Brittney Cooper’s black-girl magic for grown-ass women | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

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Brittney Cooper’s black-girl magic for grown-ass women

In Eloquent Rage, Professor Crunk offers a course on black feminism and the importance of Beyoncé.

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T his is a book by a grown-ass woman written for other grown-ass women," Brittney Cooper, aka Professor Crunk, writes at the beginning of her new book Eloquent Rage. "This is a book for women who expect to be taken seriously and for men who take grown women seriously. This is a book for women who know shit is fucked up. These women want to change things but don't know where to begin."

More specifically, Eloquent Rage is a critical memoir situated in the politics of America's deeply problematic relationship with gender, race, and violence. Cooper explores how being a "fat, Black, and Southern" woman informs not just her own identity but the cultural definitions of these identities: "woman," "black," "southern," "feminist." It's also a love letter to every woman whose existence has been stifled, stolen, or straight-up murdered because she had the audacity to be fat or smart or feminist or angry.

Black women exist in these intersecting identities of gender, race, and class in a way that white women do not. "This is not mere propaganda," Cooper explains in the opening chapter of Eloquent Rage, "The Problem With Sass." "There is no other group, save Indigenous women, that knows and understands more fully the soul of the American body politic than black women whose reproductive and social labor has made the world what it is. Black women know what it means to love ourselves in a world that hates us."

Consider Cooper's anecdote about a childhood pool party with her white friends. Having recently had her hair washed, permed, and braided, Cooper felt she had to remain more of a spectator than a participant in order to protect her hair from the damaging effects of water and chlorine. Staying close to the edge of the pool, Cooper overheard two of the mothers whispering about not understanding why hair was such a serious issue: "It's just hair. Kids should be kids." <Insert side-eye emoji> Cooper's own mother wasn't in attendance at the pool party because she was a single working mom-and now a mom who was going to spend her Friday night after a long week redoing her daughter's hair. Cooper sees this as a metaphor for the disconnect between black and white women.

"This is not a one-comb-fits-all nation," Cooper quips as she dives into the politics of black women's hair and American beauty standards. "The ability to have a world centered on the prerogatives of white femininity is so far from the truths of so many Black girls' lives." Cooper's mother's worries about her daughter's hair go beyond the superficiality of fashion and presentation. The norm in America is whiteness, and this extends to hair salons, products, and styles. Black girls and women don't have the luxury of walking into any given beauty salon, in any given neighborhood, and knowing there will be someone equipped to style their hair. Black girls and women live in a world where they have to spend a great deal of time and money either modifying their hair to be more like their white peers or at least keeping it clean and kept, as Cooper's mom aimed to do.

In Eloquent Rage, Cooper describes the long process that brought her to feminism and her commitment to telling the truth about black girls' lives. Born on the cusp of Generation X/Y, Cooper came up with the Baby-Sitters Club, the birth of the Internet, and, most importantly, hip-hop's emergence into mainstream culture. She earned a PhD from Emory University, where her research focused on the contributions of black women to America's race dialogues; she now teaches at Rutgers. In 2010 she cofounded the Crunk Feminist Collective. (It recently published its own collection of essays.) The group was founded with the mission "to create a space of support and camaraderie for hip hop generation feminists of color, queer and straight, in the academy and without, by building a rhetorical community, in which we can discuss our ideas, express our crunk feminist selves." The website challenges the problematic pop culture we ingest while also recognizing the potential it holds for revolution.

Articulating the complicated relationship of feminism, pop culture, and patriarchy is central to Cooper's work, but in Eloquent Rage she offers a foundation each of us can build upon: "Feminism is, first and foremost, about truly, deeply, and unapologetically loving women. My job as a Black feminist is to love Black women and girls. Period." Cooper credits Beyoncé as her feminist muse. "Some of my best academic theorization around feminism has coming from pondering what kind of space Bey might be making for the particular ways in which Black women can be and lead," she writes.

Black-girl magic is at an all-time high right now, and in an e-mail interview, Cooper writes that she "stans" for Ava DuVernay, whose upcoming remake of A Wrinkle in Time casts a young black girl in the formerly white lead role. She's also excited about the resurgence of women in hip-hop. "I came of age in the 90s," Cooper writes, "and so the mid-aughts were such a drag until Nicki. But now we have Cardi and Dreezy and Princess Nokia, and a range of others." Her dream Crunk Feminist Festival lineup includes MC Lyte, Mia X, Lauryn Hill, and, of course, Beyoncé.

Cooper's work has inspired a generation of young black feminists, and she in turn has been inspired by them. "Black feminist bloggers [are] cultivating the internet as a woke political space that was the necessary antecedent to the rise of movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo," she writes over e-mail. "So much of the work of justice happening now—Black feminists built this house."   v

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