On Audre Lorde and Minnesota Nice
By Vanessa Taylor
This essay appears in Black in the Middle: An Anthology of the Black Midwest, available for pre-order from Belt Publishing.
“The sun goes down, the batons come up.”
I went to Ferguson, Missouri in a van full of strangers. All of us went as a result of mobilization around Ferguson October but, beyond that, we were all brought by a break. Something—not the same thing for everybody, but something nonetheless—snapped inside all of us when Ferguson’s uprising first began.
For me, it was a broken string located deep inside of my chest, somewhere to the left and behind my heart, so every one of its beats had an awkward, hollow twang. In the car ride down, I stared out the window and reflected on how strange it was to be surrounded by people I don’t know. I’m not a people person, but I would find myself among strangers on the parking lot of the Ferguson Police Department, outside a Quick Trip, inside of two jail cells.
I made the comment about batons that opens this essay while sitting inside of a Hardee’s as police officers stood at the ordering counter. Or maybe I said it while standing on a street whose name I can no longer recall, listening to the low drone of helicopters flying low overhead, metal bellies all that I could see. Maybe I said it while watching the sun set on itself, an awkward observer bowing out of the moment. Maybe I timed each word to the beat of the police’s batons on the sidewalk as their line approached and I gripped the arms of the people around me tighter.
Wherever and however I said it, it was a joke. Being Black and young means coming from a tradition of making a comedy sketch out of your own suffering. It is meant for select consumption, the type of “oh, that’s so wrong” laughter that eventually settles into an uncomfortably weighted silence, heads shaking back and forth at the tragic comedies we all share.
It took nothing for me to realize how differently the police behaved when the sun and news cameras packed themselves away. It was a joke. I have to repeat that to myself. Somebody probably tweeted it. Somebody else probably laughed. The laughter drifted away as the joke carried itself with startling ease across state lines, following us all north to Minnesota.
The van that was once full of strangers deposited me outside of my apartment. I knew part of the world there expected me to carry on as if nothing had happened. It expected me to abandon Ferguson in Ferguson. But back in Minnesota, I found myself curling around the heat of my own anger, watching the snow melt to reveal what was hidden underneath. Everything that happened in Ferguson was not left there because it was not an oddity but the norm. It may have been a malignant tumor, but it came from a cancerous system that made up the entire country. I saw this looking around the state I called home and realized maybe the only punchline to be found was me.
In June of 1981, Black lesbian, mother, warrior, poet, Audre Lorde gave a keynote presentation at the National Women’s Student Association (NWSA) Conference in Storrs, Connecticut. During its early years, the conference was protested by women of color for its racism and failure to include them in the conversation. It was in this context that Lorde came to give her keynote presentation, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”, which would eventually be included in her 1984 collection Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches.
“Women respond to racism,” Lorde began in her keynote, “My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight.”
In her keynote, Lorde responded to the early failures of the NWSA and explored the potential of anger as a tool, and her words remain timely. As Lorde then deconstructed the assumptions that anger could only ever be a destructive force, the same could be said of how anger is viewed today. In our world, though, not a single thing escapes racialization and while Lorde directed part of her keynote to white women in the audience, she also addressed the peculiar reality of Black women’s anger.
Her words remind me of growing up as a young Black girl in Minnesota, outside of the cities and their suburbs, where anger is neatly packaged away and the phenomenon of Minnesota Nice is inescapable. You know, that supposed default to friendliness and confrontation avoidance that characterizes Minnesotans in particular.
Some people will experience Minnesota Nice in friendly waves and smiles and strangers that are unflinchingly nice. And yet, Black people know Minnesota Nice in the tightened smiles as people pass by before pulling out their phones to call the police. Minnesota Nice is “Black Lives Matter” and “Blessed Ramadan” signs tossed up around a city where Black masjids are bombed and Black Muslim lives are routinely surveilled.
