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From Chapter One: Why Are Black Men Angry?
Tony, a thirty-nine-year-old black business executive, had just returned home after dropping his wife and kids off at the airport to visit his mother-in-law. He was carrying grocery bags into his new home in a predominantly white neighborhood when a police car pulled up. Two white officers got out, eyeing Tony suspiciously. A burglary had recently occurred in the area, they explained. Despite Tony's protest that he owned the home, one of the officers demanded to see some identification. Tony discovered he had left his wallet on the kitchen counter, but his explanations seemed only to further convince the officers that something was amiss. Saying that they were being cautious and checking out all strangers, they immediately handcuffed Tony. He felt his muscles start to tighten. His breathing became shallow as he started to perspire and feel both nervous and angry about what was taking place.
Inside the house, the officers made Tony accompany them as they walked through looking in every room and closet for his "accomplice." The feeling of wanting to explode in indignation — a natural impulse for any man — seized Tony. But given his situation, he swallowed the urge, feeling his heart race. The tightness in his muscles seemed to spread to his chest. Only after Tony showed them his identification and enough pictures throughout the house of himself and his family did the policemen finally acknowledge that Tony was a homeowner, not a burglar.
The policemen apologized and left, but the anger that Tony had suppressed like a smoldering volcano had built to a white-hot rage.
Alone in his new house, the stress of theincident affected him physically that night as well. He could not sleep. Exhausted and still upset the next day, he took off from work. Try as he has to forget it, the incident is still fresh in Tony's memory, paining at him like a sore that won't heal. He constantly frets about its occurring again, in a setting that could add to his discomfort. "I am especially worried about the impact of being questioned like this in front of my wife and family since I have never told them about the event," he says.
Tony's story is typical of the many situations that cause psychological damage and worry in black men. Like him, many black men prefer to suppress their anger and rage, suffering the consequences, rather than open up and talk out their feelings. These "cool brothers" express their angry feelings in a number of nonproductive ways — overuse of tobacco, drowning the bile through drinking, or releasing the welled-up feelings in a burst of violence — often against loved ones. Talking through the feelings is not seen as an option because they want to appear strong and "manly." But understanding the forces that can cause sudden, even murderous rage — and more important, learning how to manage and control the impulse, may be the most important factors in the survival of African-American men, and, by extension, black people.
Anger, much like emotions such as anxiety and sadness, is a normal, natural, and basic emotional response to stress and provocations. It is experienced in situations that represent a threat or possible loss of some valuable possession (a physical object, right, relationship, or opinion) — through acts by others (a person, group, or society) that are perceived as being unjustifiable or as a violation of one's expectations and standards. Under these circumstances, especially if the loss is sudden, anger will be intensely experienced. The degree of anger is related to one's temperament, level of personal stress, how one has learned from parents and others to handle provocations, and the value placed on the possessions that are about to be taken away.
Injustices, betrayal, exploitation, manipulation and mistreatment, sexual harassment, and racism will cause anger. Threats to the ego such as a direct put-down or derogatory comments can also produce anger.
When Texas billionaire and former presidential candidate Ross Perot used the phrase "You people" in a speech to a convention of NAACP delegates in 1992, for example, he was startled by a chorus of angry boos from his mostly black audience. Repeated blows to the ego can create an angry black man with low self-esteem, a person who does not care about himself or anyone else. Such a state of despair allows for what appears to be random violent outbursts or withdrawal into hopelessness.
As Tony's case illustrates, angry reactions involve two things: psychological events, consisting of negative feelings and hateful thoughts, and biological reactions, such as elevated adrenaline levels, rapid heart rate, perspiration, muscle tension, and tightness in the chest. Anger is a basic emotion that supports our behavior in times of stress, frustration, and emergency. It alerts us to the presence of danger as well as prepares us to meet the danger through a basic, evolutionary process called the "fight or flight" response.
