Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower

by Brittney Cooper

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250112576
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 02/20/2018
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 40,624
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Brittney Cooper writes a popular monthly column on race, gender, and politics for Cosmopolitan. A professor of Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, she co-founded the Crunk Feminist Collective, and her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Ebony.com, and The Root.com, among many others. In 2017, she was named to The Root 100 List, and in 2018, to the Essence Woke 100 List.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

THE PROBLEM WITH SASS

This is a book by a grown-ass woman written for other grown-ass women. This is a book for women who expect to be taken seriously and for men who take grown women seriously. This is a book for women who know shit is fucked up. These women want to change things but don't know where to begin.

To be clear, I'm not really into self-help books, so I don't have one of those catchy three-step plans for changing the world. What I have is anger. Rage, actually. And that's the place where more women should begin — with the things that make us angry.

When it comes to Black women, sometimes Americans don't recognize that sass is simply a more palatable form of rage. Americans adore sassy Black women. You know, those caricatures of finger-waving, eye-rolling Black women at whom everyone loves to laugh — women like Tyler Perry's Madea, Mammy in Gone with the Wind, or Nell from that old eighties sitcom Gimme a Break! These kinds of Black women put white folks at ease.

In my first terrible job after college, my boss, an older white woman, told me that the students at the predominantly Black school at which we worked had deemed her an honorary Black woman. When I looked at her with question marks in my eyes, she said, "You know, they mean the way I talk to them and roll my neck," and demonstrated it for me. I went on back to my desk.

Years after that, I was doing a summer abroad in South Korea. My Malaysian roommate, who had seen many episodes of the old nineties sitcom Family Matters, told me that she loved Black women because we were sassy like Harriette and Laura Winslow, the main Black female characters on that show. To her, these stereotypical portrayals made Black folks seem understandable, even though to me, her descriptions felt like we were exotic others. She loved it, she said, when Black women put their hands on their hips and swiveled their necks in protest. Not wanting to offend this woman who I otherwise really liked, I simply said, "We're not all like that." She looked disappointed.

I am fat, Black, and Southern. But this is not a sassy Black girl's tale. Black women turn to sass when rage is too risky — because we have jobs to keep, families to feed, and bills to pay. Black women who hold their communities together also hold our broader American community together. But it's unclear whether we are really being taken seriously.

Owning anger is a dangerous thing if you're a fat Black girl like me. Angry Black Women get dismissed all the time. We are told we are irrational, crazy, out of touch, entitled, disruptive, and not team players. The story goes that Angry Black Women scare babies, old people, and grown men. This is absurd. And it is a lie. If you have the nerve to be fat and angry, then you are treated as a bully even if you are doing nothing aggressive at all. The truth is that Angry Black Women are looked upon as entities to be contained, as inconvenient citizens who keep on talking about their rights while refusing to do their duty and smile at everyone. Don't you just hate when folks yell at you to "Smile!"? I told the last man who said that shit to me, "You smile!"

Some years ago, I ran into a former student on the college campus where I was teaching. Erica was a brilliant Black girl who wrote great papers and asked really smart questions. As we were standing around with a group of others, chatting, she said, "I loved having you as my professor. Your lectures were filled with rage. But it was, like, the most eloquent rage ever." I immediately felt defensive. What did she mean by rage? "I'm not angry," I told her. "I'm passionate." By then, I was wary of the Angry Black Woman stereotype. Even though I was only in my mid-twenties at the time, I had already experienced many years of white people doing that thing they do to articulate Black women — always asking us "Why are you so angry?" I hated the accusation from others, usually white people, because it was unfair, a way to discredit the legitimacy of the things Black women say by calling them emotional and irrational. But Erica was a Black girl. She fixed me with a telltale look that only another Black woman can give you, a look that said, Girl, be for real. And then she said, "Brittney, you know you're angry." I felt exposed. I couldn't even say anything. She had seen through the veneer, seen the lie I was telling. It was devastating. And life-changing.

I was angry. As hell. And I was fooling no one.

