Brittney Cooper Talks Eloquent Rage and Embracing Her Black Girl Magic
Brittney Cooper isn't afraid to speak her mind. As one of the brightest stars in academia — and as a blogger, commentator, and author — Cooper has inspired millions with her words on race, feminism, and culture. With her book, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, she traces her own personal journey toward embracing the anger that drives her forward, as well as what she learned about society along the way. Timely, powerful, and an absolute page-turner, Eloquent Rage is destined for a gilded spot in the feminist canon, and further cements Cooper's role as one of the most important voices in America today.
POPSUGAR caught up with Cooper by phone shortly after Eloquent Rage was released in late February 2018, and a transcript of that wide-ranging conversation (lightly edited and condensed for clarity) is below.
POPSUGAR: What does the term "eloquent rage" mean to you?
Brittney Cooper: That term comes from one of my students, actually . . . she felt my anger radiated through the way that I lectured. She was a black girl looking for modes of connection in a predominantly white institution, and for her, that rage felt authentic. So I tell the story in the book of this very mild confrontation that we have where she calls me out for this anger (in a good way) and says, "I see it. It feels to me like the most eloquent rage I've ever heard." That began a moment of reckoning for me, around how to grapple with my own anger as a person — and as a black woman, also battling the angry black woman stereotype and not wanting to succumb to it. So this book is about reclamation — in the tradition of Audre Lorde, who also wrote very famously and beautifully about anger and its power — about trying to reclaim this rage in a way that can be expressive and powerful for black women, and not in a way that will not be weaponized against us, or used to delegitimize our call for justice.
PS: What makes it your superpower?
BC: I grew up encountering lots of modes of injustice as a black girl living in the Deep South, and as a black girl with a father who struggled with addiction and domestic abuse. So there were lots of moments of experience for me that were deeply enraging — and I had suppressed all of that rage, rather than learning to have a healthy relationship to it. So part of the reason that I own it as a superpower is because I do think I'm at my best when I tap into the things that I'm angry about. When I use that feeling of anger and all of the things that surround it — vulnerability and fear and potential powerlessness — when I channel that rage through my writing, through my teaching, through my activist work, it seems to give it a different quality, one that folks can relate to and understand, and it feels like it helps me to sort of be deeply embodied. Because I'm a nerd — both professionally and personally — and it's very easy when you're a nerd to be cerebral, to try to be overly analytic about everything. Rage is a thing that you have to feel in your body. And I think in doing so, it powers the other kinds of work that I want to do in the world in a way that feels deeply both gratifying to me and, I hope, useful for others.
"Sometimes you just need to shout. Shout, and see what happens."
PS: I think that cerebral aspect is key — there are so many things happening and it's just like, "I know I need to say something but what do I do to explain this to everybody, and how do I get my message across without just shouting it into the void?"
BC: That's right. One of the things I'm saying to women is, "Sometimes you just need to shout. Shout, and see what happens." I think the thing that happens is that we shout at other people's responses, and then accept other people's response to our enraged reactions. We recondition ourselves into thinking that it is legitimate, and that other people are being unreasonable when they don't recognize that in the face of the sort of massive forms of sexual violence that we're learning about through the #MeToo movement, or all the injustice that we see through the struggle of Dreamers, or through the movement for Black Lives — all of these sort of big political things happening in this moment. All of them are deeply enraging. And so the rest of the world is off in their reactions when they don't feel that way. We shouldn't be asking other people, "Why are you so angry?" It should be, "Why are you not angry?"
PS: As feminists, what do you think that we can do to make the world a better place for ourselves?
BC: In this moment, I think we have to not back down from the analysis that says patriarchy is a real problem. It's a clunky word, but the concept is spot on. The continuing problem of male violence and male dominance is real. In owning that analysis, in letting it shape how we think about the world — there's a lot of talk in this moment about capitalism, right, because we've seen folks moving farther to the left after the election of 2016 in some ways. There's of course a lot of talk about white supremacy. And in this moment folks are talking about rape culture, they're talking about sexual violence. But we really just need to zoom out and name the big system.
"This is one of the lessons that this generation has to figure out: what are the grounds in terms of solidarity?"
I also think that we've got to figure out intersectionality for real. That's one of the things I'm most interested in within this book — what does it actually look like to live at these intersections? And then trying to do politics from a really embodied, relational concept of what it means to be a black woman, to be a black feminist, and to be in relationship with feminists of all stripes — to be in relationship with white feminist women, with women of color who are feminists. Look, I think it's a big struggle. It's a struggle every woman wants to talk about. How are black and white feminists lined up? Whatever. And it's like, well, I'm not mad about that. I mean, I think it's a legitimate question. But this is one of the lessons that this generation has to figure out: what are the grounds in terms of solidarity? I don't think that we're going to figure out how to play nicely with each other very well, that's a lot of history to undo. But I do think we can sort of have some critical solidarities with each other, which is why I've been very vocal in saying that I'm not actually interested, for instance, in dismissing #MeToo because its primary poster children are rich white women. And I want Tarana Burke to get all the credit that she deserves.
