"I don't like to fight": Brittney Cooper on life, God, childhood & mortality

Salon's contributing writer on her father's murder, her evolving views on religion -- and her professional journey

Published January 28, 2015 11:59AM (EST)

Brittney Cooper
Brittney Cooper

One of the challenges for a daily (or, even, weekly) columnist is that, too often, they're confined to weighing in on the events of that week or whatever explosive item du jour.  You can learn a lot about where the columnist is coming from, or how they think, from such posts -- but the format can be limiting. Beyond the news they're analyzing that day, what do they think about broader or more personal topics? What are the body of experiences and perspectives they're bringing to their writing?

To get a better sense of the answers to these questions, Salon will publish a series of interviews over the coming weeks with smart voices across the media landscape. Rather than ask about the issue they just spoke about somewhere or the column they just wrote, we'll talk about their personal stories -- what motivates them, what frightens them, and how they got where they are today.

We spoke recently with Brittney Cooper, the popular contributing writer here at Salon, and an assistant professor of Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University. Her writing on topics including gender, race, education and life (and the intersection of them) can be read here. We spoke about her childhood, relationship with God and the church, sense of mortality and hopes for the future. A slightly edited transcript for length and clarity follows below.

You’ve written about losing your father in a horrific way as a child, and other turbulent times growing up. As a young person, were you aware that you were experiencing a childhood that was perhaps more challenging than a lot of people’s? And in spite of that, was it a happy childhood? 

It’s so funny that you ask that, because when my mother and I talk about the past— because things are so different now— I actually do think it was a happy childhood. I really remember my childhood as being stable, as being safe, as one where I got to be a kid. I played with dolls probably until I was in middle school; I was a voracious reader really from the time I learned to read, so going to the book fair at school was one of my favorite things to do. We’d read "Superfudge" and "Fudge," Judy Blume, the Ramona Quimby books… I leapt into Babysitters’ Club and stayed with them for like seven or eight years— probably far too long, but they were sort of like friends to me.

I really do remember my childhood as being safe and happy, so when I got to adulthood and had a bit of distance I realized how challenging it was for the first nine years. My dad lived with us until I was 5 and he was the kind of guy who, Monday through Friday, was a really active, funny, fun-loving man— or that’s what my mother tells me. I don’t remember a lot of that because on the weekends he would become really volatile. He would work Monday through Friday and then on the weekends he would start drinking, him and his pals, and it just was chaos.

And that part you do remember?

I do remember, but I have very limited memories. One of my happiest memories with my dad was us walking through the projects— this was the South, so it wasn’t really unsafe— but us walking through the projects and me sitting on his shoulders and he could whistle. I remember my dad whistling, and that being one of my happiest memories of childhood, and me not being afraid of him. I also remember him taking me to the corner store for bubblegum, and us walking back together, but those memories are really few and far between.

Mostly what I remember is the harassment, the anger, the fighting. He was violent, never towards me but certainly towards my mother. Very early on, I remember saying to my dad, “I don’t want to talk to you.” I was 7 or 8 and he wanted a relationship and I just said to him, “I don’t want that, you hurt my mommy and I don’t want to talk to you.” So we didn’t talk. I feel like one of my last conversations with my dad was me saying to him, “I don’t love you,” and him saying to me, “Well, I love you.”

I was on my mom’s side. I saw her going to work every day and hustling and trying to create a new life for us, and even though I couldn’t fully perceive it I perceived him as tearing that down and as hurting her, and I didn’t understand that. It’s something that has haunted me for a very long time, what it must have been like for him to have to hear his kid say that. It’s doubly interesting because I look just like my dad. I look nothing like my mother, particularly when I was a kid.

I don’t like to fight, which is funny because I’m such a combative public figure, but in my private life I’m not particularly combative. My mom says that’s very much how my dad was. When he was sober he would walk away from a fight, he would do anything he could to avoid a fight, and that that really shifted when he was drinking. She ties that sentiment, that peacefulness that I have, to him.

So you’re 9 years old when your father passed. You didn’t want a relationship with him and then he passes away. That sounds like a very complicated situation even for an adult. How does a 9-year-old process that?

I was really devastated but I didn’t cry for like a week; I didn’t miss a day of school, which I find remarkable. I remember my mom had to tell me it was OK to cry, at which point I just sort of broke open. I didn’t think I could cry; this wasn’t a man I liked, so I didn’t know it was OK to feel sad that he had passed away. I needed permission to cry— and I’m really glad that my mom gave me that permission— and then I was able to mourn through it.

What I mostly remember is just saying to myself over and over, “What does it mean that I don’t have a daddy?” That was the loop that played in my head, and I don’t know that I ever made sense of it. It was just a question that I finally stopped asking because you just kind of reconcile yourself with it. But for a very long time I remember feeling like I didn’t know what it meant to not have a daddy.