The fight/flight response is a set of biological changes that prepare the person for either flight from the danger and threat or an attack against it. The purpose of these biological stress responses — which humans share with all other animals — is to prepare the individual for the action that is about to occur. Such actions are motivated by a survival instinct. The body is now armed for physical assault, and the person is ready to either face the enemy head-on (fight) or run like hell (flight) to avoid being beat up. But in our civilized world today, often the "enemy" is not even a man but a piece of paper (e.g., an eviction notice, a long-overdue bill, a letter indicating that your position at work will be terminated, divorce papers).
What is the consequence of constantly arming ourselves to deal with events that don't have a real physical threat?
Some psychologists have argued that one of the results is that we become less capable of distinguishing between real and imagined or perceived dangers. Either way, we react to these threats with a set of built-in biological responses that may diminish rather than enhance our survival in these modern times.
Our survival capability is reduced simply because anger was designed to serve as a reaction to physical threats to our survival and not to psychological assaults to our pride, diminished self-respect, unfair criticisms and evaluations, frustration, humiliation, exploitations and manipulations.
Unfortunately, we respond biologically to these psychological attacks as if they were physical. For an entire range of reasons, both historical and contemporary, black men more often than not will harbor more anger than they are willing to admit. Like the temperature gauge in your car, you can either choose to respond to a trouble sign immediately or ignore it as if it were unimportant and will in some magical way start functioning correctly again. Ignoring those little red lights and gauges in the car can become costly. In my case, the engine in my Volkswagen van exploded while I was stuck in rush-hour traffic.
Many black men who disregard the warning signs of repressed anger can suffer similar dire consequences emotionally. The intensity of these hurts grows and becomes the cause of a multitude of explosive interpersonal problems. Many of these men develop adverse psychological symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress — a condition that is often found among men who have survived the traumatic experiences of war. Even the act of showing anger is deeply embedded in America's pyscho-racial history. Expressing anger is considered an acceptable way for men in the majority culture to cope with feeling out of control. In fact, after the explosion, calmness is restored and men hope that all is forgiven. They would have you believe that their angry outbursts are a way of letting off steam to prevent a full-blown explosion and that it's nothing personal. Unfortunately, these bombs tend to go off frequently, and spouses, girlfriends, and innocent children are often the targets (as reflected in the steady increase in spousal and child abuse among all ethnic groups in the United States) because they are convenient and vulnerable.
Anger becomes a shield to hide other emotional responses such as pain or empathy. Being angry is so linked to aggression, in fact, that men in the majority culture grow up believing that expressing anger is what a man has to do to compete against other men on the basketball court, in college, or in the workplace. What gets confusing to black men is that the messages about anger and aggression that they receive are just the opposite. Black men learn that to survive and become successful in white America they must curb and suppress their feelings, especially anger.
What appears to be at the center of much of the suppressed anger and rage among black men is self-doubt, which makes a man distrust his worth and abilities. This is the kind of self-doubt that poisons the collective spirit and memory. It gathers in its wake all of the assorted disappointments, frustrations, deprivations, and racial hurts real or imagined in a man's life before it erupts as uncontrollable anger and rage. Two pivotal causes of anger, racism and learning to handle provocations by imitating the reactions of male role models, provide some of the fuel for the doubt that black men experience.
Information obtained from interviews with the black men described throughout this book provides strong confirmation of this point. For example, most of the men interviewed believed that the major cause of the anger and rage they experience is the violation of rights, unfair treatment, racism and the way they have learned how to cope with frustration. However, just as many men believed that submerging their natural anger is the wisest choice, particularly when the provocation involves a white person or a person of higher rank or authority. This effort to conceal any cracks in the facade of being the aggressive, "together," in-control brother is a constant with black men. Instead of dealing with anger at its source, they may
None of these responses represent a full acknowledgment of the depth of the anger and rage experienced. Neither do they permit black men to use their anger — a natural response to provocation — to directly address the stressful events and restore balance in their lives and in their physiology. Serious problems occur as a consequence. Some of the ways to cope with stress are presented in chapter 11, "The Psychology of Staying Cool."