But when I see these rich, powerful white women having to tell their Me Too stories — for me it's staggering, because it tells us about the primal patriarchy. That you can be rich, and beautiful, and famous, and well-connected — and still be subject to the whim and fancies of violent men. And if that is true for women who have money and who are white, then all the more it must be true for women who are poor, women who are people of color, women who are not rich or well-connected.
PS: On that note, one of my favorite parts of the book was the section where you address the correlation between Hillary Clinton and Beyoncé. A lot of people have said similar things in less articulate ways, but never really dove into it and explored it the way you have. I'd love it if you could dive into that a bit.
BS: So, one of the things that Beyoncé helped me understand — or I think she helps me understand — is what happened with Hillary Clinton in 2016. In 2013, when Beyoncé came out with the Beyoncé album, there was all of this clapback from black feminists because that was the album where she forthrightly claims the term feminist. And I just didn't understand why black feminists had so many negative feelings. For me, what I went back to was the sort of middle school, mean girl stuff that I had gone through because I felt like there were are all these big pieces with all of this, in short, eloquent rage. I mean, the writing was gorgeous — but there was something about it that felt a little bit emotionally dishonest, or not righteous. As black girls, we have our sort of categories. And sometimes, in the popular imagination, the way that black girls think about mean girl stuff doesn't actually show up. It either shows up in the fact that you don't get us in the cheerleader, jock, nerd kind of thing, or as a reality television thing, which is so sensationalized that you can't get to it. Black girls certainly have these anxieties — and these are big categories, so there's all kinds of overlap — but it has to do with pretty light-skinned girls versus dark-skinned, nerdy girls. So the way that I thought about that was that Beyoncé has light-skin privilege, she's got pretty privilege, she's rich, she's famous. And I think that many black girls who knew versions of that girl in middle school collectively said, "She can't be woke, too. She can have all the other stuff — but wokeness is ours, it cannot be hers."
"If we've never seen something before, when we finally get representations of what could be, the first thing that many of us do is scrutinize it to the hilt."
But when the election happened, I was just floored that white women still voted Republican. Because I just thought, if anything, like — "Really?" Hillary Clinton is fairly moderate in many ways, and so she is not flying the flag of the radical left by any stretch. So I just didn't understand why white women could not get on board with a candidate like her. I would see all of these white women that I knew on the left and the right be like, "Eww, Hillary. No." And I realized that it was like some mean girl sh*t that I just didn't understand, that there's this kind of resentment — it's easy to say that we want women to challenge these structures of power, but when they do, we scrutinize. If we've never seen something before, when we finally get representations of what could be, the first thing that many of us do is scrutinize it to the hilt, we find all of these problems with whatever it is. And I think that people try to punish Hillary Clinton for not playing by the rules and for, in many ways, challenging a white woman's own sense of what is possible in ways that make them deeply uncomfortable.
Some of this, I'm just like, "This is what I see from the outside with white ladies" — but I do know mean girl stuff when I see it. And it is hard to say that as a feminist, because the thing that feminists are always saying is "Everyone says we're emotional and that our assessments are not rational." It's really hard to sit in the space and say, "How do I advocate, as a feminist in particular, for people to take women seriously and to take our political assessments and our intellect seriously," and at the same time say, "But some of the sh*t we're doing is deeply emotional and what the f*ck is it?!" Because that's destructive, right? So that feels hard, but I guess I would want folks to know that I am aware of the contradiction and I am trying to hold it because I think that our politics only get better if we can hold this kind of complexity.
— Brittney Cooper (@ProfessorCrunk) February 16, 2018
PS: On the subject of feminism, who and what do you attribute your feminism to? I know you talk about your family a lot in the book, but I'm very curious what your biggest inspirations are.
BC: As I say in this book, I wasn't claiming feminism until I got to grad school. And I actually think it's really important to say that, that in many ways my own coming-to-feminist moment happened in academic spaces — because there's sort of this woke party line right now about how academia's so elitist that nothing radical can happen there. I'm really clear that my radical sense of myself gets fully realized in the academy, from the black feminist professors who exposed me to the richness of black women's intellectual traditions, and that's why I write about it in my academic work.
But also, when I took these classes with folks like Beverly Guy-Sheftall, who teaches at Spelman, and Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, who was my professor at Emory, and I learned about Anna Julia Cooper, and I learned about Pauli Murray — all of a sudden, I felt like, "Oh, my life makes so much more sense to me now," like I had been missing a critical part of this. It helped me to go back and think about my mom, and my grandmama, and the women who raised me in a different way, to see fully the value of all of the kinds of resources that they equipped me with.
