The Ms. Q&A: Brittney Cooper on Grown Women, Sex-Positive Sermons and Eloquent Rage

Black feminist public scholar and Rutgers University professor Brittney Cooper has authored a new book, Eloquent Rage, on the heels of her accomplished scholarly work, Beyond Respectability. Touching on topics as varied as feminism, antiracism, Black Lives Matter, the Black Church, Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton, Eloquent Rage is a tour de force page-turner that bridges the urgency of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me with the grown-woman honesty of Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost.

Ms. had a chance to chat with Dr. Cooper about her latest work—and how often the personal becomes the political.

It’s interesting how you wrote two books back to back, one that’s more academic, and the other that is more for a general audience. Could you talk about your writing process?

I would not recommend it. Writing back-to-back was insane! But it’s how the chips fell. Eloquent Rage is a different kind of writing. It required a different emotional labor, but it wasn’t the academic research labor. I write both academically and for popular audiences, but I care more about how to move communities and to write in community. I want to be able to communicate homegirl-to-homegirl about patriarchy, which is what I attempted to do with Eloquent Rage.

I was especially moved by your chapter, “The Smartest Man I Never Knew,” about your absentee father. You were able to connect the personal with the political, with social structures and policies. You were making powerful connections. It’s rare for us, I think, to address the struggles black women face in finding and sustaining intimate relationships through a wider political and social lens.

What bothers me when I hear people talk about black relationships in the Steve Harvey/Tyler Perry pop-culture way is that we often get away from the structural causes, and black women end up blaming themselves or seeing themselves as inadequate.

I noticed when you talk about generational differences between yourself, your mother and your grandmother, the theme of violence is present. Going back to your father’s story, I thought it was interesting the way you connect intimate violence, racism and militarism. Are we still dealing with the same toxic explosion of these issues? Have we made any progress on this front?

Domestic violence rates in this country have gone down astronomically since the 1970s, and that’s true across races, so I don’t want to suggest we haven’t made any progress. But still it’s so normative that if I talk to the women in my mom’s generation, in my family, they can share stories of brutal violence. And when I talk to my homegirls, they share similar stories, so sexual violence is still pervasive. I think that within our communities, there is deep-seated rage and not a lot of resources to deal with that. If structural conditions don’t get better and folks don’t have more access to mental health, and there’s increasing pressure to do more with a decreasing level of the social safety net, and an internal pressure with each other around how to be romantic partners, helped along with the explosion of romantic narratives—all of that is a stew for failure.

When I wrote that chapter, I didn’t realize the generational levels of violence. It’s one thing to hear the stories; it’s another to sit down and write them down and realize that you might be living in a pattern you didn’t even know you were a part of. I’m still grappling with that. At 37, I’ve managed to not be a victim of domestic violence, and so hopefully that means that I’m able to break the cycle. But sometimes I think this has something to do with my own ingenuity, or that I have simply dated less partners than my mother and grandmother have dated, and perhaps it’s very sadly just a numbers game. I’m not sure.

I like how you blame President Bill Clinton for our intimate state of affairs—mass incarceration and bank deregulation were enabled by his policies—but you also talk about admiring his wife Hillary Clinton and supporting her presidential candidacy. When you juxtapose their legacies, what is the lesson we need to learn from the 2016 election?

If we want a left-leaning politics in a two-party system, the only way to get integrity on the left is to have massive social movements. I don’t think that the radical vision of the world that we want will happen unless you have people in the streets. But I also think we need to keep front and center an analysis of all the ways that patriarchy shows up in our national life. Because of white women’s broad complicity in white supremacy, this has muddled our ability to have a sharp and clear analysis of patriarchy. We’re in a precarious moment of feminist solidarity because there is so much anger among young black folks over white women and their complicity.

One of the things I wanted to do in this book is not to cape for Hillary—I know it will be perceived that way, and that’s fine—but it always struck me that there was such a referendum against her. I could not stand Bill Clinton because we can mark in tangible ways the series of policies that led to the social devastation of this moment. Certainly, Hillary championed many of those policies, but when pushed, she evolved, and that is what we hope for: politicians who can be pushed and are willing to evolve. And I worry about a world in which we allow white men to evolve—we allowed Joe Biden to evolve beyond what he did to Anita Hill—but we didn’t allow Hillary to evolve beyond being a ride-or-die chick for her husband.

Speaking of evolving, I really enjoyed the chapter, “Grown Woman Theology,” where you share an anecdote of your grandmother, even before your “homegirls,” advising you to have sex, to be a “grown woman,” even while you adhered to a Christian evangelical ideal of being a “good girl.” Of course, it’s all about evolving beyond those sexual limitations. If you could preach a sex-positive sermon for the church, where would you start, and what would you highlight?

