What I loved about reading this book is that she spoke so directly to so many of my life experiences, particularly when it comes to Black exceptionalism, overachieving, and adherence to respectability. While we decidedly had very different economic upbringings, it was like we experienced the same social frustrations and racial animosity of instructors and classmates.
Held up as an exceptional Black student, I was conditioned to believe in the myth of my own exceptionalism, to see other Black students’ struggles to succeed as a result of their own terrible choices. But white children in my school district weren’t inherently smarter. They were reared in homes where their parents had been college educated and where they had access to enrichment programs and private tutors (pp. 130-131 from Grown Woman Theology)
I very much had to resist the narrative that i made it because I acted right. Racist teachers humiliated me and tried to break my spirit, even when I acted right. Acting right, which far too often means “acting white,” didn’t protect me from what Carol Anderson calls the “white rage” of my classmates when they realized that I actually would graduate at the top of the class, and atop all of them. And plenty of Black children who acted right still didn’t have the levels of opportunity I had. (p. 264 from Favor Ain’t Fair)
The Respectables’ credo is two-fold: You have to be twice as good to get half as far, and Never let ’em catch you slippin’… But it doesn’t acknowledge that when you are twice as good, white folks will resent you for being better. (p. 154 from Orchestrated Fury)
She also provided such incisive commentary on the tensions of existing as a Black woman in this society. Particularly thoughts about white women and black men, that so many of us are thinking but struggle to say with as much as candor as Cooper does in this book, because we know the potential for it to alienate us from the folks who should be in community with us, allies to our struggle, despite only sharing one dimension of that struggle.
How are Black girls supposed to grow up to be Black women in love with themselves in a country built on the structural negation of Black women’s humanity and personhood? Too much of the conversation about patriarchy in Black communities pivots on Black women’s low self-esteem. Black women are often admonished to make better choices. (p. 91 fromThe Smartest Man I Never Knew)
Because Black women are viewed as preternaturally strong, our pain often goes unnoticed both in the broader world and in our own community. Black men frequently don’t acknowledge our vulnerability, don’t seem to think we need defending, and don’t feel a responsibility to hold Black women (who aren’t their mothers or sisters or daughters) up and honor them. There seems to be no empathic register for understanding the sheer magnitude of the physical and emotional pain that systems of racism, capitalism, and patriarchy inflict on Black women every day. (pp. 93-94 from The Smartest Man I Never Knew)
White women and Black men share a kind of narcissism that comes from being viewed as the most vulnerable entities within their respective races. Black people hesitate to call out Black men for male privilege because they have experienced such devastation at the hands of a white supremacist system. And white women frequently don’t recognize that though women are oppressed around the world, whiteness elevates the value of their femininity and allows them to get away with shit that women of color pay royally for. (p. 187 from White-Girl Tears)
Furthermore, she “eloquently” laid out many of the thoughts and rage I’ve had around how Black people are expected to study and navigate white feelings from childhood, to become fluent in the language white irrationality, white fear, and white tears, or suffer dire consequences. And how oblivious white folks are to our required courses in their emotional instability.
We live in a nation that does everything to induce our rage while simultaneously doing everything to deny that we have a right to feel it. American democracy is as much a project of suppressing Black rage as it is of legitimizing and elevating white rage. American democracy uses calls for civility, equality, liberty, and justice as smoke screens to obscure all the ways in which Black folks are treated uncivilly, unequally, illiberally, and unjustly as a matter of course…The lie we are told is that white rage and white fear are honest emotions that preserve the integrity of American democracy. More often than not, we keep learning that white rage and white fear are dishonest impulses that lead us toward fascism. (p. 169 from Orchestrated Fury)
Watching white women take it to the streets to protest an election outcome that was a result of white women’s powerful voting bloc felt like an exercise in white-lady tears if I ever saw one…White-lady tears might not seem to be a big deal, but they are actually quite dangerous. When white women signal through their tears that they feel unsafe, misunderstood, or attacked, the whole world rises in their defense. The mythic nature of white female vulnerability compels protective impulses to arise in all men, regardless of race. (pp. 174-175 from White-Girl Tears)
Every time I write about the emotional lives of white people, some white person sends me an email or a tweet and tells me, “How dare you act like you know what white folks are thinking?!” Haven’t white folks learned that Black folks know them far better than they know themselves? Our survival is predicated on our willingness to study you, your impulses, your hard expressions, your laughter (and whether it reaches your eyes), your gifts, and your lies. Black survival means being endlessly obsessed with figuring out the depths to which white folks will fall to maintain a position of dominance. (pp. 204, 211, 213 from Never Scared)
While I know I basically quoted what seems like half the book, trust me when I say, this isn’t half of what I underlined and dog-eared in the book. I had even more excerpts that I originally typed up but thought it may be a bit overboard, so I deleted them. I focused on a few of the topics she touched on but she also talked at length about Black women’s relationships with their own bodies, with other women, with the church, and particularly with Black men. Conversations that desperately need to be had.
On the front cover a review states that “Cooper is the Black Feminist Prophet we urgently need.” At first glance I thought it was a pretty hyperbolic and presumptuous statement to make; you’re basically setting the expectation so high that disappointment is inevitable. After finishing the book, I don’t know if I’d call her a prophet, but it’s a damn good segue into my 30s, as a Black women whose rage could probably be more eloquently delivered.