Validating Unchecked Anger: Solange, E. E. Cummings, and the Power of Enduring Fury
I used to take pride in living my life by the precepts of E. E. Cummings’ wisdom, articulated in his poem “let it go”. The words point to anger and resentment as the cornerstones of unhappiness: and I had anger and resentment to spare.
The sort that was deep and personal and smarting, for people who deserved it; the sort that was broad and sweeping and directed at my disappointment toward humanity; the sort that was sharp and bitter, buoyed by my own regrets and borne by my inability to live with my truth.
“let all go/dear/so comes love”, Cummings exhorts. This became my lifelong canon, the tenet I aspired to even as I soured in my own rancor. Anger isn’t comely. It isn’t flattering, it isn’t dignified: most of all, it isn’t healthy.
I found in the long run, however, that trying to force wisdom in a situation that warranted more than that was no more healthy. Letting things go is synonymous with grace and release. But there is another form of release that can be found in validating anger, a more raw and liberating one.
Two years ago, like everyone else who had listened to it, I fell in love with Solange’s masterpiece A Seat at the Table, not least because it is a musical tour de force. But most of all, the lyrical prowess demonstrated by Knowles is what made it a work of exceptional beauty. Even without the context in which it is rooted — namely race and womanhood — A Seat at the Table can be universally recognized as a testament to the power of being seen and the solace of intimacy with oneself.
I understood its urgency as I listened to it: it was a work of immediacy prompted in part by the many social overhauls that had rattled the United States in the year prior, most notably the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In the backdrop of the 2016 election, one could go as far as to characterize A Seat at the Table as a time capsule of the era, a culmination of frustrations intimate and large.
Many of the songs will stand the test of time: “Cranes in the Sky” is a heartbreaking ode to depression, and as long as people will deal with mental illness, they will relate to the lyrics.
Others, I dare say, will no longer be relevant in a thousand years: I childishly hope to live in a world where we won’t need songs like “Don’t You Wait”, “FUBU” or “Don’t Touch My Hair” because we, as a people, would have learned to deal with the complicated matters of race and appropriation.
Having said that, I did not expect that of all Solange’s breathtaking songs, “Mad” would be the one to change my life.
In the two years since the album was released, I believe we have reached peak anger. I, too, have evolved from the passive animosity that has characterized my entire teenage-hood and early twenties, to a rage that is hard to contain at times. A rage I can seldom account for nowadays.
The political climate has bled into the social one with such seamless ease that it is often hard to dissociate the both of them. The feminist movements are mentioned simultaneously with accounts of politicians who have made a career out of misogyny. Whitewashing in Hollywood is called out synchronously with the rise of Nazi sentiment in the United States, and at large. The opioid crisis that has been rattling our national conversations runs parallel with suicide and mental illness statistics that are so rampant, and yet so very private. You could cut the tension in the world with a knife.
In such ways, “Mad” weaves universal, collective anger with personal ones. Over a deceptively gentle melody, Solange and Lil Wayne trade melancholy musings with steely, dispassionate acrimony. Suicide is mentioned alongside societal pressures to excel as a black person. The struggle to succeed is voiced aspace with loneliness. Many of the resentments mentioned in the song have, on a larger scale, led to tragic rifts, ugly confrontations, tone-deaf conversations. The dialogue around gun control prompted by recent shootings have, for example, degenerated into adults name-calling children, while on smaller scales, micro-aggressive interactions show no sign of dwindling (one need only look at any comment section of the most innocuous subject).
It isn’t hard to conclude that violence succeeds where words do not, because anger is exacting, it is satisfying. Why should I have a conversation in which I am not heard, if I can act out my rage instead?
And herein lies the power of Solange’s song. The rest of A Seat at the Table is contemplative, reflective, but it invites discussion and debate ("Where Do We Go From Here?").
“Mad”, on the other hand, simply states a state of being, one that is regularly dismissed. We have often been called the generation of Outrage, a society easily piqued and indignant over seemingly inane things. And while social media does indeed facilitate the overabundance of opinions and give space to promptly expressed thoughts one would have normally kept to oneself, I don’t necessarily agree with this notion.
Maybe we are not the generation of outrage, but rather, the generation of being fed up, which is subtly different. Being fed up points to a perpetual state of exhaustion which has reached its limit. It is not necessarily good or even healthy (E. E. Cummings’ words invade my thoughts, once again), but as long as we keep expecting people to get over things without having given an outlet to their pain, anger will seethe right under our skins.
Maybe we are not more sensitive than before; maybe we have simply had more platforms of expression; maybe more people than ever are finding the courage to come forward with their experiences. And while it may seem like sensory overload to those who are not used to having to listen, it does not make it any less important.
This, Solange expresses with disarming honesty throughout. “You got the right to be mad/ … They say you got to let it go” contradicts what Cummings’ poem considers wisdom. In response to “Why you always gotta be so mad?”, she counters with “I got a lot to be mad about”. The song ends on a bittersweet note: “Man, this shit is draining/But I'm not really allowed to be mad”, finally cementing what I had spent years feeling, deep inside.
As a WOC and as a mental illness sufferer, I have so often internalized society’s dismissive attitude to my discontent that it has become an act of self-censorship, as natural as if someone else had told me to keep my mouth shut. It doesn’t help that historically, black women and anger have been pejoratively linked. It doesn’t help that mental health is not held to the same standard as physical health. It doesn’t help that women are treated with varying degrees of degradation throughout the world.
But all of us, regardless of our genders and cultural backgrounds, can relate to the frustration of being unheard. We are too seldom told that we can be angry or that we deserve to sit in our messy, chaotic states. We are, instead, told not to overreact. We are told to keep to the decorum. We are told to forgive and forget.
Interestingly, Solange does not sound angry at all, even as she gives voice to the deepest depths of her ire. On the contrary, she proves that one can sound just as composed as when one is happy — if not more — when one is given space to say what matters. Often, anger is just the hostile expression of pain and confusion, looking for a shoulder or a sympathetic ear to settle on.
Solange proposes no solution, no recommendation as to how this can be remedied. Instead, “I’ve got a lot to be mad about”, suggests that there is a can of worms that has not yet been opened. This is a most powerful statement: it validates the things in our lives that we have not vented, it validates the dialogues that this country has not yet had the courage to fully have, and that, in itself, is significant.
I am not done being mad, but it doesn’t mean that I am unchanged. In many ways, Solange and E. E. Cummings are not on opposite sides of a spectrum: both yearn for inner peace, and aspire for the same level of wisdom that it allows. Both see love as the opposite of anger: for Cummings, in letting go, “so comes love”, which Solange echoes when she laments “Where’d your love go?”.
Their words have not been wasted on me. I have finally understood, after years of paralysis, that my anger is of no use to me if I do not do something about it. It is useless if all it does is drain me while I simultaneously try to ignore and hold onto it, like I would a bad habit. I deserve validation but I also owe it to myself to work through it, so that I can finally be free. I am owning my anger, but only because it’ll get me to the other side of it — letting go — that much faster.