Suppressed feelings of anger often find expression in the homes of black men, or on the job. For many brothers these angry feelings can lead to poor health habits or exacerbate existing health problems. One of the most disastrous habits that is often used to cope with anger is drinking.
"I felt upset, angry, and hurt, but then I realized that there was nothing that I could do about this thing except to believe that a system that has more black men behind prison bars than it has in college couldn't possibly provide justice for me. I sure as hell did not believe that the system was going to treat me any different than any other black man," says Gregory.
When Gregory was twenty-five, he was stopped one night and arrested as he was driving home from work. Gregory fit the description of a black man who had murdered a white convenience-store manager during a robbery the day before. Gregory was jailed for several days, even though his alibi, a black male friend, could prove that the two of them were at the friend's house shooting pool at the time of the robbery and murder. After several days and statements from witnesses who described the villain as a man who looked nothing like Gregory, it finally dawned on the police that they had the wrong man.
Even though they apologized and spoke to Gregory's supervisors at work to avert any problems there, the damage had already been done.
After his release, Gregory responded to the event as if it had had no effect on him at all. He was a classic "cool brother" as he talked openly to his family and friends about his ordeal. However, that same day, he resumed a habit that he had worked for several years to eliminate — whiskey. He took his first drink in five years and got drunk. Gregory was driving down to the police station to give them a piece of his mind when he was pulled over and arrested for drunk driving. On reflection, Gregory now admits feeling "violated" helpless, and humiliated" when he was arrested as a murder suspect.
In both Tony's and Gregory's cases, there were many alternative responses to the rage and humiliation. Some of the techniques for coping with angry people (Chapter 9) would have been effective. For example, to emotionally distance themselves from feeling so hurt and humiliated, both Tony and Gregory could have used a self-statement, such as "I won't be manipulated into losing my cool," as a mental mantra to prevent their feelings from ruling the situation. They could also have drastically changed their thinking about the situation by looking at what was happening from the other person's point of view and using a self-empowering statement such as "I'm not going to let this person push my buttons."
Like Tony, and many other black men, Gregory expressed his anger in a way that got him in further trouble that could possibly have been prevented.
The pain and humiliation black men have had to deal with is a central part of the black experience in America. The history of black people in the United States is several hundred years of slavery, discrimination, and government-sanctioned racism only recently remediated through civil rights legislation and antihate laws.
Racism is a central part of the chronic, background stress and strain in the lives of all African-American men. Sometimes the racism is directly and overtly displayed. On other occasions, stress and strain is induced by the perception that racism is a factor in the outcome of a situation. Both experiences contribute to the greater exposure to chronic life stress for black men and the exaggerated angry reactions it can trigger.
But this pain and pathos does not only affect poor, impoverished black men who break the law. Attending college does not permit African-American males to escape second-class status in America, or the frustrations of racism. It does not matter how much education a black man has, where he went to college, or how much fame and fortune he has attained, he can expect to suffer some injustices in his life based entirely on the color of his skin. This situation, regardless of how it manifests, cannot help but cause him to be angry. For many different reasons, however, black men choose not to share the pain, anguish, and hurt they experience. Instead, they choose to be "cool," although the chances are quite good that many of them have felt very angry and helpless about being treated unfairly.
The scholarly multimillionaire and Wimbledon tennis champion Arthur Ashe, who died from an AIDS-related illness, revealed that the killer virus was not his heaviest burden. He wrote in his memoir, Days of Grace, that AIDS "is a burden, alright...but being black is the greatest burden I've had to bear. No question about it. Race has always been my biggest burden. Having to live as a minority in America. Even now it continues to feel like an extra weight tied around me. Race is for me a more onerous burden than AIDS."
