Excerpt from Parable of the Brown Girl, Chapter 6
“I protect myself, by myself, for myself.”
—Ashley, age thirteen
Still intoxicated from the night before, Ashley’s mother picked up seven-year-old Ashley from school. They drove around the block several times for about ten minutes until her mother pulled up to the school again and returned to the area where teachers stood with students waiting for their parents and guardians to get them.
“I’m here to pick up Ashley,” her mother said to Ashley’s first-grade teacher.
Her teacher looked confused. “Ma’am, you picked Ashley up ten minutes ago.”
Ashley’s mother was so drunk that she didn’t recall picking her daughter up at all. Concerned, the school administration called the police, and Ashley’s mother was taken away from the school in handcuffs. Ashley watched the entire incident from the backseat of the car.
Ashley is thirteen years old now and has only seen her mother a handful of times since then. She met her dad once at age six when her mother dropped her off to spend the night at his house. Ashley didn’t see him again after that. After her mother’s arrest, Ashley went to live with her grandmother, who was already raising four of Ashley’s cousins. Her grandmother tried her hardest to manage all five kids, but her older age made the task difficult.
Ashley’s behavior in school has been a constant issue since the second grade. Her school is on a demerit system, and she has been in danger of expulsion for excess demerits every quarter for the past five years. Charges leveled against Ashley include excessive tardiness, disrespect to teachers, lack of preparation for class, inappropriate behavior, and classroom disruption. Schoolteachers and administrators constantly send letters and emails to Ashley’s grandmother.
Ashley’s grandmother and I spoke frequently as she sought counsel in how to manage her frustrations with the school. Lately, every time she gets a letter about Ashley, she rolls her eyes and brushes off what she thinks is a patronizing tone from the teachers. She typically ignores the emails unless they have to do with Ashley fighting—behavior that started when she was in the fourth grade. Ashley has gotten into fights in the classroom, cafeteria, hallways, and on the school bus. Ashley has said she liked to fight because that is the only time anybody ever hears her.
“I bet they take me seriously after I slap the shit out of them,” she would say to me. “I protect myself, by myself, for myself.”
We’ve known each other for the past two years through an adult cousin of mine who asked me to mentor Ashley and introduced me to her grandmother. The first time I met Ashley, she was sitting in a corner in the lobby at my church with her arms folded. The curls in her hair were struggling to stay slicked back in her bun. She was wearing headphones and she very clearly did not want to be there, but her grandmother often brought her to youth events and activities. When I went over to introduce myself, she barely acknowledged my presence, but she did agree to meet for lunch. Since then, we’ve had a standard monthly meetup at a local eatery where she catches me up on her life.
“It’s about to be three fights on Friday because there’s a lot of this,” Ashley says to me as we catch up over lunch, motioning with her hands like a mouth talking. “People talk too much. This girl Shanelle wants to fight one of my good friends, Imani. Then Kayla was gassing stuff up; then I was hearing that Micayla was going to jump into the fight. Now me and my friend Iyana are going to have to jump in.”
Ashley admits she fights because she constantly deals with bullying and people saying bad things about her and her family. She has a lot of pent-up energy and anger inside.
Ashley has about three close friends at school, not the groups and cliques of friends most girls her age accumulate. It seems the only time she lights up is when she talks about her best friends.
“The bestest friends you’ll ever have is boy best friends. They’re not as petty as girls.”
She doesn’t trust people, particularly girls and women. She thinks her teachers are against her because she is always in trouble. In the fifth grade, her grandmother switched her to a small charter school where the same patterns of detentions and suspensions ensued. After one year there, she returned to public school. Ashley promised her grandmother things would get better. For the first few months, her grades improved and she only had demerits for tardiness. That changed when someone at the school started a rumor about her and another boy. Even teachers heard about what supposedly happened between Ashley and the boy in the stairwell.
Disappointed, Ashley doesn’t think she will ever not need to defend herself. “People tell me to brush it off, or ‘sticks and stones,’ or ‘just pray about it; don’t say anything.’ It don’t work like that. I think I’m going to always have to fight for myself, regardless if people are fighting with me.”
Horrified and embarrassed, a seven-year-old Ashley watched her intoxicated mother get arrested in front of her teachers and peers. This traumatic moment etched itself into her heart and memory, as well as kick-started a cycle of personal challenges and instability. Ashley has never had the relationship and love from her parents that girls her age should have, which forced her to create an emotional shell in which to protect herself. She is angry because her mother and father left her vulnerable and unprotected. She is angry at the world around her for leaving her wounded. Her anger is her shield.
