Myisha Cherry does not mince words in the face of moral wrongdoing. Not while Black and Brown people are murdered in the streets, systematic racism infects society and oppressors pretend they can only pay attention to calls for justice and equality if folks say please and thanks, she says.
Instead, Cherry, an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside, who converses with philosophers on contemporary moral issues at her UnMute podcast, takes a hammer to “respectability politics” in The Case for Rage: Why Anger is Essential to Anti-Racist Struggle (Oxford University Press, Nov.).
“I didn’t just call my book ‘Anger’ because I want people to be uncomfortable. I want them to address that discomfort. And people still would have read it as ‘rage’ so let me be in your face about it. There are a lot of books on race out there now and I have a unique, challenging perspective.” Cherry, who describes herself as working in the “African-American and feminist philosophy tradition," says, “My hope for this book is that it will one day be irrelevant.”
Cherry talks with PW about rage, love, and self-respect.
(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
You were inspired by Audre Lorde, the late philosopher, poet, and essayist who wrote on The Uses of Anger. You oppose chaos, irrational outburst, and violence but advocate “Lordean rage.” What is it?
The targets of Lordean rage are those who are complicit in and perpetrators of racism and racial injustice. It is a fitting response to genuine moral wrongdoing. It is fueled by eagerness, optimism, and self-belief. It demands change and insists that, despite the moral apathy, ignorance, and bigotry of others, there is a better world that is worth desiring, imagining, creating, and fighting for.
Lorde, a Black woman, was once chided by a white woman not to be “harsh” in tone. Today BIPOC protestors are often told to tone down, don’t scare people. Does this concern you?
Civility is often used as a way to control people, rather than hear the claims of the oppressed. I’m not interested in respectability politics. I don’t want your guilt or fear. I want to focus you on the true dangers. The purpose of the anger is to do what we need to do and calming white fragility down is not going to do that work.
What about peace, love, and kumbaya?
Love and anger are not incompatible. I can be angry at you because I love you. What anger really signifies is that you value something, that you want people to do better. In healthy relationships, it is a sign of love when you point out when someone fails to live up to moral expectations, a sign that you wish for their very best.
The book is replete with references to philosophers, historians, civil rights leaders, poets, and scholars but there is no mention of the Bible, God, or Christianity. Why?
I didn’t need to do that. People know the prophets were angry, that even God is angry, that the Bible says, “be angry and sin not.” (Ephesians 4:26). And I take that view. Besides, it’s inherent that the U.S. is a Judeo-Christian, patriarchal, Calvinist capitalist country so there’s no need to be explicit. I believe in staying in my lane: philosophy.
You write, “Resisting racism in your own mind is just as much a radical act than resisting in the face of the oppressor or in front of a crowd.” How is that Lordean rage?
The streets are not the only expression of freedom. You can allow yourself to be mad as hell even if you have to wait until you get home and just say it to the mirror. It means you are not ignorant or blind to what is going on. The most powerful oppression is psychological. If you are angry at racism you have participated. You have broken the psychological chains.
Is this book itself an act of rage?
Yes, it is. This book is a defense and a love letter to people who are angry and to myself. It’s the book I wish I had had when I was young. I wrote and rewrote this book to figure out what was within me and within so many of us and how we could use our own power through the simmering anger that was rising within us.