Being too much of one thing and not enough of another had been a recurring theme in my life … Thick where I should have been thin, more when I should have been less, a high school teacher nicknamed me “Ms. Personality,” and it did not feel like a superlative.
I had tried in different ways over the years to fit. I thought I could discipline my body and later my manners to take up less room. I was fine with that, but I learned that even I had limits when–in pursuit of the life of the mind–my thinking was deemed too thick.
Tressie McMillan Cottom, a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, writes on race, gender, feminism, and capitalist economics, among other topics, in a powerfully intelligent and compellingly readable collection. Thick has the Roxane Gay stamp of approval and it’s easy to see why. It’s poignant and sharp, sad and scary and deeply thoughtful, sitting with you long after reading.
Cottom’s style blends the academic with the accessible and filters it through a personal lens that not only vividly illustrates the points made, and speaks to the greater culture, but makes the stories so affecting. Cottom infuses everything with her wit, a welcome gift when the topics are heavy, and yes, thick.
In the title essay, Cottom refers to a publisher criticizing her work’s readability (meaning: not academic enough), among other things. It is incredibly readable, every point she makes so well framed and contextualized it hits like a sledgehammer, but it’s also artfully intelligent and carefully packed with research and chilling statistics. Even in her casual research (like on Twitter) she employs methodology to make academia proud. She is nothing if not meticulous in her work, and it carries into the way she puts her thoughts on the page, combining academic theory with striking personal experience.
On one of my first forays into publishing anything, an editor told me that I was too readable to be academic, too deep to be popular, too country black to be literary, and too naive to show the rigor of my thinking in the complexity of my prose. I had wanted to create something meaningful that sounded not only like me, but like all of me. It was too thick.
Cottom covers issues from how black women are judged incompetent in their own health care needs to the links between white voters and Obama/Trump; the complicated, abstruse economics of being poor and working towards mobility; ideas around beauty, higher education, sexual morality and hypocrisy; and blackness and its perception in culture and society.
These essays made me angry, heartbroken, and ashamed. It’s impossible to read them and not experience a range of strong emotions. Cottom writes provocatively but on topics that need provocation in order to draw the attention, criticism and change that they so merit.
One essay, “Black Girlhood, Interrupted” is about what makes a girl or a woman a “ho”, told through Cottom’s recollection of a family member describing an assaulted woman as one because she went to a hotel room. Cottom focuses with laser-precision on what’s so problematic and troubling about the way men talk about women: the line they perceive as crossed from the mother/daughter/sister/wife role they identify with to the “ho” where all respect is lost thanks to her own actions alone.
Watching men I love turn a girl into a woman and a woman into a ho has never left me. That conversation … left a cut that will never heal. It’s the kind of wound that keeps you alert to every potential doorway through which you might enter as a friend, sister, or woman, but leave as a bitch or a ho.
Perhaps the most horrifying piece here is one where she lays out the concept of black women’s experience in healthcare. She describes her symptoms of a serious problem being ignored or diminished during her pregnancy, and sets this heartbreaking personal experience in the context of a larger, systemic problem. The statistics are terrifying: “The CDC says that black women are 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes than are white women.”
She includes a story of superstar Serena Williams having to advocate strongly for herself in postnatal care, “and what does that say about how poorer, average black women are treated when they give birth?” Cottom’s own story is harrowing, no other word for it, and it deserves to be read in her own words.
… Nothing about who I was in any other context mattered to the assumptions of my incompetence. I was highly educated. I spoke in the way one might expect of someone with a lot of formal education. I had health insurance. I was married. All of my status characteristics screamed “competent,” but nothing could shut down what my blackness screams when I walk into the room. I could use my status to serve others, but not myself.
When she writes of the political using her sociological perspective, it’s sublime. Not only because of her wit, although that’s a highlight: “The narrative went: no nation that had progressed enough to elect Obama could turn around and elect the pleathery, oft orange-tinged reality TV show host who sometimes played a billionaire on shock radio. I talked to sensible people, smart people, deeply knowledgeable people. I talked to working-class people and middle-class people and whatever the people are who go to boarding school.”
But because of the way she distills what she witnesses. “I was not there to see Donald Trump. He was a known quantity. I was there to see the people who believed in Donald Trump as the leader of the free world.” In the end, the only people she talked to who predicted Trump’s win were Ms. Yvette, who cleaned university offices, and “Guy I Talk to Behind the Building on His Smoke Break”. She jokes heartily, but in the service of underscoring something more profound.
Elsewhere, she takes a serious, almost stoic tone, as in the piece describing black women in childbirth, that belies the emotional content of the story she’s telling and the systemic flaws it’s highlighting. Yet it’s such an effective choice – she strips away emotion and lays bare how this thing is, in all its cringing, outrageous horror.
Her writing is powerfully affecting and intensely well crafted. At times I found myself re-reading sentences multiple times trying to better absorb her ideas and appreciate her writing style more fully, because it’s the kind of style that deserves deeper appreciation. Cottom’s arguments are thoughtful and insightful, and bound to linger as much as they unsettle.
Witty, bitingly analyzed and brilliantly smart.
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.