People around Ashley dismiss her as an “angry black girl” and ignore the fact she has every right to feel her rage. They make no attempt to understand her context and perspective. Our society assumes black women and girls are always angry, but it rarely asks why black women and girls feel this anger or acknowledge it may be justified.
Stereotypical Angry Black Girl
Every girl I write about in this book has been accused of being angry at one point in their lives, regardless of their widely varying personalities and experiences. “Angry” followed me from elementary school as a child to staff meetings as an adult. It doesn’t matter if a black woman or girl is the First Lady of the United States of America, a world-champion tennis player, or a little black child in a central New Jersey classroom—black women and girls will undoubtedly fall victim to this negative stereotype at some point.
I wrote an email to some members of my student government team for a meeting we were supposed to have. The email was really polite. All of them came to the meeting and said, “That email was incredibly rude.” All I sent them were instructions for who was supposed to be there. Meanwhile, how they were talking to me was rude. Then I had to figure out what I could possibly do in this scenario where I wouldn’t be characterized as the stereotypical angry black girl. —Sixteen years old
I have a right to be angry and express emotions. If I am expressing anger, they need to ask me why I’m angry. It’s not fair what they put on us. —Sixteen years old
Last month, a girl petted my hair and when I slapped her, she cried and I got in trouble. Me. —Fourteen years old
One day, I was getting out of practice and I’d made a lot of mistakes [during that session]. One of my teammates said, “Kelsey, you messed up. I swear it’s always you guys.” I asked her, “Who is ‘you guys’?” and she mumbled under her breath, “Mexicans, I swear.” I wanted to cuss her out. I’m not even from Mexico. I felt myself getting ready to play into the stereotype, but I just left. That’s how we’re kept in the box. We either have to repress how we’re feeling or go into the stereotypical box. —Fifteen years old
These are accounts of teenage girls from different states, socio-economic backgrounds, and family types, yet they all carry the “angry black girl” burden. This is yet another weight that black girls are left having to carry and navigate on their own—they cannot express any form of anger without being boxed in by a negative stereotype. They are seen as angry when they are not, and they are not allowed to be angry when they are. I look back on my own life and wish I’d been able to learn how to dismantle the angry black girl stereotype while honoring the emotions I was experiencing. It’s not that I wasn’t angry sometimes—all human beings are—but most humans didn’t have to embody a caricature that mocked that anger, and I needed space to express my justified anger freely. So, too, does Ashley. We cannot mistake the presence of her actual anger with the stereotype. Ashley, like all black women and girls, is a human being engaging her human emotions the best way she knows how amid life’s challenges. Her anger is rooted in early trauma and helplessness in growing up with no control over her toxic environment. Ashley’s rage is a symptom of her childhood pain.
The angry black girl stereotype does not allow one to see the vulnerable humanity of black women and girls. While Ashley has anger due to her misfortunes at a young age, she feels so much more than that. She is also incredibly sad, but her sadness does not get the attention her anger does. Ashley is expressive and confident, but she’s rarely acknowledged for that, either. Her loyalty to her friends and reliability in those relationships are notable, yet those aspects of her also receive no attention. Ashley is a little girl with a good heart; but because her anger is constantly in the foreground, people around her don’t think to pull out her goodness. As a result, they default to thinking Ashley is just another one of those angry black girls.
If we only focus on their anger, then that is what we can expect the girls to exhibit. If we focus on their strengths, then other aspects of their personality would emerge. Ashley has other incredible qualities—her curiosity, honesty, and leadership—and these are often overlooked because of her anger.
Angry for a Reason
I sat with a twelve-year-old girl named Tia who was suspended from school for throwing a laptop. After the incident, Tia’s guidance counselor reached out to me, wanting to discuss her concerns about Tia. The counselor also suggested Tia’s mother bring her to me so Tia could get extra counseling. Tia’s mother was disappointed in her daughter and wanted to figure out a way we could help Tia control such outbursts.
During my first meeting with Tia, we discussed her laptop-throwing actions, but I was particularly interested in what triggered that behavior, which was someone accusing her of cheating in front of the class.
Tia had been studying very hard for a math test in the weeks prior. I recalled her feeling good about her possible grade after taking the test. When her teacher returned the test, Tia scored in the high eightieth percentile.
When one of Tia’s classmates saw her score, he said, “You couldn’t have gotten that—you cheated!”
Her teacher then echoed the same sentiments, “She did cheat.”
