Lifting UU Voices: Anger Welcome

By Kenny Wiley


We re-post Kenny Wiley's account of attending the recently concluded Unitarian Universalist Association 2015 Multicultural Leadership School. - ed. Read this post on Kenny Wiley's blog A Full Day

The voices raised. We weren’t just singing–we were feeling. I’d never sung like this before. For once, those words — Lift every voice and sing, til’ Earth and heaven ring — felt neither like intrusion or performance.

I gazed around the room and at the twenty other young faces of color, along with our mostly white hosts, the folks at the Lucy Stone Co-op in Roxbury, Mass. I was 1950 miles from my bed in Denver, and nearly as far from my hometown of Houston, Texas—but I found myself feeling at home, for the first time in a long time. And the sensation I felt within wasn’t sadness or joy—it was anger. I allowed myself to be mad—at the fact that we learn new names of those killed by state violence every week, and that in that room, was the most truly Unitarian Universalist I had felt in years.

As a preteen and young teenager, depression and anger swirled within, and came out at the most inopportune of times—during a sporting event, in the midst of a discussion with my parents, or before a big test. I expressed it only to my parents and my sisters. Between the ages of twelve and fifteen I screamed, wept, threw things, and occasionally tried to hurt myself.

Many teenagers feel anger. Many teenage boys feel rage—particularly because men are so often conditioned to see it as the only allowable emotion. I didn’t grow up that way—though we had to drag my dad into The Lion King, Mufasa’s death caused him more tears than anyone else in the theater. My family permitted sadness and welcomed discomfort. But as I became a teenager, the sometimes-public outbursts of rage began, clearly, to terrify my mother. I was becoming a black adult, and this nation has never had much tolerance for black anger.

White therapists and friends did help me figure out my depression. I was a person who, even when things were “going well,” sometimes just felt down out of nowhere. The therapists helped me understand that things couldn’t always be fixed, that sadness doesn’t always just go away because you ask it to.

My anger—my rage, really–was different. Nobody seemed to give me answers that helped. The white adults who helped advise youth group at my mostly white church loved me, but they didn’t get it. My mom knew how dangerous my anger could be, but didn’t know where it came from. The rest of my family understandably just wanted it to stop.

So I hid it. I buried it—not in the ground, but in our upstairs book collection, where books like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Lorraine Hansberry’s play Raisin in the Sun, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X just sat on the shelves, waiting for me. Morrison took me on an exploration of self-hatred, and I wept. Hansberry’s examination of racism in the north and dashed dreams filled my eyes with tears and more rage. These books felt like the answers nobody else could give me.

As I got older I learned how to hide my anger. Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans just as my junior year of high school started. Though I had many friends in high school, it was with black authors—and other stories of helplessness, however seemingly unrelated, like Orwell’s 1984 or Tim Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate—that I “talked” out my disgust at what the news fed us every night.

Wasn’t anyone else noticing that white Louisianans were “stocking up” while black residents “looted”? Yes, of course. I just didn’t know them. I felt alone, which fueled both my anger and my shame over such rage.

I was one of the Multicultural Leadership School’s oldest participants this past weekend, where we ostensibly learned about becoming more effective leaders but, more vitally, built community of youth and young adults of color through raucous singing (including renditions of ‘This Little Light of Mine’ on the subway), loud laughing, and purposeful sharing.

I’m a lifelong Unitarian Universalist. I’ve sung hymns in church my whole life, held hands in circles of 150 by Lake Murray in Oklahoma, and been moved to chills with thousands at General Assemblies. I’ve never sung like our gathering of twenty did all week long.

For me, I was singing my rage, singing my anger, singing my frustration that it took 27 years for me to find spaces like that, one where I feel neither theologically dishonest so black culture might accept me, nor isolated racially. In white groups, singing ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ has sometimes felt like a performance, a putting-on of what the so-called Black Experience might be. Hearing “let us march on ‘til victory is won” from a group of people who have never marched alongside me—alongside us–can feel like cultural tourism at best, and emotional violence at worst.

Our all-POC group of twenty — kept on singing. We sang on the T and at First Parish Cambridge and at Lucy Stone and just about everywhere else. We sang, I think, because we needed to. We sang together, a group who saw our faith for the beautiful, doomed mess it is. I sang to let my rage out. It was not until I allowed my anger out that I joined the Black Lives Matter movement. I wasn’t just hurt that Mike Brown got left in the street for over four hours—I was enraged. I was furious at how many of my friends didn’t (and don’t) seem to care. I’ve been incensed at the way black women too often get left out of leadership structures, and of of National Conversations On Race

I am angry. I know now, thanks to spaces like MLS and others, that anger is okay. Black people are often called on to be superhuman, to forgive in a way and at a rate that white Americans are not asked to do. The same folks who tell us to “get over” slavery and redlining and Jim Crow are allowed their hurt.

I am angry. Finally allowing myself to feel maladjusted to state violence and gross inequality–to feel the rage that had always been there–is what spurred me to finally act last August.

At UU Multicultural Leadership School, we sang. Some sang because of sadness, and others due to joy. Often the music was loud and festive. I sang because of anger. Whatever the reasons, twenty youth and young adult Unitarian Universalists of color lifted our voices and sang—and my heart, at last, rang.