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The Angry Martin Luther King

In the 2012 superhero film The Avengers, a serpent-like, mechanical behemoth is closing in on our ragtag team of heroes.

Tired and overmatched, their only hope lies hidden within the mild-mannered frame of scientist Dr. Bruce Banner, who morphs into the big, green and powerful creature known as the Hulk when rattled by conditions of great stress or anger. Seconds before Banner gives himself over to the rage that transforms him into his alter ego, a no-nonsense Captain America volunteers, “Dr. Banner, I think now might be a good time for you to get angry.” Banner responds with a roguish smile, “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry.”

I’m always angry.

I identified with that line and repeated it many times in the weeks after I saw the movie, much to my wife’s chagrin. What resonated with me was that sense of living with a concealed, low-temperature rage; of wanting to avoid difficult people or awkward situations but being dragged into them wholesale nonetheless; of knowing certain conversations with certain folks would invariably lead to unpleasant debates about politics, religion or—heaven forbid—race, but being sucked in anyway; of being looked upon as the harmless black guy my white friends could talk to about virtually anything related to race and know they wouldn’t be unfairly judged.

Of course, these are all good things in their own way—sometimes it’s beneficial to be dragged into uncomfortable situations or forced into interacting with people with whom we wouldn’t ordinarily connect; sometimes a fierce debate on a taboo subject such as politics or religion can help both parties see a different side to an issue; sometimes being a person’s nonjudgmental bridge to another cultural perspective can be viewed as an act of compassion and service. I know all that. But sometimes a man gets tired of wearing that façade Paul Laurence Dunbar spoke of so eloquently, and he just wants to detonate. Sometimes the life of constant smiling and pretending and interpreting can wear on the nerves.

I doubt I’ll ever be mistaken for an Angry Black Man—a label some white critics have pinned on controversial black personalities such as Spike Lee, Jesse Jackson or Jeremiah Wright—but my wife can testify that there have been moments when I’ve let my guard down and regretted it. It has happened in the form of a cynical comment on Facebook, a terse email, a sarcastic comment that I never should’ve allowed to escape from my brain to find audible expression for others to hear.

It’s important to talk about the harder aspects of race and culture honestly before they boil over into something destructive.

On the other hand, it’s important to talk about the harder aspects of race and culture honestly before they boil over into something destructive. This is the conclusion that an academic researcher recently arrived at through her work on race and mental health in African American men. In her study, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill psychologist Wizdom Powell Hammond examined the phenomenon scholars call “everyday racism,” which is evidenced not so much by the egregiousness of the discrimination encountered, but by its persistence and subtlety.

“These daily hassles have consequences for men’s health,” Hammond said. “It chips away at people’s sense of humanity and very likely at their hope and optimism.” Hammond found that black men who openly discuss their everyday struggles with racial issues are less likely to suffer depression than those who keep their feelings bottled inside. This is probably Psychology 101–level stuff that applies to anyone who’s repressing heavy emotions of whatever variety, but I was still fascinated to see scientific research that actually quantifies many of the things I’d experienced personally and encountered anecdotally through my work as a journalist.

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The Angry Martin Luther King