“When the Democratic Party thinks about its future, it is preternaturally incapable of seeing Black women as people of the future or forward-looking,” says Brittney Cooper, a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and of Africana Studies at Rutgers University. “The right-[wing] associated any sort of social-service program — any kind of programs that are about the health and wellbeing of communities of color — to be about handouts to the undeserving poor. And unfortunately, what has happened on the left is that many liberal white people have unwittingly bought into that.”
Cooper is speaking about the enduring mismatch between who in America votes Democratic and who the party’s power structure views as its natural base. Specifically, Doug Jones’ surprise victory over Roy Moore in December’s Senate race in Alabama occurred only because of enormous turnout among people of color in that Deep South state — women in particular. Yet the party leadership charged Rep. Joseph Kennedy III with the largely symbolic role of delivering the official rebuttal to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address. An unremarkable dynast whose family’s glory days were more than 50 years ago, Kennedy is who someone Jerry Brown or Nancy Pelosi’s age might assume represents today’s Democratic Party. And this desperate pursuit of moderate-leaning white men ignores the mathematical reality that Black women save America over and over again.
Cooper is pessimistic that the party will figure this out anytime soon, and her new book, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, sets out to construct an alternative politics of emancipation.
“It was a way for me to take this stereotype that has dogged me and dogged many Black women throughout our lives — this angry Black woman thing — and try to figure out what is authentic about that,” she says. “Is there a way to usurp it and reframe it and use it for my own benefit, rather than have it be used against me?”
Noting that patriarchy and white supremacy are “a rage-inducing set of conditions” to live under, Cooper reconfigures the position of Black female bodies in American society. Eloquent rage, she says, is one of the modes in which Black women move through the world — yet she is equally frank that it can kill you. What she is optimistic about is that new generations are coming of age that know how to use rage productively, and platforms for digital Black feminism may force other people to listen. No longer will pernicious myths about “welfare queens” and “superpredators,” the 4chan rumors about Michelle Obama’s body, or the 1965 Moynihan Report — which diagnosed female-led Black households as a pathology and called for restoring men to their rightful place — set the tone.
It sounds like a grand project, analyzing a century of American history from 30,000 feet up. But Cooper’s book is a deeply personal one. Her raw intensity is folksy enough to say “fuck the patriarchy” and imagine God telling her “Girl, bye.” But there are tender moments about childhood friends who were cruel to her and how her father was killed on Friday the 13th, and how she as a single academic in her late 30s faces dwindling opportunities for conventional motherhood. Cooper claps back at anyone who doesn’t regard Beyoncé as the avatar of Black feminism, and elucidates how white supremacy corrodes Black women’s capacity for self-love.
As she writes, “We live in a nation that does everything to induce our rage while simultaneously doing everything to deny that we have a right to feel it.”
Her specific takes on revolutionary politics constitute perhaps the most intriguing sections of the book. Cooper, whose Twitter handle is @ProfessorCrunk and who will discuss Eloquent Rage with Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza at Booksmith on Thursday, March 1, regards any burn-it-all-down attitude as “decidedly masculinist.” She’s critical of the phallic overtones of how such sentiments dovetail a little neatly with the general destructiveness of American imperialism. Yet she’s no pacifist, either; she writes about taking flak online for her call to intervene on behalf of the 276 Nigerian girls who Boko Haram mass-kidnapped in 2014. (“Are Black girls ever worth fighting for?” she asks at one point.)
While Cooper is adamant that she would defend the right of Black people to get mad and destroy public property — “because I think that people matter more than property” — her vision builds off her previous book, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. Rather than destruction, she calls for the construction of a new social infrastructure. Earlier generations of Black women who built kindergartens and hospitals were often educated and middle-class — and therefore often slanted in a more socially conservative direction. But rather than get mired in the purity-leapfrogging of what Cooper calls “Wokeland,” she exhorts people to reconsider that historical legacy, with a bias toward action.
“The thing they saw was that the government has abandoned us,” Cooper says, “and if we want Black people to be able to live and thrive, then we have to create the structures for them to do so. … You can’t ask people to divest from the system if there is nowhere for them to go.”
Doing this kind of intellectual work has enabled Cooper to coexist peacefully with her rage. And the fact that her book tour for Eloquent Rage coincides with the release of the acclaimed blockbuster Black Panther is pure icing.
“This is the moment to have a superpower, for sure,” she says.
Brittney Cooper in conversation with Alicia Garza, Thursday March 1, 7 p.m., at Booksmith at the Bindery, 1727 Haight St. Free; booksmith.com