When Dr. Brittney Cooper speaks, the world stops to listen. Whether it’s the students in her classes at Rutgers University, audiences watching her on various MSNBC shows, or the scholars and other students who pack her lectures around the world, Cooper has demonstrated her command of a multitude of topics, including the ever-evolving political project of Black Feminism, the history of Black women intellectuals, and how hip hop has informed her feminism. Since January 2017, Cooper has released three books, and she’s finishing out this trifecta with Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, a memoir that combines cultural criticism and personal reflections to explore how she, and the Black women she’s encountered, use rage (and joy) to carve unique spaces for themselves.
Eloquent Rage is striking because Cooper carefully constructs the people in her orbit. She doesn’t create villains, but she does hold people accountable for maligning Black women and causing us harm. Cooper’s book will bring many women into feminism in the way that Joan Morgan’s 1999 manifesto, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as A Hip Hop Feminist. And in this interview, she breaks down the difference between eloquent and righteous rage, the importance of positioning the South as a home for radical feminism, and how Black Feminism can be more constructive and less reactionary.
In the book, you spend a lot of time positioning yourself as a Southern Black girl. Was discussing region as it relates to identity important to you as you crafted the book?
Absolutely. I’m simply a Southern girl, even though I feel like a Southern expat living in New Jersey. I understand Southerness to be core to my identity. It affects how I relate to space. It affects how I think about my interactions with people. I recently flew into Atlanta, and when the driver picked me up, I was like, “There’s Blackness, and you’re nice!” It just made me feel at home and happy, so I always want to be grounded in particular kinds of Southerness that feel familiar. I also wanted to highlight Southerness because there’s a way that some of the progressive kinds of discourse, particularly around feminism, are seen as not coming out of the South. Southern Black people are often cast as being so politically retrograde, churchy, and morally conservative that they’re not on board with a progressive social project. There are many Souths. We can find the South as a space where Black women can be shaped into having a radical politics. We can even find that in the South of the late 20th and 21st centuries. It feels important to say that.
Typically, I’m often saying to my New York folks that I’m not impressed with y’all. I’m unimpressed with the whole “New York is so progressive” and the rest of the world is not. It’s always New York, Oakland, and Los Angeles. Well, there’s a whole other kind of world that exists between those two coasts, and that world isn’t just about old tropes around being authentically Black, but actually about a radical Blackness too.
You talk extensively in the book about the life-sustaining force of female friendships, and how Black female friendships are inherently queer. What do you mean by that?
I’m trying to think through queerness in a range of ways in the book. If we think about queerness as a resistance to the politics of normativity, whether that’s whiteness as normative or straightness as normative, then there’s something fundamentally queer about Black people making an intentional commitment to love each other and show up for each other in the fullness of our Blackness in a system that normalizes white supremacy and anti-Blackness. That’s one of the premises from which I’m working. Many Black women’s friendships challenge the very strict lines about sexuality. There’s a way that Black women comment on each other’s bodies when we love each other. We look at each other’s bodies and we affirm, for instance, that what the world may call fat, we call thick and curvy and beautiful. That kind of affirmation requires a different lens in a world where the politics of misogynoir dictates that we hate Black women, call us ugly, and say we’re mean. In order to combat that, it’s not just enough to affirm that we’re nice people. There’s also a politics of embodiment that has to be engaged.
Joan Morgan and Brittney Cooper (Photo credit: Screenshot from AlexEveretteMedia/YouTube)
I tried to get at this by thinking about the friendships I have with the Black women in my life who affirm me as a sexy person. Just this morning, one of my homegirls texted me a picture of one of my interviews I’ve been doing, and said, “B, why are you so bae in this picture?” That’s what I mean. Even if I hadn’t heard that from a partner or a romantic interest, my girls will step into that space and say you look sexy or damn your ass looks really fly in that skirt. In a real heteronormative system, we limit that kind of expression of love, care, and attention to the realm of somebody you’re having sex with. I’ve found that Black women understand the ways that those affirmations aren’t always readily available to other Black women, and they will step into the gap. Giving one’s self permission to do that and understanding affirmation as a political project in a world that hates Black women is queer.
Also, I don’t want to co-opt queerness from queer folks who are dealing daily with the realities of what it means to be a queer person. What I’m attempting to suggest is that queer folks have a lot to teach us about how to love each other better as Black people and Black women. This is a lesson I’m trying to take from being in community with queer folks, and that I’ve learned from a Black Feminist practice that’s been deeply shaped by the labor of Black queer women.
