Brittney Cooper on Her Growing Relationship to God and Church
They Told Me to Stop Asking Questions—That Was When Things Changed
Will Schwalbe talks to professor, writer, and cultural commentator Brittney Cooper on grappling with questions on religion and learning to manage uncertainty.
Will Schwalbe: Hi, I’m Will Schwalbe, and this is But That’s Another Story. When I was growing up, I went to an episcopal boarding school in New Hampshire. Not only did we have to go to chapel every weekday morning—we had to be on time. To help make sure we weren’t late, the chapel bells would give us a three minute warning at 7:57. This inspired a kind of procrastination Olympics, all of us vying to see how close we could cut it and still be on time.
One friend was the undisputable champion, a legend. He could be in bed when the bells started chiming and still somehow manage to throw on some clothes, grab his backpack, and run the quarter mile to the chapel before the door closed at eight. But that performance would have merely earned him a silver in the procrastination Olympics. He turned it into a gold by hiding a school book inside his hymnal and starting and finishing the day’s assigned reading while everyone else was singing and praying. At the time, that seemed daring to the point of blasphemy. But looking back on it now, I think of it differently. Maybe there’s something quite wonderful about reading in church, even if it’s coursework. Even if it’s because you haven’t done what you should have done when you should have done it. After all, for me—and I suspect many others—reading is a kind of prayer, an act of radical empathy. An expression of faith. And recently, I got to talking about faith with today’s guest.
Brittney Cooper: My name is Brittney Cooper. By day, I’m associate professor of women’s and gender studies and Africana studies at Rutgers University, and by night, I’m a black feminist troublemaker.
WS: Brittney Cooper is a professor, writer, and cultural commentator. She is the cofounder of the Crunk Feminist Collective blog and the author of Eloquent Rage. The book is a memoir, about family, friendship, faith, and her path to identifying as a black feminist. And that’s a story that starts way back when she was a kid.
BC: I grew up in Louisiana in a small town in the northern part of the state, about as far from New Orleans as you could get. We went to Walmart for fun. That was small town living and excitement.
WS: Aside from excursions to Walmart, there were a few other things that kept Brittney entertained. TV shows like Jem and the Holograms and Saved by the Bell, talking to the kids next to her in class, and reading.
BC: Some of my earliest memories include my mother’s nightly ritual of reading a bedtime story to me, particularly Little Golden Books. I loved Little Golden Books. The Berenstain Bears, Disney characters, all of it.
I got my first Baby-Sitters Club book when I was eight years old. I was in the third grade. The Scholastic book fair came to town. The Scholastic book fair is an amazing thing, I don’t know if they still have them, but they would send you home with these brochures, and I remember seeing a book that said Baby-Sitters Club and I thought, I want that. And so, I get to the book fair, I beeline for the #8 title in that series. It was a book called Boy Crazy Stacey. I loved the girls in that book because they were friends and they did cool things, like they went on adventures together. And they lived in a faraway place called Connecticut, which a little girl from Louisiana wouldn’t know anything about. They were a main staple of my childhood. My mom says she didn’t think that I would ever give up the Baby-Sitters, and you know, I haven’t actually ever given them up. I still know the names of every character in that series, and I still have each and every Baby-Sitters Club book that I have ever owned.
WS: And Brittney’s infatuation with reading didn’t stop there.
BC: In the summertime, my mom would take me to the local library and drop me off. And I would sit all day—so I would read books all day, and then I would come home with a stack of books. The library didn’t ever have the biggest stash of like Baby-Sitters Club, so I read Boxcar Children and Nancy Drew mysteries, so I got my mysteries from the library. That’s the thing I remember. I also read like, Mildred Taylor books. So, she was the first black children’s author that I read, because they had Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry and Let The Circle Be Unbroken.
WS: Do you remember what the experience was like as a kid, reading the first children’s book you read by a black author?
BC: I do. And the thing I remember about Mildred Taylor—so, there’s a lot of black dialect in that book, and mostly what I remember thinking was, oh, the people in this book talk like my grandmother talks.
My grandmother was a country Southern lady and so she used the kind of dialect that you would hear in a book like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. I can hear the voices in that book because they sound like my grandmother and even my great grandmother. I loved that in reading, that I could hear the voices immediately. That made the book feel authentic to me. It felt familiar to me and I was thankful for that. And I don’t think I knew that you could tell stories that had black characters in them, particularly black characters that sounded like black people that I knew.
