Brittney Cooper, writer and associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, read from her new book at Red Emma’s on Thursday.
Her book, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, addresses how she accepted her anger about the treatment of black women in society.
Cooper said that her “breakthrough” came when she was confronted by a student who said that her anger about the treatment of black women was inspiring.
“[The student] said the anger made me better as a teacher, and that was a revolutionary concept to me. Because of the things I saw as a child — so much violence, a lot of instability, particularly in the younger parts of my childhood — I had lots of anger, because that kind of stuff is rage-inducing,” she said.
However, Cooper explained that the idea of embracing her anger was in direct conflict with her experiences as a child.
“I had seen my father struggle with addiction and was abusive, so I’ve only seen anger being used in the most destructive ways, so I was deeply afraid of my own anger,” she said.
Cooper said that this conversation with her student changed her attitude about her anger as a black woman. Because of this, she grew to embrace her anger and found use for it in her work as a scholar and activist.
“I had the right to be angry, and I could use that anger in service of the work I am here to do in the world, rather than resisting it or feeling ashamed about it or acting as though it isn’t there,” she said. “And so [my student] called my anger ‘eloquent rage.’ This is my tribute to her for seeing me, for naming a breakthrough for me, and it is also hopefully me calling and saying to other sisters who struggle with this, ‘I see you, and it’s fine. Use it, don’t run from it.’”
Cooper elaborated on her definition of “eloquent rage.”
“I’m not saying your rage has to look pretty. I’m not saying it has to be palatable. I’m not saying anything about it needing to be respectable,” she said. “I’m saying it needs to be eloquent. ‘Eloquent’ means it needs to be clear and expressive.”
For the first part of the reading, Cooper recited from a chapter called “Strong Female Leads,” which discussed the role that race plays in solidarity.
“I have a complicated relationship with white women,” Cooper said. “As clear as I am about needing black women as a matter of survival, I feel far less sure about the need to be in solidarity with white women.”
Cooper also discusses her experiences with racism as a child and with stereotypes of poor black women.
“We middle class women are taught that those women... make us all look bad. I never thought of poor women as making me look bad because my community of women was working-class,” she said.
According to Cooper, the crux of her anger is with the notion of what society thinks black women ought to do to be successful. She said that male preachers often push the idea of empowerment onto black women.
Cooper said that “empowerment” is a decidedly neo-liberal word that places the responsibility for combatting unjust systems on individuals.
According to Cooper, neo-liberalism is concerned with personal responsibility and individual self-recognition and she opposes the idea of self-empowerment.
Cooper explained that there is a difference between power and empowerment.
“The people who have real power — wealth, job security, influence — don’t attend empowerment seminars. Power is not attained from books or seminars — not alone, anyway. Power is conferred by social systems,” she said. “We must quit settling for one when what we really need is the other.”
Freshman Laura Hinson, who attended the event, said that Cooper’s message resonated with her. She was interested in Cooper’s claim that women’s passion is often misconstrued for anger.
“It’s something I personally identify with,” she said. “It’s something I’ve always struggled with: with my dad, my brother, my ex-boyfriend — all of them did that to me.”
Hinson also wanted to understand more about the difficulties faced by poor black women.
“It opened my eyes a lot to the struggles that go along with that community,” she said.
She addressed the responsibility she feels to understand the struggles faced by poor black women.
“It made me realize, maybe I’m not doing enough as a person to understand the community and that lifestyle and what they go through,” Hinson said. “Maybe I could be doing more, reaching out more to understand.”
Zelda Gilliam, a Baltimore resident who also attended the reading, discussed her frustration with her own anger and with her experience as a black woman.
“What happens when your rage is not eloquent? Because I feel like I’m so angry right now,” she said. “I’m sick and tired of the racism. Everyday you turn on the news, a black man, a black woman, a black child has been shot and killed.”
Gilliam expressed her lack of a place for support.
“I feel like I’m claiming a space in the world, but there’s not really a space for me. But I ain’t going nowhere,” she said.