Black Women’s Eloquent Rage: A Lecture from Brittney Cooper


Marla Aufmuth / TED

Image Credit: “Brittney Cooper at TEDWomen 2016” (unmodified) by Marla Aufmuth for TED Conference is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Lily Bragin

Dr. Brittney Cooper encourages all Black women to embrace their rightful rage and use it as a tool, calling this practice “eloquent rage.” Dr. Cooper is a cultural theorist, activist, author, and Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University. On Thursday, Mar. 25, Vanderbilt University hosted Dr. Cooper as the speaker for the 2021 Cuninggim Lecture. Dr. Cooper presented a lecture entitled “Eloquent Rage: The Power of the Angry Black Woman.” Following the lecture, Vanderbilt’s Dr. Claudine Taaffe, Senior Lecturer in African American and Diaspora Studies, and Misha Inniss-Thompson, doctoral student in Human and Organization Development, offered their own questions and shared questions from the live audience.

The Martha Cuninggim Women’s Center hosts their Cuninggim Lecture on Women in Culture and Society each year, however, last year’s lecture was postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19. Since the topic of this year’s lecture dealt with Black women specifically, the lecture was co-sponsored by the African American and Diaspora Studies Department. 

Following her greeting to the audience, Dr. Cooper began by discussing her thoughts behind the title of the event. While she settled upon “Eloquent Rage,” she revealed that she had strongly considered going with “The Justice of Our Rage.” Just or righteous rage is a concept that Cooper continued to elaborate on. 

Cooper discussed the various events that took place in 2020 and how she chose to spend her time filling her spirit by consuming the works of good writers, artists, and thinkers. Particularly, she mentioned June Jordan, a Jamaican-American poet, essayist, and activist whose work centered around issues of race, gender, and liberation. Cooper went on to frame her lecture around two central questions on which June Jordan focused: “where is the rage and where is the love?” 

Cooper described herself as someone who greatly emphasized following in others traditions and being inspired by other Black women and as such took great care to honor June Jordan’s approach to Black women’s rage. In tackling the “where is the rage,” Cooper discussed the foundational elements that have allowed her to produce her work. Cooper explained that “reclaiming my right to be mad as hell was a prerequisite for any project of freedom.” 

Cooper also spoke of her first book, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women, as her seeking to join a tradition of Black feminist scholars who insist that Black women’s intellectual production and theorizing were essential. She referred to this work and the process of writing it as a journey of “all the ways that Black women know.” In connecting her earlier book with her more recent work entitled Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Cooper referred to respectability as merely a rage management project. 

At the core of Cooper’s lecture was an endorsement of righteousness and justice in the rage of Black women. Cooper spoke to the performativity that she witnesses in Black feminist circles and encouraged listeners to exist honestly in those spaces and not allow others expectations for how “woke” Black women should act to influence their actions. 

Cooper makes two key clarifications in her statements regarding Black rage. First, Cooper states that eloquent rage and elegant rage are not the same. She is not asking Black women to be elegant, pretty, or polite about their rage. Eloquent rage is simply a tool to help Black women get specific about their rage. This falls into an increasingly prominent narrative within the feminist movement that women do not need to earn their equality by being polite. The expectation for women to be polite and kind all the time is not only inhibiting to women—specifically Black women who are rightfully rageful—but can also be dangerous for women who are harassed and hassled in society. 

Secondly, Cooper clarifies that not all rage is equal; the rage exhibited by those who staged a coup at the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 is the rage of those who see power slipping from their grip and are coming face to face with the mortality of white supremacy. That rage and Black rage are not the same. 

Cooper returns to the second question of June Jordan’s near the end of her lecture: “where is the love?” Cooper identifies love as an essential part of rage-based work and existence. Politics that ask Black women to devalue and neglect themselves are futile. The Democratic race for the Presidential nomination saw many disappointed with the Democratic National Convention for not putting their support or trust in diverse candidates, specifically Black women. Individuals gradually dropped out of the race, leaving mostly white candidates. Representative Barbara Lee described the situation as indicating a lack of respect towards Black women at the highest levels.

In answering both questions from the audience and questions from Dr. Taaffe and Ms. Inniss-Thompson, Cooper emphasized the love and grace that she chooses to extend to Black women. Cooper spoke highly of the people she chooses to surround herself with and how she chooses to not only love herself, but show up for and love her fellow Black women. In speaking directly to the Black women students and activists listening, Cooper ended the event by encouraging them to allow their rage to show up in and enrich their writing, but also to remember not to place their self-worth in academia. Ms. Inniss-Thompson offered the words of Toni Morrison: “you are not the work you do, you are the person you are.”

Dr. Cooper offered up many of the dangers she identifies in Black women suppressing their rage, specifically Black women in intellectual and activist spaces. Cooper discussed imposter syndrome, as well as Black women using education and over-achievement as a drug. Furthermore, women are twice as likely to experience a depressive episode as men, and Black women are only half as likely to seek help for their mental health. 

Cooper’s lecture speaks to a practice and mindset of eloquent and righteous rage that exists in direct contrast with prior narratives surrounding “the angry Black woman.” This narrative has historically placed shame and blame upon Black women to whom Cooper directly speaks to in this lecture, assuring them that their rage is just and can be used to serve them.