I’m doing some work around this now. I would do a sermon called “Shall I Have Pleasure?” It would be from the Book of Genesis about Sarah, the wife of Abraham, when God comes to Abraham and says, “I’m going to give you a son,” and he says this to Sarah as well. And what I’m struck by is how Sarah, who’s 90 years old, starts laughing. Her first question is not “Are you serious? I’m going to have a baby?” It’s “Shall I have pleasure?” I read that as a leading question whose answer we’re all supposed to affirm with a “Yes!” That even at this advanced age, where you’re down for the count and there are no more possibilities for you and your life is past, the biblical narrative reminds us that pleasure is a birthright and is the divine right of women to have. I would begin at the beginning with this kind of story about what it means to reclaim one’s right to pleasure, after a tough life when you had some dreams that didn’t come true. My sense is, and I say this in the book, women for whom the Bible is still central to them need a message about the divinity of their own pleasure, their right to it and what it means to ask for it and to assert one’s right. I would ask women to ask a different set of questions for themselves and for their set of possibilities in the world. When women ask different questions, then different possibilities emerge. And I’m still churchy enough to believe God meets us there in those questions when we begin to press for more than the things that we see. That would be something like the sermon I would like to preach.

I like that you focus on the mature woman for this sermon.

Yes! Everyone thinks sex is only about young women. But for so many of us, the story is that we were good girls, we were the faithful wives, we were the ones who followed all the rules. And you end up past your prime childbearing age. You didn’t get to have the children. You didn’t get the suburban fantasy, if that was the thing you wanted. And you’re past the point where you have any value in society. You’re not considered young and sexy anymore. There’s a way that, culturally, you could just give up on yourself and say these things are clearly off the table. There’s a conversation to be had with young women about learning the tools to advocate for oneself early so these struggles won’t necessarily be theirs, but the older I get, the more I realize there’s also a conversation to be had with women who are past the hopefulness of youth. We need to be able to say to those women: “This can still be yours. You’re still entitled to this. If you’re still in the land of the living, if this is a thing that you want, then consider it a radically divine idea that you just might be able to have it.”

I want to hear that sermon! This conversation is in keeping with the grown womanhood theme throughout the book, especially in the way you articulate your interest in the feminism of “Grown Woman Beyoncé.” She too strikes me as a “good girl,” growing up in that context. She was a Southern church girl, and despite her status as a sex symbol, she conformed to certain expectations by marrying at a certain age and having a child within that marriage. Of course, her visual album Lemonade just explodes all these expectations!

This is the thing I’ve always suspected about Beyoncé. I think her narrative in the public eye becomes one where all the sacred cows that she had come to believe in—the heteronormative, upper-middle-class black fantasy—explodes, in part due to her father cheating on her mother and having other children outside the marriage. Her mom is gorgeous, but that obviously doesn’t matter. Being beautiful didn’t work to keep the man faithful. And she too is dealing with this, which is a question she poses on Lemonade: “Am I talking about your husband or your father?” She too is married to a powerful man and has this fantasy that if she’s gorgeous and has this great career, if she’s maternal, cool and all these things, this will somehow lead to a faithful and successful fairy tale. And it turns out that your partner is not as committed as you are, that love is not enough, fantasy is not enough—and those are hard “grown woman” truths to have to face.

I read so many thinkers who come back to love as the animating force for why they do the work that they do. But I wonder, what if love is not enough? What if you love a person who’s trifling, or you love a thing that’s not healthy for you? Being grown, being a grown woman, is about making the choice to be responsible for one’s own happiness rather than falling back to a fuzzy conception of what love should require of us.

I recently showed Lemonade to my students, and so many struggled over her choice to stay with her cheating partner. We then had a debate about why women leave or stay in abusive relationships. They of course simplified the discussion, even in a feminist classroom, but I attribute that to age since they’re not yet fully grown.

These are folks who still believe their chosen partners will show up at 25 or 30, or whenever they are ready, and all the things they want in life will happen in a very linear fashion, or they believe that they can control it, and that may happen for some of them. But what I often say to young black women in my classes is: “But what if it doesn’t?” And they always look at me like deer in headlights when I suggest to them that you could do everything right, you could be a church girl, get a degree, you could not have many sexual partners, or by contrast, you could be a vixen and enjoy yourself. You could do all these things, and it still does not work out. So then, how do you build a life for yourself if the story doesn’t go the way you think it will? And what becomes so apparent to me is that I’ve introduced in them an existential crisis since they have not even thought of that possibility. Or they become defiant, like, “You, feminist professor lady, your story won’t be my story.” But when I talk to young women just out of college, who realize the state of black love and possibility feels terrible and daunting, and I can’t reassure them that things get better, all I can offer is that their capacity to navigate gets sharper and, hopefully, they will figure out how to build a life for themselves.