Black women have the right to be mad as hell. We have been dreaming of freedom and carving out spaces for liberation since we arrived on these shores. There is no other group, save Indigenous women, that knows and understands more fully the soul of the American body politic than Black women, whose reproductive and social labor have made the world what it is. This is not mere propaganda. Black women know what it means to love ourselves in a world that hates us. We know what it means to do a whole lot with very little, to "make a dollar out of fifteen cents," as it were. We know what it means to snatch dignity from the jaws of power and come out standing. We know what it means to face horrific violence and trauma from both our communities and our nation-state and carry on anyway. But we also scream, and cry, and hurt, and mourn, and struggle. We get heartbroken, our feelings get stepped on, our dreams get crushed. We get angry, and we express that anger. We know what it means to feel invisible.

* * *

I know what it means to feel invisible. To be picked on, bullied, misunderstood, and dismissed. But when Erica called me out on my anger, it was clear that she saw me in a way that I wasn't particularly interested in being seen. She helped me to realize that my anger could be a powerful force for good. She had called my rage eloquent. Clear. Expressive. To the point. In her estimation, it had made me a good teacher, and it had inspired her and other students.

Over and over again, Black girls have called me out and demanded that I get my shit together, around my rage, around my work in the world, and around my feminism. Those Black girl callouts, or "homegirl interventions," as I call them in this book, have come from my grandmama, my mama, and my girls. And they have saved my life.

America needs a homegirl intervention in the worst way. So in this book, I am doing what Black women do best. I'm calling America out on her bullshit about racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and a bunch of other stuff.

And I'm using feminism to stage this homegirl intervention. I'm here for picket signs, pussy hats (as long as there are plenty of brown ones in the mix), and patchouli. My picket signs are as likely to say FUCK THE POLICE as they are to say FUCK THE PATRIARCHY. Black-girl feminism is all the rage, and we need all the rage. Feminism can give us a common language for thinking about how sexism, and racism, and classism work together to fuck shit up for everybody.

Like many other feminists, I used to carry around Audre Lorde's book Sister Outsider like it was the feminist bible. Her essay "The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism" taught me that rage is a legitimate political emotion. She writes, "Focused with precision, it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change."

Here's the thing: My anger and rage haven't always been "focused with precision." The process, of both becoming a feminist and becoming okay with rage as a potential feminist superpower, has been messy as hell. We need to embrace our messiness more. We need to embrace the ways we are in process more. Very often Black girls don't get the opportunity to be in process. So just know that you don't have to have everything figured out to read and enjoy this book.

For more than a decade, since Erica named for me my superpower — eloquent rage — I've been trying to figure out how to focus it with precision.

When I watch the Williams sisters — Venus and Serena — use their power on a tennis court, I feel like they are a case study in how to use rage with precision. Born six months after Venus and nine months before Serena, I feel like I grew up with the Williams sisters. When they first began to win major tournaments in the late 1990s, sportscasters derisively referred to the "power tennis" they played. These strong, athletic Black girls had serves with speeds of more than 120 miles per hour and they scared the shit out of white girls. Until they learned how to use their power, it often became a liability, causing them to make lots of mistakes on and off the court.

But in the nearly twenty years since they have come to dominate tennis, both sisters have figured out how to corral all that power into precise serves and shots that are nearly unmatched. They have created this kind of alchemy that uses their physical strength and strategic prowess on the court, together with all the racial slurs and insults they have endured over the years — being called the N-word, being called ugly, being told their bodies were too manly — to create something that looks magical to the rest of us. Watching Venus play, particularly on grass courts, is like watching a Black girl perform in a ballet. She is an elegant player. Watching Serena play, particularly when she's beating white women, is like watching eloquent rage personified. Her shots are clear and expressive. Her wins are exultant. Her victories belong to all of us, even though she's the one who does all the work.

That's kind of how it feels to be a Black woman. Like our victories belong to everyone, even though we do all the work. But here's the thing — if I can master any force in my life and slay it like Serena slays tennis balls on the court, then I'm happy to share the wealth.

