I was really impressed with Brittney Cooper’s writing. And it’s not just because she reminded me so much of me… but that helped me enjoy the story. She has a way with articulating her ideas with storytelling and clear statements, often easing into Black girl talk – I think she might have referred to it as Hip Hop talk. She really gave insight to Black experience and cultural ways of communicating that I found very powerful. One of my favorite statements in the book was, “When Black girls get in formation, the nation should follow.” Here, here. And, in case you missed it recently, Brittney did a Ted Talk.
Anyway, here’s some of what I gleaned from this wonderful work.
In her chapter The Smartest Man I Never Knew, she says:
Our nation’s story is one of men using violence – against Native folks, against Black folks, and against women – to build and fund a grand “experiment in democracy.” ~p. 69
I love her idea of the US wielding its “big stick” around militarily being inherently phallic. Later in the chapter, she addresses the idea of size as a form of aggression, bringing a conscious epiphany to me that I’ve had many times subconsciously (or unconsciously perhaps as well). I wonder if I keep my fat in part because of the “safety” it infers or as a fallacious idea that it would keep me unattractive and prevent another rape. Shortly thereafter she notes that, while society can view the idea of Black women advocating for themselves as “imperial”, this is an “absolutely untenable” idea. In the US she notes:
“our reproductive capacities were conscripted to build the capital base for the assertion of U.S. empire. After slavery, our bodies and the children they produced were tethered to multiple generations of low-wage work and poverty, providing staffing for the perpetuation of the U.S. underclass. The desire for protection and safety is not an imperial desire. Asking the leaders of our country and members of your race to fight for you (if you’re a Black woman) is not a colonizing act. They are demands for recognition of citizenship and humanity.” (p. 85-86)
See what I mean about her writing? It’s so direct and sound.
Likewise, telling Black girls the solution is to “love yourself” (p. 91) implies that this would somehow end patriarchy which will “demand that she be killed for having the audacity to think she was somebody”. So sadly true.
Her chapter Bag Lady revealed to me the story of Korryn Gaines and her freedom project. What she did basically was replace her license plates with signs reading “Any government official who compromises this pursuit to happiness and right to travel will be held criminally responsible and fined, as this is a natural right and freedom.” Understandable in the wake of the death of Sandra Bland. As Cooper notes, “The struggle by Black people to obtain the free and full exercise of their natural rights and continual forms of structural opposition to these rights have been a fundamental feature of what it is to be Black in America.” (p. 107) And there it is. In one little sentence, a powerful statement about why the Black Lives Matter campaign should be working. But the racism is endemic and the power structures loom large.
And the struggle rings true as she notes “individual transformation is neither a substitute or a harbinger of structural transformation.” (p. 115) How Black women see themselves is obviously affected by the racist narrative of the patriarchy, i.e., “welfare queens”, which shames some Black women to abort children they might otherwise consider having. Cooper also notes: “Individual solutions to collective problems cannot work” (p. 123) as empowerment and power are not the same thing. How Black women overcome at ALL remains a mystery to me. Sadly, far too many have died in this fight to overcome.
Perhaps my favorite chapter was Grown Woman Theology where she deep dives into sex. My usual discomfort with talk on religion was non-existent as she waxed eloquent (see what I did there?) on the subject still often seen as taboo by many. In fact, I kind of love the way she addressed religion’s role in the ideas women can have about their sexuality. On page 129 she references the Southern Baptist Convention “formal apology for slavey” issued in 1995 being from the “white Baptists – the ones who were pro-slavery and pro-segregation”; her Baptist church was not a part of the SBC. Going further, she writes:
“The purity discourse that emerged from Southern white evangelicalism is not separable from the racialized discourse of sexuality and purity that these same Christians have shaped for the whole of American history. The regulation of sexuality by white Christians in the United States has always been about the propagation of a socially acceptable and pristine nuclear family worthy of having the American dream, a family that was heterosexual, middle class, and white.” Yep, so much of this book was packed with this kind of thoughtful analysis. Because she grew up with white girls, she became involved in the purity movement. The thought striking me was how it reminds of the efforts to delegitimize the Indigenous as their lives, intimately connected to Mother Nature, were inherently “sexual” as all of nature is sex. (And death of course, another favorite subject.)
On page 137 Ms. Cooper shares well-written and revealing perspective on the story of Boaz from the Bible.
