Brittney Cooper's Eloquent Rage
Sure, the Personal is Political … but Then So Are Our Contradictions
Recognitions and Company
Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower was published in 2018 by St. Martin's Press.
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
Sure, the Personal is Political … but Then So Are Our Contradictions
Full disclosure: I’m not always sold on invocations of “the personal is political”—a phrase of Audre Lorde and Combahee River Collective origins that, on its face, has become feminist common sense. Yet the phrase has been misused in a vast array of neoliberal me-ologies that border on self-indulgence, first-worldness, and the seductions of consumerist capitalism. One can now form a feminist politics out of spa day Groupons and $400 Rihanna tour tickets.
I fucking love spa days, and Rihanna’s line of perfectly matched liquid foundations changed my yellow-undertoned life. I can check off all my contradictory feminist snags that were laid open in Manifesta, and Bad Feminist. I made audible affirmations when Angela Davis wrote that our interior lives—our emotions, our hearts, the places that masculinist movements deemed beyond the reach of the political discourse—are all highly informed by ideologies. In Davis’s equation, our emotions aren’t an aside to macropolitical spheres; rather, our desires, insecurities, and self-awareness are manifestations of it. Recent waves of popular feminist writings, however, increasingly emphasize the obvious inverse of that equation, and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage is a deeply personal confessional where lived experiences deliver her to the doorstep of her feminist awareness. Cooper opens with a thoughtful mea culpa about her own rage—an emotion that has been denied African American women and weaponized against them to violent ends. Cooper is unapologetically reclaiming this right to rage. She layers personal narratives around complicated childhood friendships, homegirl interventions, romantic loneliness, abusive fathering, and a violent murder attempt on her mother. Her chapter on “White Girl Tears” is where she shines best by doing what she does best: using both biography and scholarly lens to cook up popular culture, gender theory, and historical analysis into a biting indictment of white women’s anti-intersectionality—in this case the particular failings of white feminists to “gather” white women in the 2016 elections. Cooper threads, among many other items, Ida B. Wells’s Red Record, Iggy Azalea’s laughable attempt at hip hop, and George H.W. Bush’s racist campaign scare tactics as evidence that the vast majority of white women’s political interests have been overwhelmingly race-loyal, and not really women’s interests at all. While the chapter will not be new information for feminist race scholars, it is a handy and accessible catchall for a consensus of ideas that women of color have espoused about the Women’s March and other current moments. I personally will be handing it out as stocking stuffers at my next gender studies conference. The chapter epitomizes much of the strength in Cooper’s voice in the book overall—she perfects the hurt of her formative years into an artful marksman-like outrage in her feminist teachings and writings.
Eloquent Rage would be a great title for a furious tirade, but that’s not what it is. Cooper’s “Capital B, Capital F” for Black Feminism might also be for Big Feels, as she dives head first into them. Cooper talks a lot about friendships with Black women. Friendships that saved her, friendships that isolated or betrayed her, friendships that introduced her to writers, friendships that operated as a “Black girl adult-version of the Babysitter’s Club” (45). If anyone comes to this work expecting a personal memoir to unfold into a course reader on Black feminist thought, know that this is not what you will get. With Eloquent Rage, Cooper offers refreshingly honest and vulnerable insights into her life: a mapped journey of Black Feminist awareness as a mirror into herself.
Which circles back to the shifting in my seat I sometimes do when “the personal is political.” I cannot square with an insistence that because one is feminist, every experience, interaction, or preference we have is also feminist. I will sacrifice myself in this example: I like trap music and Dove invisible solid deodorant. The former is expressly antifeminist. The latter makes my armpits smell like warm laundry all day long, and it exploits occasionally racist faux feminist marketing to sell a product that could probably give me breast cancer (again). I know the difference between my being a feminist and liking things, and those things being feminist because I like them. Yet Cooper takes leaps to hand-pick as unequivocally feminist things she does and/or likes (and condemns what she does not do or like). Here I am speaking of a small inventory of items throughout the book, including her pronounced adoration of Beyoncé, not just because Cooper is a fan but because Beyoncé is her “feminist muse” (26). I’m fairly uninterested in reacting to Beyoncé calling herself a feminist and using the word as a literal stage prop. For me it’s no different than Taylor Swift and Katy Perry’s “girl power” feminism, now a requisite for female pop stars’ sales. Sarah Palin, too, called herself a feminist. Ivanka Trump called herself a feminist and her father a champion of women’s empowerment. But while Cooper is perfectly welcome to politically lionize a performer she likes, she derides Black feminists who critique Beyoncé as having purely personal motives. She goes as far as to indict these detractors as “using the power of feminism to punch down (or up) at the mean girls who they resented in childhood. I’m no therapist, but I’m a Black girl’s Black girl, and I know Black-girl pain when I see it. Many of us couldn’t access pretty privilege, those of us who weren’t popular or cool, those of us nerdy girls who stayed to ourselves, wrote stories and dreamed of lives as writers, grew up and found a home in feminism” (32).