Tia was so angry that she went to the front of the room to confront her teacher. Her teacher then said she watched the class take the exam and believed Tia cheated. Tia continued to deny she had. Her teacher told her to go back to her seat. When Tia did, she threw her laptop, thus resulting in the suspension.
“She didn’t even believe me!” Tia said angrily to me.
I was angry for her. Being accused of cheating in front of her peers and embarrassed in the process nullified all the hard work she’d put into studying. No one considered the precipitating actions when Tia’s teachers and administrators discussed the incident. Everyone focused entirely on Tia’s behavior, never once thinking Tia’s anger to be justified. No one gave Tia, or her anger, the benefit of the doubt.
Our anger almost always comes from a place of truth, be it resisting racial and gender stereotypes, fighting against criminalization, evading poverty and education inequality, defending hair and skin complexion, or enduring domestic and societal abuse. But the angry black girl/woman myth camouflages these truths. Tia’s truth is an unjust accusation that dismissed her intelligence and hard work in a humiliating way. Ashley’s truth is the tragedy of her parents’ unfortunate negligence. These girls are children who have endured great pain and injustice. What are girls like them supposed to do in the face of these circumstances? Both girls chose to give that pain a home in their anger. And in Ashley’s case especially, that has allowed her to erect a barrier to protect her vulnerable self because, in her mind, no one else will protect her and she must fight for herself.
Hurting Black Girls
Angry black girls are hurting black girls. Ashley was in pain, and in order to disassociate from that pain, Ashley chose anger. I could not let her anger blind me from her pain. Black girls like Ashley have never been given a safe space for their pain to be centered. Many times, when someone acknowledges their pain, it’s so that person can exploit it, thus leading to more pain for them. I would further argue that general bias against and erasure of black girls in society are also reasons for their anger. When I counsel black girls like Ashley, it often takes a while to peel away the layers before I can get to the actual hurt. The rage has served as a shield for so long that to them, revealing their hurt would be letting their guard down. Black girls need to feel free to let that guard down. They need to hear we are neither dismissive nor offended by their anger. Neither is God.
Be angry, and do not sin.
I counseled twenty-three-year-old Briana for about a year. Briana had an associates degree and was working as a medical research assistant. I remember the first time she walked into my office, wearing ripped jeans and a t-shirt. Her hair was pushed back into a bun. Her eyes were red as though she hadn’t gotten much sleep, which turned out to be true. When she sat in the chair, I sensed she both wanted to be there because she knew she needed to talk, and also did not want to be there because she did not want to talk.
Briana was angry. She vented to me about the traffic she’d been in on the way to see me. Then she vented about how angry she was about her long work hours. She was angry at her friends for not understanding her long work hours. She was angry about the political climate and expressed anger at the injustices she had to face as a woman of color. She was so angry that it was giving her anxiety and keeping her up at night.
After a few sessions of just being able to vent, I finally realized what was at the core of Briana’s anger: she was angry at her mother and father. Her father committed suicide when she was eleven years old and her mother became a single parent to Briana and her little sister. Briana’s mother never recovered from the suicide and suffered a minor mental breakdown. Briana was left to care for her sister and her mother. Briana went to school, worked, cooked the meals, and helped her sister with homework. Her mother was on government assistance, helpless, and Briana resented her for that.
“I hate her,” she would say to me. “I will never forgive her.” Briana was stuck. Stuck in thousands of dollars of loan debt, stuck in her job working ungodly hours, stuck in her lease, and stuck still taking care of her mother’s bills. Overall, she was stuck in her anger. She knew she needed help working through it, but she hadn’t known where to begin, so she came to me for pastoral counseling. There were several essential factors to consider when approaching Briana:
- Briana needed space to be angry.
- Briana needed permission to be angry.
- Briana needed to know God was okay with her anger.
- Briana needed to know God saw her in her anger.
- Finally, Briana needed to know God loved her in her anger and desired to turn her legitimate anger into joy.
Briana’s case represented an opportunity to provide a sensitive and intentional pastoral approach to black women and girls dealing with anger. In this instance, a pastoral approach was not limited to ministers; any person working with, mentoring, providing spiritual guidance, or just wanting to care for and support women and girls in their communities can use it. Because of the weight of the burden black girls carry, they must be given the space and tools to learn how to articulate their pain and grief. Black girls also need to gain clarity about their anger. This includes clarity about the source of that anger, their mind and body’s response to anger, and how to constructively and symbolically release the anger. The work has to be both deconstructive and reconstructive, reducing deceptions associated with anger and assessing the emotions and their sources practically in order to heal. Both Briana and Ashley are young black women whose life circumstances provoked their anger. Neither should be approached as if they were simply the angry black woman/girl.
