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Please, Pour Your Anger Down On Us

I don’t have to tell you about Childish Gambino singing “This is America,” do I? I don’t. But have you heard Gary Clarke Jr. when he lets us know in “This Land” that he’s not going anywhere, because he’s already right next door on the plot of Texas land he absolutely owns?

            He owns six strings as well and a lot of talent, and sometimes some anger. Sometimes we need our ears baptized in a sonic wash of anger, because sometimes the only appropriate response to anger is ‘Thank you,’ is awe, is acknowledgment.

            You hear it right from the song’s beginning, in the bass throb of the studio version that hints at the act of prowling a perimeter. You hear the metallic click of a sidearm in the music video version; you hear the electric fence Gary lays down with his guitar and studs with the barb wire words he’s not allowed to say out loud on SNL or at the Grammy Awards show, but which ring out as loud on the studio version as the purple paint some landowners splash on Texas fence posts that means ‘Stay away.’

            Gary’s song stands its ground. I mean that it grabs the logic of people who first believed land to be something as sectionable as cuts of meat and leverages that logic to say it’s long past time for someone like him to sing “Fuck you, I’m America’s son” to the man who inspired the song, the neighbor who once asked to see the “real” owner of Gary’s land.

“This land is mine.”

People like me need to feel rage directed our way more often, I think, and not always in a way that entertains us or that we find palatable. We need to feel the force of a hot boundary exerted: this is where you stop. Keep crossing the lines, keep transgressing past those purple posts, and encounter a rage that yes, is not the only or even the defining quality of the people who own the land white people so often want, but that is certainly pertinent.


In being a musician of the range and caliber he is, Gary runs into a difficulty he has mentioned in many interviews: people want those searing guitar lines of his over and over again, as if he should serve them up on a cafeteria plate just because he can. People want him to do the things they recognize. Do the modern Howling Wolf. The modern Hendrix. Which they seem to intend as a compliment, but which Gary seems to question: why can’t they be interested in the bridge as well as the solo; why can’t they listen more closely to the samples he textures into his songs; why can’t they let sleeping guitars howl only in their memories instead of pleading for their idols to crawl resurrected through Gary’s fingers as though the point of music is to keep an audience secure within a corral of audio nostalgia? Why would you ask a musician to ride herd on the music that wants to bust out of him, unique to him and only him? Why would you do that to a musician who is a Texan but an introvert, a man who listens regularly in a small room, his version of church, to what his musical forebears have recorded so he can learn from them how to better be himself?

            The burden of so many expectations. Gary has been heralded as savior, has been compared maybe too many times to Hendrix and Prince, has been denounced for letting blues down (as if he even could), has been let down by record labels who didn’t rake in as much as they’d anticipated when his songs didn’t scorch as predictably as they’d expected because those songs had more in mind than mere crowd pleasing. Follow Gary’s trajectory and it’s hard not to notice in how many ways his world has told him it expects him to stay in his place. Stay in his blues lane. Be a prodigy but only in ways we’ve already seen. Don’t you go breaking any new ground.

            No wonder “This Land” came catapulting out of him. No wonder it’s about defining your own home and not running from it. Here, the song insists, is where Gary lives, and it doesn’t really matter what you think about it.

            Some interviews mention how the way Gary pauses before he answers certain questions can be deliberate and long, and some writers say he can wield a look that veers close to a direct stare. Gary himself calls out how, as a 6’4” tall Black man, he is sure to be someone’s nightmare, and I think of all the Black men I have known or read about who have been asked why they seem so angry, so upset, why does their face look like that, why (subtext) are they so successful at putting a little fear into white people just by sitting on their own front steps or in business meetings?

            What is so enraging and fear-inspiring about “other” people owning land and a future, and why is it that so many of us let fear slide right into us, easy as a teenager slipping through a split rail fence? Why is the notion of other people making money such a horror story; what is it about others’ success that keeps us up at night?     