In Minnesota, fear of anger becomes repackaged as a sort of gift, and to be an angry Black girl in Minnesota was to stand in further contrast. To the state, that anger became a plague. A Black girl’s anger made fields rot. It made stomachs turn. It made other children cry, rivers freeze, and was so goddamn powerful, everyone figured it was best to rid Black girls of the habit. But, as Lorde cautioned, “My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of anger will teach you nothing, also.”
“But anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberation and strengthening act of clarification, for it is in the painful process of this translation that we identify who are our allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine enemies,” Lorde told her audience.
As Lorde identified anger translated into a new language of action, I realize where I came into that for myself. It was November, and December, in Minnesota when my original joke chased me back out onto the streets. I had already been teaching my tongue how to create new sounds in fury, but this was more. This was standing down the winter freeze and creating a thaw. There, with the heat of my own anger, I learned how to reverse the punchline.
Looking back, the eighteen days of the fourth precinct occupation after Minneapolis police murdered Jamar Clark seem like hardly anything. But when those days passed, they seemed to stretch indefinitely into a separate lifetime. Through them, I came to see how violence recreated itself on new soil. I left everything else behind in favor of those strange new days, where I came to see what my anger was capable of.
A white man’s rage at the audacity of Black existence was why a Black man died on the sidewalk, but Black women’s rage was why the world stopped at all. For those eighteen days, the fourth precinct I camped outside of became its own sort of place halfway between this world and the next. Maybe knowing that is the only way to convey how I came to be throughout it.
“Anger is loaded with information and energy,” Lorde said and that was never more clear than in eighteen days that jumble together because I barely slept through them all. The self who first arrived on the corner of James and Plymouth was not the same self who stared down police in their masks of stoicism every night. In the thaw, I saw my birth, and traced it to before the occupation became an occupation; when it was simply a rally of angry people with the same broken strings somewhere inside of their bodies.
There is something a little cruel about remembering your own birth. On one of those nights, I stood outside the vestibule’s locked doors with a friend screaming curses caught between languages and cried. I cried because I was angry and wanted to fight the man she was yelling at. I cried because I wanted to fight the world, period.
Maybe this new self’s identity won’t ever be proven, but anger is information, and it is archival. My birth certificate is scattered up and down the block in wood fire ashes, green marks of paint, the lingering kiss of mace. My social security was sent up with bullets the night a group of men shot up the occupation. But, I can still count each contraction in the steady beat of someone’s fist on glass. And before a rally was a rally, or an occupation an occupation, it was there, on a corner freshly barricaded by police tape, that out of a collective anger contained in hushed whispers, I was conceived.
I have always known anger. Now, I have grown enough to shake her hand and name her. She is no longer an ignored acquaintance, because I’ve come to share some of her most pivotal moments with her. I learned to lay down with her and identify the parts of her laced within myself until we were finally tied together.
“For it is not the anger of Black women which is dripping down over this globe like a diseased liquid. It is not my anger that launches rockets, spends over sixty thousand dollars a second on missiles and other agents of war and death, slaughters children in cities, stockpiles nerve gas and chemical bombs, sodomizes our daughters and our earth,” Lorde said.
I see this now.
And sure, my anger is set to destroy, but not the earth. Just the world that corrupted it. My anger is unflinching when she must be, unforgiving in what she has to address, but she is not here to control. She is not the annihilation that Lorde spoke of, the other type of strange anger that is bent on ruling all. She is, instead, “our power to examine and to redefine the terms upon which we will live and work; our power to envision and reconstruct, anger by painful anger, stone upon heavy stone, a future of pollinating difference and the earth to support our choices.”
I joke with anger now, sometimes. Watching as terrible news floods and becomes impossible to turn away from, I go back and forth with anger in our new language until I finally have to pause, shake my head, and quietly mutter a single, yet strongly enunciated, “Damn.” ■
Vanessa Taylor is a writer based in Philadelphia, although Minnesota will always be home. Through articles, essays, fiction, and more, she focuses on Black Muslim womanhood and technology. She is a 2019 Echoing Ida cohort member and the Editor-in-Chief of The Drinking Gourd, a Black Muslim literary magazine.
Cover image: a protester holds a sign at a rally for George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Fibonacci Blue (creative commons).
Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month.