The 36-page mini comic The Saddest Angriest Black Girl in Town penned and illustrated by Jamaican artist Robyn Smith explores two of the most common yet most commonly hidden emotions of the Black female: sadness and anger. In many spaces, Black women aren’t allowed to be angry otherwise we’re plastered with the label of “angry black woman” (the trope that says that Black women are mad for the sake of being mad). Furthermore, Black women feel as though they aren’t allowed to cry because doing so would signal weakness. We follow Smith as she navigates her way through the world as a sometimes sad and angry Black woman.
What are you crying for?
What are you crying for? This is a question I’ve heard numerous times from both of my parents, especially, when I was a little girl who’d come to them crying over almost anything. When I’m crying now, as an adult, I can still hear this question echo in my eardrums even when I’m by my lonesome. I’ve never seen either one of my parents cry. Because of this—when I was young—I naively assumed that they never did. Now that I’m approaching my mid-twenties, I know better.
Within the Black community, strength is an honorable trait; any sign of weakness or vulnerability is nearly intolerable. Why? Because as I pack up my belongings and leave my front stoop, my Black body enters a world that can be scary, rejecting, and even fatal, so, on most days, my inner strength is all I have. In order for me, a Black bisexual female, to make it home safely and in one piece—mentally and physically—I need to be strong. The possession of strength as a personal attribute within the Black community is paramount to any other quality. While I understand that strength is a necessity for myself and for my people, I’ve found that after a few years, my incessant need to maintain the facade of unbreakability and invincibility eventually took an emotional toll on me.
When strangers get their initial glimpse of me they see that I’m Black, but I feel that some strangers forget that I’m human—first and foremost. I’m a human being with real emotions. I feel. I feel many emotions deeply and on some days, I feel them often or I feel several of them simultaneously. Despite my parents’ attempt to make sure I appear to have the emotional strength of a superheroine, I turned out to be someone who can be rather sensitive. Over time, I’ve shed my always-resilient mask so I can just be. By freeing my emotions, I free myself; I’m now much happier and more emotionally stable. Showing my emotions humanizes me. I don’t want to be perceived as someone who is always unaffected, unafraid, and unharmed. I’m not a robot. If I’m angry, I’ll raise my voice a few octaves. If I’m sad, I’ll allow you to watch as I shed my tears. Stereotypes be damned!
The story opens with a chapter titled “Sad” where Smith describes her fondness for her Black Girl Magic and the connection she feels to her people. Artistically, she takes me on a brief yet poignant journey through the “ethnic” hair section in a drugstore, presumably. I’m drawn to the tenth panel where Smith focuses in on a tub labeled “Shea Butter.” The four rectangular vertical lines on the bottle are familiar to me—it’s a Cantu product. It’s likely that only women of color who have kinky hair will be familiar with this brand. Smith does this deliberately to create a bond with her Black readers and a sense of disconnect from her non-Black readers to depict the chasm between Blacks and non-Blacks.
As the story progresses, Smith speaks of her conflicting need to either “simplify” herself because of a fear that she may not be understood in non-Black spaces or to showcase her “complexity.” She says, “I make it easy and safe. Easy for you. Safe for me. I think. Maybe easy and safe for you.” She informs us readers that her Blackness “upset[s] a sort of White peace” and that she “can’t help but feel sorry for making you [White people] uncomfortable.
Smith depicts a scenario spanning four panels where she asks White friends if she “talks about Black stuff too much.” They answer “no” and Robyn smiles in the final panel. This panel resonates with me because I likened it to the overwhelming sense of relief that I feel when I’ve realized that I haven’t disturbed the peace. It’s a complex feeling. I have a deep desire to take pride in and show off my Blackness, but I also feel the need to keep it hidden because my Blackness could leave me dead or behind bars.
In the final three pages of this chapter, Robyn depicts herself sitting in a classroom while a steaming cup of coffee sits next to her. She begins to slump over her desk as she becomes consumed by her thoughts of worthlessness. As she reaches out for her coffee it spills on and burns her hand. She ends the chapter stating that she’s a “scalded mess.” The coffee represents her Blackness. While her Blackness is unique to her, it’s something that leaves her physically scarred. This analogy is used to further reiterate the fact that Blackness is something that has the ability to either—depending on the circumstances—warm our souls or leave us wounded and vulnerable to attack.