“Many Black Christian girls are seduced by white evangelicalism, because, hell, it seems to be working out so well for white people.” (p. 139) Her grandmother’s “fully embodied theology” gave her pause to truly think about her beliefs. “Sometimes this means we have to reject the kind-of Christian teaching that sets up a false binary between flesh and spirit, mind and body, and sacred and secular.” (p. 140) Love it! And interestingly, she explains: “The primarily white male theologians who created the systematic theology of evangelical Christianity were trying to make sense of a theology that fit their own lives and their own worldview.” Thus making clear how some white Christians can read the Bible and still vote Republican – “nothing about the Bible challenges the fundamental principles of white supremacy or male domination.” The support of Blacks for this white evangelical agenda is counterproductive as it’s a “theology that does the dirty work of racism, patriarchy, and homophobia.” (p. 141)
I was thrilled with her draw on Brian McLaren’s work: “Repentence to me means to ‘re-think’. That’s literally what it means. To think again and to think in a different direction.” (p. 145)
Moving into Orchestrated Fury, Cooper writes an eye-opening chapter focused in part on a topic that fascinates many: Black women’s hair. [And you thought the topic of sex was taboo.]
Her analysis of Michelle Obama’s hair as narrative was delicious! Fuck-deficit, indeed. Cooper’s subsequent discussion on “responsibility politics” as “a rage-management project” (p. 151) that in large part simply divided Blacks was also informative. Her story of her own Black mother’s quiet intervention with a Black male preacher made clear: “Eloquent rage isn’t always loud, but it is always effective.” (p. 161)
Maybe most lovely to me were her ideas on “cussing and praying… mixing the profane and sacred” noting “No one can cuss you out more eloquently than a Black woman can.” Maybe a stereotype. Still true. The 2015 South Carolina story of Shakara and Niya Kenny gave much insight to the brutality of white power structures and the way inaction on behalf of Blacks allows it to continue. More recent update here. And Minnesota sure doesn’t look good in this NPR coverage of the issue. Thank goodness for Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi birthing the Black Lives Matter concept.
And I must agree with Cooper that Black fear and rage is more honest (based on it being a reaction to the violence of white supremacy) than white fear and rage which is simply based in losing power. (p. 169) “Black women’s rage … when we … focus it on the powers that would crush us into submission … is a kind of power that America would do well to heed if it wants to finally live up to its stated democratic aims.” Indeed.
I thought Cooper’s chapter on White-Girl Tears might be a challenge but I found myself agreeing with her assessment of the effects of the “mythic nature of white female vulnerability”. Though I might add something about size or beauty in there too, if only to feel more accurately into it. No one gets more attention in America than the pretty, skinny, white girl in tears. And fat or ugly white girls still get more attention than Black girls on the whole. There is definitely a skew in America to value “the perfect” and “superficial beauty”, which is often depicted as upper/middle class, white, slender, big-boobed, and pretty with perfectly coifed hair and nails. Oh, and dressed to the nines never hurts.
There is a nice assessment of cultural appropriation as well where Cooper notes:
“White people don’t share. They take over. They colonize.” (p. 177)
I’ve been learning more and more about white privilege and how it shapes so much of how America works, especially in the efforts to basically keep it in place. It seems to me that once white people figured out how to gain advantage, they never stopped, to a point where now three white males in America own as much wealth as half the rest of the population. Think about this. To steal and modify (#WhitePeopleShit) a quote from a recent book on the Indigenous (maybe this one?): We’re all Black now, Sister! And I will say here that I am really needing to learn more about American Shero Ida B. Wells. Cooper sprinkles her ideas and commentary throughout leaving me feeling I missed an important aspect of history by not being required to read more on Black leaders. And so it goes. *
Cooper’s deep dive into white fear includes a review of a case, new to me, of Betty Shelby, a white police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma who “shot and killed Terrence Crutcher , a forty-year-old unarmed black man, during a traffic stop.” (p. 185) Again, the danger Black people face by simply driving a car is disgraceful. How many have died because America has created such a blatant culture of fear? Far too many. And the fear mongers are never-ending.
The issues are complex and Cooper does an excellent job weaving together white fear and its deadly effects, the trial for the killer of Trayvon Martin, Black women’s willingness to call out Black men’s shit, and the infamous Cosby and a lesser known to me Elderidge Cleaver as she hammers out the racism and power dynamics. Cosby’s conviction received much coverage and dissection, unlike the trials of the many thousands of Black men who were falsely convicted of raping white women. While Cooper acknowledges that sins occur in all camps, there is a clear understanding in her work of the bias that profoundly affects Blacks in America.