CHAPTER 2

CAPITAL B, CAPITAL F

It took nothing short of a homegirl intervention to turn me into a feminist. It was my senior year at Howard University, and I'd managed to go through much of college without having even one boyfriend on campus. As much as Howard offered an explicit education in the workings of racism and white supremacy, its lessons about sexism were far more subtle. I felt like something was wrong with me. The boys wanted me to run their student government campaigns, or they wanted to verbally joust with me, but they didn't want to date me. On high self-esteem days, I simply thought it was because they were dumb. On bad self-esteem days, I thought it was because I was fat. (Fat is of course relative, because if I could be my college size again ...) I hadn't considered that sexism had anything to do with it, that young men had been socialized to desexualize outspoken women. I reveled in being unconquerable, because that's an important trait for Black girls surviving abusive father figures to have. I didn't realize that living life in a patriarchy, even in a beautiful Black one, meant that I had to at least appear conquerable if I wanted to get chose.

One day, on campus, I proclaimed with the confidence of a twenty-year-old who knows just enough to be dangerous, that "feminism is white women's shit. At most, I'm a womanist." I had heard someone else invoking Alice Walker's definition of womanism, and it sounded good enough to me. The thing is: my defection from feminism wasn't a principled defection. I hadn't read Walker's definition at all. But I had spent a lifetime having slightly awkward friendships with the white girls with whom I grew up, and I had escaped after high school to the Blackness of Howard to recover from all of it. I'll talk more about my complicated relationship with white women in the next chapter, but suffice it to say that I was ready to lay the entirety of my feminist inheritance — the work of women like Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, and the women of the Combahee River Collective — on the altar next to all the blond hair that I had mentally burned in effigy after high school. This is what I like to call doing the most, but achieving the least. And, luckily, one of my homegirls saw through my bullshit and staged a friendly but serious intervention.

My friend Tracey heard me making such ignorant pronouncements about feminism and hemmed me up in the dorms later. "Here," she said, handing me a book. "Read this, because you were talking kinda crazy earlier about feminism." This wasn't our first discussion about the f-word. She had also asked me a few months earlier if I wanted to "come to Blackburn [the student center] to hear bell hooks?" "Who is bell hooks?" I had asked, vaguely remembering that I had encountered her name in a book on gender and equality that I had bought during my days on my high school's debate team. "Oh, she writes all this feminist stuff, but she talks real crazy, so it should be interesting," Tracey had said, chuckling.

"Talking crazy" in our college parlance could be either an indictment or a compliment. It was a way to denote those moments of flirtation with ideas that skirted the line between being profound and being absolutely nonsensical. For instance, there was the day that the Honors Office Crew (the Blerds of my day) entertained the idea of whether women might evolve into being able to impregnate themselves, if it happened to be true that clitorises were really just small penises. My good Christian self was both scandalized by the mention of clitorises and penises (and evolution!) but also deeply curious and seduced by the questions themselves. I vacillated between wondering whether my friends were going to hell, and tiptoeing into the deep with them because I secretly loved the irreverence of it all. It felt like any day in the Howard Honors office could lead to a personal evolution of big-bang proportions.

* * *

Listening to years of "talking crazy" among the crew had made me fall in love with ideas in a substantive way. For instance, the Crew put me on to Ta-Nehisi Coates back in the early 2000s when he wrote for the Washington City Paper. His pieces were must-reads, and when we saw him hanging out on campus, we whispered to each other, stanning ever so slightly. Once, I remember Coates popping his head into a room of Howard student leaders in the Blackburn Center and scowling at us, unimpressed. We were probably having a heated debate about the fate of Black America, and apparently, we weren't saying anything earth shattering. I'm pretty sure I scowled back.

Still, it was cool as hell to run into thinkers on campus whose work I'd read on the regular. I became a Ph.D. because I wanted that kind of life, one where "talking crazy" — playing with ideas that skirted the line between the radical and the absurd, the sacred and the profane — was the order of the day. So I knew that in Tracey's indictment of hooks's propensity to "talk crazy" there was also an endorsement, a belief that she was worth hearing. Curious about just exactly what kind of crazy talk hooks might engage in, I followed Tracey to the panel.

