Anger: The Black Woman's 'Superpower' A Sapphire isn't only a jewel—it's also cultural shorthand for an angry black woman. In this episode, we look at where Sapphire was born, and how the stereotype continues to haunt black women, even successful, powerful ones.
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Anger: The Black Woman's 'Superpower'

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Anger: The Black Woman's 'Superpower'

Anger: The Black Woman's 'Superpower'

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINK")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) You better think.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Think.

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Think about what you're trying to do to me. Think.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Think, think.

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Let your mind go, let yourself be free.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

This is CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates, sitting in for Shereen this week. And that was the late, great Aretha Franklin with her classic "Think." Know why we're listening to it, Gene?

DEMBY: Because it's a bop, obviously.

GRIGSBY BATES: It is that, yes. But this is the warning of an angry black woman trying to give a heads-up to her man before he steps in it so bad there is no turning back. And this is a hint about what we're going to be talking about this week - the angry black woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINK")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Oh, freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Freedom.

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Freedom.

GRIGSBY BATES: Gene, do you know what a Sapphire is?

DEMBY: You mean like the gemstone?

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah, it is that. It's also my birthstone. So, you know, around September...

DEMBY: Oh, when - what month of year? September? OK.

GRIGSBY BATES: September, yeah. You can just put a little package in the mail. That'll be fine. But (laughter)...

DEMBY: (Laughter) I got you, KGB.

GRIGSBY BATES: No pressure. But a Sapphire is also this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMOS 'N' ANDY")

ERNESTINE WADE: (As Sapphire Stevens) George Stevens, I want an explanation about where you've been until 3 o'clock in the morning.

TIM MOORE: (As George Stevens) Well, honey, would you believe me if I told you I fell asleep in the large hole and just now woke up?

WADE: (As Sapphire Stevens) No.

(LAUGHTER)

GRIGSBY BATES: That's Sapphire Stevens, wife of George Kingfish Stevens from the old "Amos 'N' Andy" show from the 1950s, which is a little before your time, Gene.

DEMBY: A little before my time. But I remember we sort of rabbit-holed (ph) a little bit in our blackface episode about "Amos 'N' Andy."

GRIGSBY BATES: Ah, yes. And Sapphire became kind of shorthand for a black woman who was a demanding scold, kind of an emasculating harpy, just angry.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMOS 'N' ANDY")

WADE: (As Sapphire Stevens) When are you going to bring home some money? Look at these bills. What are we going to do about them? You haven't had an income since there was a tax.

MOORE: (As George Stevens) Oh, been that long, huh?

(LAUGHTER)

GRIGSBY BATES: So even though Sapphire was a figment of some white television writer's imagination, she eventually became the embodiment of the angry black woman. And, hey, in real life, sometimes we do get angry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERENA WILLIAMS: You owe me an apology. You owe me an apology. I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter, and I stand what's right for her. And I've never cheated, and you owe me an apology.

DEMBY: Oh, yeah. That was Serena - Serena Williams last September at the U.S. Open. The line judge said that her coach was coaching her from the stands or something like that. Yeah.

GRIGSBY BATES: And that's a no-no.

DEMBY: Yeah. Apparently, that's against the rules. You can get fined for it if they catch you. I mean, watching it was hard to tell, like, if that was actually happening. Serena said that that wasn't what was happening, which is why she got so upset. She felt that her integrity was on the line, and so she lost her cool. And then she went on to lose the match.

GRIGSBY BATES: I get it. She'd worked hard to come back from a difficult pregnancy and a life-threatening medical condition after that. And she has a history of being criticized when she loses her temper on the court, even when male players - most famously John McEnroe - did the same thing, and people tolerated it. We're even kind of amused by it sometimes.

DEMBY: Jimmy Connors too, right?

GRIGSBY BATES: Right.

DEMBY: And so that whole incident started this whole conversation about just who is entitled to anger.

GRIGSBY BATES: And even when black women aren't angry, just firm, we're accused of being b****y. Maxine Waters gets this all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVEN MNUCHIN: You're instructing me to stay here, and I should cancel my...