But I must say, on some level, I can jive with Cleaver’s 1968 dialogue, though the quoted material Cooper shares is horrific. I can comprehend how decades of trauma, disrespect that included blatant killing (and which continues to this day), and nefarious and baseless charges against Blacks would lead one to such hate-filled behavior. I have said more times than I can any longer count that, “If I was born Indigenous or Black, I’d probably be in prison.” And, yes, I do comprehend the aspect of my white privilege which allows me to feel that, had this been true, that I’d have had the courage to speak up or act in ways that would put me in prison. And perhaps I’m fooling myself in thinking I’d have been this defiant, as evidenced by the many ways I’ve backed down or allowed myself to be shut down as a woman.
Perhaps most surprising was Cooper’s discourse on inter-racial relationships. Her reasoning on whether or not it’s ok for a Black man to choose white women and her welcoming of Black women to choose as they will seemed very logical to me.
Never Scared is a short 20 pages (p. 201-221) but delves into the 2016 election, the idea that fear is the root of all anger, and the sketchy nature of feelings – and that’s just in the first couple pages!
A favorite quote of mine in this book is that “my approach to life is that feelings can’t be trusted” and she subjects them to “intense micromanagement”. (p. 204) She states clearly that growing up Black means your world is a place “where white feelings can become dangerous weapons.” And I realized she is talking about me when noting that “I resent others who allow their feelings to roam around unmanaged, demanding everybody’s attention.” Another aspect of white privilege that I must mindfully keep in check – and at which I fail repeatedly. Because I’m white, this has not yet resulted in my death. Something much harder for people of color to claim. No wonder they are often so quiet. I am stunned now, as I write, by the idea of what an amazing place this America could be, if only we’d had an even playing field where Indigenous and Blacks had as much opportunity to set our course as (often wealthy and powerful) white men. The differences in her latch key childhood and mine were a tough read as well.
As she approaches the idea of fear and faith co-existing she enters a place where she explains how white fear is accepted as fact when very often it is not. Cases in point are two from 2014: John Crawford, shot and killed while shopping (in my hometown stomping grounds), and Jordan Edwards, shot and killed while fleeing for his life with his brothers. (p. 209)
The figures given on net median wealth are astounding and explain much about the struggles of Black women, almost as much as the struggles of Black women explain about the wealth gap. Cooper’s notion that curiosity is often “the first casualty of the politics of fear” (p. 211) leads to a list of some very good questions that we’re missing out on discussing. This again points to the Obama presidency where many whites were challenged in their beliefs on whether a Black man could lead out country. I’d report that he surely can and imagine what could have been done had we actually given him more support. And I LOVE this woman for being willing to speak to white people fear so well.
Yet she faces criticism for her stands, even in the classroom.
And this leads to the idea of Black women being “simultaneously hypervisible and invisible.”
This makes me recall laughing out loud the other night as, I believe it was Leslie Jones in an SNL sketch, said, “I don’t apologize to white people.” Fuck Yeah!!
Ms. Cooper struck home for me when she talked about how men resort to physical belittlement of women when they can’t hold their own on substance. I know the “smart ugly” (p. 223) idea and it has nothing to do with real physical beauty, it’s a scapegoating…
And I could definitely relate to her sharing on how difficult it can be for a successful and intelligent woman to find love. It’s not always easy. But Dan will be the first to tell you he’s comfortable enough in his manhood to write “Housewife” on the IRS return. And he knows the benes that come with loving this smart girl. 😉
That said, Cooper helped me understand the real and substantial obstacles Black women face. And who does Brittney blame? Bill Clinton. (p. 226) In his criminalization of black adolescents, who he and Hillary referred to as “superpredators”, he wrote a heartbreaking story of a destination for the Black race as a whole. In Love in a Hopeless Place, she also discussed her long stretches of celibacy, another commonality we share. But the chapter Favor Ain’t Fair gives much more insight into these ideas, especially with regard to how wealth is a factor. As she comments on the idea of people noting the resiliency of children in addressing the ideas of inequality:
“Celebrating the resilience of poor folks is a perverse way of acknowledging the unreasonable demands placed upon people who already are struggling to make it.” (can’t remember the page…)
Like maybe we should see how long until we can finally break them completely? Sick…
When she talks about elite Blacks “valorizing their hoods”, it makes me think of white people who say, “I have Black friends.”
But she closes with Joy. It’s a blessing I think we can all appreciate.
“May you have joy.
May you have gut-busting belly laughter, every day.
May you ask more and better questions.
May your rage be a force for good.
You got this. We got this.”
For our sake, I hope she’s right.