One of the few things I remember about one of the worst moments of my life is that I wanted to smash the driver's-side window into the cabbie's face. I remember that I didn't want to hit him, but I did want to watch the glass scatter all over his body and into the street. I was standing in the driving rain on a lightless corner in the middle of Brooklyn, N.Y., and I was lost. My girlfriend at the time was crying behind me because I'd promised her I wasn't going to do stuff like this anymore.
Just a few minutes before, we'd been in the cab over which I now loomed, tired after a fun night of cocktails and dancing. But I'd somehow gotten the impression that the driver was trying to hustle us by running up the meter with a bunch of unnecessary turns. In retrospect, he very well might have been authentically lost — this was before all New York City taxis had GPS, and maybe it was his first day on the job — but at the time I didn't think about that.
The driver and I had words, my girlfriend asking me time and again to relax, and I eventually demanded that he pull over. As I leaped out of the car, I didn't know where we were, it was 4 in the morning and I was shivering, not from the chill outside but with anger. I was going to show this bastard what was what.
I raised my fist, fully ready to break my hand and suffer the consequences with no health insurance, but then, for some reason, I hesitated. To this day, I thank whatever powers-that-be for that hesitation, because it allowed me a single moment to see how terrified the cabdriver was, his eye's huge with fright, his torso bent back to avoid the impending glass shards. It was at that moment that I'd never been more ashamed.
I'd ruined a perfectly good evening; I'd made a middle-aged man cower in fear, his trembling hands inches away from a photo of his children; I'd made the woman I loved scared and upset, yet again. Before I could drop my hand, the cabbie sped away, leaving us stranded in the darkness.
I didn't sleep well that night, and the next day I went to find an anger-management therapist.
For years prior to the cab incident, I'd always brushed it off when people said that I had "a temper." "Who doesn't?" I'd think to myself. "Everyone gets a little angry sometimes." I thought everybody got into shouting matches with jerks at restaurants. I thought everybody punched the dashboard when traffic was bad. I thought everybody threw housewares at the wall when they got into arguments with their significant other.
By the time I was 25, I'd been knocked out more than a few times in fights that I may not have started but I'd gladly escalated (alas, my mouth has always been bigger than my biceps). For me, rage was something that just happened; it was as natural as my hair or fingernails growing.
I think about that time in my life often when I hear about such-and-such celebrity flipping out or getting violent with someone. It used to be Mike Tyson and Naomi Campbell; more recently it's Chris Brown. I imagine what might have happened had I not sought help, and I shudder to think what I might have become.
Rage in Silence
As is the case with many mental problems, African Americans don't often talk about their anger issues, but it's not hard to see that those issues exist. Even outside of Brown smashing up a Good Morning America dressing room, or Tyson biting off part of a man's ear, there's an ugly element of rage that constantly underpins black communities around America.
Consider the convicted murderer in Louisiana who told his jury last month that the only reason he stopped shooting his victim is that his gun jammed, or the woman in Florida who was arrested for causing a melee in a Burger King when someone got her order wrong. It takes a terrific, seething rage to do things like that.
Yet nobody wants to talk about African-American anger. To acknowledge it is to acknowledge serious, widespread problems that, because of taboos in our community, often go undiagnosed and unaddressed.
One thing you learn in anger management is that there are rage "triggers," things specific to you and your experiences that set you off. Some of my triggers were ignorance and impoliteness, and people thinking that I was dumb. Everyone has things that light his or her fuse, and they are as unique as a thumbprint. However, what's most important to remember about triggers is that they are not why you're angry. Rather, they're the spark that unleashes the anger you're already holding on to.
For instance, while thinking that that cabdriver was trying to hustle me certainly ticked me off, that incident only brought to the surface a rage that was deep-seated and that had originated and snowballed years before. My therapist and I sussed out that, among other things, I was angry that my parents got divorced; I was angry that I felt stuck in a job I didn't like; I was angry that I felt creatively unfulfilled.
On top of all that, I had been raised by a father who used to have anger issues himself. Though I love my dad deeply, and though he never hit me, my brothers or my mother, he used to shout at the top of his lungs when he'd get upset, and he once slammed his fist through a closet door in our home while yelling at my brother.
The Extra Trigger of Being Black
Of course, though undoubtedly difficult for me, my problems are peanuts compared with what many African Americans face. Yoked with abject poverty, few educational opportunities, rampant joblessness, illness, violence, an unfair justice system, and the general resentment and sense of unease brought on by navigating social and structural racism, many in the black community are without question angry — and I'm not sure I blame them.
In their now seminal work, Black Rage, psychiatrists William Grier and Price Cobb wrote that "people bear all they can and, if required, bear even more. But if they are black in present-day America they have been asked to shoulder too much." And a 1990 study from physician Elijah Saunders, co-author of Hypertension in Blacks, suggested that the sustained, painful scourge of racism is why African Americans have hypertension at twice the rate of whites.
That's not to say that people who assault others or vandalize things when they don't get their way shouldn't be held responsible for their actions (were I arrested for breaking that cab's window, I'd expect the police to laugh if I said my parent's divorce made me do it). What I am suggesting, though, is that there's another way to look at people who constantly lose their tempers and resort to violence, a way that allows you to see them as being in need of help, not public condemnation or hate.
According to Chris Brown, his stepfather used to assault his mother in front of him, sometimes scaring Brown so much that he peed himself. He says that he hated his stepfather so horribly, in fact, that he fantasized about killing him. That in mind, I'm willing to bet that Brown has not gotten proper treatment for that trauma, especially now that he's surrounded by people whose livelihoods depend on his ignoring his problems, recording music and touring nonstop.
Do I think it's acceptable that Brown hit Rihanna and sent a chair through a window at Good Morning America when they questioned him about his past abuse? Absolutely not. But I don't think he did either of those things because he was angry at his girlfriend or a TV-show producer. I think he did those things because he was angry, which you learn in anger management is wholly different from being angry at something.
Nowadays, thanks to a concerted effort to keep my temper under control, I find it pretty easy to remain calm. It sounds like a cliché, but breathing exercises that I've learned help, as does something as simple as talking openly to people when I'm feeling hurt or upset. What's more, one great thing about letting go of anger is that you begin to enjoy life in a way you hadn't before, which further strengthens your resolve to remain anger-free.
A famous quote attributed to the poet Maya Angelou says, "Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns all clean." That is wrong, at least in my experience. To me, anger will always be like that rainy night in Brooklyn, when I was rightly abandoned on a corner: chilly, disorienting, painful for the people I love and so far from home.
If you'd like to seek out treatment for anger management, chances are there are professionals in your area who specialize in everything from group meetings to individual classes to family therapy — some of which can cost as little as $20 per session.
Cord Jefferson is a contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.