Thick

by Tressie McMillan Cottom

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Publisher: The New Press
Copyright: 2019
ISBN: 1-62097-437-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 247

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Tressie McMillan Cottom is an associate professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. I first became aware of her via retweets and recommendations from other people I follow on Twitter, and she is indeed one of the best writers on that site. Thick: And Other Essays is an essay collection focused primarily on how American culture treats black women.

I will be honest here, in part because I think much of the regular audience for my book reviews is similar to me (white, well-off from working in tech, and leftist but privileged) and therefore may identify with my experience. This is the sort of book that I always want to read and then struggle to start because I find it intimidating. It received a huge amount of praise on release, including being named as a finalist for the National Book Award, and that praise focused on its incisiveness, its truth-telling, and its depth and complexity. Complex and incisive books about racism are often hard for me to read; they're painful, depressing, and infuriating, and I have to fight my tendency to come away from them feeling more cynical and despairing. (Despite loving his essays, I'm still procrastinating reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's books.) I want to learn and understand but am not good at doing anything with the information, so this reading can feel like homework.

If that's also your reaction, read this book. I regret having waited as long as I did.

Thick is still, at times, painful, depressing, and infuriating. It's also brilliantly written in a way that makes the knowledge being conveyed easier to absorb. Rather than a relentless onslaught of bearing witness (for which, I should stress, there is an important place), it is a scalpel. Each essay lays open the heart of a subject in a few deft strokes, points out important features that the reader has previously missed, and then steps aside, leaving you alone with your thoughts to come to terms with what you've just learned. I needed this book to be an essay collection, with each thought just long enough to have an impact and not so long that I became numb. It's the type of collection that demands a pause at the end of each essay, a moment of mental readjustment, and perhaps a paging back through the essay again to remember the sharpest points.

The essays often start with seeds of the personal, drawing directly on McMillan Cottom's own life to wrap context around their point. In the first essay, "Thick," she uses advice given her younger self against writing too many first-person essays to talk about the writing form, its critics, and how the backlash against it has become part of systematic discrimination because black women are not allowed to write any other sort of authoritative essay. She then draws a distinction between her own writing and personal essays, not because she thinks less of that genre but because that genre does not work for her as a writer. The essays in Thick do this repeatedly. They appear to head in one direction, then deepen and shift with the added context of precise sociological analysis, defying predictability and reaching a more interesting conclusion than the reader had expected. And, despite those shifts, McMillan Cottom never lost me in a turn. This is a book that is not only comfortable with complexity and nuance, but helps the reader become comfortable with that complexity as well.

The second essay, "In the Name of Beauty," is perhaps my favorite of the book. Its spark was backlash against an essay McMillan Cottom wrote about Miley Cyrus, but the topic of the essay wasn't what sparked the backlash.

What many black women were angry about was how I located myself in what I'd written. I said, blithely as a matter of observable fact, that I am unattractive. Because I am unattractive, the argument went, I have a particular kind of experience of beauty, race, racism, and interacting with what we might call the white gaze. I thought nothing of it at the time I was writing it, which is unusual. I can usually pinpoint what I have said, written, or done that will piss people off and which people will be pissed off. I missed this one entirely.

What follows is one of the best essays on the social construction of beauty I've ever read. It barely pauses at the typical discussion of unrealistic beauty standards as a feminist issue, instead diving directly into beauty as whiteness, distinguishing between beauty standards that change with generations and the more lasting rules that instead police the bounds between white and not white. McMillan Cottom then goes on to explain how beauty is a form of capital, a poor and problematic one but nonetheless one of the few forms of capital women have access to, and therefore why black women have fought to be included in beauty despite all of the problems with judging people by beauty standards. And the essay deepens from there into a trenchant critique of both capitalism and white feminism that is both precise and illuminating.

When I say that I am unattractive or ugly, I am not internalizing the dominant culture's assessment of me. I am naming what has been done to me. And signaling who did it. I am glad that doing so unsettles folks, including the many white women who wrote to me with impassioned cases for how beautiful I am. They offered me neoliberal self-help nonsense that borders on the religious. They need me to believe beauty is both achievable and individual, because the alternative makes them vulnerable.

I could go on. Every essay in this book deserves similar attention. I want to quote from all of them. These essays are about racism, feminism, capitalism, and economics, all at the same time. They're about power, and how it functions in society, and what it does to people. There is an essay about Obama that contains the most concise explanation for his appeal to white voters that I've read. There is a fascinating essay about the difference between ethnic black and black-black in U.S. culture. There is so much more.

We do not share much in the U.S. culture of individualism except our delusions about meritocracy. God help my people, but I can talk to hundreds of black folks who have been systematically separated from their money, citizenship, and personhood and hear at least eighty stories about how no one is to blame but themselves. That is not about black people being black but about people being American. That is what we do. 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.

I, like many other people in my profession, was always more comfortable with the technical and scientific classes in college. I liked math and equations and rules, dreaded essay courses, and struggled to engage with the mandatory humanities courses. Something that I'm still learning, two decades later, is the extent to which this was because the humanities are harder work than the sciences and I wasn't yet up to the challenge of learning them properly. The problems are messier and more fluid. The context required is broader. It's harder to be clear and precise. And disciplines like sociology deal with our everyday lived experience, which means that we all think we're entitled to an opinion.

Books like this, which can offer me a hand up and a grounding in the intellectual rigor while simultaneously being engaging and easy to read, are a treasure. They help me fill in the gaps in my education and help me recognize and appreciate the depth of thought in disciplines that don't come as naturally to me.

This book was homework, but the good kind, the kind that exposes gaps in my understanding, introduces topics I hadn't considered, and makes the time fly until I come up for air, awed and thinking hard. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-04-05

Last modified and spun 2020-04-06