Review: Eloquent Rage

eloquent rage

Rage seems a difficult topic,

Who wants to read about rage? Rage seems like anger squared, cubed, taken to some even higher power, an uncomfortable feeling to experience, a frightening and perhaps dangerous presence to encounter.

Passion, on the other hand, inspires and uplifts. Passion moves us forward, gets things done, works for change. Passion comes from a deep understanding of injustice and the desire / need / will to change that injustice. Or from love—of another person, of a group of people, of a cause, of righteousness—and the desire to make that love effective and physical and embodied in the real world.

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Super Power by Brittney Cooper. (St. Martin’s Press, 2018)  ISBN: 9781250112576 (page numbers in this review are from Apple Books.

A former student told Brittney Cooper, “I loved having you as my professor. Your lectures were filled with rage. But it was, like, the most eloquent rage ever,”

Cooper’s first reaction was defensive: “I’m not angry. I’m passionate.”

Happily for all of us, Cooper’s first reaction was not her last. In Eloquent Rage, she goes on to claim and proclaim her anger, rage, and passion. as she writes about the violence done to black women and girls by a militaristic system, by white people, and by black men.

Nothing about her analysis or this book is simple. Nothing about her life as a Black woman in the United States is uncomplicated.

In 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 school girls in Chibok, Nigeria, setting of a wave of profound international horror and denunciation. But what kind of action could anyone take? Cooper’s analysis moves seamlessly back and forth between this international political issue and her personal experience of violence, revealing the complexity and ambivalence of life, politics, and analysis:

“Black men took those Black girls in Chibok…. A Black man shot my mother. Four different Black men shot my father. One of those Black men killed him. Two different Black men put their hands on my mother. One of those men was my father….

“I’m a Black feminist who cannot reconcile my desire for men to fight for my honor with my general abhorrence for violence. I’m a feminist who cannot reconcile my desire for U.S. military intervention in Chibok with my utter hatred of guns. I’m a feminist who cannot reconcile my desire for my nation-state to intervene on my behalf with the woke analysis feminism has bequeathed me about the perils of getting in bed at any level with patriarchy and militarism. For these things might protect you one minute and kill you the next.” (pp. 127-129)

As a Black woman, as a feminist scholar, she confronts the intersectionality of race and class and gender, never losing sight or allowing her reader to lose sight of the integral connections embodied in U.S. society and culture.

That sounds heavy, but the book is leavened with personal anecdotes and asides, like her confession that, “When I’m not railing at the patriarchy and reconsidering whether a traditional marriage is for me, I spend my time reading romance novels.” (p. 141-2)

Cooper describes the power and the powerful work of Black women across generations, giving credit for her own life to the intervention of a Black teacher, Mrs. Gaulden, when she was only nine years old. Mrs. Gaulden insisted that she be tested for a gifted and talented program, then successfully challenged results that said she didn’t belong in the program, with life-changing impact. The story of nine-year-old Brittney Cooper illuminates the structural injustices that spark her rage.

“They had, in fact, made an error. I was indeed gifted and talented and, therefore, worthy of small, special classes and extracurricular experiences. Many of my classmates, especially those without benefit of Mrs. Gaulden, received no such special care, cultivation, or opportunities.” (p. 357-58)

All of those classmates, all of those children with no Mrs. Gaulden to fight for them, miss out on the advantages that could enrich their lives and futures.

And yet … how much difference does any of it make? With the system stacked by racism and sexism and capitalism, what can individuals accomplish?

“I believe wholeheartedly in the internal spiritual work that Black women must do to save our own lives. But I also wonder whether our spiritual work is a match for the structural systems that would crush us alive.” (p.159)

Cooper has no illusions. She describes the ubiquity of traffic stops of African Americans and the terror evoked by repeated police killings of African Americans. Her stories go back to Ida B. Wells and forward to Philando Castile and Korryn Gaines. She contrasts her own life with Sandra Bland, recognizing “the intersectional conundrums that shaped my regular Black-girl life” and the “acuteness of our fragility.”

Rage is a logical and perhaps inevitable response to this clear-eyed vision of the long history and present reality of oppression. Call it rage, call it passion, call it the fuel that burns to create power or super power.

“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.” (p. 175)

Read Eloquent Rage to cultivate wisdom and grow power.

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