We need a different vision for how to do intimate relationships, families and communities differently. What I like is how you emphasize Beyoncé’s view of feminism as one based on friendships with women. And it seems the older we get, the more we’ll go back to that, where we move away from the nuclear family structure to reestablish our friendships and connections in communal living, after the marriages, after the family, or the singleness.

I think black folks and other communities of color can teach us how to live a different way. If you could spatially design your lives or think of care arrangements differently, what would you be doing? This is work that one of my favorite people, Mia Birdsong, does. She writes about families and family policies and convenes meetings where we have conversations around reimagining our structural care arrangements. My homies and I are already making the plan for this non-traditional life. I have a partner, and we’re already non-traditional with each other, but when I talk with my friends, we’re already planning our Golden Girls fund. I think a feminist grown-woman approach to this is, rather than be backdoored into this, because this is where you wind up, what does it look like to give ourselves permission to plan for these non-traditional arrangements?

Outside of state-sanctioned marriages, what would it take for our churches to sanctify this new order?

I think the church is behind the curve on this. They’re either going to catch up or get left behind. I go to a church with a black feminist pastor, who’s a single woman with an adopted daughter. Part of what I need the black church to recognize is that its role isn’t to be an arm of the state or what the state says is possible for black life. And once we know that, in all its theological fullness, then we can affirm families in any way they come. Folks who are building families in new ways have something to teach our churches about the sorts of loving kinship and networks that are most meaningful.

It’s interesting the church is in this position, given the founding of Christianity was based in abandoning traditional family structures and forming something new.

I see something of what the early church looked like in the activist work that I’ve done for Black Lives Matter, or when I’m in alternative feminist spaces, where folks are bartering for goods and services and cooking with each other, doing brunch, taking children off the street and mothering and fathering them. I see far more of what church is supposed to look like in these alternative political spaces than I have seen in the church itself. My work in BLM transformed my own sense of faith because it forced me to think of what it means to be in radical community with one another in a way that changes the world.

We have those models, but in feminist classrooms, we don’t really talk about religion as much as we should, or we only discuss it in opposition to a feminist praxis.

I’m of the mindset this must stop, particularly if we want a feminism that is inclusive of women of color, particularly black women. Even if folks aren’t Christian or follow traditional religions, my own anecdotal non-objective sense of being a black woman in the world is that we have deep spiritual practices and feel connected to that. When I do feminist work, the refusal to attend to that as a knowledge system, as a place of care, as a space for articulating certain kinds of justice, is a real oversight and a real limitation of a purely secular feminist project. I’m very forthright about being a woman of faith in this book, but I’m also very clear about the ways that the church re-inscribes patriarchal structures for women. And if I think feminism can change women’s lives for the better, then I must work within church and faith spaces to offer alternate frameworks for women, rather than coming from the outside and saying, “God isn’t real,” and/or “Your God is patriarchal and sexist.” That’s only helpful in very limited circumstances. I’m deeply resistant to the idea that to be intellectual, or feminist, or woke, is to be anti-religion. If you read my story, it would be the height of arrogance for me to think there is no divinity in the trajectory that I’ve had. I refuse that. I don’t think you can have my story, and so many black girls have a story like mine, without giving God a little credit.

Your last chapter on “Joy” was particularly salient. How do we find better tools that lead us to joy?

I think we’re already building those tools, but I think we need to give ourselves permission. It’s giving ourselves permission to be people of faith and to be woke and to have a critique of systems at the same time. It’s giving ourselves permission to imagine our relationships differently even when the work is hard and even when folks don’t understand what we’re trying to do. It’s giving ourselves permission to also have guilty pleasures, whether it’s ratchet television or ratchet music, and recognizing that those choices don’t exempt you from being down for the revolution. Black folks are very good at being able to find joy even amid deep and difficult trauma. I think joy is decidedly different from happiness, and there is little in this world to be happy about in this moment. But joy is having an internal rootedness with one’s own God, one’s own ancestors, one’s own community and one’s own sense of purpose. There is something worth fighting for, and I understand that to be the work of joy.

Janell Hobson is associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender.

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  1. Janell Hobson, thank you for this post. Its very inspiring.

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