more thoughts on Brittany Cooper’s Book, Beyond Respectability

Reading Dr. Brittany Cooper’s Beyond Respectability was such a privilege. I ended up writing twice as much as I was supposed to for the review in The Christian Century and almost half of it was cut due to space. The review can be found here, but I wanted to make available the material that didn’t make it into the review for those who might be interested….

What Brittany Cooper’s Beyond Respectability offers so brilliantly is a necessary and critical intervention in a moment when Black women’s contributions to American life continue to be rendered invisible or misrepresented. She presses us past the question of representation to a critical introduction to the ways Black women such as Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, Pauli Murray, and Toni Cade Bambara thought and lived in spite of American society’s attempts to disregard or diminish their contributions to black life and American life more broadly. In doing so, she shows us the forces and patterns that work to diminish the significance of marginalized people while also introducing us to critical ways forward in imagining the kind of intellectual, political, and communal work that is necessary to create a freer society….

…Brittany Cooper’s use of Anna Julia Cooper to articulate the contribution of Black women’s intellectual work highlights a theme that resounds throughout the text. Black women thinkers continually navigated multiple points of marginalization through communal practices as well as rigorous intellectual reflection that shaped and guided their activist work.

This intellectual work may not have been through the traditional “academic” venues that they were prevented from joining. What makes Black women’s work so critical, for Cooper, is how society’s (even within the black, male-dominated community) refusal did not prevent them from doing rigorous intellectual work, and that their intellectual life was also necessarily embodied. The result is an intellectual legacy of “bodily discourse,” a refusal to distance intellectual questions from the lived realities of each day and the ways Black women experience the world. Experience is not something to get past, but a fundamental point of inquiry. Through memoirs, speeches, even lists and intellectual genealogies, Black women continued to think and speak and shape discourse about issues fundamental to the Black community.

In a society that sought to either reduce Black women to sexualized objects or render them fundamentally invisible, Cooper points us to a history of various women who had to think through their gender, their class, their sexuality in order to make sense of themselves in the world, and they used whatever means available to them to articulate and describe the problem and ways forward. It is this very pattern that hints at why so many perpetuate the dissembling Cooper points to if we ignore the more haunting and problematic realities that our bodies inhabit.

Living within the complications of bodied life, within its discourses and the limitations they created, Black women bent their language and inhabitation of identities towards freedom. But Cooper also shows that these endeavors were never without complication, and that these intellectual projects, so thoroughly tied to their experience of navigating patriarchal and racist systems, are brilliant for the way they do not leave the realities of their bodies behind as they think and write.

While Du Bois or Foucault can become ‘universalized’ and deployed in seemingly varying ways, the intellectual and communal labor of these black women demonstrates a sobering and liberative truth –we cannot escape the contingencies of our bodies or the discourses that shape them. At the same time, it is through these contingencies that we can truly find freedom. The intellectual work of these women led them to deeper commitment to building movements, developing relationships, navigating institutions, and mobilizing communities.

The question Cooper presses for us is why has the wider academy left these intellectual resources unexamined. I venture to guess that the reason they are ignored is inseparable from the forces that created the conditions of oppression – the illusion that ideas are universal.

Cooper gives us examples of different women from very different moments in time and from different experiences of being Black women. Cooper’s narrates how very different women were able to continually resist and conjure space for the themselves and others in the midst of social norms and systemic impediments designed to render them silent. They took these impediments and both theorized the construction of the oppression and enacted practices that made freedom and wholeness incarnate….