Unsolicited reflections on ‘THICK: And Other Essays’
Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom scares me — and that’s probably a good thing.
When I started reading THICK: And Other Essays, I had to keep putting it down to compose myself. Nothing prepared me to be so directly acknowledged and addressed in a text. I thought it unheard of. Frightening even.
In the vast majority of stories served up to me as “classics” and “essentials” over the years, I’ve had to contort my reality to fit that of the traditional (read: not Black and not female) narrator. This contortion act is a skill that I’ve had a lifetime to hone, though I know I’m not the only one.
But, as I oriented myself to the voice of author Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom in the opening pages of THICK, something instantly felt different about the reading experience. Something felt taboo. And, as I delved deeper into the book, I couldn’t help asking myself:
Is this allowed? Are we, as Black women writers, allowed to see each other and write to and about each other this plainly?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t presume to be on the same level as 2020 MacArthur Fellow Dr. McMillan Cottom. As a Ph.D.- carrying university professor who has written for the likes of The Atlantic and The New York Times and hosts a podcast with Roxane Gay. McMillan Cottom is far more accomplished than I could ever hope to be. But still, in reading her work, I like to pretend our commonalities outweigh our differences.
For example: directly before picking up THICK, I read David Foster Wallace’s essay collection Consider the Lobster. And though I rather enjoyed the book, I had to perform the prerequisite act of assuming Wallace’s male, midwestern, self-assured skin to better connect with his work. It was par for the course. But then, when I stumbled across a passage in THICK wherein McMillan Cottom defiantly declares her disinterest in reading Wallace’s seminal work Infinite Jest — I couldn’t resist pretentiously cackling to myself.
In her book, McMillan Cottom touches on many of the complexities of existing as a Black woman in American society, be it the perils of delivering a Black child in this country or wearing one’s best camel-colored coat in the hopes of being treated with one iota more of dignity than what is typically afforded to an American with a Black vagina.
But the one topic in this collection that especially piqued my interest was McMillan Cottom describing her experience penetrating the upper echelons of academia. She recalls instances at dinner parties and the like where — when schmoozing with other smarty-pantses — her identity as a Black woman with roots in the American South proved to be insufficiently impressive to her peers. She was viewed, as the author herself put it, as “just regular black-black.” In McMillan Cottom’s estimation, the other smarty-pantses expected she hail from someplace sexier than North Carolina. One such smarty-pants, (another Black woman) even went so far as to suggest McMillan Cottom pretend to be from Cape Verde.
And it’s that criticism — the criticism of that woman toward McMillan Cottom for not being from Cape Verde *and* McMillan Cottom’s contempt for that woman — that I found particularly unnerving. Not because I disagree with McMillan Cottom’s outrage, but because the prospect of Black on Black criticism in the written form scares the hell out of me. Particularly Black female on Black female criticism.
It’s one thing to be dismissed or rebuffed by the dominant culture, but it is quite another to be taken to task by one’s kinfolk. The latter scenario plays out more than once in THICK as McMillan Cottom doles out and receives criticism from fellow Black women. The inclusion of these critiques in the book is a genuinely courageous act on McMillan Cottom’s part. Because to criticize is to risk ostracization. And this reality is especially true when you have something to say about a person who belongs to the same marginalized community that you too are a part of.
That being said, there’s no question in my mind that McMillan Cottom is firmly Team #BlackGirlMagic. Compared to the part it plays in her book, the whole “Black female on Black female criticism” angle I’ve stressed here is outsized and indicative of my personal fears. Indeed, McMillan Cottom dedicates the crescendo of her book to the demand that prestige publications hire Black female writers as full-fledged staffers and not hired guns to be sporadically tapped for diversity clout.
And in fact, it is this demand from McMillan Cottom not to, but about people like me that ultimately convinced me to put my reactions to the page and out in the world. Because in my view, one of McMillan Cottom’s chief arguments in THICK is that Black women’s perspectives in public discourse should be treated as compulsory — not elective.