The former owners fear their own defenses, I guess. What happens when the Black Panthers get armed; what happens when stand-your-castle applies to unexpected owners, too? What about the noise at the beginning of Gary’s music video, what about Childish Gambino’s pistol and his semi-automatic? What if the former non-owners get access to ALL the tools of owning? If America at all understands ‘This is mine,’ it understands that claim most rapidly and respectfully when that claim is written in cash and underwritten by heavy arms.

And of course it is not uncomplicated, these discussions about violence and force and how far one can go to protect what’s yours, this fetishization of material goods and this worship of land and this grasping of other bodies you’d also like to control, because control means you feel, in some measure, respected or that you can at least predict what will happen next because you have such a leading role in engineering it.


When I think about anger, I think of wildfires. How forest management strategies for so long emphasized stifling them immediately. This practice let underbrush get too thick over the years and sometimes denied the trees that relied on fire the chance to release their seeds. Though little is more fearsome than an uncontrolled blaze or some form of unrestrained fury, fire and anger have their places and should, I think, be worthy of respect. Hustle too fast to stamp out frustration and what do you have? A disregarded smoldering that can break out after decades into a devouring conflagration.


I have never owned land, but I have owned anger, acres of it that have smoldered for years, anger about injustices, sure, and more selfish and personal anger, too. Anger that I could not force myself to behave exactly as my mother believed I should. Anger at her for not being able to suppress her own anger, anger at her own mother, for carrying her own load of rage and for teaching it to us. Angry about my mother’s raised voice, when she was only echoing voices heard during her own childhood; anger that I did not know how to not want to drive or date or learn non-Christian things, anger that wanting to be myself was not good enough and called for leather belts and soap and being held down.

            Anger is anger, perhaps, because it has to stand up to the fact that someone wants you to feel more helpless than you know yourself to be, and sometimes the worst anger is the anger you feel at yourself when you do not know how to take care of yourself well enough. When you grow up not knowing how to relate to others, how to buy stocks or go to college, invest or build a future, though you overhear others talk about it. There is a lot of fear there too, which the anger defends. Fear that you will never secure a future worth defending or that perhaps you do not even deserve one.


My anger is not Gary’s but was enough of a taste to guess at the rage deep down when a family or denomination or entire country wants you to have a different future than what you see for yourself, wants you less autonomous and able than you are capable of being. Wants to know more about your future than you do or wants to head you off from the safety that is knowing you can buy yourself land and actual opportunities. By not suppressing it, Gary gives us anger as though it is a gift. Which, in certain circumstances, it is.

            Can I say this? Gary asked about “This Land,” and the Grammy he won says he can, and the stadiums he fills with white boys yelling his name say he can, but what about off stage, what about pain that isn’t, to some extent, performed, isn’t lit up with a bluesy beat and a red guitar, and what does it mean when the audience bellows his pain back at him, singing along, “Go back whe­re you came from?” Land, as we know, matters. If to have money is to be able to buy yourself a future, to have land is to have somewhere to put that future.

            This song is not all he is about, Gary had testified. When he walks down the street, it is largely with love, largely with hands clapping his back and people waving. When night settles down, he is often in his studio, mixing sounds, layering up clips and making music as complex as he wishes we could hear because he is not just creating blues songs played by an angry red guitar, no, he’s doing purple music, blues and anger and royalty and rage, maybe a little bit of Purple Rain and Purple Haze, swirled together and painted on the fence posts of his audio boundaries but also laid down like a carpet to a more sonically and ethically colorful and tangled world. And when he has time off, he chooses to sit on the Hill Country acres he owns, splitting a bottle of wine with his wife.


The musician Rhiannon Giddens believes it is not enough to know the broad rises and falls of history, but that we must push harder, use our imaginations more rigorously, and picture actual individuals like the enslaved woman who scorns her mistress’s pleas to keep her money safe as Union soldiers approach in “Julie” or the young mother in “At the Purchaser’s Option” who insists that of the blood and bones others can and will take from her, her soul will remain her own.

