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Author Brittney Cooper on Harnessing Rage, Right Now

by Malcom Burnley June 20, 2020

This article was originally published in The New York Times.

“The critical mass we’ve seen suggests something is shifting in the ether.”

Brittney Cooper, author of “Eloquent Rage.”

The “angry black woman” stereotype has been picked apart and widely condemned in recent years. Michelle Obama has spoken about distancing herself from the trope. Shonda Rhimes, the Hollywood showrunner, has fought back against the label too. When Serena Williams was penalized for “verbal abuse” of an umpire in 2018, there was repudiation of the stereotype again.

But Brittney Cooper, a scholar and activist, has urged black women to reclaim the label rather than reject it entirely. “The clarity that comes from rage should also tell us what kind of world we want to see, not just what kind of things we want to get rid of,” Dr. Cooper writes in “Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower.”

The focus of Dr. Cooper’s writing — how anger can be a rational, revolutionary principle — has proved resonant in recent weeks amid nationwide protests against police brutality, discussions of systemic inequality and black Americans dying from Covid-19 at alarming rates.

A few days before Juneteenth, I spoke with Dr. Cooper, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies and Africana studies at Rutgers University, about the shared anger of black women and why that power needs to be harnessed right now.

The interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

In light of the past month, how are you thinking about the future of black women and girls?

The public narrative is about black women and girls continuing to express their collective outrage about the killing of black men. But you don’t just see black women in the street protesting. You also see them behaving politically in ways that are designed to build and restore public institutions, so that it can support more citizens. That’s not a thing that has just emerged in the middle of a pandemic. There’s very little investment in recognizing that black women are the sort of deep thinkers and theorists about how you actually build a society for the common good.

You recently wrote an op-ed for Time questioning why the death of Breonna Taylor, who was killed on March 13, didn’t ignite national protests immediately. You used the term “secondary outrage” to describe the reaction to her death. What did you mean by that?

Black women are not the folks who are the first thought ever when it comes to black protest movements.

Some folks said to me, Look, we were in the middle of a pandemic and that’s why there wasn’t a protest, not that there wasn’t outrage. I said, Look, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic and George Floyd got killed, and people said, We will not stand for this, so we will risk it all in the streets, multiple days — and at this point, multiple weeks — of massive protest, doing the one thing that we’re told will get you sick. So it is that moment where the culture cannot abide the killing of a black man in that way but the culture can abide it when it’s a black woman being killed by police. And she’s attacked in her house, sleeping. She’s not even under arrest. And we see that as the lesser evil.

It seems like black women’s stories are erased in the public sphere but also in the private sphere …

You know, we have this thing in feminist theory where we say, The public sphere is traditionally the sphere of men and the private sphere is traditionally the sphere of women and, of course, we mean white men and white women. So what black folks are outraged about is that the public sphere is not a sphere that is particularly hospitable to black men. But we do not react as vehemently when we learn that the private sphere is not a sphere that’s hospitable to black women.

Do you think in our lifetimes we’ll see national protests over the death of a black woman, on par with the reaction to Trayvon Martin or George Floyd?

The critical mass we’ve seen suggests something is shifting in the ether, so I’m hopeful. But we’ve got to decide if that’s our marker of success. Is the marker of success for black protest that something so horrific happens to a black woman that now we are outraged? The political thinking that leads to that is already a problem. There are all of these other cascading conditions that make black life hard as hell to live — whether we’re talking food deserts or health care or the education system or even intra-communal violence. It has to be about all of those other things that kill us quite slowly but deliberately in our communities every day.

What’s your assessment of the protests so far?

Nobody has thought, apparently, in weeks of protest that if you have that many people in the streets, then part of what you should be demanding is more PPE, more testing, more funding for vaccines and laptops for kids if schools don’t reopen. The police kill about 230 black people a year. The pandemic has killed over 22,000 black people in three months.

Who is Darnella Frazier, and why did you write about her?

Darnella Frazier was the 17-year-old black girl who was heading to the store with friends, saw the officer putting his knee on George Floyd’s neck and took out her camera and filmed it. So most of the iconic images that we’ve seen from that moment were shots of her video. I’m just reminded that there are always these black girls bearing witness to the racial atrocities. There’s a way that we ride for the black man who died and we ignore the black women who witness it and live.

We’re talking a few days before Juneteenth. Do you believe embracing anger and rage is part of breaking the intergenerational cycle of slavery?

Our ancestors have been fighting back since enslavement. They were jumping off the boats. They were staging mutiny on the ships. I like to see us as being in this long tradition of struggle and I think black people have always been clear about their rage.

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