One of the consequences of American history is that blacks, men in particular, still continue to experience a greater array of chronic stressors relative to other ethnic groups. Some of these chronic sources of stress include higher unemployment, higher poverty rates and low-income levels, lower-status occupations, lower social status, residential crowding, substandard housing, and residence in areas with higher levels of environmental toxins. The emotional turmoil and anguish associated with any one of these stressors is hard to cope with, but many black men deal with the cumulative effects of a number of these events daily, and quite often the emotional response to their loss of pride and dignity is anger. Why? Because for most black men the definition of manhood includes their ability to hold a job, provide for themselves and a family, and successfully interact with the system. Most men will perceive a man who is not doing these things as failing his first test of manhood. These unsuccessful men may even hate themselves and others because of their circumstances and failures.
This pattern of coping with angry feelings is possibly a remnant of an emotional and behavioral reaction style that was quite adaptive during slavery, where it was forbidden for black men to speak up or "talk back" to white people about their circumstances.
Black men in the not-too-distant past of slavery were trapped in a social and psychological situation where they felt threatened, angry, and harbored much hostility — yet these feelings had to be suppressed because their life or their family would be jeopardized. In the Jim Crow era black men had no doubt that they were living in a racist society: schools, housing, restaurants, rest rooms, and water fountains were segregated. Today, slavery and legal segregation is over, and yet the evidence of institutional racism radiates throughout the land.
In many communities across America, black men witness their neighbors, friends, and relatives fall victim to intentional as well as random acts of violence. There is no doubt that these men are highly disturbed as a consequence of witnessing shootings and killings. However, even the closest loved ones are not privy to these private fears and anxieties. So great is the burden of maintaining control and the image of strength.
But if these angry feelings are not verbally expressed, they do often find expression in the homes or workplaces of black men, and in some cases black men vent much of their hurt against themselves. While racism is indeed a factor that contributes to black men feeling stressed-out, it is not racism and prejudice that is directly killing black men. Black men are being killed predominantly by other black men. What's even more troubling is that many of the victims were socially acquainted with the perpetrators. Quite often the killer and victim were close friends or family members.
"The cost of keeping so many bad feelings to myself has been great, and it is hard to feel proud about being a man. Most of the problems I had growing up were because of racism — because of the way I got treated by white people and because of the way they seem to keep black people down," says Thomas.
Thomas, a thirty-five-year-old truck driver, moved to a small town in Florida from Detroit's inner city when he was twenty-five. Life, he said, was bad and hard growing up in Detroit, where his father was always unemployed or being harassed by white people. "After seeing so many people get shot, I had to get out of there before I got shot or had to shoot somebody in order to protect myself." In Thomas's case, he hid from the misery and emotional pain of losing his best friend to homicide when Thomas was seventeen by using crack cocaine and other drugs for nearly a decade. His habit had become so bad that he stole and did anything to get high, and yet he always bragged about being able to kick the habit anytime he chose to. Unfortunately the event that changed his life was the murder of a younger sister who was pregnant. She was shot to death and robbed by one of his fellow crack-addict friends as she was washing her clothes at a Laundromat.
For several weeks after his sister's death Thomas was deeply depressed and experienced much guilt about not having been a better big brother to his sister. Thomas also realized that he had never allowed himself to grieve afterthe earlier loss of his best friend, who was also murdered by a drug addict he thought was a close friend. It was like "everything came crashing down on me at once and I had nowhere to hide and nothing to do except face my problems," said Thomas. "I even refused to get high because of the shame and guilt that I was experiencing because of how my sister was murdered by a crack-head friend of mine. I was angry at myself and angry at my sister. I found myself being angrier than I had ever been in my life."
So why do black men suppress so much of their feelings when they know that they will eventually cause serious damage to themselves or to their relationships with family members or coworkers?
There is strong evidence that cultural and social factors such as those discussed are part of the explanation. But other factors, such as early childhood experiences of black men and the exposure to male role models with suppressive emotional-reaction styles are also likely to contribute to this phenomenon.
