This book has been on my shelf for over a year. I’ve heard so many amazing things about this piece of nonfiction, and it’s impossible to deny the way that simple cover just catches the eye. Perfect design for the title. Anyways, the Just One More Pa(i)ge Reading Challenge prompt for July was “a book that falls under the #resist category” in honor of July 4th. It was a weird stretch, but I absolutely stand by it. And it was the perfect chance to finally pick up this book.
“Black girl feminisim is all the rage, and we need all the rage.”
In this collection of essays, Cooper takes the oft-used negative terminology of the “angry black women” and takes it back, redefining it and owning it in the same way that the LGBTQ community has, in recent years, done with the word “queer.” And she does so with, in full deliverance of what the title promises, great eloquence. There’s a little bit of everything in this collection, from religion to politics to social structure to humor to pop culture to history, and it’s all presented with a singular, specific beneficiary audience: Black women and girls. Now, that does not mean, in any way, that only black women and girls should read this book. On the contrary, they already live their life every day. And while this might help explain how the current state of affairs for black women has been reached, this collection does all that explaining and more for those of us, like myself, who are not black women and therefore must do our own work, confront our own complicity and role, in creating and changing the position that black women in America have been forced into.
One of the things that struck me deepest about this collection is the accessibility of Cooper’s explanations about how contemporary history has create the institutionalized racism. Of course, as must needs be recognized, the start of that story, slavery, is given due mention. Yet the recent history is where her eloquence really shines through. From segregation to the Clinton-era-beginning of the school-to-prison pipeline and coining of the term “welfare queen” to the Trump/Clinton presidential race, Cooper lays out with clear and precise language, exactly how, socially and legally, America’s prejudice against black woman has been ingrained and perpetuated. She of course mentions other issues of socioeconomic and race and sex and gender based inequalities, but, as I’ve already mentioned, the clear focus of the book is black women and girls, so that is where the majority of her time is spent. And it’s well-deserved to be spent there since, as Cooper so thoroughly points out, the intersectionality of being black and female has put black women in a position that is more complex and even more marginalized than black men or white women alone. And she speaks intelligently and evenly to the ways that both those groups, marginalized though they are, have further contributed to (and avoided helping out of), the circumstances of black women. (Topics addressed, in this vein, include black female friendships, the myth of exceptionalism, respectability politics, relationships/sexuality/marriage struggles, economic worth, and more.) At the same time, Cooper offers, from her own opinions and experiences, as well as pulling from other black feminist leaders/sources like Audre Lorde (whom I first read and loved earlier this year) and Ida B. Wells, suggestions and recommendations and critiques and hope that we can all use to help us move forwards.
For me, a white female who considers herself both a feminist and generally well aware of, and at least marginally working towards addressing, issues of race and class and sex/gender inequalities, I have finished this novel feeling partly disappointed [at myself] in what I thought I knew. Now, I read a lot, have read a lot, from the black female perspective…and I try to be vocal in recommending these books/essays and questioning the assumptions made by people around me when I see them carrying out the exact thought processes called out by authors similar to Cooper. But I have to be honest and say that I am neither a political buff nor a history buff, and there were many specifics about the legislation and vocabulary used by recent administrations, even Clinton and Obama, who were both theoretically “blue” and progressive, that gave me pause for many reasons. In Clinton’s case, it fell in the awkward time period, for me, when I was too young to remember living it and too old for it to be included in “history” classes in school. However, it’s really only my own fault that the direct connections of that administration’s decisions to the current race climate in the US, were ones that I didn’t, and wasn’t forced to, recognize or realize fully until now (#whiteprivilege in a nutshell…I’m working on it). And with Obama, I was even old enough to understand it while living it, but my whiteness did exactly what Cooper suggests…it allowed me to believe that work for all black people is “equal” progress and that black women do not need anything extra/different/special to help overcome their unique inequalities. The essay White Girl Tears was a tough one to read, for those exact reasons. And while I know it’s not productive (as Cooper and many others have called out), the guilt there is real. It’s not enough to just know about or want to address these issues; it’s equally important to understand the unique causes for each individual issue, so that efforts to address them can be made with purpose. There’s just nothing to do but be better moving forwards.
Anyways, moving past my personal reflection and back to the book itself, I want to reiterate how incredibly educational it is about contemporary social and political history. The explorations and theories Cooper presents as to how this past led to the current mindset/experience for black women in America is profound and understandable – a powerful combination. There is also a great examination of many other cultural points. The way Cooper breaks down religion/faith and the role of that in suppressing black women was fascinating. I am not at all religious, so I appreciate reading about her personal struggle to compromise her feminism and her faith – that she has managed it at all is a feat and I applaud her effort and ability there. In addition, her look at Beyoncé and Michelle Obama, their role(s) as black female leaders, and what they have accomplished/done both for black women in general and for Cooper on a more intimate level was one of my favorite parts. I love them both as well, but it is not the same. I know that. And I loved reading Cooper’s perspective on them. Small side note: Cooper herself narrates the audiobook version and she crushes it.
I have so much appreciation and respect for what Cooper did with this collection. It was easy to read/understand (comprehensibly, of course, not topically), perfectly paced, insightful, educational, simultaneously personal and expansive, honest and open, academic yet clear and, as promised, chock full of gorgeously eloquent rage. If you consider yourself a feminist, most especially if you are a white or non-female person who considers themself a feminist, this is a must-read. When I finished this collection, I too was full of rage, but also knowledge and inspiration – a dangerous combination that I absolutely plan to use moving forwards. Thank you, Brittany Cooper, for your attitude and your voice.
“…feminism is, first and foremost, about truly, deeply, and unapologetically loving women.”
“My job as a Black feminist is to love Black women and girls. Period.”
“My Black feminism keeps my eyes on the prize, the prize being Black women and girls. My Black feminism insists that we center them, that we talk about them, that we build a world for and with them, that we fight alongside them.” (This is such an important point. It’s not about tearing others down, but building this group up.)
“Sexism, like every other “ism,” is a willful refusal to not see what is right in front of you.”
“Power is not attained from books and seminars. Not alone, anyway. Power is conferred by social systems. Empowerment and power are not the same thing. We must quit mistaking the two. Better yet, we must quit settling for one when what we really need is the other. Those who feel “empowered” talk about their personal power to change their individual condition. Those with actual power make decisions that are of social and material consequence to themselves and others. […] Empowerment looks like cultivating the wisdom to make the best choices we can out of what are customarily a piss-poor set of options. Power looks like the ability to create better options.”
“We can’t kill. But we can slay.”
“Respectability tells us that staying alive matters more than protecting one’s dignity. Black rage says that living without dignity is no life at all.”
“Suppressed rage will cause us to accept gratuitous violence as a necessary evil. Expressed rage offers us an opportunity to do better.”
“Impact matters more than intent.”
“…there’s a problem when your notion of recognition is predicated on someone else’s exclusion. There’s a problem when visibility becomes a zero-sum game, where making one group’s demands visible renders every other group’s political concerns obscure.”
“Exceptionalism or struggle should not be the only pathways available to Black people.”