Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage and the Lifesaving Power of Homegirls

Brittney Cooper and Damon Young (Panama Jackson)
Brittney Cooper and Damon Young (Panama Jackson)

The first paragraph of Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage lets us know she’s not playing with or scared of you motherfuckers:

This is a book by a grown-ass women written for other grown-ass women. This is a book for women who expect to be taken seriously and for men who take grown women seriously. This is a book or women who know shit is fucked up. These women want to change things but don’t know where to begin.

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The power and the urgency behind those words reminded me of the first time I met Brittney. In 2015, we were part of a panel at Harvard on race and the media (Panama Jackson and Kimberly Foster from For Harriet were also there). Within the first five minutes of the conversation, I wanted to get up and take a seat in the audience. That’s how long it took for me to realize that everything I planned to say and every point I’d try to make, Brittney could say better and more powerfully, and somehow more succinctly and more descriptively.

I was spellbound and, to be honest, a little shook. I’d never seen someone meld the academic and the colloquial together so seamlessly while speaking with such a stream of consciousness fury and verve. It felt like watching the world’s best Baptist preacher but with sermons about intersectionality and Beyoncé instead of Ecclesiastes.

I shared this memory with her and the audience during our talk at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., Wednesday evening and asked where she gets that power. She laughed and claimed that she had no idea what I was talking about. And then, five minutes later, after she delivered an impassioned and witty and funny and heavy articulation of her journey to accept and channel the same rage she’d been loath to embrace, I turned to the audience and said, “See what I mean?”

Of course, Eloquent Rage is a book about feminism. Its subtitle reads, A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. It is also a book about the Williams sisters, Howard University, Judy Blume books, white tears and dozens more topics she weaves through while explaining how and why she is who she is. Brittney Cooper is Brittney Cooper because she has to be. That we also need her to be matters, too, but not as much.

Out of those dozens of themes and topics, two had a particular resonance with me. The book’s fourth chapter, “The Smartest Man I Never Knew,” excavates her relationship with her father, who led a remarkably full and remarkably tragic life. In attempting to grapple with how this man could be so abusive to her mother (and such a deadbeat to Brittney), yet so worldly and intellectually curious and so empathetic to everyone except the people who most needed him to be, Brittney intersects his story with what she now understands about toxic masculinity—specifically how racism and capitalism and sexism and America converge to damage black men.

But while she explains why her dad and many, many, many others like him came to be the way they are, she doesn’t excuse their behavior and the effect it has on the women (and men) in their lives. Yet throughout that refusal to excuse their behavior, she stops short of damning and discarding. And as someone who’s also writing a book—a book that prominently features and attempts to understand my dad—parts of this chapter felt like they were sitting directly on my chest.

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Brittney also repeatedly reflects on and nods to the importance and the power of friendships with other black women. In an excerpt published by Cosmopolitan two weeks ago, she connects this to her feelings about Beyoncé and her place in modern feminism.

From “Why Feminism Needed Beyonce”:

Friendships with black girls have always saved my life. I give the side eye to any black woman who doesn’t have other black women friends, to any woman who is prone to talk about how she relates better to men than to women, to anyone who goes on and on about how she “doesn’t trust females.” If you say fuck the patriarchy but you don’t ride for other women, then it might be more true that the patriarchy has fucked you, seducing you with the belief that men care more about your well-being than women do.

It isn’t true.

I came up in an era when black girls loudly proclaimed that they didn’t have friends. They had associates. It has always rung false to me, maybe because the introverted parts of me had absolutely no interest in spending sustained time fake-grinning at people with whom I couldn’t be my whole self. I wanted friends to snicker, giggle, and pass notes with, to share secrets with. I wanted people who would have my back. I worry about a world in which black girls on their way to becoming women are taught to distrust women. We wonder why young men hate women and, sometimes, the sad truth is that their mamas and aunts and sisters act as an arm of the patriarchy by parroting the refrain that “girls simply can’t be trusted.”

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The book is littered with references to friends pulling her aside and pulling her card and setting her straight as well as celebrating and encouraging and supporting and amplifying her, and her doing the same for them. Brittney makes clear that the black women who are her friends are as vital to her as plasma.

And, well, she is not alone.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

DISCUSSION

wild-cougar
Wild Cougar

So that’s where that came from? She’s why people keep repeating “I don’t trust women who don’t have female friends”? People are parroting her. Ok, now I get it.

I’m going to be charitable. This is rare for me, so bear with me.

Brittney Cooper and people like Brittney Cooper have had particular experiences that form their opinions about gender, relationships and friendships. I think they should recognize that their stories and the feelings and preferences that result are unique to them.

I grew up with my father. He was and is still married to my mother. He had two jobs and one family. He came home at night, paid the bills, didn’t abuse anyone. I have beefs with my father, but they have zero to do with toxic masculinity, absence or anything along those lines. I didn’t see toxic masculinity until I was well into my 30s. I knew it existed. It was something other people experienced.

I’m different. Anyone would say that. I don’t think not enjoying things most girls enjoy makes me better. I am very female. Got the lips, tits and hips to prove it. I have never liked shopping, makeup or going to the bathroom in a group. I have a small wardrobe on purpose. I detest expressions of fear. I like being alone. Yes I am aware there are many women like that. Most of the women I’ve met who are like that don’t tend to get along with women. This is a fact.

In MY unique experience (and those of women like me), patriarchy is enforced by groups of women. Viciously. You will be punished harshly if you do not conform to the patriarchal standards of dress and behavior and hierarchy established in the female group. Put simply, look, act or be rumored to be a “hoe” and bitch, you better watch your back. Getting a “hoe” reputation is as easy as being a bit too independent minded, too attractive to the man the HBIC likes or keeping your romantic cards held closely to your vest.

These are all things known by women. They deny them vehemently. They tell you “I feel sorry for you, must be something wrong with you, my friends would never....blah, blah,blah.” But they know these cycles of patriarchal enforcement, hierarchy, scapegoating, bullying and exile are very much a part of female friendship.

Now, I will not say that men do not have equal patriarchal enforcement, hierarchy, scapegoating, bullying and exile among their groups of friends. That is absolutely true. However, male/female friendships do not usually have these toxic rituals. My male friends have no need to compete or enforce hierarchy or gender norms with me.

People like to say men and women cannot have true friendships, because sex and romance will be involved. It’s certainly possible to have a completely platonic male/female friendship, I’ve had a few. But it is not necessary that sex and romance be absent from friendship. They are not mutually exclusive.

Finally, you have to step back and ask yourself why someone like Brittney Cooper would find it necessary to attack hypothetical women who say they have no female friends. What’s it to her? What’s it to anyone the gender of friends a person chooses? Why is she mad?

This is my theory on why it is so important to people to enforce gender norms on friendships. If a person, male or female, exempts themselves from the constricts of social hierarchy within an intragender group, they are not able to be controlled. Think about how your social and romantic life is steered. Where the guardrails lie. Among peers and mentors of your own gender. If you find friendship outside that group, they can’t control you with a threat of exile. You have exiled yourself.

So, I don’t get along with most women (in person). I am also a feminist. You can side eye me till your eyes lock in place. I am exempt from the constricts of your social hierarchy. You cannot exile me.