I Do As My Father Did
It has been argued that one of the major reasons for the excessive anger and violent behavior of black men is that they are simply mimicking the behaviors of their fathers or other important male role models. Just as we learn and acquire new behavioral skills such as tying shoes, hitting a ball, or driving a car by imitating what we see, our emotional reactions to frustrations and stress are developed in the same way. We learn most things from imitating the people who love and care about us the most — our family. For example, estimates from national studies have revealed that sons who witness their father's violence against their mother have a 1,000 percent higher rate of wife abuse than sons who do not. Also, there is very strong evidence that sons who are exposed to violence between their parents are more likely to exhibit both short-term and long-term adjustment problems such as academic difficulties, defiance, drug abuse, and delinquency. Being part of a home with a high degree of angry and hostile behavior may establish the foundations for some of the angry and violent behaviors that occur later in life.
"For all of my life I knew that I might have a problem with anger. All doubts were removed when I started raising my boys. Punishment, rather than praise, was the method that I first used to discipline my first son. Not only was the use of punishment ineffective and not working, I was frightened and started to lose my temper about everything. One of my fears was that I would hurt my sons, and the other fear was that I was adopting my father's ways of parenting. I was afraid that I was seeing myself as my father, who was very abusive to me and my two brothers."
Gerald, twenty-six, had approached child-rearing much as he had seen it done in his own youth. He describes his father as a "smoldering volcano that erupts with no warning and destroys everything and everyone that is nearby and some of the people that are watching from a distance."
Like many black men, including his father, Gerald could not always leave his anger and frustrations about work at his job. Instead, the conflicted feelings found their way into his family and into the bedroom with his wife, whom he slapped, cursed, yelled at, and beat up on several occasions. "I was fortunate to see my problems with controlling anger and to get help before the anguish that I was causing created some irreversible damage," says Gerald. "I know that my anger has caused a lot of problems in the past, but I thought that things would somehow change once I got married and settled down. But then my wife got pregnant and that caused some additional stress and worries." Even though he has a master's in business administration from a top university, it has been hard for Gerald to find a job that is in line with his educational accomplishments. He works as the manager of a clothing store, which he describes as a "job beneath my dignity, but one that pays the bills and feeds my two sons."
Gerald says that he was quite happy at first about having a son. Then later, even arguments over petty matters caused him to explode. "I was so upset and angry all of the time. Regardless of the situation or who was involved, I was angry, and they were going to get some of my feelings no matter what," said Gerald. "When my wife actually took the two boys and moved in with her mother, I finally took a good and honest look at myself and my problem."
During this time Gerald had numerous talks with his mother and was surprised to learn that his mother had had similar problems with Gerald's father. In the end, Gerald got some long-overdue psychotherapy for his problems and started counseling sessions so that he and his wife could work out their difficulties. Had he not done so, it is unlikely that Gerald would have broken the "intergenerational" pattern of coping with anger and frustration that has been passed along from fathers to sons.
Gerald was fortunate that through psychotherapy he realized that his brutalizing way of disciplining his boys was problematic and would eventually result in their developing similar ways of using threats and punishment to get their needs met. He was also lucky because one of the bitter aftereffects of this unbalanced way of coping with anger is that black males develop resentment and hostility toward the person who delivers the punishment. These negative feelings are then acted out indirectly in passive-aggressive and destructive ways.
It is quite possible that Gerald could have learned ways to better channel his anger without psychotherapy. For example, he could have used some of the techniques that are described in chapter 7, "Strategies for Stopping Anger Before It Escalates" and chapter 8, "Obstacles to Healing and Managing Anger." The techniques are often used to help men learn how to interrupt chains of aversive behaviors by teaching them how to identify the situations that "trigger" them to feel and act angry. Other techniques described in these chapters would have provided Gerald with ways to defuse anger and some proactive ways to solve problems that trigger angry reactions. Also, a man like Gerald could use the information provided in the "Self-Awareness Strategies and Exercises" section at the end of this chapter to educate himself and his sons about how they should express feelings of anger and rage. By doing so he would help his sons learn how to use proactive and problem-solving methods to cope with frustration and provocations.
