Thick: And Other Essays
This is the type of writing that gives me what I think of as “complete cellular-level stillness.” You know that feeling when you’re listening to, reading, or watching something completely extraordinary, and your entire body goes still? Maybe you have scalp tingles or you’re covered in goosebumps, but you are entirely focused on not missing a thing because it’s freaking incredible? That’s my experience with this book of essays.
I’ve interviewed Dr. Cottom (Podcast Episode 318. Sharp Academics and Paranormal Romance: An Interview with Kelly Baker, PhD, and Tressie McMillan Cottom, PhD) and she remains one of my favorite people to follow on Twitter and listen to online. In this book of essays, she starts off by reclaiming the personal essay format for women of color and for herself specifically. There are eight total essays and they knocked me over, over and over again.
Dr. Cottom writes in a viscerally funny and hyper-focused manner about the minutiae of her own life and experience, then zooms way, way out to locate that experience in a larger context, then a still larger one, before plummeting back in to focus again on the individual, and all the individuals like her. David Streever in a Richmond Style Weekly interview with Dr. Cottom says Thick “sits at the intersection of memoir and manifesto,” and that description is very apt. This is not a book that I could breeze through. I was sucked in easily because the style of writing is wise and welcoming, then merciless and honest, and I wanted to keep reading and reading. But each chapter requires time afterward to think and digest and re-examine after the dust raised by the words roaring through my brain had a chance to settle. And it’s really difficult to say what the book of essays is about, precisely, because it is about so many things and so much, but also it is very much about how Dr. Cottom sees, experiences, interacts with, and deals with the world.
Pieces of these essays were published elsewhere, so if you want to get a sense of the power of her writing, Time published “I Was Pregnant and in Crisis. All the Doctors and Nurses Saw Was an Incompetent Black Woman” in January, excerpted from Thick. There are lines in each chapter that kicked me in the throat with their sharp clarity on everything, including race, gender, sexuality, class, education, poverty, violence, rape, and I could keep going listing the topics that are touched upon but I’d be here for sixteen years at least.
Thick reframes again and again how Black women and Black girls are seen, depicted, educated, treated, and challenged and harmed. I think my favorite is the final essay, “Girl 6,” which looks at the preponderance of White male op-ed writers and begins with, “Sometime in the winter of 2017 I started making a fuss on Twitter. They call that being on-brand.”
Why the fuss? “I wanted a black woman to have a job as an opinion writer at a prestige publication.” Dr. Cottom begins by examining the number of Black women followed on Twitter by two full-time opinion writers, then zooms out to look at the number of Black women writers whose op-ed work is prominent, but for whom that work is their third, or fourth, or fifth shift on top of all the other work they do, paid and unpaid. She zooms in to look at how the op-ed is about “something mundane that is secretly profound” then zooms out to look at the racial, economic, and class structures that keep those jobs in the hands of White men, who therefore define what is profound, and what is mundane.
As being taken seriously becomes a form of reputational capital in a culture where reputation is like the Bitcoin of status cultures, being taken seriously is real work….
She also sums up her work in a way that might help you as a potential reader understand what this book is: “If my work is about anything it is about making plain precisely how prestige, money, and power structure our so-called democratic institutions so that most of us will always fail.” Thick is funny and significant and brain-widening and clever and sharp, and so very, very good. I can’t stop recommending it to people.
NB: Dr. Cottom also narrated the audiobook, which is now available. You can listen to a sample if you wish – it’s terrific.