WS: And while she spent most of the week reading or watching reruns of The Brady Bunch, if it was a Sunday, there was only one place Brittney was going to be.
BC: So church is a thing for black Southern church kids that’s just in the ether. It is just a thing that you do. The earliest memories I have are of having to get dressed up with lots of lace and patent leather shoes, and I was the first girl grandchild in my family. So they were like, “you are a doll and you will get your hair done and you will put on these lacy dresses and these ruffle-y underwear.” And I hated it. Because it was itchy. But when we got to the actual church service, I remember the sounds in that little old country church by the way that they sung hymns.
So one of my favorite hymns remains this song called “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.” But the reason why I love it is there’s a way that Southern country black people sing it, they sing it very slow. And they keep the beat by tapping their feet on the wood of the church. So if you go and hear a sophisticated choir sing it today, it sounds totally different. And when I heard my college choir sing it many years later, it was like blasphemy to me. I was like, “What is this?” Because you can hear the blues tradition in the way country black folks sing that song.
I remember the day, I was thinking recently of the day that my mom made me sit up in church. You know, the preacher got up and I laid down on the pew and she was like, “You’re too old for that, sit up.” And I was like, “This is terrible, who wants to listen to this preacher talk for like an hour?” And at some point, when you grow up like that, you start to listen to the stories that the preacher tells.
WS: And as Brittney started listening to those stories, she found herself getting into church that same way she had gotten in the Baby-Sitters Club books. She liked it. A lot. But as a smart, precocious kid, Brittney says the thing that she liked about church was not the thing that most people liked.
BC: I actually wasn’t swayed by the singing or the charisma. I thought it was all perfectly fine, but I actually wanted to hear the reading of the scripture, and I wanted a preacher to show me some things in it that I hadn’t seen before in the story. So a really intellectual, cerebral approach.
I felt embraced by a church community. These were folks that I knew prayed for me, and cared about my wellbeing. You know, there was the time when my mom couldn’t get off work and I had a Girl Scout meeting, and so my pastor came in his grey Cadillac and took me to Girl Scouts, you know. These were the folks in my community, and they picked up the slack and they helped out when they could.
WS: But Brittney was a natural skeptic, and she had questions.
BC: They would say “if you don’t believe this, you’re going to hell,” but I had lots of questions. Is God really real? You know, I had questions about dinosaurs. I didn’t understand the creation story. You know, my skepticism was a private skepticism for the most part. I had questions, and at some point, I began to care more about getting the right answers than retaining my right to the questions.
“I needed permission to actually ask the questions that I had. I’m trying to become a person who doesn’t need other people to give me permission, but in that moment, I needed permission.”
I was an ambitious kid. I got told very early, “You’re smart, and you can be anything and you can have a life much bigger than this very small town.” But the way that black people tell you things like that in the deep South is they say, “Baby, put God first.” And so I took that far more dogmatically than I think they intended. They meant to stay connected to a spiritual center. What I heard was, “Figure out all the rules and ace God just like you ace tests. Ace God just like you ace every subject in school.” The older I got and the more that I went to church and the more important religion as dogma became to me, then what I would simply do is slap away my own questions. I didn’t need an adult to do it for me.
WS: Soon, Brittney found herself becoming the most devoted member of her family.
BC: You know, I would go to Sunday school, my mother didn’t make me go. It felt like safety to say, “Here are a set of principles to live by. They are definitive. If you do these things, you will be successful. Bad things will not befall you.” As I’m talking, one of the things I’m also realizing, maybe to give myself a little grace, is that the reason I was very concerned about bad things befalling me is that my real father had been tragically killed when I was nine. So I did have a sense that terrible things could come out of nowhere. I blamed him because he was a volatile man, violent, struggled with addiction. So what I liked about church is that it was a place to go and to think about your inner life, but there was also a blueprint, a map. What church came to mean to me is that I wanted very badly to make something of myself. I felt like I needed God to do it.
WS: Church had always been big in Brittney Cooper’s life. Even throughout college, when she described herself as a What-Would-Jesus-Do kid. But when she entered a PhD program at Emory University, many of her old questions began creeping back up.
