to be quiet, and to speak when I am spoken to. I know how to refine and enunciate my words so that my message is more palatable to my audience. I have learned how to adjust and contort myself to fit the context, and I move almost effortlessly between spaces that are antagonistic toward me.

As a womxn of colour, I have memorised and enacted the social script enforced upon me at a young age, and that instructed me to be demure and accessible; to remain within the lane that was drawn centuries ago by [white] men who gazed upon my ancestors and interpreted their state as one in need of taming- cue racist imagery of Sarah Baartman.

Essentially, I know how to pander to whiteness and submit to patriarchal men. See, there is a false security within this culture of silence I submitted myself to: I maintained relationships, I retained my job and financial security, and I avoided the risk of being labelled a bitter black womxn. For long, I suppressed my indignation for a negative peace that cost me my mental health. I internalised my rage and regurgitated it as sorrow. There is something noble and selfless, even beautiful, in a womxn displaying melancholy, right? The male gaze dictates to us that displays of female anger is shameful, and misogynistic labels such as “bitch” and “nag” reinforce the unpalatability of our rage. Our anger is often turned against us, and the manifestation thereof reframed as a threat- we are not the ones who have been harmed, but the ones intent on harming.

Delve into herstory and notice that no womxn’s rage is an island, but a by-product of personal and institutional evils- a perfectly visceral response to injustice. To critique the expression of our rage rather than engage with its content serves to shift the conversation from the unrelenting violence inflicted upon our bodies and personhood to the tone of our delivery. Audre Lorde once said, “If I speak to you in anger, at least I have spoken to you: I have not put a gun to your head and shot you down in the street.” Anger is an appropriate reaction to misogynoir, as is fury when this special blend of racism and misogyny flexes its ill-gained power on our lives. The perverted ways in which misogyny and anti-blackness intertwine and inform one another is glaringly evident in the violent subjugation of black womxn and the policing of our anger.

Colonialism and apartheid- oppressive systems predicated primarily upon racial hierarchies- were passionately patriarchal projects that situated white male-heteronormativity at the apex of civilisation, and ranked black womxn as being the most inferior. Any expression of black rage at an unjust and dehumanising system was condemned and swiftly, violently quelled. Mam’ Winnie- whose anger fuelled the liberation movement and mobilised South Africans toward democratic change- was regularly assailed and attacked for daring to voice her rage against the apartheid regime. Clad in military fatigues, with fist raised high in defiance, Mam’ Winnie was the antithesis of apartheid propaganda that portrayed black womxn as unintelligent, without agency and content in their own suffering. She was not demure or silent in the face of discrimination or inequality. She did not retreat when threatened. She did not adjust to injustice. She openly challenged the patriarchal script that tried to mould her into a more palatable black womxn who remained within her place. Mam’ Winnie’s rejection of white male-heteronormativity was a direct threat to the defenders and enforcers of apartheid, and her criticism levelled against black liberation leaders a renunciation of black patriarchs unconcerned with the plight of black womxn.

To inhabit an anti-black and patriarchal society is to have a well-stocked arsenal of anger that can be useful against oppression. To live in silence and self-censorship, contrarily, means to creep anxiously through spaces with unchanneled rage that rots and boils beneath a thin veneer of self-control. We cannot allow our fear of anger to deflect us or seduce us into settling for an undignified existence or inhumane conditions. It is not our anger that will destroy us, but our silence in the face of violence and injustice. Black womxn are always being asked to stretch more- be less aggressive and to curate our tongue so that our oppressors do not feel threatened or undermined, or guilty. As posited by black feminist thought, we need to be still and listen to our anger- to its rhythms and frequencies- and tap into it as a source of empowerment. Black womxn face a multitude of racist and gendered oppressions in South Africa- our anger is necessary. We need to begin to acknowledge the validity of our anger and giving it expression, then translate it into positive action in the service of a non-racist, gender just South Africa.   

Danielle Hoffmeester is the Project Officer for the Gender Justice and Reconciliation project at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.