In June, 1981, the Black poet and activist Audre Lorde delivered the keynote address at the annual conference of the National Women’s Studies Association. In her speech, which was later published as the essay “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” Lorde argued that, to effectively address racial injustice, we must first acknowledge the anger that racism gives rise to—whether we are experiencing it personally or simply witnessing its effect on others—and then harness that anger as a tool. Anger transformed into action “is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification,” she said; white women, unsure how to express their anger at racism, too often transmute the emotion into useless guilt. “It is not the anger of other women that will destroy us but our refusals to stand still, to listen to its rhythms, to learn within it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment.”
The philosopher Myisha Cherry, who specializes in questions of emotion, uses Lorde’s arguments as inspiration for her new book, “The Case for Rage: Why Anger Is Essential to Anti-Racist Struggle.” Among the various types of anger that a person can have upon experiencing or witnessing injustice, she identifies one—which she calls “Lordean rage”—that is both virtuous and productive. The book is concerned with how to isolate that good anger from its more destructive cousins. Uncommonly, for a philosophy text, it is written in more or less plain language, and includes a section of practical advice for applying the principles of Lordean rage to activism and to daily life. “I wanted to put a book in the hands of folks who are angry, who actually want to do something with their anger,” Cherry, who is a professor at the University of California, Riverside, told me. “I think of this as a guide for the outraged.” In a pair of conversations, which have been condensed and edited, we spoke about the role of anger in the Black Lives Matter movement, forgiving without “letting go,” and the intersection of philosophy and self-help.
“The Case for Rage” isn’t a defense of all anger—you’re arguing for the value of one particular sort. How is Lordean rage distinct from other types of anger?
What I talk about in the book is specifically the kinds of anger that we can have in response to instances of injustice. For example, bell hooks talks about “narcissistic rage.” This is a rage where you’re only angry that you were the victim of injustice, not that anybody else is. It doesn’t aim for full transformation; its only aim is that you get what you want. Another is one that I term “rogue rage,” which I think we saw an example of on January 6th. It’s a sort of rage that’s, like, “Listen, something ain’t right. We’re going to hit back at the state for what it’s done to us.” It’s also not concerned with transformation.
Unlike the rogue or narcissistic kinds, Lordean rage is not only concerned about how you can be a victim of injustice, it’s also concerned about how anyone could be a victim of injustice. So it’s very much inclusive; it’s not self-centered. One of the things that Audre Lorde talks about in “The Uses of Anger”—and she’s talking specifically to white feminists—is this notion that, as a Black, educated woman, she is not free. That we are not free until Third World women are free, until poor women are free. It’s a very inclusive kind of anger: although you’re comfortable, if you see someone else struggling, or being a victim of injustice, that’s the rage that you feel. Unlike rogue rage, Lordean rage is very much focussed on what we can do to make things better. If it destroys anything, it’s going to destroy the patriarchy; it’s going to destroy racist structures. But it’s not trying to defeat people, or humiliate people. It’s very focussed on transformation.
Lordean rage is also highly motivational. I think anger in general is highly motivational, but what it often motivates is oneself. Lordean rage brings motivation to do something productive: to join an organization, to give money, to sign a petition, to protest in the streets. That’s the kind of anger that I believe is virtuous. It’s the kind of anger that I see as necessary to really bring about a better world.
You’re arguing with a long line of philosophers who are against anger in all its forms—from Seneca, the ancient Stoic philosopher, to Martha Nussbaum, who has worried that feminist anger at the patriarchy can get in the way of fighting against injustice.
Philosophy has been a very élitist, very white-male-dominated field, and with that comes a certain perspective. Take Seneca: he lived in palaces; he only saw anger of one particular type—the anger of the political rulers. I don’t knock that—that’s his perspective—but I wonder what it would have been like for him if he had seen the anger of the peasants. Would his argument look different? The position that I have in philosophy—I grew up poor, I am a Black woman, et cetera—means I have a very different perspective, and very different evidence of what the stuff of anger actually looks like.
Particularly in philosophy, there’s an emphasis on being rational, and anything that doesn’t appear rational is often argued against. Seneca said, “To be angry is to be a madman”—there’s a long tradition of saying that to be entrapped by anger is not to have one’s full rational capacities. I think that’s a very narrow view of what anger is. It’s an emotion that can manifest in very different ways, that can have very different intensities, that looks very different in certain contexts. I respect Martha Nussbaum’s work; she has tremendously inspired me—I consider her to be a very brilliant person. But I do think that Martha Nussbaum is wrong. She paints anger with a broad stroke, suggesting that it’s always backward-looking, suggesting that it always has this impulse for revenge. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. That’s not to say that people can’t do horrible things with their rage, but I think the kind of rage you have matters. I reject the notion that any and all instances of anger are always backward-looking, always static, always seeking revenge, and therefore that anger has no place. I reject it just as I reject the idea that what we call love is always beautiful, always feels good, is always what we need. I’m not persuaded by that.
You were finishing this book last year, in 2020, when the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor catalyzed an extraordinary movement that feels, in many ways, like a concrete manifestation of Lordean rage.
I started thinking about this subject from a philosophical perspective in 2012, with the killing of Trayvon Martin. Any kind of writer wants their work to be relevant, but the kind of work that I do, I don’t want it to be relevant. I really want it to age out. So in some ways I’m kind of sad that we’re still here, that the things that we’re angry about are still manifesting.
Did the scope of last year’s protests and marches shape your thinking about rage in response to racial injustice?