This is one of a handful of misapplications of politics-as-personal where Cooper’s pure conjecture bludgeons the personhoods of those she would rather dismiss. Cooper is willing to psychologize critics as “unpretty” and “unpopular” perennial malcontents, and flatly misrepresents the words of bell hooks and others as speaking from a politics of resentment. She never pauses to acknowledge her Moynihan-scented conclusion that Black women’s political realities operate from personal pathologies. I did not arrive at feminism as an emotional refuge from social dejection. I defected to feminism from college beauty pageants because it made political sense to me. Cooper’s argument rests on Black women and their feminisms being complex, so, sure, Beyoncé can be anyone’s feminist spark. But then, Beyoncé, too, would be complicated and rife with her own contradictions. To point those out would be the rightful place of Black feminist discourse. But for Cooper, it couldn’t be that some of us are poor Black women in our radical Marxist tradition critiquing a luxe commodification of feel-good feminism. It couldn’t be that we are Third World feminists who would like to discuss where Beyoncé’s line of fitness apparel is manufactured. It couldn’t be that we are trans feminists wondering why Beyoncé wouldn’t pull her tour out of a nationally boycotted North Carolina when her records drank from Black femmes as muses. It must be that we’re in pain and not pretty. Cooper elevates her own rage as righteous—and I agree it is. But to disparage Black feminist dissent as apolitical bitterness takes some real ... ovaries ... when writing a whole memoir’s worth of feminist validation for your own hurt feelings.
Whether or not we are okay with our dangling contradictions, we must first acknowledge them fully and honestly as contradictions in the ways we all practice internal antifeminisms. My own “personal” is uninterested in a reinvention of Black feminist politics every time Beyoncé goes on tour. Ultimately, Eloquent Rage offers readers a front-row seat into one Black woman’s gestation into feminist awareness, but I am uneasy about the room it leaves for other Black women to do the same.
Saida Grundy is a feminist sociologist of race and ethnicity. Her research to date has focused upon formations and ideologies of gender within the Black middle class–specifically men. Using ethnographic approaches and in-depth interviews, her current work examines graduates of Morehouse College, the nation’s only historically Black college for men. This work asks how, in light of an ongoing national reality and discourse about young Black men in crisis, the men of Morehouse experience gender and manhood at an institution that attempts to groom them as solutions to this crisis. Her current book manuscript on race, masculinity, and institutionalization will be under contract with University of California Press and expands upon this work. In 2018 she was named a Woodrow Wilson Career Enhancement Fellow and a Junior Faculty Fellow of the Boston University Center for the Humanities.
Recognitions and Company
My feelings, for their part, go on strike against me all the time, showing up with picket signs that scream truths I’d rather not hear, all while demanding that I renegotiate terms.
—Brittney Cooper (Eloquent Rage, 204)
What might one want when reading a personal narrative, a memoir, a story with multiple timelines embedded—the author’s, her family’s, the nation’s—with attention as sharply focused on ideas as on the circumstances of our social moment? In Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, ideas and circumstances are so intertwined that political consciousness becomes a marker for both rage and generosity. In many ways I found myself rereading my own life (although I’m thirty years Cooper’s senior) as a parallel examination, a hook for my and others’ attention.
And since this text is written by one of the cofounders of the Crunk Feminist Collective (a well-regarded and highly successful blog founded by a group of feminist-of-color scholar-activists), what is the work of a public intellectual? Some part of that work surely is to provide a ground for conversations that are larger than ourselves—even as those conversations are resonant with where we are, where we have been, or where we might be when we’ve survived the lacerations produced by living with racism, sexism, homophobia, and class deprivations, in short, recognizing our limits and testing our strengths given those realities. Eloquent Rage performs vulnerability as part of a willingness to entrust the larger public with what is often held to be private.
The text is a narrative of Cooper’s coming to consciousness, not a linear progression but a retracing through memories, through reconstructions of everyday encounters, through events of social compliance and noncompliance. It’s an account of the generosity of loving, of her encounters with her own moments of empathy, of her management of disappointments, and of moments of her direct address to contemporary ugliness, articulated both through childhood encounters and through a rich enmeshment in the history of our present.
Representation—re-presentation of the remembered self as well as the currently engaged self—is no easy task, and Cooper’s narrative is not a general telling of what a Black woman must be. It is, instead, a survey of her recollected and recollecting existence, one that dares to proffer lessons for those of us who share her experience of US white supremacy and patriarchy.