You’ve written a little bit about the role of religion in your life, and I’m always fascinated by this topic. Is religion still a big part of your life? What role has it played?

I have a really complicated relationship with Christianity, which I think most critical academics have. It’s really hard to be an intellectual and academic and be a person of faith, but I grew up in a very traditional Southern black Christian environment. My folks were Baptists; they’ve been Baptists forever. My stepdad, who’s been in my life since I was a kid and married my mom when I was a teenager, is a Baptist minister. We are church people.

What I like is that my mother never, ever foisted faith upon me. My mom is pretty live-and-let-live. She was a person of deep faith and I was a kid with all these questions, so I would be going to the pastor and asking about Adam and dinosaurs … I think I was deeply skeptical. I spent a lot of time as a kid being like, “What does God feel like?” and often feeling like a fraud. Baptist traditions are somewhat charismatic, so people say amen, they’re going to be dancing and shouting in church, and I wasn’t really interested in that ever. Even before I knew what arguments were I liked the three-point sermon. Lay it out and let me go home. That’s what appealed to me.

I think in this day and time, folks have to have spiritual resources to deal with the challenges we face. I think that there are so many horrible things that just exceed our capacity for reason and critical thinking, and I don’t even understand religion and faith outside of those realms but I do understand it as both participating in and augmenting what they have to offer.

I do remain a person of deep faith but I’m also a person that’s giving Christians hell a lot of the time, because I think we need to account for the imperial nature of what it means to be a Christian in the West. I think we need to account for all the violence that has been done in the name of Christianity; I really can’t stand when people of faith think that that becomes a cloak to not do intellectual work and have better frameworks. So usually I’m, like, harassing them and giving them a hard time. I literally had a church leader tell me one time, “People just want you to shut up.”

Wow, what did you do to elicit that comment?

What she said was, “It’s not that you’ve done anything, it’s that we are afraid of what you might do because of the questions you ask.”

Was this when you were younger?

This was more recent, I was a graduate student. I was also doing this thing in graduate school where my graduate school colleagues still didn’t know that I went to church because I didn’t know how to reconcile those two really different worlds. I just wasn’t telling my graduate school colleagues that church was important to me, but at the same time I was becoming more and more unfit to go to church because I just had so many questions.

In the last few years I’ve taken a year off from church. I was like, I don’t wanna go, this is violent. When I would go I would hear preachers saying homophobic things or saying things that were violent against women, and I just have no time for it so I walked out. I walked out of a sermon sort of famously one time when the pastor was co-signing corporal punishment against teenage girls.

I’m always trying to figure out how to blend faith and life. For those of us who are intellectuals, we miss a lot of people who would be thoughtful allies for social justice causes because we don’t respect what faith means. I have this supposedly radical idea that we could blend these things together and figure out some middle ground some of the time.

Do you still consider yourself someone who believes in God?

Yeah, I consider myself a Christian.

And you pray?

I do. I pray, I go to church. I’m a member of a church now but the pastor is a radical black feminist, so… But I do pray, I do go to church, I do believe in God and Jesus. I will say that those things are not without lots of questioning, so some days I don’t know that I believe. Some days are really doubtful days, but it feels to me like there’s always something in my spirit that I understand as God calling me back and saying, “But we’ve come so far.”

Part of it is that when I look at the miraculousness of my own journey as a poor black girl raised by a teen mom and a very dysfunctional father, doing the things I’m doing now… for me it would be the height of arrogance to ascribe that to my own merit. I know that I work hard and I know that my merit matters but I’ve known people my entire life who have worked just as hard who haven’t had these opportunities. For me, rather than thinking even that God favors me over them— which is also a concept I don’t get down with— I take it to be God giving me opportunities because He wants me to make the world more just and more loving. That is what opportunity is all about, for me.

Do you believe in an afterlife?

I do, and my thoughts about this are changing. I read a lot of progressive Christians— and I sort of feel reticent about saying this because if my mom reads this interview she’ll be like, what, now? But hell just seems like a really tough concept for me. I feel more liberal about how I think about God now, but when I was a teenager and a 20-something I was a hardcore Evangelical. I was the girl on the street like, “You need to be saved or you’re going to go to hell!” And I’m so not that person anymore. I think religion is a cultural approach to getting in touch with the Spirit and I really respect that lots of different people have lots of different ways of doing that.

I know from your writing that you’re someone who loves traditions and customs. My sense from that is that you found that aspect of religion to be comforting.

I mean, there’s a set of disciplines and rituals… I'm connected to people who still get down on their knees to pray, still say grace over meals, and those disciplines tie us back to something, not even just to rituals for their own sakes but to moments and places where we felt safe and connected. Here’s the thing: As I have become more progressive and far less dogmatic I question a lot of those rituals, and that’s been really hard to give up.

