• Gray Butler

Working with Anger in Healing Narratives of Black Women Survivors



“Women respond to racism. My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing also” -- Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider p. 124


This quote stood out to me particularly because what Lorde, a black lesbian, captures in this moment is the internalization of racism and anger into the body. Her words resonate not just with my experiences with how I have come to understand and reclaim my anger, in my own narrative and understanding of my racialization as a black woman aligned person but also reiterates lessons I have learned in my own interpersonal healing from childhood trauma, traumas which are intrinsically tied to my racialization.


As black women and women aligned people many of us have had our anger weaponized against us, pathologized, and demonized. The ways in which we exist in the world the ways in which we must embody our pains, our experiences in silence intertwine with our interpersonal traumas.  To speak out is to be blamed, to be aggressive, to be the destruction of our own community. These thoughts weigh on my mind every time I think about the ways in which I have heard people in my own neighborhood talk about black women. How our women are too aggressive, how we have disrupted black men’s place, and have destroyed the family. Despite the historic precedents of generations of disenfranchisement, historic precedents of breaking kinship bonds, and impositions of family structures onto our communities. These narratives for me, and I suspect for many other women and nonbinary black people, have inscribed themselves onto existing trauma.


The issue becomes, not just of the ways in which we have learned to bottle up, to become small, to push past our issues, to be quiet and move past them, but also how our traumas by a larger society are hushed and brushed under the rug. The interpersonal and the historic are not mutually exclusive, as they are inscribed onto the self. As individuals we must sift through both. The interpersonal traumas of familial abuse are in a constant interplay with the larger systemic trauma. How do we begin to heal, when not only members in our family deny, minimize or become uncomfortable with our pain, and more viscerally, our anger, but those who inhabit societal power: white people do as well.  How do I begin to reclaim my anger, when I know that certain expressions of it will impact my life in ways that are out of my control, how do I contextualize the fact that as a black person, expressions of anger could lead to my brutalization and the hands of police. There is a visceral threat of violence that will never leave me no matter how much healing I do, no matter how much I process my trauma, this being said  have begun to carve out spaces to utilize my anger. To radically become empowered. Some of the very sites of our marginalization can be sites of our resistance (hooks, 1992). It is possible to mobilize our anger as a form of transformative liberation and healing.  Something that stood out to me both in Audre Lorde’s work as well as the The Courage to Heal Worbook from which the following exercises are drawn is the power of anger to be transformative. In Sister Outsider Audre Lorde states:

“Anger is expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our  future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification, for it is in the painful process that this translation that we identify who are our allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine enemies”


As you may work through this following workbook exercises invite you to delve into the ways in which we collectively and individually can reclaim our anger. In the excerpt from the Courage to Heal Workbook section on anger Laura Davis emphasizes that: “Anger is the most effective antidote to hopelessness and depression. It can inspire you to make deep and lasting changes in your life.” And while Laura Davis is referring explicitly to childhood sexual assault trauma and Audre Lorde is engaging with larger systemic embodiments of anger and racism, the underlying notions that are particularly pertinent to black survivors of interpersonal trauma is the notion that in all of the vectors in our lives through which anger is a product of abuse and marginalization, there exists the space to honor that anger, recognize it, process it and utilize it while also combating notions that demonize it.

Exercises:


Modified From The Courage to Heal Workbook

To be effective, anger must be directed clearly at the abuser and the people who failed to protect you. Yet this is often very difficult for survivors, who frequently turn their anger in on themselves, lost control, and lash out at others, or have no awareness of anger at all. When anger is turned inward, the results are depression, illness, addictions, self-destructive behaviors, and self hatred. When it is misdirected towards other people, anger becomes a destructive force, one that creates barriers. To work for you, anger must be turned clearly and squarely at its source -- the people who hurt and abused you.

The following exercises intend to help you assess your current experience of anger. A pair of writing exercises will help you get in touch with your anger and give you a chance to express it. You’ll be asked to consider what ways anger can motivate you into action.


Anger Inventory:

As children many of us made learned either directly or indirectly how to relate (or not) to our feelings. These formative lessons impact how we emotionally experience life today. Answer the following questions about your childhood experiences with anger.

  • (Answer per each caretaker) when my primary caretaker (mother, father, grandmother etc.) got angry they:

  • When _____ (fill in with another household member) got angry they:

  • When I got angry,:

  • As a result of my experience while growing up, I made the following decisions:

  • Answer the following questions about your relationship to anger

  • When someone gets angry with me I:

  • When I get angry with someone I:

  • I’m angry at myself for:

  • I’ve turned anger in on myself by:

  • Turning anger inward has hurt me because:

  • I’ve misdirected my anger towards others by:

  • This misdirected anger has hurt me because:

  • This misdirected anger has hurt other people because:

  • I used anger effectively when I:

  • Ways anger has been empowering to me:

Anger Into Action Taken From The Courage to Heal Workbook


Anger is a very physical emotion. It needs to be expressed and released regularly. There are many safe and effective ways to do this. You can sing out your anger in songs write it down on paper, if you have the means take up some form of physical creative expression, imagine your abuser’s face on the dance floor are all great ways to release anger. The following questions are aimed at helping you map out ways to turn anger into action:

Make a list of physical ways you can express and release your anger

Anger is also a great motivator. By channeling your anger into account, you can make necessary changes in your life. Do you want to stop going home for the holidays? Tell your sister to protect her children from your stepfather? Report the school counselor who abused you? Quit working for an abusive boss? Stop drinking or taking drugs? Organize within your community? End an abusive relationship?  Anger can be the force that enables you to take these steps. Answer the following prompts

  • With my anger, I’m going to:

Anger can also motivate us to take action into the world at large. Fighting back against abuse can be incredibly empowering, even more so when we realize how resilient, how brilliant and how much we come from legacies of survival and a refusal to be erased and destroyed. Engaging in community activism, creating support groups, getting involved in legislation, organizing protests, reading talking speaking and engaging, are all effective ways to channel your anger and pain. Although you shouldn’t rush your own healing in order to go out and save the world, taking steps to fight back against abuse can dramatically alter your sense of isolation and powerlessness.

When I am ready to turn my attention back out into the world, I’d like to:


ANGER: REFLECTIONS (Modified from The Courage to Heal Workbook)

As you face the long-term effects of abuse in your life, the natural response is anger. Many survivors have turned their anger in on themselves or lashed out at others. To heal, you need to redirect your anger directly and clearly at the abuser and people who failed to protect you* When you respect your anger and channel it into action, it motivates and empowers you, sparking tremendous healing and change. Here are some questions to help you assess your present feelings, goals, and needs around the issue of anger:

  • What feelings did I have as I worked through these questions

  • What am I feeling right now? What sensations am I experiencing in my body?

  • How old did I feel as I worked through these questions? How old do I feel right now?

  • What was hard for me with these questions? What was confusing? What didn’t I understand?

  • What did I learn? What commitments have I made? What steps have I taken?

  • What did I do that I’m proud of?

  • What’s still unsettled for me? What, if anything do I want to come back to or follow up on?

  • What do I need to do to take care of myself right now?

Works Cited

Lorde, Audre. Zami; sister outsider; undersong. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1993.


Hooks, Bell. "The oppositional gaze: Black female spectators." The feminism and visual cultural reader (2003):


Davis, Laura. The Courage to Heal Workbook: for Women and Men Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. Harper & Row, 1991.

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