Brittney Cooper

Source: Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press / St. Martin’s Press

Brittney Cooper, like many Black women, knows a thing or two about rage. But it wasn’t until young adulthood that she learned to embrace it, and that’s what Cooper’s latest offering on pain and prospect is about.

“One of the things I think of is that women in general, and Black women in particular, are conditioned to reject their rage, to not embrace it, to see it as a thing that makes them emotional and irrational,” she tells CASSIUS. 

There is something deeply authentic about the things that make us angry, because typically that’s a pathway for us to explore our sense of what is unjust about the world.
“I argue that rather than thinking about it that way, we should actually think about it as one of the roots of political honesty, that there is something deeply authentic about the things that make us angry, because typically that’s a pathway for us to explore our sense of what is unjust about the world.”

Throughout Eloquent Rage, we travel with Cooper as she recalls her earliest grapplings with anguish. Her recollections, each powerful and engaging, range from humorous to fearlessly vulnerable.

“Being forced to confront one’s own emotions on the page, to try to tell the truth, and also to own that all of this shit really does deeply affect you—it’s not just a pretty story to be told for mass consumption,” she shares.

CASSIUS spoke with Cooper on release day to discuss the idea of raging with eloquence and what it means to own one’s messiness in the age of #CallOutCulture. Eloquent Rage is available in stores and online now.

CASSIUS: In the beginning of Eloquent Rage—which I’m really enjoying, by the way—you suggest that rage is a place more women should begin in order to make changes in the world. Can you elaborate on this for those who haven’t read the book yet?

Brittney Cooper: Thank you so much! That means a lot. I think that if there is a desire to change the world, we’ve gotta get to a clear articulation of what is unjust, and very often our anger is one of the first indicators that we have that we are experiencing an injustice. So I think women should embrace it, Black women should embrace it, because I think that we have not embraced it because we have been so afraid of and reviled by the angry Black woman stereotype. I think that eloquent rage is our birthright, is a way for us to own that we have the right to be mad, that there’s a lot of things in the world to be mad about, and I think we should own it and try to use it for good.

C.: Unrelated but also related, this conversation makes me think of A Wrinkle in Time and the main character, Meg Murray, being encouraged to lean into her anger as a means to find courage while fighting for her father. With your book in mind, I think I’m even more excited to see this portrayed onscreen when the film comes out since Meg is being played by a Black girl. It’s a valuable message, especially since sometimes our anger can become so overwhelming that we may not know how to best direct it.

B.C.: Yeah! I mean, that’s one of things that I really like [about that story]. I just reread A Wrinkle in Time over the winter. It was a book I read as a kid, and I was struck again by the way that Black girls are raised to see themselves as world changers. So much of Black women’s political behavior is about the sense that our fathers and our brothers are deeply harmed by existing systems and we wanna partner with them in that work. So there are critiques to be made of that, right? The ways that Black men, or men more generally, are so much of the center of Black women’s political imaginings—that would be my feminist critique. But the sense that Black girls’ anger about the injustices faced by everyone in their community and that internal pull to do something about it and willingness to fight for a different set of possibilities is absolutely what it looks like to exist in the land of superpower and the land of what is possible, and I think that we should celebrate it.

C.: What challenges did you face writing this book? Did you run into any skeletons?

B.C.: I think what I ran into over and over again was the profoundness of my own anguish and own sense of trauma and own sense of anger and rage. Part of the reason that I wrote this book is because I grew up being deeply uncomfortable with rage. I had seen rage, particularly my father’s rage, really be a destructive force. And because of it, I was very afraid of anger, very afraid of my own anger. A lot of my journey as a young woman has been about trying to own my anger in a way that would be both productive and healthy, and so because I am an academic, typically when we’re writing books we’re writing them with a level of distance that’s about research and some version of objectivity. With this book, which is so deeply personal, often I was just crying while writing. I think that was perhaps the hardest part: really trying to wade through the trauma and find the useful parts and pieces of the story that would be useful for other folks, and also try to take care of myself in the process of dredging all that stuff up.

