Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part interview about Brittney Cooper’s book Eloquent Rage.
Most of my best friendships have started with good conversations—I’d hazard a guess that most of yours have, too. So when I found myself in a genuinely good conversation with author and feminist scholar Brittney Cooper about her incredible new book, Eloquent Rage, I let the recording roll longer than usual because some conversations are just too good to cut short.
It’s Cooper’s position that it’s impossible to discuss the power and possibility of black feminism without also discussing the power of friendship between black women. In writing Eloquent Rage, she relied not only on her academic prowess but also on the more organic wisdom of friends and family—including her late grandmother. So naturally, our discussion also included a deep dive into the necessity of black female communities and counsel, which Cooper believes are vital to our well-being as black women:
We’re having this conversation now about what does it mean not to just survive or to live but to thrive; and one of the places I think black women—when we’re living our best lives—have figured out how to thrive is that we have really great relationships with black women. I just think that’s true. I think we could talk about all of the other stuff—property and cash and lovers, and all those sorts of things; health or whatever—but quality of friendship, to me, is one of the clear markers that a black girl is gonna be all right, if her crew is a crew that can sustain her.
That emotional sustenance is a sincere concern of Cooper’s, especially regarding the expectations of contemporary black women—many of which are self-imposed. Though currently the most educated group in the United States, this generation of overachieving black women are just as likely to be deemed undesirable or chronically single. It’s a categorization Cooper doesn’t take lightly, especially in terms of the pressure it places on black women and the limits it places on the black female imagination:
I have all the feelings about the last decade of conversation about single black women as being broken and undesirable. ... Yes, there is a longing among many black women in our age range for good partnerships and family structures that matter for us, but the problem is that those family structures don’t have to look nuclear. And the thing that I wanted folks to think about was—not just about why black women aren’t finding partners, but to think about where do black women get the idea that this is the only way to build a family? ...
For me, the investment in nuclearity was about all of this sort of emotional stuff around stability, around wanting access to the middle class, around wanting to be an overachiever in every area, and around not wanting to be a stereotype and all of that stuff. ... Overachieving black women, we try to apply the same sort of approach to every part of our lives. It’s like, “Show me what the rules are. I follow the rules. I get the A’s; I get the trophies; I get the achievements.” And personal life, it just does not work that way. It just doesn’t.
But even if we concede that life doesn’t always—or even generally—go according to our best-laid plans, why are so many of us still preoccupied with the type of security that we believe romantic partnerships provide, when it’s often the foundational friendships that truly sustain us, whether or not those nuclear partnerships ever come to fruition?
What are the obstacles preventing some black women from forming the close female bonds we so desperately need to thrive? And why do so many of us resist claiming feminism as a tool for ourselves? Cooper believes that the answer lies not only in examining our fixation with nuclear family structures but, often, also in confronting our innate homophobia:
Other black feminist scholars have said it, but one of the reasons that black women sometimes don’t have great friendships with each other is because we’re scared of the closeness, and what it means for our sexual capital with men.
And I’m very tired of us deciding what our relationship to feminism is going to be because of whether or not it will help us to get men or not. That just can’t be a priority in the same way—and I get why it is, but look: Like many black girls, most of my adult life has been spent alone, or in terrible “situationships”—you know, it’s a black girl’s story. Without feminism, I feel like I wouldn’t have known how to keep on moving on and picking up the pieces of my life and building something magnificent.
And so, that is why I’m so deeply not invested in the project of straightness—and that doesn’t have anything to do with [sexual] desire. But sometimes, in those moments when I wasn’t dating, my girl being like, “Well, B., your ass looks fly in that dress” made the difference, right? If I hadn’t had a compliment in three years, and my girls saw it—you know, the ability to say that, and then not be homophobic—that’s a kind of intimacy and care and love that all black girls should have access to.
It’s an all-too-relatable scenario, and consistent with the strong thread of empathy throughout Eloquent Rage. Truthfully, the book is a bit of a “come to Jesus”—both for Cooper herself and as a paying forward of the loving challenges she says have consistently kept her in check. It’s a phenomenon she fondly calls “the homegirl intervention.”
This thing about the “homegirl intervention” ... in some ways, the point of this book [is] that at every critical moment of my life, that a black girl—whether she be a black girl related to me, mom or grandmama or a friend—has come along and just snatched my edges in a way that’s like: “Naw, you don’t have that right. Turn around and think about it differently, or consider another perspective.” It’s always very loving, but it’s also a challenge, like, a loving challenge.
I think there is a way black women have learned to do that for each other. And I also wanted to hold the complexity [that] I don’t always think we do it well. Sometimes I think we hurt each other when we don’t do our own work and our shit gets mixed up in it and we don’t show up for each other. ... I know lots of black girls who have wanted these deep connections with black women, and then sometimes you just meet the wrong sisters. And they are traumatized, and they don’t show up for you. And it sours black women on the ability to connect.
Part of that connection involves a type of unconditional loving of black womanhood that we rarely experience outside of our own networks. And while it definitely requires challenging and checking one another on our shit, Cooper cautions that feminism shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. It’s a lesson she ironically credits to her traditional Christian upbringing.
I just don’t make it my business to pull people’s feminist card, and here’s why: Church taught me that ... you know, we have all these sort of rules we want people to follow, and then as soon as they don’t follow the rules, then we banish them? When I left the old version of church-girl Christianity that I grew up with, I left it in every part of my life, and so I won’t do it in feminism.
And yes, that also applies to the oft-debated Beyoncé, whose declarations of feminism in recent years have sparked intense and polarized responses among black women, from beauty shops to bell hooks. Cooper, who’s personally opted to take the star at face value until proven otherwise, questions whether those who angrily deny Beyoncé’s purported evolution into feminism are always being emotionally honest about the source of their ire:
I felt like black girls wrote all these think pieces over the more “woke” albums in Beyoncé’s oeuvre, and there’s all this sort of righteous indignation about her being a capitalist or whatever. And I’m like, “This ain’t about that girl making her money; this is about the fact that she’s the light-skinned pretty girl, and she’s got the dude and she’s got the babies and all the things. ... For you, she can only be that if she is unserious, unwoke and fairly vapid.
And so, her desire to have some substance behind what she does, I think it just infuriated black girls who can’t access that same level of privilege—or black girls who can, and who wanted to perform that they aren’t like her.
And it feels important to say that, because I’m a fat, dark-skinned black girl who—I find myself attractive, but I understand that I’m not Beyoncé attractive; most of us are not, and that’s fine. But it feels really important to say that, because I absolutely think light-skinned privilege is real; I think pretty privilege is real; and I think we all know when girls are doing light-skinned-girl shit.
All of those kinds of privilege? They are real. But at the same time, to me, my read is that this was the moment when the smart, nerdy girls got to be the bullies, and they took it. And I just—I’m like, this is not what we’re fighting for. This is not what I’m in this for.
So what is Cooper fighting for? The better question is, who is she fighting for? And it’s us. Whether you agree with her on every point, what is abundantly clear is that Cooper prioritizes black women’s liberation and well-being above all else. She just wishes we would, too.
I just want to put on the table the idea that this whole black feminism thing is so much more fun if we’re just seeing it as an opportunity to talk about ourselves in a space where we don’t get the chance to do that very much. We can talk about ourselves; we get to be the stars of the story; our genius is actually recognized and appreciated. ...
I want black girls to know that when I see black girls, I see us as a site of the possible. I don’t see black girls’ lives as problems; I see them as an excess of possibility. And for me, that is the most radical space from which to begin.