To sing these silenced and overlooked women to life, Rhiannon has dug up a lot of history many of us would rather not hear. “Fragile” is her word for the kind of turning away people demonstrate when they don’t know or perhaps even want to know how to handle what actually happened.

Rhiannon could ride away on anger entirely, digging that deep into our past. Her voice has the growl and fury for it, though she often chooses a subtle, complex kind of anger expressed by slightly lifting her upper lip or by adding an extra compression to her words. A subsumed anger that almost seems to sneer, when put in the mouths of the women she sings for, ‘If you can’t pick up what I mean, you’re not worth even raising my voice for,’ reminding us, in other words, that anger is a gift a singer can sometimes choose to withhold.

            Giddens insists on replaying and reinterpreting non-angry songs as well, reminding us to admire the light, too, admire the strength that channeled a community’s outrage into the songs that upheld its spirit. She insists on holding ground for the melodies and instruments whose origins often go unspecified, for the banjo, for example, which was first an African instrument with a warmer, fuller tone than the acidic nasality claimed by the modern banjos of white Appalachia.

            Intentionally or not, in the spirit of admiration or of opportunism, white singers have often taken not only land, but homes as well, the homes folks have created from songs themselves. Stealing breath, in a very literal way. Stealing histories in a long chain of linked concealings and obscurings that could turn anyone bitter, though, the way Rhiannon insists on telling it, it’s more important to call those songs home to all of us than mourn the ground those melodies and stories were forced to cover or cede as various humans plucked them from the air and carried them around in their bodies.


In the kind of day that drives Washingtonians out into the rare sunlight, the kind of day when you won’t be hassled for taking a long break from the office to stretch out for a while on the university lawn.

            I’m not sure it was a nice day, actually. I remember bilious florescent lighting and stiff, dusty seats; I remember James Watson droning with a professorial whine that becomes akin to a mosquito in your ear.

            Poor James Watson. Had to sell his Nobel Prize medal. (Do you know how the Nobel Prizes started, by the way?) Poor James Watson, feted in 1962 and persona non grata in 2007. No one wants to listen to him any longer, even though he once upon a time fifty years ago elucidated the helical structure of DNA. 

            The helical structure of DNA is so much more elegant than his speech, and he had nothing to do with creating that structure, after all; he only explained it. Or took Rosalind Franklin’s crystallography work and let it stand as his own, or at least didn’t protest very much when the Nobel Prize didn’t include her. It’s all unclear.

            What became clear during his lecture was that James Watson can go on and on, dropping hints about the supposed inferiority of certain races while pretending his claims are somehow supported by genomics. He thought some races were more intelligent than others. He credited genes with being more determinative than they are, more like little Calvinistic units of predetermined fate than tiny bundles of possibility unfolded in complex interactions with time and environment. He mistook, I think, being provocative, in one of the most stereotypical ways possible, for being interesting and got met with unimpressed indifference. I think he thought he was being coy. I think he thought he was breaking news for us, delivering his racially limited understanding of the world in a sorrowful ‘I wish it weren’t so’ tone, as if having his own supposed superiority engrained in his very genes was so very bittersweet.

            Why the University of Washington invited him to give that lecture, I don’t know. The fumes of a once-bright reputation, the titillation of controversy, the belief we should not outright refuse to listen to contrary opinions? I agree with the latter, actually. While also believing that unsupported or insufficiently supported claims can make no especially urgent claims upon my attention. I do not owe everyone undivided attention.

            I could have stood up and bellowed back at him. Perhaps the University was banking on that, or maybe he was. Someone, anyone, please legitimize the worthiness of his attempts to remain relevant by bothering to combat him.

            But that would be to take his claim seriously. That would be like trying to persuade a man who says he owns the stage or the university or the whole entire campus of knowledge that he, in fact, does not. It is too obvious. He may have once found something out about the shape of the proteins that encode us and help determine the pigmentation of our offspring. On that afternoon in Seattle, he could lay no claim to the vast and complicated body of knowledge and wisdom about how to be a nuanced and gracious human being. So I got up and walked out to sit on the lawn. Angry at him, happy about the sun, grateful for the chance to learn something else and better.


