JANUARY 30, 2019
THICK IS A COLLECTION of essays that deals with very personal issues, including body image, sexual abuse, and the loss of a child. Yet, as the author Tressie McMillan Cottom asserts, the category of personal essay does not adequately capture her writing style or approach. This is to be expected, as McMillan Cottom generally defies single categories and genres in ways that have simultaneously helped her public image and given ammunition to academic gatekeepers. She’s a sociologist who balances a remarkably active research program and university teaching with guest appearances on Fresh Air and The Daily Show. In her own words, she’s “country” and, since entering academia, “middle class.” She’s an intellectual leader on Black Twitter but she can still be told by colleagues that, as a research pursuit, “black is over.” While black women make up two percent of higher education faculty in the United States, McMillan Cottom is unapologetically “black-black,” which to her means not only having a dark complexion and working-class Southern roots, but also being seen as “a problem.” The essays incorporate these and many more biographical truths, putting them into a series of conversations between the author and other scholars and public intellectuals, from bell hooks to David Brooks, people she encounters in everyday life and her digital audience.
Rather than firing off a series of hot-takes or merely aestheticizing her personal pain, McMillan Cottom offers what she refers to as “thick description,” a concept that, in the social sciences, refers to the practice of presenting detailed observations of human behavior and using its sociocultural context to extract meanings. This process is about combining the individual and the subjective with the empirical and the sociological to gain a richer understanding of the “how” and “why” behind what people believe and do. This phrase is an apt one to describe McMillan Cottom’s work because it blends personal experience with structural analysis, demonstrating how systemic racism affects whether or not one considers oneself beautiful or receives medical treatment in time to save the life of one’s child. Thus Thick in some ways again takes up the question at the heart of her first monograph, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, namely: how are American institutions designed “so that most of us always fail?” Answering this question is not just an intellectual exercise for the author. As she professes in the titular essay, her interest is in telling “powerful stories that are a problem for power.”
Despite these high stakes, Thick is more thematically broad and stylistically free than Lower Ed, which should appeal to readers who like intersectional analysis with a side of pop culture. The playful, familiar tone of the eight essays reminds readers why the author has captured the attention of The Atlantic, the Washington Post, Slate, and her many social media followers. The essays in Thick are economical in their use of words. They can deliver a swift punch in the gut but also be pithy, tongue-in-cheek, and fun. This is writing with a soundtrack, or more accurately, a playlist, which the author released on social media. It features such songs as Grace Carter’s “Silence,” Fantasia’s “Ugly,” and Beyoncé’s genre-bending “Daddy Lessons.” This is all to say that one sees in this collection McMillan Cottom celebrating the kind of “fabulousness” — to use a concept she engages with — that ruffles the feathers of academic gatekeepers. But as the author herself knows, for the marginalized, fabulousness always comes at a price. When she was a grad student, a black senior colleague told her that she wrote too much and published too quickly, given the stage of her career. Though the criticism initially reminded her of being considered “too much of one thing and not enough of another thing” since childhood, it also led her to rethink her position in the racially exploitive economy of publishing, which hungers for black voices but not for black full-time employees. And yet, for McMillan Cottom, not writing is not an option, and so throughout Thick readers see her critically negotiate her participation in the various institutions designed to make someone like her fail. In addition to rhetorical thickness, the collection also reflects the author’s versatility and multifacetedness as she tackles topics ranging from Miley Cyrus to academia’s structural racism; she combines theory and slang, and speaks frankly about her desire to be “a socialist black feminist” while retaining a membership to Amazon Prime.
Sifting through the complexities that come with being a successful black female public intellectual, the author keeps in her rearview mirror the image of her grandmother, who educated herself with a public library card, took care of wealthy families for a living, and, at the end of her life, fit all of her possessions into a small senior apartment. “Why me and not my grandmother?” is a question behind all of the essays. Yet rather than answering it head-on, the author takes her readers on different journeys, among them, to a Trump rally, a 2007 Obama fundraiser party in a wealthy, predominantly white Charlotte suburb, and a hospital room where her father told her husband that when it comes to domestic violence, “There are two sides to every story.” A particularly moving anecdote involves McMillan Cottom’s mother, Vivian, who, by dressing to project an image of black respectability and using “the Queen’s English,” advocates for their next-door neighbor at the social services agency. McMillan Cottom transforms these narrative moments into analyses of whiteness, black misogyny, and status-signaling as means of survival for black women like her mother and herself.
Black girlhood and womanhood are themes that unite all of the essays, yet McMillan Cottom is not interested in making simple generalizations from her own experience. Being a thinker who is “hopelessly tethered to reality,” she is always conscious of facts on the ground and their power to shape individual destinies. While America continues to be “stuck in first gear” Thick’s essays challenge readers to go further, beyond “race 101.” Rather than asking how the same country that elected Obama could elect Trump, the author suggests that the ascents of both leaders had to do, in part, with white voters’ fantasies and fragilities. In a different essay, McMillan Cottom discusses beauty and, rather than advocating for widening beauty norms to include blackness, she theorizes why, without blackness, beauty itself, as concept and commodity, is impossible. She also offers an alternative to appeals for inclusion, the opting out of beauty, a refusal to play along and make white women, who tell her she’s attractive, feel better about themselves. Yet perhaps the most urgent and devastating essay is the one in which the author discusses the risks black women experience in childbirth and in the American health-care system more generally. Contextualizing her personal story within statistics on pregnancy and childbirth-related deaths among black women, as well as black children’s mortality rates, the author delves into the causes of black women’s struggles to receive equitable medical treatment, a struggle that even Serena Williams could not evade.
Academics tend to be skeptics, and McMillan Cottom is plenty skeptical. How can she not be when black female intellectuals have to juggle multiple jobs while David Brooks gets to opine about soppressata and its connection to class conflict on the pages of The New York Times? As she points out in “Girl 6,” the final essay of the collection, it is only in July 2018 that The New York Times, one of the most circulated newspapers in the United States, hired its first woman of color as a regular columnist, Michelle Alexander, author of the seminal book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. On its surface, the essay appears as a longform diss on Brooks, but it is much more than that: an interrogation of how a public intellectual with one of the biggest megaphones in the United States can avoid serious engagement with black female thinkers. But skepticism is not the same as hopelessness. If McMillan Cottom was hopeless, she would not spend her energy producing the kind of writing that’s “a problem for power.” Nor would she dare her readers to imagine a world in which liberal white America not only repeats the mantra “trust black women” but actually lives by it. What would it take to bring about such a world? First and foremost, black women would need to be presumed competent and thus taken seriously as authorities — at the very least, on their own experience — whether they are speaking in a major newspaper, a faculty meeting, or a doctor’s office.