We live in a time where millions of black males are being raised with absent fathers. Given that boys learn to do things by watching and imitating their parents and caregivers, then the absence of a father figure means that many black boys are not possibly learning the appropriate lessons for dealing with life. This in no way implies that black women should be blamed for their sons' unsuccessful transitions from boyhood to manhood. By all means, the major cause of the problem is the absence of fathers. Raising a child alone is difficult, but many black women overcome the problems and provide their sons the appropriate guidance so that they become successful men. The following chapter describes some of the challenges associated with raising a son alone and offers some prescriptions for developing the type of nurturing and loving relationship that will enable your son to learn how to be a man.
Prescriptions for Change
Much of the doubt that black men have about themselves and their abilities, as we have shown, has been acquired from their childhood experiences. Consequently, the solution, then, for dealing with the types of cultural, social, and familial issues that were discussed must come from within the individual and his family. Regardless of the number of "social programs" that are created to help black men, the real and enduring work must come from the healing of the hurts that have hindered the development of trust, love, and respect for one's family — regardless of the circumstances of the childhood experiences.
For a man to deal with his emotional development he must come to terms with who he really is, how other people perceive him, and what kind of man he wants to become. For many of us, there is a huge difference in these aspects of ourselves, and unfortunately much of the glue that holds these three things together is composed of hatred, frustration, disappointment, destructive family backgrounds, shame, and guilt, as opposed to love.
Basically, what is being said is that a real man must come to understand that the love that he gives to others he gives to himself. However, for a real man to give love he must also learn to love and accept himself.
For most of us there is no real way to change things that have happened in our past, and yet many brothers are constantly wishing that their past was somehow different. It is as if some black men have strongly adopted the idea that life and the concept of who they are is a fixed and static thing rather than a forever-changing process where no one moment or experience is ever exactly like any other moment or experience, and where there is always the potential for growth.
However, it is the memory of painful moments, comprised mostly of deep emotional hurts, that men use to drag their past into the present and their futures. Until a man accepts his hurts and talks out his feelings, he will be forever trying to hide from a part of himself that he must confront and learn to love in order for him to become a whole man.
Much has been written about what people can do to cope with anger in the short run, but it is whether a man, over time, can use his anger as an incentive and as fuel to achieve greater clarity and discover new and more self-empowering ways to deal with old problems and new ones when they arise that may be most significant. While the problems in managing and expressing anger that are contained in each man's experiences are not universal, you will undoubtedly recognize things that connect these with your own life and that of your son, husband, lover, brother, or someone else you know. For example, much of the emotional suffering that is depicted in these cases could have been averted if the men talked with family members about the events.
Tony, the black business executive, for example, was handcuffed and forced to follow the police officers through every room of his own home as they allegedly searched for his partner in crime. An event of this nature would undoubtedly cause any man some discomfort. The situation would also lead him to want to talk about the event to relieve some of his frustration.
However, for Tony to talk he would have to experience a "paradigm shift" that causes him to realize that he is focusing only on one outcome that could result from his talking with his wife.
A paradigm is a set of beliefs about the order of things in your world. In Tony's case, as it is with some of the other men, he is focusing only on being perceived as a weak man and the hurt to his "pride and dignity" that could result from letting his wife kn
OTHER STRATEGIES FOR MANAGING ANGER AND STRESS
7 Strategies for Stopping Anger Before It Escalates
8 Obstacles to Healing and Managing Anger
9 Coping with Angry People
10 Changing Your Thinking Is Not As Difficult As You Think
11 The Psychology of Staying Cool
12 The Role of Spirituality in Managing Anger
Appendix: The Million Man March Pledge
Posted August 24, 2003
This book was filled with so many great insights about both black men and women. I think that all of our young black youth should read this book, and also young women.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.