By Ahtiya Liles
Last semester, I took an African-American Literature course, and one of the books we read was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. I fell in love with this book and the writing almost instantaneously. Coates takes a page out of James Baldwin’s bag of tricks, and the entire work is like one long letter to his teenage son. One of the most important passages in Between the World and Me, if not the most important, is in regards to the films Coates and his classmates would be shown in school about the civil rights movement:
The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life— love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the fire-hoses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets. They seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat on them, the terrorists that bombed them. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent? I speak not of the morality of nonviolence, but of the sense that blacks are in especial need of this morality. (Coates 32)
When I first read that, I had to take a second and pause. And then I read it again. And I’m pretty sure I read it a third time. There was an inarguable amount of truth in Coates’ statement, and I was forced to think of tone policing and, despite my better judgment, Nicki Minaj.
When the VMA (Video Music Awards) nominations were released, Nicki Minaj was not happy that neither “Anaconda” nor “Feeling Myself (feat. Beyoncé)” were nominated for Video of the Year. She expressed her discontent on Twitter, saying: “Hey guys @MTV thank you for my nominations. Did Feeling Myself miss the deadline or…?” and “If I was a different kind of artist, Anoconda would be nominated for best choreo and vid of the year as well.”
Now, I’m not here to debate whether or not she should have been nominated, but I will say that her comments hold some merit. MTV has a history of white-washing their nominations, and this is no secret. In response to Minaj’s tweets, Miley Cyrus decided to say: “I don’t respect your statement because of the anger that came with it. And it’s not anger like, ‘Guys, I’m frustrated about some things that are a bigger issue.’ You made it about you.”
Well, thank you, Miley Cyrus for being a class act on tone policing. Tone policing is when someone tries to invalidate another person’s opinions because they do not like the tone they are using. And that is exactly what Miley Cyrus did to Nicki Minaj, and it’s exactly what keeps happening to black people in particular when we talk about racism and social injustice. A prime example of this is the Ferguson Riots that were in response to the unjust killing of Michael Brown and then the acquittal of Darren Wilson. People were furious over this topic (rightfully so), and some of these people decided that they were going to riot and loot stores and express their anger in a way that makes the white majority uncomfortable. The people on social networks and the media villianized these rioters, attempting to invalidate their anger because of their means of protesting. Over the course of the protests, I read countless articles about how if the black community wanted change, we should change the approach.
Let me be very clear with you: social injustice and police brutality towards black people exists whether we protest or not. It exists whether we riot in the streets or hold peaceful sit-ins. It exists whether you want to turn a blind eye or stick your head in the clouds. It exists!
Why does Nicki Minaj have to sit at the table of white supremacy and act as if she likes the food being served? Why do the rioters in Ferguson have to act like the killing of Mike Brown (or any person of color unjustly killed by police) is anything new in our society? Why are black people expected to be happy about the condition of our people in this country, the very same country that’s built on the burial grounds of Native Americans and the backs of enslaved Africans?
For centuries in this country, the docile black caricature (in the times of minstrel shows, this was the Jim Crow/happy slave or Uncle/faithful servant character) has been praisd. Black people are expected by our white counterparts to keep our temper and watch our words when we’re dying in the streets and our killers are getting paid vacation and maybe a slap on the wrist. We are expected to be even-tempered and show no emotion. This idea of blacks not showing emotion is so embedded in our country’s history that it’s almost scary. One of the first presidents Thomas Jefferson once said in his Notes On The State of Virginia that the main difference between whites and blacks is “that immoveable veil of black which covers all emotions of the other race.” Thomas Jefferson actually believed that black people were incapable of having emotion because their skin was too dark to see if they were blushing or not. And this same mentality that a passionate and outspoken slave is a threat has tumbled down the generations and has manifested itself in our modern time. Now we’re “the angry black man” or “the angry black woman” when we’ve decided that enough is enough. As James Baldwin so pointedly puts it in The Fire Next Time:
…there is no reason that black men [and women] should be expected to be more patient, more forbearing, more farseeing than whites; indeed, quite the contrary. The real reason that nonviolence is considered to be a virtue in Negroes…is that white men do not want their lives, their self-image, or their property threatened (Baldwin 59).
Let me remind everyone that The Civil Rights movement wasn’t just peaceful sit-ins and Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat. The Civil Rights movement had Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. It had police brutality and sympathetic white allies. It had anger and violence. It wasn’t a pretty movement, but our country likes to white-wash things so that angry picketing and vocalized frustration looks like a new and scary sensation. I respect peaceful protests, and I’m probably more inclined to go to one, but I also stand for the violent protests because I realize that we’d be no where without them. They get the job done when it comes to putting the message out there and making the world know that the social injustice has got to stop. I used to cringe everytime I thought about violent or “unruly” protests because I was so caught up in how the white majority would see it and how black people would not be taken seriously or were being too emotional. I am thankful that I stepped out of that mentality and remembered the history of civil rights movements and social injustice.
And let’s be honest, sometimes turning the other cheek just gives the oppressor another side to punch. And at some point, you’re going to run out cheeks and realize you have fists and a voice. Which one you decide to use is up to you, and I guess it’s whatever you feel gets the job done. Either way, I’m here to remind you that your anger is valid. Maybe instead of worrying about how we protest, people should be looking at why black people are protesting in the first place.