Cooper walks us through a warning—“owning anger is a dangerous thing” (2)—and I’m reminded both of the costs of swallowing rage and the complexity of aiming that rage. “Focused with precision,” Audre Lorde wrote and Cooper quotes, “[rage] can become a powerful source of energy serving progress” (5). Here I find myself recalling the pleasure of venting sessions with close friends and colleagues that began with “I’m so pissed. . . .” I’m realizing that a deep exhalation was required, as though anger were a contraband that I could only exchange in secrecy. Cooper’s narrative invites us to rethink the possibility of that contraband as a warm-up to rage precision.
A forceful reminder—“When I talk about owning eloquent rage as your superpower it comes with the clear caveat that not everyone is worth your time or your rage” (35)—prompted me to remember the usefulness of channeling rage into something more, a messier, more dangerous form of revolution than “productive” ends such as teaching, writing, political activism, not killing one of my siblings.
And while the reminder of the need for rage precision is both accurate and useful, it is presaged by Cooper’s description of her chattering twelve-year-old self, who caused potential Black friends to abandon her at the zoo, a self lacking in the cool that would allow her to make the social connections she came to realize were necessary because “Black girls had to stick together” (17). If seeing the need for rage is the result of multiple scenes of instruction, then learning through hurt that Black girls need each other is a reminder that rage itself is a hardening of responses to hurt, and that hurt has a long genealogy in encounters with racism. “So much of what it meant to be a Black girl among white girls was to be spectator and coconspirator in their construction of me” (50), Cooper writes. This, this is the kind of thing that I had forgotten, possibly because of its painfulness. Eloquent Rage brought it back to my consciousness with the old force blunted enough that I could gain some self-knowledge as I watched Cooper dragging herself across the ragged edges of her memory having survived the original lacerations.
The grace of Cooper’s self-exposure and that self’s learning, without falling into the US myth of the rugged individual, is apparent when she writes: “If every woman and girl learned to love herself fiercely, the patriarchy would still be intact” (91). The notion of love as necessary but insufficient for patriarchy-busting is presaged by an earlier warning of the need for a larger social love: “If Black women don’t figure out how to love other Black women . . . it will be the death of us” (23). This may sound like hyperbole, but think about the basic ills and horrors of everyday life for many Black women—bearing children, working, educating themselves, finding romantic and sexual partners—because an individual Black woman can’t be everything she needs in the face of all that history.
I found myself thinking about the complexities of Black women loving Black women as Cooper takes us through her response to Beyoncé: for example, her generous reading of Beyoncé’s popularity and her defense of Beyoncé as a feminist. Walking the reader through these pop-culture and critical discussions is a performance of intellectual generosity with regard to Beyoncé and to her interlocutors. Important as it is for those of us who work in cultural studies to engage the larger public discourse (especially in social media), I found myself smiling when I recalled my belated attention to Beyoncé. I connected with a junior colleague over our shared bemusement at having learned to pay attention by listening to the humorous “Drunk in Love,” attention that primed us to be ready for “Lemonade,” ready to be part of discussions with students, certainly, but even more importantly ready to see and respond to each other more directly: Black girls sticking together, Black women figuring out how to love other Black women, Black women learning to trust themselves because “we need each other to survive” (37)
As part of the necessary learning both for Cooper and for her reader, her mixed feelings about her father mark occasions when Cooper’s lacerations are apparent, but so too is the bravery of her younger self, a bravery built on a child’s emotional solidarity with her mother. Her ability to respond to his query “Do you love me?” with “No, because you hurt Mama” (78) was breathtaking when I remembered my own childhood reticence with a father I feared. That bravery is joined by a later moment when Cooper’s hard-won recognition is recounted with throat-closing clarity and pain: “My father … showed far more empathy for the man who shot him than he ever showed for the woman he claimed to love the most” (94).
The text’s clarity extends to its fascinating takedown of respectability politics, from Cooper’s account of hair aesthetic enforcements, to Michelle Obama’s hyperscrutinized time as first lady, to the violent assault of a Black high school girl by a white resource officer (147). Yet some part of Cooper’s complicated recitation of rage and Black-girl love rests in the contradictions apparent therein: the poignancy of “Are Black girls ever worth fighting for?” is juxtaposed with “I have learned to defend myself because I’ve never been able to rely on a man to do it for me” (83).
I’ve had way too much experience, too many times when I trained myself not to want what I could not have, such that I felt a strange lightening of that self-discipline when seeing the contradictions exposed and articulated by Cooper’s narrative. I can recognize a work, a memoir, a self-encounter still in progress. And what I’m left with, as I think about the narrative at its end, is a sense of its honesty, its willingness to undergo self-scrutiny in the eye of the public, its demanding that the author “renegotiate terms” (204)—a response that contends with the recurring fear, especially in the fierce conditions of life for Black women in this now, that no one will love us if they see the all that we are.
Wahneema Lubiano is an associate professor in Duke's Department of African and African American Studies. Her primary areas of interest include black cultural studies, black American fiction and popular culture, mass incarceration, and radical pedagogy.