Brittney Cooper

Source: Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press / St. Martin’s Press

C.: I wanted to touch upon your praise for Beyoncé and her fearlessness to own the fact that her feminism is still a work in progress. As you mention in the book, folks have been trying to revoke Bey’s feminism card since the dawn of time.  I think this is something that may speak to many people who identify as feminists in general, but may leave them feeling apprehensive to express and/or own during the social media age of #CancelCulture and #CallOutCulture. What does embracing our messiness look like in a world where, now more than ever it seems, folks aren’t granted that space to be messy? You’ve always gotta be on 10.

B.C.: I think that you’re naming it really perfectly. I’m very bothered in this moment by the way that folks sort of feel compelled, because of the public nature of social media, to perform “wokeness” and to act like they always have it figured out, they always have the right answer, that they never struggled, to sort of shift to a more radical or befitting political position. One of the reasons that I wanted to write this book in a space of messiness is because there is a real human element to the politics that we’re trying to adopt and profess, and we’ve gotta be willing to be in process with each other more. I think that sometimes the thing that we’re doing online with each other, it feels to me like the worst parts of what it meant to grow up as a church girl, where there’s saints and sinners and if you’re not absolutely perfect then you’re a sinner, there’s no heaven, no salvation. I left behind that version of my religious life and I’m not interested at all in picking it up again in my politics, and I just find it so interesting that so many of the people who can’t stand that about Christianity in particular so readily embrace the politics of policing and saint/sinners approaches to politics in our political life.

C.: In that vein, do you feel social media has been harmful or beneficial to feminism? Are we having the right conversations online? Is there a place for the aforementioned #CallOutCulture?

B.C.: I’m a huge cheerleader for visual feminism. So much of my career in this moment really isn’t possible without the internet, so I would never be a hypocrite to say that I don’t think that online writing and commentary is valuable. I think it absolutely is, and frankly I think that Black feminist writing in digital spaces deserves so much credit for creating this sort of political context to be able to have the kinds of conversations that we have, to be able to have social movements like the Movement for Black Lives, even [to have] a platform to be able to amplify a movement like #MeToo. So much of that is the careful work of cultivation that Black feminists have been doing on the internet really from the early 2000s. I think that deserves credit and doesn’t get credit a lot.

At the same time, I’m deeply bothered by call-out culture, and I say that as somebody who has written many [call-out pieces] over the course of my career, but one of the things that I’ve learned as part of the Crunk Feminist Collective and the work that we do together is that it’s real easy to be a critic. It’s real easy to see what’s wrong with everything. It’s much harder to think about the work of creativity and creation and imagination. That is just infinitely harder work, and one of the things that I would invite folks who are deeply invested in their right to criticize to consider is that if that is the position you want to take then you are always starting from the point of view that every offering that someone puts forth in the world is a failure. From the very beginning, if the first question you ask is what is “wrong” with it, then you’ve already deemed every single offering a failure, and that kind of orientation to the world has consequences, not just for the people we critique, but it also creates anxieties for us as people who are trying to put work out in the world to help us imagine something new. So I think that sort of positioning is very costly, and I would just invite people to be more [mindful] about whether critique actually gets us to the world we wanna see.

C.: Absolutely. To close, I wanted to ask a question that continues to come up in conversations regarding feminism: Can men be feminists?

B.C.: Absolutely! What I wish is that more men would be feminists, but here’s what I really hope. I actually think that we’re in a moment where lots of men, particularly young brothers, have the rhetoric of feminism down. They’ve been reading internet feminists for the last decade just like the rest of us have, so they know all the right things to say, but if you actually look at the way that they treat the women in their lives, much of their conduct is trash. What I believe is that men can be feminists, but what I want them to do is not co-opt the rhetoric of feminism if they haven’t done the emotional labor and work of actually undoing patriarchy in their own personal lives at the emotional level, in the demands that they make on women in all kinds of relationships—both in families and in romantic partnerships. That’s where the real work of feminism has to happen. It has to submit to being personally transformed by the truths of feminism, not just being outside with rah-rah picket signs and writing think pieces with a bunch of rhetoric that makes it sound like they have it together when they actually don’t.

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