We cannot, however, step out of our own blood. By that I mean we do inherit certain conditions, certain characteristics. We inherit, in some measure, the being and deeds of our ancestors, and we cannot completely shake off those blood traces.

            What my father did and who he was. What his father did and who he was. I don’t always want to know. Don’t always want to contemplate the blank spaces on my genetic map. What might life be if my father’s father had not been an accountant for a safari lodge in the Belgian Congo or if that grandfather’s brother had not run sugar plantations? So many particularities of conquest and war funneled into each of us. We, you, me, the survivors of so many ways to die.

            What does it mean and what are we to do with it?

            The Congo: where British men like my grandfather forced other men to climb latex trees, cut the trees, smear the sap onto their arms, and peel it off at the end of the day for weighing. Why? For tires; for Ford and for the war. In a way, for the cars I love to drive while listening to music made by grandsons and granddaughters of those Congolese latex harvesters.

            Texas: where other relatives ran plantations and forced people who were possibly from the Congo to cut sugar cane and burn and cure and pound it. For Domino; for the deadly sweetness that causes so much delight and so much disease.

            Baja California: where other relatives grew up, descendants from Spain who supported missions and ran ranches and married Ohlone people under conditions of murky consent.

            So many ways we move upon the land. What to do about the current blood inside me, made up of contributions from ancestors who would’ve killed or enslaved one another if they could’ve?


Art, as Alice Walker reminds us in The Color Purple, comes out of nothing, out of silence. Out of, I suppose, longing. And what, according to her, makes God angry? Walking past a purple field. Not turning your head when you hear purple, I suppose. The sin of not admiring or relishing.


About once a year now I’m walking somewhere across the 165,000 acres of the Yturria Ranch in southern Texas. Not because I own any of it, but because my partner’s father is allowed to photograph migratory birds there.

At one corner of the ranch, property belonging to the Yturria, King, and Rockefeller ranches joins, though you wouldn’t guess it from the plainness of the fence line. The Rio Grande is not far away; the white trucks with their green stripes are close. Animals shipped over from Africa and Asia for hunting, antelope and black buck and massive nilgai, wander between scrub oaks and ebony trees. There’s the picnic table under the hundred-year-old oak where Tommy Lee Jones comes to sit with a boxed lunch sometimes, the same place politicians have been liking for years, out in the country and shade where there’s room for the talk to get big and spread-legged. There’s the sprawl of the land itself, bought with money Francisco Yturria, the only 19th century Mexican owner of a significant Texas spread, made while running cotton past Union blockades during the Civil War. There, unseen by most humans but occasionally caught on camera traps, are the native ocelots whose population and territory Francisco’s son is now invested in conserving. There’s the weirdness of it all.

            And I’m thinking of Childish and of Rhiannon; I’m thinking about my own grandmother, whose Hispanic family once owned a large estancia of their own in Mexico and still lay claim to a bloodline they say goes back to royalty while still not talking much about the Native side of the family. I’m thinking about how Gary shows the Black children in the music video for “This Land”: in smiling possession of trees and swathes of territory and, we’re given to understand, more natural futures. I’m thinking of the Black homesteading movement. I’m hearing Gary tell us white people how we stand the closest to the South will Rise types, and how it’s in our hands to reach out to them and pull them back.

“Really talk to them,” he says. “What do you have to lose?”

Only our whole country if we don’t, Gary, because yes, this land is yours. This land is ours. This land is what we make of it.


Cyan James holds an MFA from the University of Michigan, where she was awarded three Hopwood Awards. Her work has been published in the Gettysburg Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Arkansas Review, New Mexico Review, Harvard Review, The Account, and Salon, among others. She also holds a Ph.D. in public health genetics and works in health policy. Currently she is revising a novel about the young women who survived the Green River Killer. She loves fiddles, falconry, long road trips, and old front porches.


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