I am an angry Black man. Exactly how angry? I do not know, only that I am filled with a not-so-insignificant amount of rage about the conditions of my existence. The rage had been simmering beneath my skin for years now, a latent ocean undisturbed until fairly recently. And now? That rage is a roiling, churning mass of tangled memories, impressions, thoughts, and varying traumas. I often say I became Black when I moved to Canada at 17, but this is not strictly true. If anything, I first became aware of anti-Black racism at York, where I began to grapple with my newfound difference.
There is this concept I encountered not too long ago: digestible Blackness. I am reminded of a patriarchal maxim when I try to explain it. The one that goes: little girls should be seen and not heard. Digestible Blackness suggests Black people should be seen — but seen in ways that do not threaten their subjectivity – and not heard. Blackness should be palatable, easily forgotten, and malleable to the wishes of the master.
Angry Black people? Definitely not digestible. They unsettle far too much, trigger white tears and fragility, and make it difficult to contend with racism. There is a benefit to digestibility. It allows you to exist in institutional spaces. Protesting your subjectivity does not look nice on university guidebooks. Subversive politics will win you no awards. Irate declamations will bar you from seats on prestigious committees. I should know; I have actively made myself digestible to accomplish my goals in university.
The unspoken rule: we appreciate diversity, but not disruption. There is an insidious logic to this – you can only make a change when you reach the top, but to get there, you must play the game. Except, even at the top you are only marginally more empowered than you were before you began. Digestible Blackness is about silence — both self-imposed and widely expected.
“The unspoken rule: we appreciate diversity, but not disruption.”
In his translated poem Vanity, Senegalese writer and Négritude intellectual Birago Diop asks, “If we cry roughly of our torments/What heart will listen to our clamoring,/What ear to our sobbing hearts?”
It’s a question that strikes me fundamentally about how silence is often given in response to the protests of African and Afro-Diasporic communities. I think of Vanity when it comes to thinking about what it is like to be Black, because I recognize the cocktail of fury, misery, and despair underpinning his words.
We, at different times in our lives, have struggled with French grammar (I go to Glendon), but there are differences. My Blackness is necessarily diasporic, and exists in conversation with multiple cultural touchpoints: my Yorùbá heritage, my Nigerian citizenship, and my residence on stolen land.
Diop wrote towards reclaiming his cultural indigeneity from French colonial devastation, I write towards a reinvention of mine as a migrant. Diop has something I do not yet possess, but wish I do: the audacity of audibility. The daring to cry roughly of his torments and clamour loudly until someone, anyone, listens.
A constant philosophy that came to define my years growing up was that of unquestioning obedience to authoritative figures. If an elder is wrong, you never challenge them or argue back. The hierarchy was scaffolded so firmly into my life that I learnt out of necessity to stifle any impulses of resistance I might have had. It was not until the protests last summer that I began to interrogate a lot of these ideas of blind docility — to allow myself to be angry.
Following the death of George Floyd in 2020, I witnessed the world become more welcoming towards the simple declaration that Black Lives Matter (BLM). Institutions put out multiple statements standing in solidarity. Innumerable committees reviewed their policies and practices and moved towards adopting principles to dismantle anti-Black racist structures.
In 2017, when I first asked about having a BLM flag in a student space, I was shut down — but now those same people who had told me it was too violent a symbol had it in their Instagram bios. And for all the grandstanding, I am unsure if anyone is truly listening.
To be listened to, one must first be understood. Language and linguistic oppression is bound in a racial struggle. Notwithstanding, few senior administration officials are willing to see the issues Glendon’s community of African francophones face when it comes to accessing student services in both official languages as one that is part of the same strategy of silencing of Black communities. This is merely one of many instances of the larger strategies of silencing that come into play around Black issues in our larger university community.
Diop’s Vanity points towards the unwillingness of larger forces to pay attention to oppressed communities protesting their oppression, as well as a need for those communities to not silence themselves in order to fit the myth of digestibility. Resistance is difficult and uncomfortable, both for the ones being resisted and the ones resisting. We are told that “our pitiful anger/Which grows in us like a tumor” is insufficient and will never change the status quo.
Nonetheless, if we are to ever subvert our subjugation, allowing ourselves to be angry is the only path forward. Righteous anger has its place in the tools for dismantling the master’s house. It is necessary because it refuses to bend, to contort, to adjust to suit the whims of the plantation, the slave ships, the colonial state.
I am terrified to be angry — and yet, I am angry all the same. There is a lot I still need to learn about my anger. I see days ahead of taking it out and looking at it, and perhaps even talking to it. The point, I think, is to get to a place where it is less startling, less foreign — where it takes on a compelling voice.