When the movement initially started, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” was controversial. There was uptake in the Black community, but there wasn’t a lot of uptake universally. In 2020, there was a shift. One of the things that I noticed, in this context, was that there were not just Black people who were outraged. To see that on a massive scale, even internationally—to see people marching in solidarity—as a Black woman, I don’t want to sound sappy, but it warmed my heart to know that we are not in this alone. We’re not imagining things, because they see it, too. The galvanizing that happened—across race, across class, across gender—allowed me to see things from a different perspective. It most definitely added to moving my thinking beyond Black rage. That’s why this is not a book about Black rage—it’s a rage that any of us can have as a result of racial injustice.
Black anger has so often been weaponized against Black people. Do you see this as a reclamation of that anger?
One of the things I’ve been concerned about, as far as philosophy is concerned, is calls for civility. I’m very concerned about silencing tools, and the ways—the very brilliant ways—that people can use emotions, attitudes, and certain norms to keep people in check without using more powerful forces of oppression. I’ve seen how anger has been used as a tool to do that as it relates to women, and also as it relates to people of color. Anytime you see that an emotional attitude is acceptable for powerful people, but is never acceptable for those who are less powerful, then you know that’s something that perhaps you need to reclaim for yourself. In the book, I mention the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, and how Christine Blasey Ford had to comport herself in ways in which Kavanaugh did not have to. I think of the way in which Mike Brown was depicted as this beastly figure who was getting mad that someone was shooting at his body, and that is supposed to be justification for his death. I think it is a conquest to reclaim anger, because there is power in it.
You have another book coming out soon addressing the concept of forgiveness. How do these ideas fit together for you?
I came to the topic of anger through my research on forgiveness. As I was reading what philosophers have said about what forgiveness is, what it requires, should we do it, et cetera, I discovered that one of the more popular philosophical definitions of forgiveness was “letting go of anger.” That immediately bothered me—why do people have a problem with holding on to anger? What’s wrong with that? Letting go of anger could be one way to forgive, but there are other ways that one can forgive, too. I’m interested in expanding what forgiveness can be—it doesn’t look the same way in every instance. I’m trying not to be so academic about this, but forgiveness can involve a variety of practices. I could decide to hold on to my anger, and decide not to hate the person anymore. I could decide to look at the person in a new light, not just as the performer of their wrongdoing. I could decide not to engage in revenge. And I can engage in any of these things with a particular aim—for example, in order to achieve some kind of repair between myself and the wrongdoer, or in order to get some kind of release for myself or for the wrongdoer. It doesn’t always have to be about letting go of anger. You can forgive and still be angry.
When you say you’re trying not to be so academic about this—is there a point where this kind of philosophical investigation of emotion crosses over into something like popular psychology, or self-help?
Before there were psychologists, there were philosophers! Look at the current popularization of Stoicism today. For example, Princeton University Press has a series that seeks to translate ancient wisdom and texts for today’s uses, and it all sounds very self-help-y. But that’s what philosophers are trying to do: How do we take the wisdom of our world and apply it to our lives? What are the tools to do that? Go back to Plato—all those dialogues about love. In Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” he’s trying to instruct individuals on how to be morally virtuous from an interpersonal perspective, and then he explores how you can apply that to being a political leader—political philosophy tries to take that interpersonal guidance and apply it in a more societal sense. Philosophy can’t help but be self-help, or selves-help: we’re not just trying to improve our own lives, but improve the lives of people in our society. Any field that is interested in wisdom is going to be concerned with things that are very much adjacent to what we might call “self-improvement,” and I have no qualms with that.
I was a philosophy major in college, so I know that much of the literature can be brutally difficult to get into. But a book like “The Case for Rage” is very clearly not written only to be read by other academics.
What has become the case—not just for philosophy, but for a lot of intellectual work—is that it’s become professionalized, and the work gets further away from on-the-ground, on-the-streets concerns, and focusses more on speaking to an audience of fifty or sixty people within the field. I think that’s tragic. I think that’s a vice. I believe that you can appeal to both at the same time. You can be accessible and also intellectually rigorous. I hope “The Case for Rage” serves as a model of that. I don’t come from an academic family. My mother had an elementary-school education; she was a foster child; she was physically handicapped all her life. I’m the first person in my family to go to college. But I was raised in a Christian household, and we went to church, where we learned the value of service. When I went to college, I was president of a whole bunch of community-service organizations. When I was getting my master’s of divinity, I was working in the nonprofit sector. I’m a former ordained minister. My life has always been about service. And so, when I made the decision to get my Ph.D. in philosophy, I had to wrestle with this question: Do I leave that world behind and go into this dark cave of academia? My mother is no longer with us, but she would roll over in her grave if the work that I read and wrote all day was only to satisfy the intellectual curiosity of a hundred people in my field, who are mostly white. I try to do all the things that I have to do because I have to get tenure in order to keep a job, but I know who my real audience is. I know who I write for. I know who I want my work to impact, and those people don’t have Ph.D.s.
I think I can say that philosophy has become more welcoming, but there’s no doubt that it’s always been in some way an élitist profession. There’s not even a hundred Black women in philosophy with Ph.D.s [in the United States]; we didn’t see a strong rise of any women in the field until the seventies and eighties. It’s always been the domain of old white guys. Slowly but surely, people from diverse backgrounds are entering the field. We don’t all come from élite backgrounds. We want to approach philosophy because we have questions that we’re trying to answer, and they’re not just theoretical questions for the sake of theoretical questions. These are questions that can affect people’s lives, that can affect the way in which people are able to eat, or able to get rights. With that kind of diversification, we bring in a different methodology, and also a desire to reach a different kind of audience.
I think people are slowly beginning to see that we’re not going to survive, as a discipline, if we’re only talking to ourselves. You see philosophers like Jason Stanley, Kate Manne, Martha Nussbaum, Amia Srinivasan—these are great thinkers who are creating work that is accessible. And it’s getting uptake! These books are selling!
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