I question even the ways we’re taught to pray. Like, list all the bad things that you did… As I become more integrated I don’t approach God with the thought that this is all about me being a horrible human being and having to acknowledge all of that. I now think about what it means to think about God as a friend and a confidant and as someone who grieves with us and cheers us on.

The other thing is that I think I make everyone scream. I think I make serious theologians scream because there’s not a clear systematicity to my thinking; I think I make my church family scream because it’s like, “We’ve taught you better than this,” and I think everyone just thinks I have a hodgepodge of things that work for me. It’s OK with me.

Let’s switch gears a bit. What would the 7- or 14- or 21-year-old Brittney think about where you are and what you’re doing now? Would she have predicted this? Is it what she would have wanted?

You know, I actually think 7-year-old and 14-year-old me would be really proud because I’ve always been a big dreamer and my folks told me from very early that I was going places. They said they saw great things for me and I don’t think they necessarily knew what “great” meant, but there’s a way that Southern people just say to you, “Baby, the world could be yours,” and that’s what I heard.

The difference is, I believed it because my mom nurtured that. I was a debater in high school and it was a very expensive sport. It’s traditionally a white elite sport, although not anymore. She told me that at one point she had owed every lender in our town in order to support all my activities, and I realized that there was a real risky investment... My mom didn’t have a safety net. My grandmother lived on Social Security, did manual labor her entire life. So that was an investment in the potential that my mother and my community saw in me, and I know that some other parents of children in my community didn’t have the resources to make that kind of investment. What I love is that they didn’t just say, “Baby, you could be anything,” but they put resources behind it, even resources they didn’t have.

Was there a specific goal at age 7, like this is what I want to be when I  grow up?

I wanted to be a teacher! In the fourth grade I had this amazing teacher named Mrs. Gaulden, and I still talk to her to this day. She pushed and prodded me; I cried, it was a tough relationship, but what I remember most is that at the end of that year my test scores jumped tenfold percent in one year. The one thing she said to me that has stuck with me forever is that I never took anything she said at face value.

She asked me a question about that and then she gave me an instruction; she said, do you challenge your white teachers like this? Do you ask them questions like you ask me? And I was 8, and it had never occurred to me. One would think she would then say, “Well, you should think about that,” but what she actually said was, “Don’t stop; never stop questioning.” From that point forward I just gave teachers hell. Every year my mom had to go into school and talk to a teacher because I had challenged something that they had said.

I wanted to be a teacher because I saw how she taught and she inspired me. At some point I played around with being an attorney because I was a debater. I was a political science major in college, I thought maybe I should go to law school, but when I got to Howard— and history sort of seeps out of the walls at Howard— I met these amazing professors and saw the way they were inspiring black kids. What I loved about going to Howard was that they could take kids who came in in remedial courses and graduate them in four years and they were amazing and ready to go. They figured out how to nurture them and I knew that I wanted to be a part of that.

My perfect day is teaching people to write and read, and I built my life around having as many of those days as I can possibly have.

Can you tell me a bit about your professional journey? How do you go from being a political science major in college to being a professor, writer, TV commentator…?

My first professor at Howard was a guy named Lawrence Jackson. He came to this freshman composition class— everybody has to take freshman composition but this was an honors section. We read 12 books in that class. You don’t necessarily read 12 books in a graduate seminar, but every week we read a book. It was a course about how to write an autobiography from reading other people’s autobiographies, and he said that we read to write. You want to be better writers? Well, you need to read more. I learned to write in his course, and I had thought I was a great writer already.

My first trip to New York, he took our class to Bleecker Street and we read Anatole Broyard’s “Kafka Was the Rage” and it had all this wonderful geography of Harlem and New York. We retraced Anatole Broyard’s steps as a big class field trip, and I was inspired to see that when we said we taught kids that could look all kinds of ways. I knew I wanted to do what he did.

They had this thing at Howard called the McNair Program, and it’s a federal program largely for first-generation college students that sets them on the path to a Ph.D. I had been a recipient of Upward Bound in high school, so when this program came up I said, that’s interesting. You learn to research with a professor, you spend a summer there learning how to prepare graduate applications, they gave you money to take your GRE to get into graduate school, all of that. That’s why I’m a big proponent of affirmative action programs, because I’m an affirmative action recipient.

One of the hiccups was that I didn’t get into graduate school my first go round, which is not a thing that I tell people because I don’t like talking about failure. So I took a year off, I taught kids in Washington, D.C., and it was a clarifying year where I realized that I should never be teaching middle schoolers. People are called to teach middle schoolers and I am not called to teach them; I need to teach adults. There’s a particular talent for that, and I respect it but I don’t have it.

