MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Michelle Obama, Oprah, Serena Williams all have something in common. At some point during their public lives, they were labeled as angry. It's a label that many black women have struggled with in their professional and personal lives. All this month, NPR is exploring the power of anger. Today, we have a story from NPR's Mayowa Aina about one author who thinks it's time for black women to embrace their rage.
MAYOWA AINA, BYLINE: The angry black woman is pretty well known. She shows up everywhere from pop culture to politics. She has an attitude. She's mean, loud and aggressive. Some trace the stereotype back to the 1950s and a TV show called "Amos 'N' Andy."
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AINA: The show was the first TV program to feature an all-black cast, and one character in particular was known for her sharp tongue.
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TIM MOORE: (As Kingfish) I was a sick man.
ERNESTINE WADE: (As Sapphire) Sick man nothing. You had no business stuffing yourself the way you did at mama's house last night.
MOORE: (As Kingfish) Now, wait a minute...
AINA: This is Sapphire, and she constantly nags at her husband throughout the series.
BRITTNEY COOPER: She's always berating people, particularly men, and just is not in control of her anger.
AINA: And that's Brittney Cooper. She's a professor and author of the book "Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower." Cooper says that the stereotype known as the angry black woman used to be called the Sapphire, and it's a stereotype that black women still struggle with almost 70 years after Sapphire was introduced onscreen. Even someone like Michelle Obama has talked about trying to distance herself from the stereotype. Right before leaving the White House, she talked about it with Oprah.
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OPRAH WINFREY: When you were labeled that angry black woman, was that one of the things that knocked you back a bit?
MICHELLE OBAMA: That was one of those things that you just sort of think, hey, you don't even know me.
AINA: Whether or not they are actually angry, Cooper says that labeling black women that way has a particular effect.
COOPER: Whenever someone weaponizes anger against black women, it is designed to silence them. It is designed to discredit them and to say that they are overreacting, that they are being hypersensitive, that their reaction is outsized.
AINA: And she says this happens because generally, anger is an emotion that people are really uncomfortable with. It's something that they want to control rather than address.
COOPER: Unless, of course, we're talking about white men being angry and then, you know, the whole sort of American political system is designed to respond to white male anger and white male discontent.
AINA: Cooper has pointed to the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh as an example. Senator Lindsey Graham was shouting during Justice Kavanaugh's testimony.
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LINDSEY GRAHAM: This is going to destroy the ability of good people to come forward because of this crap.
AINA: It was a turning point during the hearings, and Justice Kavanaugh was ultimately confirmed. Cooper says that black women have had to be more strategic when expressing their anger, but it doesn't mean that they shouldn't. As a lecturer at a university, this was at the front of her mind.
COOPER: It was just always that I thought that I should, like, be in better control because I wanted people to respect me, and I didn't want my anger to cause people to not be able to hear the things that I was trying to say.
AINA: Her feelings changed when she ran into a former student on campus one day.
COOPER: You know, she said, I love to listen to you lecture because your lectures were, like, filled with rage, but it was, like, the most eloquent rage ever. And she was saying it was the authenticity of your emotion that made me want to listen.
AINA: Now Cooper thinks about the energy that comes from her anger not as something to be managed but as a superpower to be used.
COOPER: We think about superpowers as, like, Batman using his smarts to outwit everybody or whatever. And I just think, you know, the biggest superheroes we've ever have have been black women who have looked at a set of conditions that are designed for them to fail and designed to kill them and said, we're going to live anyway. And not only are we going to live - we're going to thrive.
AINA: Black women, she says, like the three co-founders, two of whom are queer, of the Black Lives Matter movement. She also writes in her book about Beyonce and the ways that she shows her black feminist power through pop hits. This is part of what she means when she describes rage as a superpower. It is a deep source of creative energy, Cooper says, as part of what gives black women the strength to fight injustice and to imagine and build new worlds. Now, she also admits that rage can be destructive. But that's why she says rage is just a starting point.
COOPER: Part of what I'm trying to get at is that black women are never only angry. We can be angry and at the same time be joyous, at the same time be sad, at the same time be deeply in love or be heartbroken. So rage for me becomes the ground zero for the reclamation of black women's full emotional lives.
AINA: For Cooper, reclaiming these spidey senses called emotions is a way to fight for a sense of freedom that black people can actually enjoy, a revolution where they can dance and experience justice in their everyday lives.
Mayowa Aina, NPR News, Washington.
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BEYONCE: (Singing) Hold up, they don't love you like I love you. Slow down, they don't love you like I love you. Back up, they don't love you like I love you. Step down, they don't love you like I love you. Can't you see there's no other man above you? What a wicked way to treat the girl who loves you. Oh, love, they don't love you like I love you. Oh, down, they don't love you like I love you. I hop up out my bed and get my swag on. I look in the mirror, say, what's up? What's up, what's up, what's up?
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