I don't remember much about hooks's talk. Perhaps we had arrived late. I do remember that she seemed unimpressed and perhaps agitated, most likely with the conservative gender politics that shaped Howard during my time there. But hooks's feminist "crazy talk" was my first experience with the kinds of provocations that can be life-changing. And it was quite different from the dismissive "crazy talk" that had me in the hot seat with my homegirl.

I think Tracey had just assumed, naturally, that I would be a feminist, given my fierce sense of selfhood and my willingness to drag anyone who stepped to me with what I deemed a bad argument. She therefore looked at me both curiously and incredulously when I dared to insist otherwise. I took the book, a collection of academic essays on feminist theory. She instructed, "I think you'll really like this essay on multiple jeopardies by Deborah King." Sufficiently chastised, I agreed to read the piece she had chosen. While I was not especially interested in being a feminist, I was even less interested in having a raggedy analysis, of being critically uninformed, and of getting caught out there, assed out and looking ignorant. So I sat down that same night, turned to the essay Tracey had suggested, and tried to get clearer on what exactly feminism was and how it might apply to me. King wanted us to see the effects of oppressions on Black women's lives as what she called "multiplicative." Our class position, sexual identity, and many other vectors of power shaped our identity in the world, and more specifically, these things determined how many boots there were on our collective necks.

That essay didn't turn me into a feminist, because it felt a bit too academic for me to read without the benefit of a classroom context to work out the ideas. But I did begin to care deeply about Black women's legacy of activism and ask more questions about what historical Black women had said about issues of racism and sexism. Over the next few years, I would have the opportunity, via some dope-ass Black feminist professors and because of the work of Hip Hop feminist Joan Morgan, to name and own a feminism for myself. But what mattered to me most, what lingers for me now, was the thoughtfulness and care of another Black girl's friendship.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Eloquent Rage"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Brittney Cooper.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Problem With SASS 1

Capital B, Capital F 9

Strong Female Leads 39

The Smartest Man I Never Knew 69

Bag Lady 99

Grown-Woman Theology 125

Orchestrated Fury 147

White-Girl Tears 171

Never Scared 201

Love In A Hopeless Place 221

Favor Ain't Fair 247

Joy 273

Acknowledgments 277

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Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
only1les More than 1 year ago
Dr. Brittney Cooper acknowledges and validates all the rage black women and girls have been holding since, well, forever. She offers the whys, the hows, the who's and the whats through personal life experiences that many of us have experienced first hand or saw happen to those around us. Her explanations are backed by facts and specific systematic events that have caused great harm and trauma. Cooper gave words to the feelings I have had over the years. The "feelings in my gut" that I have pushed aside and ignored because it was more important to be seen as a "good black girl" than an "angry black girl." So many of us are holding rage just below the surface. This book is allowing me to rage; to feel all the power of the anger I have. "The truth is that Black women's anger is not the problem." Cooper says. She then quotes Audre Lorde, "Anger is an appropriate response to racist attitudes." With this validation, Cooper doesn't just leave us to figure things out alone, she then offers possibilities in how to use this super, powerful energy for the good of ourselves, those we are in relationship with, our greater community, and ultimately to change the world. I highly recommend this book and author!
Anonymous 6 months ago
As a white feminist aspiring to be intersectional and inclusive, I learned so much from Professor Cooper's book. Her moral clarity and perceptive insights combined with humor, vulnerability, and a generous spirit make it a perfect book for this time, especially. Loved it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I feel like every white woman should read this booth to learn to get our people when the fail to acknowledge the way race, class, and gender intersect to give some women more power and privilege than others. I think every man who wants to be or thinks he is a feminist should read it to examine all the ways that word requires real self-examination. And while black women are busy saving the rest of us from ourselves, I hope may make time to read this because it gives them support they badly need. I am so grateful to Dr. Cooper for sharing this work with us all!