MAXINE WATERS: No, you just made me an offer.

MNUCHIN: No, I didn't make...

GRIGSBY BATES: In this case, she was getting it from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who decided he had something more important to do than give testimony to the committee Congresswoman Waters heads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WATERS: I said you may leave anytime you want. And you said OK. If that's what you want to do, I'll cancel my appointment, and I'll stay here. So I'm responding to your request if that's what you want to do.

MNUCHIN: That's not what I want to do. I told you...

WATERS: What would you like to do?

MNUCHIN: What I've told you is I thought it was respectful that you'd let me leave at 5:15, which is the current...

WATERS: You are free to leave anytime you want. You may go...

MNUCHIN: OK. Well, then please...

WATERS: ...Anytime you want.

MNUCHIN: Please dismiss everybody. I believe you're supposed to take the gravel (ph) and bang it. That's the...

WATERS: Please do not instruct me as to how I am to conduct this committee.

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Wow.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah.

DEMBY: Yeah. He was a little bit shook.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah. I think he was a lot of bit shook (laughter). But you know us angry black women - we hella (ph) scary.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIGSBY BATES: So we wanted to know where all these feelings about black women - angry, crispy, whatever - came from and how they've affected black women over the years. And to do that, our colleague Mayowa Aina talked with Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper. She's the author of "Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower."

BRITTNEY 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 don't have a good grasp on reality, that they are overreacting, that they are being hypersensitive, that whatever set of conditions that they are responding to, that their reaction is outsized.

GRIGSBY BATES: And when we come back, we'll hear their conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

GRIGSBY BATES: Karen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. OK. So as we said before the break, our colleague Mayowa Aina had a sit-down with the author and professor Brittney Cooper. And they talked about the image of black women's anger and its power.

COOPER: The angry black woman stereotype is part of a series of what the feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins calls controlling images that shape the way black women are perceived in American culture. So the original name for that stereotype was the Sapphire, who is a woman perceived to be emasculating because she's always berating people, particularly men, and is not in control of her anger. And so today, we typically just refer to this as the angry black woman stereotype, which is to say that when black women are in any other state but being joyous or laughing, they are often perceived by others to be angry.

So if a black woman is at work, and she's being serious, or she raises a concern, if she does that in a way that is not overly solicitous in terms of, like, not smiling, then folks often think that she's angry for no reason. And that can lead to the projection onto black women of ideas of them as being threatening, being dangerous and being unsafe, in addition to being emotionally unstable.

MAYOWA AINA, BYLINE: In your book, you give lots of examples that range from Michelle Obama to your own mom and even your own experience of being stereotyped or perceived as angry.

COOPER: Yes.

AINA: Is there any particular example that stands out to you about how that functions?

COOPER: Sure. So probably the most enduring example in this moment is what happens to Michelle Obama in the months after Barack Obama announced his initial candidacy for president. She gave a speech. And she talked about it being the first time that she was proud of her country because it was clear that her husband would probably procure the nomination to the presidency. And, you know, that was historic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHELLE OBAMA: Let me tell you something. For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country, and not just because Barack has done well but because I think people are hungry for change.

COOPER: Suddenly, people cast her as unpatriotic. They said that she was angry and shrill and that she couldn't be trusted. And then that stereotype persisted and really reached its high point when, in 2008, there was a cover of The New Yorker magazine drawn by a cartoonist named Barry Blitt. It was called "The Politics Of Fear."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARRY BLITT: We all remember the campaign of 2008. When Obama was running for president, there was a lot of stuff being said about him and Michelle, that Michelle was a - some kind of Black Panther or something. There was rumors of a video of her saying kill whitey (ph). I mean, I just scribbled in a sketchbook all of it in one picture. And it - I had Michelle dressed as - you know, she had a gun on her back, and she was sort of, like, a - I don't know - a fictional Black Panther. It was a ridiculous picture, and I hoped it would be seen as such.

