Author Brittney Cooper delivers BOOM! keynote on race and rage

 Photo by Ting’an Lu ’21  DEI Steering Committee representatives Emet Marwell ’18 (left) and Kirina Gair-MacMichael ’18 (right) introduce Dr. Brittney Cooper. 

Photo by Ting’an Lu ’21

DEI Steering Committee representatives Emet Marwell ’18 (left) and Kirina Gair-MacMichael ’18 (right) introduce Dr. Brittney Cooper. 

 

BY KATE TURNER ’21

The keynote event of Mount Holyoke’s 2018 BOOM! Conference was a talk by Dr. Brittney Cooper, author of “Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower.” 

The talk began with remarks from members of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Steering Committee, Acting President Sonya Stephens and Mount Holyoke’s new chief diversity officer, Kijua Sanders-McMurtry. It was followed by a Q&A and book signing. 

Sanders-McMurtry, in her introductory remarks, took the time to thank Mount Holyoke for welcoming her to its campus. “How fitting, that I am speaking to you during BOOM! — a week that falls between Transgender Day of Visibility, where we intentionally and purposefully work on moving from the margins to the center, and the Women of Color Trailblazers Leadership Conference, where we speak out against the voices that are here to marginalize and reduce us,” she said. “We are here together, resisting, struggling, and, most importantly, thriving.” 

Dr. Brittany Cooper began her talk by reading an excerpt from her book, “Eloquent Rage,” in a chapter called “Capital B, Capital F,” about what she described as a “homegirl intervention.”

“With all the confidence of a 20-year-old who knows just enough to be dangerous,” Cooper read, “[I had decided that] feminism is white woman s--t.” She went on 

to describe a conversation she had with a close friend following that declaration — her friend had sat her down and given her what Cooper would later remember as one of her first exposures to feminism, a doctrine she now holds close to her heart.

“What mattered to me most, what lingers for me now, is the friendship and care of another black woman’s thoughtfulness,” Cooper said. “Friendship with black girls has always saved my life.”

These themes of community were at the heart of Cooper’s talk, as she discussed the realities of activism, her experiences with feminism and the importance of rage. 

“I am the first person in my family to graduate,” said Cooper. “I am the first in my family to receive a PhD, so many of the people that I love will never sit in a room like this.”

“It’s not that I’m anti-intellectual,” she said. “In fact, I think there’s a big problem with anti-intellectualism in this country. Just look at the White House.”

But Cooper says she does have a problem with “performative wokeness,” something  she describes as “an insistence on getting the intersectional language right while all our interpersonal relationships are trash.” Citing her experience as a college professor and an activist, she described what she sees as a problem, not with political knowledge, but with a knowledge of how to treat people.

“It’s not just about saying things in a pretty way,” she said. “Folks are using the language of intersectionality as shorthand for actually doing the work.”

“White women struggle with this,” Cooper said. “Made y’all uncomfortable a little, didn’t I? It’s all right, we’re going to be friends at the end.”

“It’s 2018,” she continued seriously. “We have a huge election at the end of this year. And as we saw in 2017, while time and time again black women have saved the Union, white women continue to vote for Republican candidates. White people tend to see themselves as individuals. [There are those of you who] use your wokeness as a dividing line so that you don’t have to engage in community, and that is irresponsible.”

As a black woman, Cooper said, she would not dream — nor does she have the luxury — of abandoning her community simply because it is not as educated as she would like it to be. And she reminded white women that, with organization and patience, they could “change the entire American political landscape.”

“White women have a race,” she said. “Come and get your people.”

Cooper also talked a great deal about anger, her own and that of those around her. Contrary to a society that tries to weaponize women’s anger (“and particularly black women’s anger,” Cooper added) against them, “black women have the right to our rage.”

Cooper spoke about using rage for its energy, about embracing anger but resisting purposeless anger, about knowing the difference between “righteous rage about injustice” and “rage as a tool.”

“I remind my students all the time,” she said, “my students who want to burn it all down, who think that’s what revolution means … White men are burning it all down.”

“It’s hard to build from rubble,” she said simply.

Cooper’s talk was followed by a brief Q&A session, as well as a book signing, and will be followed by a variety of other BOOM! events throughout the upcoming week.

“It is our hope that during this week, we each step out of our comfort zone,” said Kirina Gair-MacMichael ’18, when asked about  Cooper’s talk and the goal of the BOOM! conference. “This will take courage and patience, both of which we know our community has.” 

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