Witty, Sharply Smart Essays on All Kinds of Thickness

Book review: Thick, by Tressie McMillan Cottom (Amazon / Book Depository)

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.

Thick: And Other Essays
by Tressie McMillan Cottom
published January 8, 2018 by The New Press
Amazon / Book Depository

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

 

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25 thoughts on “Witty, Sharply Smart Essays on All Kinds of Thickness

  1. Wow your review is amazing, yet again! I also read Thick (an advanced copy) and for some reason I couldn’t really break into Cottom’s writing. I’d chalk this up to a mix of not enough experience reading these kinds of essays and not having experience through any of the issues the writer highlights. That said, I think she’s a phenomenal writer who is very much straight to the point and I can see why Gay would endorse this book. I’ll definitely be watching out for more Cottom books in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I admit, I had to reread multiple bits of this to try to better understand it and even then I’m sure parts went over my head or around my experience. She pulls in so many elements, from so many sources, to make her points that it can be overwhelming and I needed to be completely concentrated to follow her. It’s not a quick or light read whatsoever. As a white woman parts of it were also difficult for me to learn and understand, and that can feel frustrating and troubling, but I loved the point that she made about how important it is to read widely and from other genders, races, experiences, etc. than we normally gravitate to. I’m probably guilty of not doing that as well or as much as I should and she made me realize the importance of actively trying. I couldn’t connect with everything, for some of the same reasons you mention, but I think being open and trying is what’s key here. I’m interested in what she’ll write in future too, especially if she’d explore any of the topics here in book-length format!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really wish I had the time and lack of distraction to read books like this on a regular basis. It’s one of my goals this year to expand beyond the limits I’ve unconsciously established for my nonfiction choices. Thank you for raising my consciousness with your reading choices. This one will be my step in a good direction. Your great review swept me away into thoughtful thinking (does that make sense?).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This one is deceptively readable, I flew through paragraphs of it and then would realize I needed to slow down and focus better on what she was saying, because the concepts are dense and it’s not enough to just read it, you’ve got to really turn it over in your head. I envy the students who get to study with her and break these ideas down in a discursive environment, I can’t imagine what an education she’s giving them. It’s tough for me too – I love to read for distraction but something like this demands undivided attention! She makes such a good point about reading outside our comfort zones to try and understand different experiences and ideas and I admit that’s something I feel not always so good at – but if it’s helping you raise your consciousness too, maybe I’m succeeding a little bit!
      And yes, thoughtful thinking makes total sense!!! I hope you’ll read it at some point, would love to hear your thoughts on it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s a wonderful idea, to recommend it to the library! I think that helps them with determining future interest in similar topics too. And at least she’s educating the next generation..hope they appreciate what they have in her!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I watched the clip, what a fantastic interview. Again, I’m just so envious of the students who get to learn and discuss with her!

        He brought up a point I think I forgot to mention in the review, from one essay where she stresses how important it is (and how ridiculous that it’s not happening) to have a black woman hired, on staff, as a regular commentator/contributing voice at major publications. She compared it to a completely silly NYT David Brooks column, asking why something like that is considered worthy of a standing column but black women are only brought in when most publications feel the occasion calls for it. It was such a commonsense idea, and yet there was, I think, only one outlet where she cited that it’s happened.

        Anyway, thanks again for pointing it out to me…I’m so glad he had her on the show! He does great work in helping boost authors from smaller presses and outside the major releases, I love that he does that.

        Like

  3. Excellent review, as always! I really enjoy this kind of blend of the cultural and the personal, and I definitely can see what you mean about it being so readable from your quotes. Added to my list!

    Liked by 1 person

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