Author, intellectual and educator Brittney Cooper is a Black Feminist; capital “B,” capital “F.” It’s a distinction so important it’s the title of a chapter in her latest book, a groundbreaking work titled Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, out now on St. Martin’s Press.
Of course, some know Cooper better as a “crunk feminist,” having co-founded the Crunk Feminist Collective, so named because “what others may call audacious and crazy, we call crunk because we are drunk off the heady theory of feminism that proclaims that another world is possible.”
Eloquent Rage further explores that possibility, taking a more personal approach than its academic predecessor, 2017’s Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. In conversation with Cooper on behalf of The Glow Up, she tells me that Eloquent Rage is deliberately a very different book:
I think this is the book you get if you come over my house and sit on my sofa, and we have a glass of wine and we’re chopping it up about what feminist politics actually mean in the real daily lives of black women. ... Because I feel like these are the conversations I have with my girls; this is what it looks like for me and my girls and our particular experience of black womanhood in this moment, and I know so many black women for whom it is true.
And yet, it’s not a story you can go pick up on a bookstore shelf and have be affirmed. And I was tired at everyone preaching at black women with these very vacuous sort of portrayals of us that just didn’t ever seem to emotionally get it right.
In Eloquent Rage, Cooper deftly sifts through many of the emotional complexities and challenges of modern black women—and our mothers, and their mothers—using a deeply insightful and intimate cadence that feels as if you’re in conversation with an empathetic homegirl. While reading it, I often found myself nodding involuntarily, chuckling in agreement and throwing a hand up in praise. It was that relatable.
When we speak on the phone, Cooper’s cadence is equally genuine as we chat about life at the intersection of being black, female, feminist and uncomfortably aware of how frequently undervalued we are. It’s a condition Cooper feels we have every right to be angry about:
The other thing that I really want to do with the book—which is why “rage” is so prominently featured—is to think about the problem of anger with black women. Because there’s this stereotype that dogs so many of us that we’re “angry.” We get accused of being angry even when we’re not, and we’re just sort of going about our lives. ...
What does it look like to both say, “Yeah, we’re mad as hell about the ways that the world treats black women consistently and relentlessly,” and then think about what it looks like to have that rage, to own it and to use it in ways that are beneficial to us, rather than letting other people weaponize it against us?
Cooper wrote Eloquent Rage in the tradition of black feminist works like Audre Lorde’s The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism and bell hooks’ killing rage: Ending Racism. But while equally potent, Eloquent Rage feels instantly accessible; likely because of Cooper’s approach in creating an intellectual framework independent of the academic:
For me, I had to fall back on black women in my life who didn’t rely on books in the same way to help them get free, but who were like, “Baby, this is what it looks like to just live your life.” And to sort of get in the thick of things, and try to make it work. ...
[I]n many ways, I’m just writing the version of that book for folks who are our age and who are dealing with a set of structural experiences that are very reminiscent of things our folks have always gone through, but feel acute to us in this moment, because we’re trying to wade through them.
As she was writing, Cooper says, she felt the presence and guidance of her late grandmother. Specifically, it focused her on the “knowing” that black women often seem to possess, a knowledge exclusive of advanced degrees and often perceived as anti-intellectualism. For Cooper as both an epistemologist and a black feminist, exploring this knowing is central to her work:
I wanted to know, how did my grandmama know? How was she so spot-on in a way that all of the stuff that I read in books didn’t prepare me for?
And that’s also why it felt really important to me to have this book—particularly in this moment of academic feminism, where everyone is very obsessed with having the right language, the right frameworks, all of the “woke” sort of shit. ... To me, in the end, if you get all of the language right—but you’re miserable? As I say in the book: That’s a failure, not a win.
And if we get all of the academic tenets of feminism right, if we get our intersectionality right, and we name all our identities properly and we have this sort of vain intersectional analysis—but you treat people like shit—you don’t really love yourself, or other women, or femme or queer folk, or trans folk. If you don’t really love and are not really committed to being in struggle in ways that help everybody to live better, and live more fully, then you’re not doing shit. ...
And you can’t actually get any of that through the academic. You just can’t. I’ve read most of the academic tomes on black feminism, and I can tell you that this kind of insight just doesn’t come from those kinds of books.
Ultimately, Eloquent Rage is an intimate glimpse into the mind of one of the pre-eminent black feminists of her generation. The subtitle of the book is “A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower.” But while Cooper claims she didn’t intend to write such a personal book, she allows us to discover it with her.
“The way I always justified it is, ‘I feel crazy,’” she admits. “And so, if I can help another black girl feel less crazy, then that is a worthy goal.”
In the process, while dropping truth bombs on every page, Cooper doesn’t shy away from expressing potentially unpopular opinions—including her feelings about Beyoncé, Hillary Clinton and black queer women, the latter of which she feels black feminism owes a tremendous debt:
I feel like I came to understand black feminism because of the work of black queer women. ... the tradition is indebted to the labor of black queer women. But also the ways that black folks making the choice to love each other in a world that hates us? There is something queer about that—and by “queer,” I mean lowercase “q,” in the sense of refusing the normalizing project of white supremacy or heterosexuality.
Cooper is also clear on being a feminist rather than a womanist; fully aware of both the possibilities and implications in embracing a label so heavily associated with white women. When asked why, she’s quick to respond that America was built on the free labor of black people—including black women—which makes us as worthy to participate in the project of feminism as anyone else:
I fundamentally trust the feminism of black women and women of color far more than I trust any kind of “woke” project from white girls. ... White girls didn’t teach me anything about feminism; my entire introduction to feminism, thankfully, came from black women. [But] I’m not interested at all in the sort of like, “We hate white girls” version of black feminism that is real hot right now. I’m over it. Who cares what Becky is doing? No one cares. ...
What do black women and girls need? What does it look like to create a world in which black women and girls can thrive? That should always be the fundamental opening question.
I’m clear about what the limitations of a white feminist project are because so much of white women’s feminism has been about their proximity to white men, and wanting to have what white men have. But here’s the thing: That’s also true for black men. Black men’s whole freedom project is “We want what white men have.”
And black women are the only folks I can see—except maybe indigenous people—[who say,] “Look, we don’t have gender privilege, we don’t have race privilege; and that means that our freedom project around those things is not defined by what white men do or have or want.” Like, none of it. The imagination of white men, it’s just not the creative universe in which black women move.
The creative universe of black women is ultimately the locus of Cooper’s concern, and of Eloquent Rage. She warns against both a black feminism that is reactive and the inherent danger of needing to be “right,” risking becoming the very thing we claim to hate. For her, it’s an ongoing exercise in humility:
No one can emerge from this work and not be implicated. So I want people to think about how our investments in any kind of dominance—either dominance or rightness, when you aspire to be right above everybody else—how that is always the death knell of anything good. ...
I didn’t write a book that chronicles the lessons that I’ve already learned; these are lessons I’m actively having to learn in my daily life. And so, I feel like I’m more acutely aware of how much farther I still need to go.