You speak often about Black Feminism not being a reactionary project. What’s the difference between having an eloquent rage, but not a righteous rage?
I think anytime that a Black woman is expressing rage, it’s eloquent. When Black girls walk into that space where they own their voice, it’s very rare that I don’t understand what they need, what the issue is, who the issue is with. I know who fucked up, how they fucked up, and the degrees to that conflict. I specifically use the term “eloquent” and not “elegant” because I’m specifically not speaking about rage needing to be respectable. When Black women are mad, our rage has a clear and direct target. So, it’s always eloquent to me. It’s deeply and profoundly articulate. The person I was thinking about was Rachel Jeantel.
When she’s testifying on Travyon Martin’s behalf at the [George] Zimmerman trial, many people acted like they couldn’t understand her. But when I listened to Jeantel, her speech impediment did not impede the ability to understand that what was happening [in that courtroom] was bullshit. I see that you’re not actually on Trayvon’s side, so that’s going to shape how I engage. I’d think of that as an eloquent rage, even if it’s not particularly elegant. Righteous rage is about staying clear and centered in a world that includes all Black women and girls in the project of freedom—and not just the Black girls and women who you like. [Righteous rage] also has a forward focus that is fundamentally just at its core. In particular, I talk about the way Black Feminists came to Beyoncé. I’m not here for it. wasn’t here for it in 2013. I’m not anymore here for it in 2018.
Rachel Jeantel (Photo credit: Screenshot from Axiom Amnesia/YouTube)
I don’t want to diminish legitimate critiques of Beyoncé. I do think there are legitimate critiques to be had, but what I sense happens around her is that she conjures up a different kind of engagement that’s about the shit and pain we’ve been through. I think that all of that stuff is legitimate in terms of our politics, but only if we own it and are honest about what our particular issue is. That’s why I say here’s all the mean-girl shit I’ve been through, and here’s why it’s untenable to read Beyoncé in the way that some of these folks read her. I both want to celebrate Black women’s rage because it’s legitimate, but I also want to be very clear that because it’s so powerful and important, we must have a higher-level of responsibility around how we build it. We have to be really sure that we don’t harm each other in the process of owning a rightful political inheritance of being mad as hell about of the bad things that happen to Black women and Black people.
Toward the end of the book, you write, “I’m not interested in a feminist project that only works to tear down things.” How can we differentiate between being reactionary and holding people accountable for harm?
Many of the Twitter battles over the last five or six years shaped a lot of my thinking around this. If the conversation devolves into dragging white girls, for instance, then something has gone awry. If people walk away with a sense of what was done wrong, but not a clear sense of how the harm can be repaired and the kind of repair we want is in service to the kind of repair that we’re trying to get to, then that’s a marker [of reactionary] to me. I’m always looking for the place where people go back to articulate what Black women actually need. What are the political concerns and priorities that matter? When I look at some of those debates, I just don’t see that. I see the 15 ways that white women don’t get it right.
I never disagree. I just always just wonder if when we have limited and finite energy, and that’s all you said with your public platform, and white girls are walking away and all they take is those Black chicks are mad. They know not to do that, but don’t know what to actually do, then we haven’t gone far enough. It’s very easy to take your baseball bat to some shit and say this shouldn’t be here. That’s the easy part. It can even be courageous in certain instances, but the hard part is figuring out how to creatively reimagine what the thing we need is in a world where we have to coexist with white women. What must we build in order for Black women and girls to have the things they need?
We started the Crunk Feminist Collective around the time that the Slut Walk happened. I wrote two fiery-ass pieces that came for the Slut Walk. I was saying that white girls don’t get it and here are all of the problems, and our numbers were off the charts. Our comments sections were off the charts. We learned that if we dragged white girls, we could drive our project. White girls would come over and want to flagellate themselves. At some point, we realized we don’t really care about white girls. We care about Black women and girls.
What does it look like to write about us and for us, so when Black women come to this space, they see us thinking about what’s happening with us, not what’s happening with people who don’t get us or see us?
In the “The Smartest Man I Never Knew” chapter, you spend a great deal of time telling the stories of your grandmother and your mother. Was that intentional? Do you think that this book is an archival project of your family’s history?
