In 1981, Black, radical, feminist poet and activist Audre Lorde addressed a crowd at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference. She focused her entire keynote on Black women and anger. Regarding this emotion, Lorde reminded her audience that, “Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being.” She offered: “anger is loaded with information and energy.”.
Whenever I am asked to comment on the inexorable trope of the “angry” or “mad” Black woman, I share Lorde’s keynote, spoken so long ago. Black women (who face exhausting threats of racism and sexism daily) have a right to be angry, and that anger when used “in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening.” I’m unbothered by Black women’s anger. Our anger has been the foundation of many of our human rights struggles. Likely, Harriet Tubman was angered by her experiences as a slave. Ida B. Wells Barnett was angry that the brutalization and lynching of Black folk went completely undocumented and unavenged. Patrice Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza were certainly angry when they created #BlackLivesMatter as Trayvon Martin was “was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder.”
Anger can be a medium for change and transformation.
But what makes me, well, angry is when Black women’s pain—their sadness and hopelessness—is conveniently mislabeled as anger in an effort to dehumanize and dismiss our experiences and us. From experience, I understand that depression can be misunderstood as anger, which inhibits diagnosis, treatment, and an end to a great deal of suffering, if we’re not mindful.
While recently chatting with Dr. Rheeda L. Walker, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston, about Black women, depression and anger, she reminded me that, “It’s probably important to note that “irritability” is included with “depressed” or “low” mood as a marker for depression.” “We don’t recognize irritability as a sign of depression as much as we may recognize low energy or oversleeping,” she maintained. This may be one reason why depression is misunderstood as meanness. Dr. Racine Henry, a professor and therapist who specializes in marriage and family therapy in New York State agrees. She argues, “Symptoms [of depression] can include withdrawing from family and friends, having a short temper, being paranoid, and generally overreacting to stimuli; among other things. Others perceive these behaviors as being bitchy or even jealousy.” If we don’t recognize symptoms of depression, how can we advocate for treatment? We likely can’t.
What I was also curious about when I spoke with Dr. Walker, Dr. Henry and Dr. Joy Harden Bradford (who is a Georgia based psychologist and the creator of the website therapyforblackgirls.com) is whether our ideas about Black women being angry as opposed to being depressed are steeped in how our community views mental illness or how we dismiss anything Black women seem to feel as anger. All three believe that both factors weigh heavily in how Black women who likely suffer from depression are treated—even by those they love most. Dr. Henry says that we have to reach back to understand the present. She offers, “Help-seeking trends in the Black community are impacted by access to resources, general lack of mistrust for health practitioners, and the influence of the Black church. All three stem from slavery and a history of marginalization and discrimination in this country…. I think our ancestors long ago did not want to add to the rhetoric that Black people are inferior and so mental illness could not be attended to appropriately. As with other aspects of culture that is transmitted trans-generationally, we’ve continued the habit.” Because of our attitudes towards mental illness, we often wait until we are in deep crisis before we are treated. “Black women and men are significantly more likely than others to be committed involuntarily for mental health treatment. Because our problems are also most likely (compared to White men and women) to go untreated, psychiatric hospitalization is often needed to address mental health crises that emerge,” Dr. Walker explains. It’s worth noting that the criminalization of Black people struggling with mental illness should alarm and concern us. And because we don’t talk about mental illness, early symptoms are often ignored. “I don’t think that many Black women know that irritability can be symptom of depression. They may also overlook the fact that physical symptoms like stomachaches and headaches can be symptoms of depression and anxiety,” Dr. Harden Bradford point out.
As with treating any illness, diagnosis and early treatment determine how well the body is able to cope and heal. So what can we do, as Black women and the people who love Black women, to push past our confusion in believing Black women who are depressed are simply “angry”? “We have to begin by being nonjudgmental listeners. It can be really difficult to listen (only) and without inserting one’s opinion, but people who are hurting need to know that they can share their fears and heartbreak without being evaluated and without the listener inserting her own woes,” says Dr. Walker. Dr. Henry adds, “I tell all my Black female clients and my Black female friends/family that we need to expand the definition of “strong.” True strength, in my humble opinion, includes crying, knowing how to ask for help, where to seek that help, how to accept it, and knowing that we aren’t meant to experience life in isolation.” And so often all we have is us, as Dr. Harden Bradford asserts: “ We have to be more accountable to checking in with each other as Black women when we see signs that a sister may be struggling. We shouldn’t take the approach that checking in with a sister is prying.”
Black women are flesh and bone and feelings. We are not superwomen. We are not obsessed with meanness as is all too often the accusation. If you are a Black woman (or know a Black woman) who may misunderstand symptoms of depression as anger, please speak up. We can’t heal (or be healed) if we insist on silence.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and griot. Follow her musings on twitter: @jonubian.