Let me begin with a confession: I do not really know how to write this article. My task is to share my experiences over the past year with respect to racial tensions in the United States, particularly in light of the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The challenge is to write with transparency to an audience that includes colleagues, friends, strangers, and respected professional forebears without alienating any of them. I have accepted that the challenge shapes the task to an extent, yet my commitment to authenticity means that the words that follow may or may not land with all readers.
I am Black, always—have been since before I developed consciousness of this Blackness. Hence, this article will be unapologetically Black as I experienced 2020, and the residue that crept into 2021, as a Black woman in a nation where Blackness carries weight and has meaning.
I have also experienced the past year as a counselor educator, bearing the responsibility of guiding my students into a deeper understanding of race and racism for the sake of their future clients. It is as a Black counselor educator that I have consciously reflected on the ways in which I experienced 2020, both personally and professionally. To sum things up, I am mad. Like many people, I have cycled through a range of emotions as hopes for a new year were disrupted by COVID-19 in early spring and all but dashed as summer ushered in the heat of social unrest and protest. Disappointment, sadness, loneliness, and frustration have all occupied space in my head and heart, but as they have cycled out, anger has remained.
I am mad, and I am tired. Anger and weariness have conjured the voice of James Baldwin who emphatically declared in 1961 that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all of the time” (Baldwin et al., 1961, p. 205).
If nothing else, I am relatively conscious; hence, I have known Baldwin’s statement to be true for quite some time. However, recently I have been curious about this quote, wanting to know more of its context with hopes that I would be guided into a deeper understanding of my own experiences and the rage that punctuates them.
Quotes by James Baldwin have been widely circulated of late, especially as he has become both symbol and voice for many contemporary activists and social justice movements. In my search for the origin of this particular Baldwin quote, I discovered the recording and transcript of a panel discussion that included Baldwin as well as fellow writers Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes. The topic of discussion was “The Negro in American Culture,” and the dialogue among these giants of American literature explored the social and artistic responsibilities of writers, the nature of protest in art, and the marketability of art that focuses on race (thepostarchive, 2016).
Despite being broadcast on radio 60 years ago and focusing on literary art, I found the dialogue to be relevant in the current context for the field of counseling. Although counselors and counselor educators are not typically considered artists, I found parallels between those who explore the human experience through the arts and all of us who do the same through clinical practice and scholarship. These parallels have validated my feelings about the personal and professional impact of being a Black counselor educator living in a nation forced to reckon with both blatant and insidious racial injustice while enduring the devastation of a global pandemic.
The dialogue began with the moderator’s opening question regarding the potential polarity and “self-consciousness of being a Negro and a writer.” In his response, Baldwin did not mince words:
“...to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time—and in one’s work. And part of the rage is this: It isn’t only what is happening to you. But it’s what’s happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most White people in this country, and their ignorance.” (thepostarchive, 2016, :55)
As I heard the full quote, spoken in Baldwin’s fiery voice, I paused because he had encapsulated my sentiments with near perfection. The state of rage that I have felt over the past year, and truthfully, in years prior as well, is felt in my work. It is not present solely as a result of anything that has happened to me, but because of what has happened to others who looked like me.
On Feb. 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was stalked and killed because he was Black and jogging and presumed to be a threat for those two things.
On March 13, as the United States began to respond to COVID-19 with event cancellations and closures, Breonna Taylor was shot multiple times in her own home by police officers executing a no-knock warrant. She died, unarmed, in her hallway.
Two months later on May 25, a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes until he died.
My rage stirred as reports of these events made national news, and video footage confirmed the brutal indifference with which Floyd’s Black body had been treated. I was not alone in this rage. As demonstrations occurred across the nation, I anticipated a mixture of reactions from my students including anger, fear, sadness, and confusion about what to do. I created sacred spaces for them to openly share, process emotions, and engage in an exchange of support with faculty and peers. I believed this work to be necessary, although not required from an employment standpoint, and my belief was confirmed by my students’ openness to raw discussions of the uncomfortable realities of racism in this country. There was cursing, crying, and compassion as the pretense of academia took a backseat to authenticity and empathy.
I admit that creating those spaces was an emotional burden for me. Following Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry spoke about Black writers who, like all writers, engage critically in their world, but do so being “doubly aware” of the “special situation in the American setting,” that situation being “the race problem” (Baldwin et al., 1961, pp. 206–207). As a Black counselor educator, this double awareness has been particularly acute. Many counselor educators prioritize the creation of learning environments where frank dialogue can take place. Many also facilitate explorations of racial, cultural, and social justice issues, even if for no other reason than to meet standards of accreditation. But for me, both counselor educator and Black woman, I participate in this work with a keenness marked by my particular social location. I have heard respect for diversity and social justice articulated as values of the profession, and I have experienced the lack of these values in both personal and professional contexts. I have seen this betrayal in a way that others might not because of my particular vantage point. Thus, while I lean into my role as counselor educator, I simultaneously have to work to manage my rage since Baldwin has told me “you can’t spend the rest of your life cursing out everybody that gets in your way.”
Hence, as a Black person who is relatively conscious and in a rage almost all of the time, I closed out 2020 and entered 2021 with a commitment to cultivating pleasure in my life. As Audre Lorde (2017) has declared, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (p. 130). The first book I read for the new year was adrienne maree brown’s (2019) Pleasure Activism, a collection of essays, poetry, and conversations that has helped me navigate both my rage and my double awareness to make my involvement in social justice a more pleasurable human experience. brown begins her book by defining pleasure activism as “the work we do to reclaim our whole, happy, and satisfiable selves from the impacts, delusions, and limitations of oppression and/or supremacy” (p. 13). When I read these words, my heart leapt. These were the words I needed to hear, especially as I ingested images of a mob invading the Capitol in a wanton attack on our democracy. I was particularly angry that day, appalled by the audacious declarations of a stolen election and the menacing death threats targeting elected officials.
It did not feel good to watch those events unfold on Jan. 6, just as much of 2020 did not feel good. But I want to feel good. I need to feel good. We all do. “Pleasure is the point. Feeling good is not frivolous, it is freedom” (brown, 2019, p. 441).
As long as I remain relatively conscious, I will likely continue to carry the rage Baldwin spoke of all those years ago. Being doubly aware guarantees it. But this rage will not consume me. It will be tempered with pleasure: authentic presence, abundant care, honesty, boundaries that prevent overextension, kisses and foot massages, hugs, delicious food, and solitude (brown, 2019).
I hope the same for you.
Now, I think I’ll have a cup of hot cocoa for a bit of everyday deliciousness.
Baldwin, J., Capouya, E., Hansberry, L, Hentoff, N., Hughes, L., & Kazin, A. (1961). The Negro in American culture. CrossCurrents, 11(3), 205–225.
brown, a. m. (2019). Pleasure activism: The politics of feeling good. AK Press.
Lorde, A. (2017). A burst of light: And other essays. Courier Dover Publications.
thepostarchive. (2016). The Negro in American culture. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNpitdJSXWY
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