I don’t see the book as an archival project. I understand that it’s an archive in some ways, and I appreciate that work in the sense that we don’t have a lot of Black women’s life’s reflections. We get them in periods. We have slave narratives. We get Black women’s autobiographies in the ’70s. But in the grand scheme, there’s actually very little work around Black women’s life narratives. To be able to say something in that project matters to me. I actually wanted to think about violence and all of the ways that Black women experience violence. It was also an attempt to think about Black women’s relationships to Black men as part of a patriarchal structure. What does that look like on the day to day? What does that look like when you’re trying to build a life with a person who’s fundamentally disruptive?
I wanted to do that, and also, sort of model how to tell really hard truths about the shit that goes on with Black women and Black men without demonizing Black men and saying they’re irredeemable. We have to tell those stories in a continuously race-first moment where many Black women are shamed into silence about talking about this stuff because it’s seen as being a race traitor. That was my way of saying that I’ve known Black men to do these terrible and horrific things, but there are structural reasons for it. There are always structural reasons why this [violence] happens. What happens when you raise multiple generations of Black men with a mandate to be patriarchal, but no resources to do so? It’s not about Black men being pathological. This is about America being pathological. It’s about the military being pathological. It’s about white supremacy being particularly sick and terrible.
Before I put that chapter in the book, I sent it to some homeboys who are writers because I wanted to get their sense of what happens for them there. One of them wrote me back and said, “When you read this, you just think, ‘Brothers need to apologize for some shit.’ Can we just start there?” Hopefully, what it can do is give us the space to begin the conversation, and give Black men the space to say our history isn’t particularly great here, but our possibilities are endless. That’s what I hope.
Early on the in the book, you write that it was “nothing short of a homegirl intervention” that turned you into a feminist.” I attended Bennett College, a HBCU for women in North Carolina, and I had a similar experience. I did not identify as a feminist until my senior year. Why do Black colleges, in particular, turn Black women into race women without ever considering our other intersecting identities?
I think it has something to do with the historical mission of many Black colleges, which is to be uplifters of the race. [Black colleges] see themselves as creators of a vanguard of Black leadership that can uplift Black communities, and at the same time, combat white supremacy. Many of those institutions are really founded as a direct response to the politics of white supremacy. Because of that, a more robust gender analysis or institutional investment in combatting patriarchy is not necessarily a part of the mission of many Black colleges. That becomes part of the culture.
Most Black folks grow up with a clear awareness of the way that racism impacts of our lives, particularly if you grow up in the United States. And sometimes, there’s less clarity about the ways that sexism and patriarchy are showing up and shaping spaces. Even if there is some sense that one is experiencing sexism, many, many Black women who I know, have talked to, and have read over the years will talk about sexism as a thing that just simply feels secondary to them. They think racism is a tougher and a more pervasive system. Since [racism] feels more urgent and Black colleges are very much about taking on the most urgent problems facing Black people, it becomes easy and convenient to lay gender politics to the side.
You talk extensively in the “Bag Lady” chapter about the “internal spiritual work that Black women must do to save our own lives.” How can Black women retain hope or as Alice Walker says, “change our minds about our lives,” when so much of our life outcomes are determined by systems that we have no control over?
I’ve just always assumed that Black women are perennially hopeful, even when things are unbearable. In some ways, we’re hopeful because we know that we weren’t meant to survive. So, sometimes for us, mind over matter really does become the only way that we have going for us. My mom has always said to me, “I just knew that if I wanted better for you that I had to want better for myself.” She taught me that dreaming is at the core of politics. If things are going to get better, Black women have to stay invested in the project of dreaming. I don’t believe in magical negroes. But I do believe that there’s a supernatural and divine power in saying that I want to dream a world that’s beyond the thing I can see.
We don’t give Black women the credit we deserve for always being dreamers who project a future and insist that it’s possible in a moment where everybody says “we’re all afrofuturists now” or “we should all be afrofuturists.” Most of us learn from the female maternal figures in our lives that something better than this shit is possible. I really did see my mom transform her life by digging in and saying I can’t change structures, but I can change me. I deeply admire that. What I want to do is change structures, but I think there’s something really profound about saying that if everyone says to themselves, let me control the things I can change, then we have effected a material change to the universe.
We matter. If we think Black lives matter, then being careful, thoughtful, and deeply invested in quality and rigor and impact of our own individual Black lives is part of the project. That is part of the project. It matters particularly for Black folks who don’t have the resources to change structures, but do want to make a difference. How about you make a difference by first making sure that you love yourself? That’s a recourse we can offer to people. Maybe you can’t change anything else, but you can make the choice every day to love yourself. There’s something deeply revolutionary about that.