Brittney Cooper on rage as a superpower
In the conversation with writer and Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Otis Taylor Jr. talked with her about rage, the hearings to put Brett Kavanuagh, credibly accused of sexual assault by three women, on the Supreme Court, and tennis player Serena Williams’ recent experience with an umpire at the U.S. Open.
The two were at Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas, and Cooper, a tennis fan, right between Serena and her sister, Venus, in age, had plenty to say about Williams and the umpire accusing her of cheating. In an interview after her talk, Cooper, the author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, talked more about Williams’ anger and our reaction to it.
She pointed out there was plenty behind Williams’ frustration, including tennis officials showing up at her house to drug test her although she has never tested positive for anything. To accuse Williams of cheating when she has won 23 Grand Slams — more than any other player — disrespects her entire career, Cooper says.
“People perceive black women at the moment you see the blowup — they never see the disrespect compounded by race and gender,” she said. “Those in power always read black people and women out of context, and it allows them to be dismissive of the claim being made. So women are read as just shrill and hysterical because there’s no context that justifies this level of upset or emotion. It’s the moment when the women yelled at Jeff Flake in the elevator — what they say to him is, ‘Your actions today are a commentary on my context.’ When we’re seeing the rage of marginalized people, it always makes sense in context, which is precisely why those in power have a vested interest in always reading it out of context.”
This rage can power movements for justice, Cooper says, and she thinks Black people are at the vanguard of that.
“We might have the first Black woman governor in this country, and we have a Democratic senator in Alabama,” she said, speaking of Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor of Georgia, and Doug Jones, who last year won the Senate seat previously held by Jeff Sessions. “And that is the product of Black women saying, ‘Hell, no — we won’t stand for this,’” she said. “That is Black rage shifting the possibilities of the Democratic party in the right direction.”
In Eloquent Rage, along with anger, Cooper writes about friendship, hip-hop, family, her own personal journey, and love — her job as a Black feminist, she writes, is to love Black women and girls. She also writes about how rage can move us forward. She quotes a line about rage from Audre Lorde’s book Sister Outsider — which she says was like a feminist bible to her — “Focused with precision, it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.”
Williams is an example of a woman who has focused her rage with precision, Cooper thinks, and she wants to do the same thing. She opens the book with a story of how she had tried to hide her anger, to avoid playing into the stereotype of an angry Black woman. One day she ran into a former student, a young Black woman, who told her that her she had loved Cooper’s lectures, which she said were filled with “eloquent rage.” At first Cooper felt defensive, used to white people calling her angry to dismiss her, but this student was saying Cooper’s rage inspired her.
In Berkeley, Cooper talked about what this meant to her, saying it felt like her student was an “affirming mirror.”
“All of a sudden, there was a young Black woman saying, ‘I see you, and I get it, and how you do the thing you do opens up ways for me to be me,’” she said. “For any teacher I know, that’s the payoff. That was the moment when I felt like, ‘Oh, maybe I’m doing something right.’ I have imposter syndrome really bad — grad school breeds it — so it sliced through the imposter syndrome.”
Cooper’s book, which came out in February, has recently been joined by two other books about female rage, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger, by Rebecca Traister, and Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, by Soraya Chemaly. The first explores the role of women’s anger in politics, the second how women are taught to swallow their rage from the time they are children. Cooper’s book deals with love and violence (her father was shot several times — once by a former boyfriend of her mother’s who also shot her mother — and he was killed by a gun when Cooper was 9 years old), and how rage can create change. Along with the Williams sisters, she talks about how she’s inspired by Michelle Obama and Ida B. Wells, who she thinks also have also focused their rage with precision, and Beyoncé, whose definition of feminism — “I love being a woman and I love being a friend to other women” — Cooper says should be a feminism’s tagline.
The three books show rage has become part of the political zeitgeist, Cooper says, uniting women across race and class.
“Having a white woman, a woman of color, and a Black woman all holding forth on the importance of rage is us trying to take down one of sacred cows of patriarchy,” she said. “That’s the idea that women’s emotions somehow discredit us from being anything other than housewives.”
Cooper says the anger of white men is not the same as that of women and people of color, and we need to respect the rage of oppressed people.
“I am a proponent of rage because it is the one way I know to respect the humanity of marginalized groups,” she said. “I think the quickest way to deny people are human is to do forms of injustice to them, and then claim that they don’t have right to be mad about it.”
Rage can remind us we don’t have to settle for less, she says, and she sees that bringing some hopeful changes in politics.
“In 2016 and 2017, we have elected these progressive Black women mayors, and we’re electing them in the South — New Orleans, Charlotte,” she said. “Pay attention to that because I actually think that’s a harbinger of good things to come.”
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