Will Smith, Chris Rock And The Spectacle Of Black Anger

I attend Quaker meetings occasionally (as recently as this past Sunday morning), and the tenets of peace, nonviolence, and silent waiting are evergreen through lines. I believe in those values. I’m also from Philadelphia, where slapboxing and all kinds of public rituals of physical combat are common, especially among men and boys. I also have warring thoughts about what I actually want men to do for women in moments of public discomfort. I’ve been in arguments with men I’ve loved because they’d failed an expectation I had for them to speak up for me. But they were also uncomfortable, like many people are — like I am — at the prospect of escalating physical conflict. No one should resort to being violent with other people. I’ve also cringed, and then silently, and guiltily, assented to a friend’s description of himself as a “beta male” because he failed to stop a catcaller from approaching his girlfriend. I know it’s all fucked up, and certainly retrograde.

Because of my lifelong intimacy and familiarity with retaliation violence, I have serious discomfort with the notion of women praising a man’s physical retaliation to a joke. I wonder, for my own sake, and for my affinity with other women, How can we expect that type of energy to not eventually come back on us? Plus, the responses to the joke that claim Smith was defending his wife’s honor in a room full of white Hollywood establishment figures still center white people. Why should anyone really be bothered with what white people think about an exchange between three Black people? The celebrity Oscar attendees actually have more in common with each other — wealth, privilege, influence — than with all of us watching at home.

On Sunday night, CBS Los Angeles reporter Jasmine Viel interviewed celebrity attendees at Elton John’s AIDS Foundation party about the slap. She said she ran into retired NBA star Metta World Peace, who declined to talk because he hadn’t seen the incident in full and wanted to reserve judgment until he’d done so. “He’s the guy who also knows when anger can get the best of you,” Viel said, hinting at World Peace’s infamous involvement in 2004’s “Malice at the Palace” brawl between fans and members of the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons in the latter’s basketball arena. After an on-court scuffle between the teams, a fan threw a cup of water at World Peace as he lay back on the scorer’s table. That led to an all-out melee between the basketball players and the fans, and, subsequently, player fines and suspensions, and a robust conversation about respectability in sports. Perhaps just as importantly, the story ensured ratings as talking heads spent an inordinate amount of time processing what happened on television. As Jonathan Abrams noted in his oral history of the event, “The media debated security, fan behavior, and the tenuous relationship between players and spectators for weeks.”

At the 2004 US Open, Serena Williams’ outraged response to four controversial blown calls ignited a media frenzy. (I saw that match live and I remember crying and yelling in my bedroom about how unfair the calls were. Watching now makes me just as angry as it did back then.) Subsequently, Williams’ argument with chair umpire Carlos Ramos at the 2018 US Open about the allegation that she was being coached during the match echoed that first meltdown.

Of course, there are also the public expressions of anger by Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West. His first instance on a national stage occurred during a telethon for Hurricane Katrina. “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” he famously said, quietly sawthing. His viral interview moments and angry social media dispatches continue to generate controversy. A clip from an early season of America’s Next Top Model, in which Tyra Banks lost her temper and yelled at contestant, Tiffany Richardson, became a popular meme. In February 2014, Ray Rice pummeled his then-fiancé Janay in an elevator and was the subject of public scrutiny for weeks. Months later, in May 2014, after the Met Gala, Solange Knowles assaulted her brother-in-law, Jay-Z, in an elevator, and, yet again, a conversation about decorum and respectability dominated national discourse afterward. In each of these situations, Black anger, however temporarily deployed, went viral in its own time. They became hot topics in the mainstream press, tabloids, daytime talk shows, and clip show roundups. Public Black anger, however justified and accurate, from Malcolm X’s fiery speeches (right on), to Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s incendiary political commentary (ugh), to Ye’s extemporaneous social media screeds, is powerful; it sells newspapers, books, and whatever else is for sale, including America’s attention.

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