BC: The whole goal of my childhood has been get to college and God will help you. So I get through college and do great, and I’m still a devotee of all this stuff, and then I go into a PhD program, which is a whole other level of like questioning, reading Western philosophy, really thinking more deeply about some things. And I began to have questions. So I would be at church going, “Well, what about intersex people in the creation story?” And so I remember saying that to a teacher and I remember him saying, “Well, those people, God just doesn’t intend for those people to be in romantic relationships.” And I was like, “Oh, no, that doesn’t sound right.”
WS: And soon, Brittney found that not only did the church not have the answers—but people also didn’t want her to ask her questions.
BC: At some point—I like to say I got called into the principal’s office. I got called into the office of the director of Christian education who said, “You know, it’s fine if you have questions but really, people just want you to shut up.” Who says that to someone? And so that was the moment that the story began to turn for me. When I realized that there was a limit, a real limit to the kinds of questions that I could ask. And I I said to a classmate in one of my classes, “I know that y’all think that I’m like the spawn of Satan.” And she was like, “I do think that you’re the spawn of Satan.” And I was like, “Oh, well.”
The good thing about being an only child and having like intense mama time with someone who is deeply committed to your development is that I was very confident in my own opinions. And I was like, “I’m not wrong about these questions. These questions need to be asked, and the fact that you all don’t have any answers means that there’s a problem with you. It’s not a problem with me.” So I had enough sense to know that, but I didn’t know what to do with that.
WS: It was around that time that she came across a book by a young evangelical woman named Rachel Held Evans. Faith Unraveled. Originally published as Evolving in Monkey Town—a reference to the Scopes Monkey Trial that was held in the author’s hometown—the book takes the reader through Evans’ spiritual journey. All of her doubts, all of her fears, and all of her questions.
BC: We’re around the same age, and she grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, so the deep South. She had all the questions that I had. And she had the questions I had, and I could tell in reading even just the introduction to the book that she had all the fear that I had too about what it meant to ask the questions. And there was this line where she talked about the need to get everything right. To get God right and get the Bible right and get the answers right. And I was like, “Yeah, that’s it.” I was like, “That was the thing that I was most worried about. Being wrong.” Still, I would say it’s still a problem today. That what I most worry about is getting the wrong answer.
WS: What do you think would happen if you got the wrong answer? What’s the consequence?
BC: It feels like the stakes for my soul eternally, like . . . you know, I couldn’t, like I couldn’t imagine a world where the consequences wouldn’t be terrible. You knew the right way, you stepped out of the path, now your life is going to fall apart. All the good things that you wanted that you worked for, you’re not going to have any blessings. Everything’s going to fall apart. It felt like getting the wrong answer on the test and getting a failing grade.
WS: But reading Faith Unraveled started to change that for Brittney.
BC: Part of what Faith Unraveled did for me—it just helped me to realize that as a person with questions, it was going to serve me well to ask those questions. And I actually felt like the part of myself that I understand to be God speaking through me said, “You’re going to miss me because you’re trying too hard to get it right. You’re going to miss the stuff that happens—there are some good things that can happen when you follow rules. But there’s some cool stuff that can happen with you don’t. And you’re going to miss all the cool stuff because you’re trying to do the right thing.” So Faith Unraveled gave me the permission to just be okay with the discomfort of the questions. I needed permission to actually ask the questions that I had. I’m trying to become a person who doesn’t need other people to give me permission, but in that moment, I needed permission. This book gave me permission.
What I appreciate about Rachel Held Evans as a thinker is that she grapples in public with her questions. What does it look like to not have the answers, but boldly ask the questions when you’re not sure? To risk being wrong in public? Because it’s very easy to go on these faith journeys, and to be like I was as a kid, a person with questions who didn’t ask them because I was afraid of what would happen.
I think that she helped me to be alright without knowing the conclusions. There’s a public performance of that that’s one thing, and then there’s a private desire for certainty. I had to give it all up and to just say, “I’m going to be in this journey wherever it takes me, and I’m going to be okay with that. And I’m going to be okay with the idea that maybe the questions are part of the journey.”
I feel like the God narrative is for me now is like, somebody who is on my team, wanting me to thrive but not someone kind of holding a rule book and banging me over the head with it. Yeah.
WS: But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino and Alex Abnos. Thanks to Brittney Cooper.
If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at AnotherStory@macmillan.com. We’ll be back with our next episode in two weeks. I’m Will Schwalbe, thanks so much for listening.