And then I went to graduate school and I really dug in. I was in graduate school six years and… One of the things that I realized while I was at Howard was that I didn’t like they way lawyers thought. I wanted intellectual conversation, I wanted questions. I liked debates but I didn’t want to debate about the law, I wanted to debate about ideas and concepts. I realized that professors did that, not necessarily attorneys. That’s when I made the shift from wanting to go to law school to wanting to do a Ph.D.

Did the doctorate at Emory under the direction of Rudolph Byrd. What I’ll say about Dr. Byrd is that he wore this bow tie and spoke with this British affect that was very intimidating. I credit my ability to think through things systematically and think through genealogies of ideas… I got that from him.

How did Crunk Feminist Collective, where I first saw your writing, get started?

We started in grad school, and it was mostly a group of friends who hung out and commiserated about being in grad school. We would go out and club and we loved crunk music. After I got out of grad school my colleague Susana Morris called me — we were both living in different small towns in Alabama and wondering how we arrived there and feeling isolated, and she said, “Why don’t we get the Crunk Feminist Collective going again? We’ll start this blog as one way to be in community with each other.”

So we did. We created a space where we could talk about pop culture or relationships… One of the really funny things is that if you look at the early days of the Collective, I was the person who wrote about dating there all the time, which I don’t do so much anymore.

I’m going to have to go back into the archives for that.

Don’t do it! We were just talking to what we felt was a community of like-minded people about how to live feminism as an everyday practice. I feel like at the Collective I really honed my writing chops. I was thinking a lot about the best way to convey the ideas I wanted that audience to know and after doing that consistently for three or four years something emerged. I think I discovered that I was potentially a writer, which I didn’t necessarily know when we started.

When we started we just thought blogging would be a way for us to have conversations. I wasn’t thinking about the craft of writing, but all those years of training really came together.

How have your early experiences with mortality affected the way you are today? How have they affected your writing?

I just had my 34th birthday on Tuesday and what I thought most about on that day was that my dad didn’t make it to see 34. I do think about mortality a lot, far more than I would generally be comfortable admitting. One of the things I remember most about my dad passing away… At 9 you don’t think about people dying, so I just remember thinking that this person was here and he was really young. I knew he was younger than most people who die, and then he was just gone.

I had a mortal fear as a kid that anybody could die at any point, particularly my mother, so I learned early not to take people for granted. I do worry all the time. I know we can lose people; I know life is fragile, and I am very aware of that. The way it shows for me now is that I think a lot about what it means for me to be an academic and to be single at 34. A lot of the community supports that help us to sustain ourselves have eluded a particular generation of overachieving black women, so I think about whether all the work we do to achieve our dreams and our parents’ dreams kills us in the process.

One of the things I do think about now that I’m older is that I don’t excuse my dad’s behavior but I recognize that it happened in a social context. We love to talk about stories of black triumph but we don’t talk about stories of black families who really did feel, in the most dysfunctional ways, the brunt of generational poverty and lack of access to opportunity. Part of what that does is it puts so much pressure on those of us who know that story, to leap over that. We have to leap over so much to get to the next stage, and sometimes that takes a toll on our bodies that we don’t even anticipate.

I worry about how to stay healthy, how to not create another set of boundaries for myself while I’m trying to overcome the generational boundaries. So, yeah, I do think about mortality a lot but I’m also really thankful to be here at 34.

Does it motivate your work?

I try not to be that morbid about it but more recently I say that we only have one life and we have to live every bit of it. It’s allowed me to throw off some of my conservatism, particularly around religion, which makes us think that our lives are only about preparing for the hereafter. Whatever the hereafter is, I think we’re supposed to do significant things while we’re in this moment.

When I was a teenager I was very obsessed with dying early. I’m less obsessed with it now, and I think it’s because I feel really excited about all the things there are to live for. I never want to get too excited because I feel like that’s when people sort of check out, you know? It’s a very odd and terrible mental game.

What are your hopes and goals for the future?

I was just having a conversation with my homegirl this weekend and she was saying she wanted to be a world-renowned scholar. I love that she was confident enough to say that. I think I want to be a world-respected scholar and a public champion of black people. Those are my goals. Whatever opportunities I have to do that, that’s really what I’m aiming for.

The opportunity to share ideas in public is one I don’t take lightly, and I think far too many people do take it lightly. When I share ideas with the public I want them to be rooted in rigorous thinking, and I think having an academic career allows me to do that. One of the things that really matters to me when I think about my craft is that I like to do everything I do with a real respect for the form. I respect writers, I respect thinkers, I respect people who advocate for folks, and I want to do those things to the best of my ability.

By Blake Zeff

Blake Zeff is the former politics editor of Salon. Follow him on Twitter at @blakezeff.

MORE FROM Blake Zeff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Brittney Cooper Childhood Death Feminism Gender Interview Mortality Race Religion Salon Writing