Saying Brittney Cooper is a feminist is like saying Beyoncé can sing a little. Or that Serena Williams ain’t half bad with a racket. An author and scholar, Cooper is an intellectual force, a brilliant writer with the sage ability to put her finger on what ails America, which includes racism, sexism and patriarchy.
She’s also the keynote speaker at Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi’s annual James Awards dinner. (Tickets to the Sept. 13 fundraiser are available here.)
Cooper, associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, is the author of “Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower.” We talked by phone last week. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What is your superpower and is it a version of black girl magic?
It is a version of black girl magic. My superpower is my eloquent rage –the righteous anger black women have over unrelenting, systemic injustice. Our anger is often weaponized against us in the political sphere. But rather than having black women continue to basically kill themselves trying to suppress the rage, I say own the rage. Reject the idea that the rage makes the work you want to do, or your perspective, illegitimate. Let it drive you in the way you do your work in the community.
One of the things that is part of the political discussion right now is the great pressure on black women right now to be respectable in public. We resist the angry black woman stereotype and we put on this veneer of strong black womanhood so that folks think that we’re impenetrable and we’re unfazed… But then when we look at black women’s health outcomes, we’ve got high blood pressure and all the things. I’m saying time out for that. I don’t think (rage) is a mark of weakness or a mark of us being out of control. It’s a very reasonable reaction to the conditions we face. My invitation to black women is to rethink their relationship with their rage.
How are you thinking about black women in the context of the Trump administration and the current political climate?
One consistent thread of the Trump campaign is that black women are acceptable casualties of Trump-based discourse.
I’m not a fan of (fired Trump White House liaison office communications director) Omarosa — I don’t know too many people who are — but you have a president who has used social media to call this woman a dog, to essentially assert that she’s the b-word.
And then I think about the fact that it’s not just that Maxine Waters claps back at the president, but that then her democratic colleagues say she’s civil. I’m saying, let us reject all of that. When Maxine says, “Reclaiming my time,” we know exactly what she means. There is a clarity that comes from rage. I do some of my best writing when I’m pissed off. The words become very clear. The stakes become very clear. So why do we have to conceive the idea that our anger makes us less prepared, less qualified?
And there’s a double standard here, too. That some people’s anger is worth considering and some people’s anger is not — right?
We have talked about white people’s anger as the driving force behind Trump’s presidency. We’ve talked about their anger as something that should be attended to publicly, and I’m saying black women’s feelings matter in politics. Black women’s feelings should be attended to and they shouldn’t be ignored in a way that denies their legitimacy.
You take some time in your book taking Southern black male pastors to task. You write that some are “are masters of propagating sexist common sense to achieve respectable outcomes.” You share a particularly poignant story about a banquet your mother and you attended when you were a teen. The pastor used a familiar verse about training up a child to try to shame black mothers — and your mother interrupted the pastor to disagree.
“Saying yes to a religious narrative about bad Black mothering that props up an even more pernicious state-based narrative that pathologizes Black mothers costs too much… In the absence of actual structural resources to ameliorate social problems, sermonic shaming and policy blaming is the opposite of help. It constitutes harm.”
I immediately thought of Rev. Jasper Williams, who employed the same theology while giving the eulogy at Aretha Franklin’s funeral last month. Among the horrible things he said was that a “black woman cannot raise a black boy to be a man,” knowing full well that Franklin raised her sons as a single mother.
I was infuriated. My dad is a Baptist minister, so I know who Jasper Williams is. To know that he would use a moment of vulnerability to abuse and propagate this theology — his ideas were anti-black, anti-black women and too much of the theology that we are getting from the pulpit is those very things. It blames black people for their social condition.
So Aretha is lying dead in a casket and you are literally standing in a pulpit preaching death-dealing theology. It is the worst iteration of the church. It’s like, “She’s dead and let me kill her again with the language of shame and blame.”
The logic of it is, we want you to feel like there are things you can take responsibility and do, but is anyone going to give us permission to stop blaming ourselves for conditions we didn’t create? The message is: Only think about individual transformation and never think about the big picture.
That’s why that message — to think about the big picture — becomes necessary in a place like Planned Parenthood. I’m tired of black church discourse that is based on the notion that any family that’s not based on a heterosexual, two-parent family is not of God. Most of the families in the Bible didn’t look that way.
You write about reproductive justice as well: “The movement to defund Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides critical health care to many poor women of color, has nothing to do with the desire of white men on the right for Black and Latina women to have more babies. Rather, these men seek to control reproduction itself because they want to control the life possibilities of all women.”
How are you feeling in this political moment where women and reproductive rights are under attack and Roe v. Wade could be overturned?
I have a lot of fear and anxiety about the moment we’re in, but I know the power of social movements to change conditions, so I am heartened by the fact that people are fighting and are out in the streets.
My grandmother has been the most clear example of the stakes of reproductive justice. She only wanted to have two children, but she had six children. She was talking about birth control — she said: We couldn’t get the stuff. That’s what she called it — the stuff. Birth control for married couples wasn’t legalized until 1965 and she had her last child in 1961. She talked about wanting to make particular choices around family planning and not having the resources to do so. That’s a world we can never go back to.
When you control women’s reproductive choices, you control their possibilities. I want to be trans-inclusive, so let me say: Anyone who is capable of carrying a baby, if other people control their reproduction, they control their possibilities and who they can be in the world. I consider that deeply ungodly. We’re fighting for a world in which we create the conditions for folks to build the kind of families they need.
When Trump and his cronies were talking about “Make America Great Again,” they weren’t only talking about a racial project. It’s deeply gendered. They want women’s primary job to be having babies and to raise those babies so they can assert themselves in the public sphere. The world that they want is one where women’s bodily autonomy has no place.
And that’s what the Trump “grab her by the pussy” comment means. He’s saying: I see women as people that I can do anything to. We keep saying, Oh, his constituents overlook that, but I believe the men who voted for him want that world as well. The version of the world Trump was selling is one where men could go around and grab women and do whatever they want to them without consequence.
That’s why we have to be loud and shrill and uncivilized and outraged. It’s time for all the things in this moment, short of violence. All the things are justified because we cannot afford to go back. But part of the reproductive struggle is also about the right to raise your child in safe conditions. What I hope we’ll continue to do is think as holistically as possible. We’ve got to care about schools. We’ve got to care about water.
It is and that’s why we have to fight like hell. And that’s what gives me hope. Women are fighting mad. And if we find enough points of unity, I think you can’t stop women. I hope we get aangrier and I hope we harness more power as we go.
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