"It's a pantheon of black girl magic that helped me to become a feminist."
So, I would say that it's a pantheon of black girl magic that helped me to become a feminist. But I didn't come easily, because I had been deeply conditioned to think that white supremacy was the core thing that all black people should be fighting against. And it took a group of women in those feminist classes — in this book, I use the phrase "homegirl intervention" — in the black feminist classrooms that were part of my graduate school experience, there were moments when those classrooms felt like a homegirl intervention. Like, "Girl, get your life together. Of course, you're a feminist. There is no way for you to be in this room doing this kind of work but for the labor of black, feminist women."
PS: How did you embrace your Black Girl Magic, as you discuss in the book? How did you make that happen for yourself?
BC: I mean Black Girl Magic proceeds me for sure, right? But I feel I'm a beneficiary of it, and hopefully, an evangelist for black girls all around the world. One of the things that I talk a lot about in this book is the way that my relationships with my homegirls sort of have been the key for me across everything — I believe so deeply in the power of friendship. For instance, I'm talking to you and I just have arrived in Atlanta for an event. One of my homegirls came and got me and brought me flowers. This is who my homegirls are, right? Thoughtful, loving folks who just think of all the little touches. And I think so often that black women, in particular, don't get soft spaces to land, don't get places in our lives where people are gentle with us. Because everyone is either devaluing us at work or for instance, asking us to be magical and save the country. For me, friendship is the place where I feel most seen, and when a bunch of black girls get together and do their work and really see each other really critically, there's a synergy there that is just out of this world.
PS: I will admit when I was reading I was like, "I need better friends, honestly, how do I find better friends?"
BC: It's something I've told a lot of young folks kind of in my talks, I tell them I didn't always have this figured out. What I knew as a kid was that friends were the key. And it took me a very long time to find my tribe. I didn't find them in high school. I found a version in college who I really love. But I mean I probably was in my mid-20s before I really happened to find my crew for real. So I would just say to folks who are sort of trying to figure out when or how or whatever — just keep showing up and being the kind of friend that you would want to have and be patient. I actually think it takes a while. Because I think that folks have to wade through some of their sh*t in order to be able to show up for you that way, right? And I think we have to wade through our own. And so, pragmatically I just think it takes a while. But I do think it can happen.
PS: At this point, what gives you hope for the future?
BC: Well, right now my hope for the future is that I can move to Wakanda with all my people [laughter]. That's my hope.
— Brittney Cooper (@ProfessorCrunk) February 23, 2018
PS: What would you say is the biggest challenge that black feminists are facing right now?
BC: Look, I think the biggest challenge is getting the Trump regime out of office. There's just untold levels of devastation that Trump is doing to communities of color very broadly. If you think about everything that's happening with Dreamers and those communities of color, both black and Latinx, and then if you think about what's happening with the Movement for Black Lives and so many of the issues that they have brought to our attention, plus healthcare — all of these things, they add up to the Trump presidency being just the absolute worst thing that could have happened to black folks in the generation — in a couple of generations, I would say.
"There are some real interesting things happening in terms of black progressive politics, and they're happening down South."
That being said, one of the things that I'm feeling really hopeful about is that there were a number of amazing, important political races though the end of 2017. We saw these progressive black mayors being elected in places like New Orleans — where the black woman mayor who won was not the establishment-mayoral candidate — and in Charlotte, and in the near-upset in St. Louis with the Black Lives Matter candidate. And then even in Birmingham, the non-establishment black man who won, he's a young black man who's 36. And also in Jackson, Chokwe Antar Lumumba. So there are some real interesting things happening in terms of black progressive politics, and they're happening down South, which is incredibly interesting. And I'm hype as f*ck about the Stacey Abrams gubernatorial race in Georgia.
So those are the things that give me hope in the midst of everything else, because one of the things I think is happening is that everyone always thinks that black people are politically unsophisticated. And so everyone would think, "Yes, the Trump presidency is the big issue." But what you see is that black folks are actually looking at these down-ballot races and all these local spaces now. They're deeply engaged. A lot of the reason they're engaged is the Movement for Black Lives. And so I think that we should pay attention, because black folks actually have made the connection around what it's going to take to — even if we couldn't, for instance, get Trump out of office, I think we can mute his impact locally, at the state level, across the country. I think black folks are seeing that and I think they're voting accordingly.
PS: And what message would you hope readers would take away from reading Eloquent Rage, ultimately?
BC: I hope they come away feeling like one, they don't have to have everything all figured out, and two, that they're not crazy. That their sense of the world being really messed up and wanting to change things is actually absolutely right, but also having a deep sense that the resources that they already bring to the table, including the emotional resources that we're often told to lay aside in service of quote-unquote intellectual or rational approaches, that those emotional impulses – that they matter, and that they can power all of the other work that we're doing in the world.