By MURPHY BROWNE
Black people shout because they want the answers to questions that go unasked. Like, who knocked the nose and lips off the Sphinx? Black people tend to shout in churches, movie theatres and anywhere else they feel the need to shout. When joy, pain, anger, confusion and frustration, ego and thought, mix it up, the way they do inside Black people, the uproar is too big to hold inside. The feeling must be aired. Black people are too smart not to shout, especially when happiness comes in for a short visit before it has to go on down the road. We want happiness to know it’s appreciated when it comes calling. Poverty has something to do with the shouting, too. Most Black people can’t afford to be quiet.
From Why Black People Tend to Shout (published 1991) by Ralph Wiley (April 12, 1952 – June 13, 2004).
Ralph Wiley was born in 1952, 90 years after Africans in America were officially freed from chattel slavery yet his life was affected by the aftermath of slavery. As an African-American male his life expectancy was shorter than that of African-American women, White women and White men. Wiley transitioned to be with the ancestors when he was 52 years old.
Wiley was a mere three years old when 14-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped, tortured and savagely murdered by two White men in Money, Mississippi, on August 28, 1955. As justification for the heinous crime, the White men claimed that Till had whistled at a 21-year-old White woman.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat in the “coloured section” of a Montgomery, Alabama bus when a White male passenger could not get a seat in the overcrowded “White section” of the bus. Wiley was five years old when then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower was forced to intervene (September 24, 1957) after 14-year-old Elizabeth Eckford was terrorized by a vicious mob of White young and older adults wanting to lynch her for attempting to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Eisenhower intervened 20 days after Eckford was terrorized and African-American journalist Alex Wilson was brutally beaten by a cowardly mob of White men (he eventually died from the injuries sustained in the attack). The sight of the battered and gruesomely disfigured 14-year-old Till and the sight of the slight body of Eckford clutching her books as she was followed by the screaming mob of White people, their faces distorted with hate, affected Wiley’s life and the lives of every African-American.
Even today in the 21st Century, the lives of Africans in North America (including Canada) are affected and sometimes devastated as a result of anti-African racism and a White supremacist culture that contributes to unbearable levels of stress and high homicide rates.
Wiley understood the effect that slavery has on the psyches of African-Americans when he wrote about some of the reasons Black people tend to shout: When a sweet grandmotherly sort has to tell you how Black people once were chained in iron masks in the canebrake to keep them from eating the cane while they harvested it and that these masks were like little ovens that cooked the skin off their faces. When you hear that grandmotherly voice and realize she once was a girl who might have been your girl, and someone caused this pain on her lips and nobody did anything about it but keep living – this gives you a tendency to shout.
By the time Wiley was eight years old, he would have seen on television images of African-American men, women and children brutalized by White men in uniform and White men, women and children joining them or cheering them on.
Possibly the sight of the snarling mob of White women swearing and spitting at six-year-old Ruby Bridges (as she was escorted into the “White” school by federal marshals) in November 1960 remained with Wiley, prompting him to write in 1991: “Black people tend to shout because nothing has come close to making those of the African Diaspora less determined, or less artistic, or less inventive, or less adaptable, or less productive, or less wise, or less creative, or less stupendously gorgeous. Black people shout because they are immortal and sense this. Black people sense this because we have been dying for years, shouting and dying, yet here Black people are the salt of the earth. Here we are.”
Of course, Africans are not the only people who shout and not every African shouts. It is not an inherent character flaw. Growing up in Guyana in an African family and a community which frowned on “vulgar displays of hilarity”, it took me many years to figure out why the community elders had such a horror of “common behaviour”.
It was a holdover from slavery and Africans thinking that they needed to prove to White people that they could outclass them in “proper behaviour”. To please our families and community we willingly subscribed to the Victorian image of what was considered respectable behaviour, which included no raised voices, laughing or talking.
Even in church, unlike the exuberant worshipping of many African-Americans, African Guyanese attending church were satisfied to quietly worship and referred to the American-inspired Baptist churches as “clap hand church”.
People who are oppressed sometimes have an urgency to shout, like the caged bird that desires to break free. So the next time you notice a group of our youth speaking or laughing loudly inside a building, a subway car or a bus, cut them some slack. Shouting may be their way of dealing with unbearable levels of stress to which many of us are subjected on a daily basis and maybe they just cannot bear to think of the alternative.
By MURPHY BROWNE