COOPER: And that cover was actually designed to satirize the way that people saw Michelle Obama. But unfortunately, it sort of reinforced the stereotype. So she comes off as angry, militant and dangerous. Those are the challenges of that stereotype. They cause black women to be misperceived. Folks can't hear the message. Any critique becomes seen as hypercritical. And so she becomes misread. In many ways, who she truly is becomes invisible, all because Americans are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that black women and black people have the right to be angry about injustices that we face.

AINA: And so in the book, you talk a lot about your own personal experience. And you describe getting to this point as a process that's been, like, messy as hell. So have there been ways in the early parts of your process where you tried to avoid the angry black woman stereotype?

COOPER: Absolutely. So the title of the book is "Eloquent Rage." And I tell the story in the book about how I had a student - young, black woman student - who took one of my classes when I was working on my Ph.D. And I saw her some months after that class ended. And, 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 my immediate response to her was, I'm not angry. I'm passionate. Like, how dare you say that - right? Like, you're just, you know, appending me with that stereotype.

And in that moment, I realized that she was hearing the other thing, which is that too often, like, in college classrooms, we ask students to have these detached responses when they're talking about topics that affect their real lives - racism and, you know, I teach about histories of black people and the kinds of terrible things that we've overcome and our activism around those things. And so to go into that history and have to read these stories and then to write in this moment about so many of the harrowing sort of issues that face black people is to be - to riff on James Baldwin - in a continual state of anger.

And her call-out really helped me to recognize that I wasn't discrediting myself or my work as a scholar or my ability to be a professional black woman by saying, yeah, I'm mad as hell about the conditions that black people face in this institution and in the world in general. Whenever someone weaponizes anger against black women, it is designed to silence them. It is designed to discredit them and to say that they don't have a good grasp on reality, that they are overreacting, that they are being hypersensitive, that whatever set of conditions that they are responding to, that their reaction is outsized. And so, yes, it's a silencing tactic. That's why I see it as so violent.

That's why it feels really important to me to say to black woman that it is OK to be angry. And it is OK to reclaim that anger because part of what I think then happens is that when we feel the right to be angry, then we also give ourselves the permission to feel any of the other things that we feel in relationship to that anger. And so it is trying to restore intact a sort of full sense of our emotional lives.

AINA: So you talk about sort of grappling with this stereotype. So you sort of start in the 1980s, where you have, like, the welfare queen. Then we get to the '90s, where we kind of swing the other way. And there's magazines and makeup lines that start to cater to black women. And then we get to the 2000s, where there's sort of, you know, two routes where you can go, which is, like, the professional, educated, good black girl and then the other girls, who maybe become single parents or are stuck in minimum-wage jobs and things like that. What was the importance of doing that sort of landscaping of this stereotype throughout your book?

COOPER: Yeah. I wouldn't even say that it started in the 1980s. I'm reminded that this - that when Ida B. Wells, the famous anti-lynching activist from the 19th century was, like, at the height of her career, people talked about her as, quote, "a bull in a china shop." That was the language that was given to her because she was brash. So she pissed off, you know, black folks, and she pissed off white folks because she pulled no punches. And she was, like, telling white girls, we don't - you know, I don't trust you and the things you're saying about these black men raping you. But she was also calling out black men because they didn't want her to be a leader. She was a woman. I mean, so she didn't play nice.

And then, you know, she also didn't really rock with the bougie black girls too well - like, Mary Church Terrell and Fannie Barrier Williams - because she came from a working-class family. And she didn't go to college or - didn't go to a fancy college, I should say. She went to a small college in Mississippi. And so she didn't have the same level of polish. So, you know, that thing that - of black women and how they navigate the public sphere is a really old thing, actually. It's not particularly new.

But part of what I wanted to talk about in terms of the landscape of the '80s and '90s and 2000s is that black feminist scholars have been talking about how black women navigate stereotypes for a long time. And I would say that we always have done this thing to black women where we say, there are respectable black women and then there's these sort of nonrespectable (ph) black women. And you don't want to be like them. And so I was raised very much - by working-class black people to become a sort of respectable, middle-class black girl and to not fall into being a statistic or a stereotype.