Who Will Be Angry for Them?
Jesus took on the pain of those around him. Jesus wept with Mary and Martha when they lost their brother Lazarus. Jesus wept for Jerusalem over the tragedy of their lost opportunity. Jesus demonstrated solidarity with those around him, carrying their emotional pain. He showed us how to walk alongside and empathize with others as they experienced their own pain. Jesus’s emotional expression was not limited to tears, either. Jesus was angry too. He was angry at pride, greed, hypocrisy, and other injustices against people. He was angry about things that had been done against God and angry about false representations of God. I have no doubt Jesus is angry for the injustices Ashley has had to endure. I am sure Jesus is angry for her and Jesus cries with her.
A good relationship with God involves holding space for anger. This especially includes righteous indignation—anger at unjustness and abuse. Instead of judging the girls for their anger, God calls us to stand in solidarity with them in righteous anger at the injustices that provoked this anger. I make it a priority to express public anger with girls who have been neglected, exploited, and mistreated. I am angry thousands of black girls go missing around the country and we rarely hear of any of them. I am angry no one believed Tia when she told the truth. I am angry at all Briana had to endure. I am angry Ashley has not had a childhood. Ashley shouldn’t have to protect herself, by herself, for herself. That’s not her responsibility to do so. It is not any of these girls’ responsibility to be angry alone or to protect themselves alone. We need to show them we are angry for them and that God is angry for them, and we will protect them in their anger.
It’s not that black women and girls are not angry; it’s that black women and girls reject being boxed into a stereotype originated to degrade us. We want our anger taken seriously and not mocked. The angry black girl stereotype feeds into larger society’s negative perceptions of black women and girls. Black women and girls are tired of having to simultaneously reject myths associated with the stereotype and carry their own pain alone because the stereotype invalidates any real anger they may have. Black women and girls have specific needs regarding their wounds: they need space to be angry; they need permission to be angry; they need to know God is okay with their anger; and they need to know God sees them in their anger. Having to fight off the angry black girl image affects black women and girls’ overall well-being, especially their mental health and their ability to truly heal from their deep-seated issues. Black girls’ anger doesn’t stun God, particularly when injustice provokes that anger. God loves black girls as they are and gives them the capacity to heal as they are. If only the civic, social, and spiritual communities around black girls would extend the same invitation for healing and wholeness.
Eight months have passed since I last saw Ashley.
“I’m fine now,” Ashley said when I asked her how she was doing. “I stopped fighting as much because it became too much. I don’t like to have things sitting in my stomach. I like to resolve it right away. I don’t want any problems.”
An older cousin whom Ashley admired sat down and talked to Ashley about her behavior. Though Ashley and her cousin were two years apart, the talk had a major effect on her. Ashley’s cousin told her things would catch up to her in a negative way if she continued fighting. Her cousin, who had similar challenges as Ashley, thought it best to start mentoring her because she didn’t want Ashley to make the same mistakes she did.
Ashley says she has to make different decisions for her life in order to be happier. She is now on the honor roll; and even though she still gets in trouble occasionally, she attributes her positive changes to her conversations with her older cousin.
“I still fight, but I won’t just fight because I’m mad. I will if you’re starting rumors or if you keep coming to my face and talking. But I don’t fight like I did back then. Before, I used to fight just to fight.”
The last time Ashley saw her mom, she was drunk again. They got into a fight, and once her mother starting throwing things around and hitting Ashley, Ashley called her aunt to get her. That was about a year ago. It still hurts her, but she has decided to not let that make her bitter.
Ashley is not a stereotype. Given her circumstances, she has a right to be angry. Her wounds stay exposed to the ongoing drama of family abandonment, and the true source of her anger is her pain. As Ashley matures, she has begun to let her guard down and seek healthier ways to express herself, letting other aspects of her character emerge as a result. As her cousin did with her, Ashley is paying it forward to girls around her who share similar struggles.
“My advice to girls my age is, it can all stop if you make it stop. When you get to a point where you’re tired of it, you just stop. It’s not worth it,” she says.
I don’t see an angry black girl when I see Ashley. Ashley is a survivor. Given her tragic circumstances, her anger served as her protector. Now, Ashley is beginning to realize God sees her and is okay with her anger, and she has begun to make space for God. She believes things are getting better because of her own willpower and a little help from God.
“Before, everything used to be worse and [now] everything is better,” she says. “I don’t pray or anything, but I see God’s helped me out because . . . everything used to be worse when I was a child and now things are getting better.”
Learn more about Parable of the Brown Girl.