Smith’s openness about the deep sadness she feels while struggling to preserve and reserve her Blackness facilitates the acceptance of the emotions that are synonymous with being Black and female. Our sadness is cold and isolating. Smith’s honesty shows that our sadness is real and that she doesn’t want it to be overlooked by those outside of the Black community and those within it.
Smith opens the second chapter “Angry” claiming that her constant hyper-awareness of her Blackness angers her. What bothers Smith even more is that she’ll never know exactly how much her Blackness affects others. She provides specific examples that have contributed to the build-up of her anger over her lifetime. An entire page—comprised of four panels of equal size—is devoted to the four instances in which she’s heard a White person use the word “nigger.” The word, in each instance, had never been directed towards her; however, from panel to panel, her anger becomes more apparent.
In the first panel, Smith’s shoulders square and her face holds a look of shock when she hears “nigger” for the first time. In the second panel, we see a White person nudge Smith’s arm while stating, “Sounds like that kid just said wassup my nigger.” Smith’s initial expression of shock has now transformed into a look of annoyance. By the time we reach the third panel—marking the third time she’s heard the word—Smith’s face has morphed into disgust. In the final panel, we only see Smith from behind so, her expression is hard to pinpoint. Her back is facing the readers because her anger-stricken face, by this point, would be too much for us to bear. It’s also possible that part of her is afraid to show that she’s upset because she’ll be labeled as the Angry Black Woman instead of a woman who’s angry (for good reason) and just happens to be Black.
My experience with the word “nigger” has been similar to Robyn’s; I have never been called a “nigger,” but I’ve heard people use the word in my presence before—which is worse. Of course, I’d likely be tempted to throw a punch if someone dared to call me a “nigger,” but I’m shaken by the fact that many people can use the word so … casually. Casual racism is what it’s called (yeah that’s actually a fucking term). People seem to forget (or disregard) the word’s connotation. It’s a hate word; it’s a word that’s used to make Blacks feel inferior, subhuman, and “othered.” There’s many reasons why “nigger” has become so casual: the lack of regulation of the word in early 20th century cinema (because basically White moviegoers found enjoyment in hearing the word), the prolific use of the word in hip hop and rap music (which I can admit I do listen to), a lack of empathy (because … racism), and ignorance because there are some people who just don’t know what is offensive and what isn’t.
Smith uses the depiction of her anger to elicit anger within her readers. We’re meant to feel her pain along with her. It’s not a “woe is me” story, it’s designed deliberately to show me and other readers that her anger is real and that it matters. What’s unique is that Smith wasn’t afraid to reveal her anger—it’s brave. Sure, she’s afraid of being called the Angry Black Woman, but instead she ultimately chooses to wear her heart on her sleeve. The message she sends to me is that it’s okay to let your anger show, because it’ll free you and it just might make others empathetic.
In the the final chapter, “Black,” Smith sums up her emotions seamlessly:
Don’t deny me the basic human pleasure of just existing. Please allow me the privilege to experience what I have without feeling like I need to master the energy to comfort you.
We see Smith applying Shea butter to her lush hair, throwing on (then removing) a sweatshirt that says, “freedom” and on the final page—a full page panel—she is seen with a backpack that says, “Black Lives Matter.” Smith’s tells us that her emotions are valid and that she doesn’t want to hide, but she would appreciate the space to feel her emotions freely.
The sadness and anger of the Black woman is real, and instead of keeping those emotions inside as they eat away at us, we should express them as often as we need to. Emotions are healthy and when they’re hidden it presents this false notion that nothing ever hurts even though they really do. Showing our pain doesn’t make us weak—the courage to unmask our emotions in the best and worst of times is true strength. Smith’s comic advocates that kind of strength and so do I.
Ayana Arnette Underwood is a comic book analyst and copy editor. She’s the editor-in-chief of the comic analysis blog ComixBawse and is also a barista. She contributes articles to Do You Even Comic Book? and Women Write About Comics. She loves cats and chocolate and is on her way to getting her Masters in Publishing. She’s obsessed with both dirty and corny jokes! She’s a newbie cosplayer who hates mansplaining, people that hate on Black women and sushi. Check out her website too! You can also find her on Twitter, IG, Facebook.