And what I wanted to do was complicate that and say, look. Like, I have gotten to be 30-something. And I've got all the degrees that anybody could want. And I have a great career. But that doesn't mean that I have, you know, conquered, like, happiness. It doesn't mean that I have a family. It doesn't mean that I have partnership because getting degrees and being really smart and being super articulate and reading a lot of books and all of that doesn't entitle you to happiness, doesn't entitle you to romance, doesn't entitle you to care. We are worthy of those things simply because of who we are not because of how we make choices, like, under capitalism and trying to achieve.

And so the other reason that I wanted to lay out that landscape is because black women blame ourselves for everything. And what I wanted to say is there are a series of policy decisions that get made, particularly around black womanhood, beginning in the mid-1970s to regulate us and to divide us into these camps of welfare queens and then, like, sort of professional over-achieving black ladies. And so I want black women to stop blaming themselves. And I want us to start looking at how structures shape our lives and make it hard for us to see and hear and understand each other.

AINA: I think you called it structural baggage.

COOPER: Yeah.

AINA: And I think it also helps people understand a little bit - there are plenty of reasons for people to be angry, and that sort of legitimizes that emotion.

COOPER: Yeah. Part of what happens is - right. It's, like - there are real systemic challenges. And instead, what we're taught is that we should internalize those things as failures. And I was tired of all of the books telling black women that they didn't have the lives they wanted because they were, you know, too loud and too attitudinal and too fat and too lazy and too - and just too much.

And so this is, like, my manifesto against that to say, you know, things have been done to us. We did not choose these conditions, and we are a people in a position of always having to make the best out of a piss-poor set of options. And we should be applauded for that, and we should be given the tools to think very robustly about what it is we're being called to do, how we're being called to navigate these terrible systems and then to have a little bit of space to be gentle with ourselves.

AINA: And so the way that you describe your rage is as eloquent and as a superpower.

COOPER: Mmm hmm.

AINA: Can you talk about why you sort of describe it as a superpower?

COOPER: Yeah. Look. You know, I was born to a poor, single, teenage mom who had been shot in the early weeks of her pregnancy with me by a former lover. And she - my mother had me at a local - as they called it back then - the charity hospital. That is my origin story. And that's not in the 1950s or 1960s. I was born in 1980. And so to have the life I have now, having come into the world in that set of conditions, what other way can you describe that but as a black woman exercising her superpower to build something that literally does not seem possible? That is the thing that I'm trying to get at. 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 say, we're going to live anyway. And not only are we going to live, we're going to thrive. And we're going to, you know, have levels of achievement we've never had before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JEROME")

LIZZO: (Singing) Woo. Oh, here we go again.

DEMBY: All right, before we get out of here, KGB - you an angry, black woman (laughter).

GRIGSBY BATES: Some days I am - not frontin' about that.

DEMBY: What song is giving you life this week?

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, as a matter of fact, I've been listening to Lizzo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JEROME")

LIZZO: (Singing) Jerome, Jerome, take your a** home. And come back when you're grown.

GRIGSBY BATES: On this cut, she's announcing she has no time for her trifling boyfriend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JEROME")

LIZZO: (Singing) Jerome, go on, take your a** home, where the peaches have thorns.

DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter we're @NPRCodeSwitch. We want hear from you. Our email is CODESWITCH@npr.org. And sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/CODESWITCH. Karen writes that Newsletter every week. Subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

GRIGSBY BATES: This episode was produced by Maria Paz Gutierrez. It was edited by Steve Drummond and Sami Yenigun.

DEMBY: And shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Leah Donnella, Adrian Florido, Kat Chow, Kumari Devarajan and LA Johnson.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

GRIGSBY BATES: And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates. Shereen will be back next week.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all

GRIGSBY BATES: See you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JEROME")

LIZZO: (Singing) Boy, thank me later - looks good on paper.

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