Tressie McMillan Cottom
Thick: And Other Essays
The New Press, 2019
Reviewed by Jessica S. Samuel
More than a double entendre, Thick: And Other Essays is a rigorous analysis of Black womanhood that utilizes the auto-ethnographic technique well-practiced by women of color long before Clifford Geertz (1973) endorsed in-depth, descriptive writing. A social scientist herself, Tressie McMillan Cottom turns her theoretical lens inward to discuss the interiority of American life as a ‘thick’ Black woman. Without being pompous, Cottom is unapologetic in a way that frees both her and the reader to accept what it means for Black women to both be a problem and cause problems. Cottom’s work means to grant Black women permission to “do what they are already doing but for better rewards.” Her collection resembles the non-fictional narrative work of Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider (1984) for how it catalogs various themes of the Black experience. Focusing on the contemporary issues of the day, Cottom reveals how the stories that Black women tell about themselves can never get old (and perhaps never should get old considering how often whiteness refers to itself, even if predictably) considering the myriad of experiences we have and the various ways, as Cottom puts it, our social locations impact how we are able to navigate society.
The titular first essay in the collection of writings introduces us to Cottom, her background, and the motivations for her writings. In this first essay, she situates herself at the intersections of academia, popular culture, and Black womanhood to depict the repercussions of her thickness: “when I would not or could not shrink people made sure I knew I had erred.” Cottom begins her matter-of-fact prose with the implications of her theoretical and literal frame. Hers is a discussion of color(ism), size, gender and (dis)ability. Her point of departure originates at the site of her body and its import on how she is able to navigate the world. Having been born “pigeon-toed” and “bow-legged” (two things the author describes as collectively not cute), Cottom has had to constantly “fix her feet.” Sparingly assigned authority over other sites of knowledge, she argues that the only authority freely ceded to Black women is over the self. Yet, it doesn’t take long for the reader to see how the site of the self is just as contested a space as any other for Black women.
“In the Name of Beauty” catalogs the disaster white supremacist female beauty standards are and continue to be for Black women and their understandings of self. The many unspoken, yet readily assumed cultural codes that dictate beauty endorses whiteness while necessarily opposing Blackness, and even fatness. As Cottom so eloquently recounts, Black women must not only answer to the white status quo but also to the “counterparadox” of Black standards of beauty. For “unattractive” Black women like Cottom, having to consistently measure up against two competing cultures of desirability is exhausting, if not impossible. “Dying to be Competent” takes this struggle of being recognized as worthy to its extremes. Maximizing her use of the auto-ethnographic form, Cottom relives the tragedy of being a Black pregnant woman in the US. Tackling the realities of infant mortality and the medical industrial complex, Cottom explains how even when Black women are supposed to have jurisdiction over their own bodies, they don’t. The consequences of which are often fatal. “Black Girlhood, Interrupted” reminds us of the commonalities of the Black woman experience no matter our geography. Retelling her early girlhood years as a shapely child, Cottom ruminates on the impossibility of Black girl’s innocence and their constant victimization by individuals in and outside of their communities.
Cottom concludes her collection with “Girl 6,” a title that is as much an exasperation as it is a denotation. Nominally unassuming, this essay drives home Cottom’s thesis by calling out the double standard and inherent hypocrisy of professionalization: that even as professional thinkers, or as she calls it “Professionally Smart People,” Black women are no match for the white male ‘public intellectual.” “Girl 6” explores the fantasy of being a basic Black girl much in the way white men who run entire publication columns are regularly afforded. Black women are rarely perceived as the site of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, and seldom are professionals forced to engage them or their thinking to be seen as legitimate in their respective fields. As a well-suited culmination of Cottom’s many ideas on Black women’s competency, this essay closes out the collection’s offering to Black women by advocating that we insist on our humanity by taking the opportunity to be as flawed as the next white human without receiving twice the rebuke for it. Here she seals her gift by imagining a world where Black women can be authorities on just about anything, especially their Black bodies and selves.
Thick is familiar. Yet, at the same time, it is a refreshing, original take on the remarkable ways Black womanhood is informed by where we are variously located in society. Much like Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, Thick knits together various, non-consecutive aspects of Black womanhood in a way that compels the reader to reevaluate whatever she thought she knew about the Black woman experience. It seamlessly weaves personal anecdotes with statistical data and ethnographic musings. An odd combination of light and rigorous, the writing is just as complex as the subject matter. In some parts of this work, Cottom is masterfully plain in a way that makes you chuckle and devour everything she says. Those who are interested in the ways gender collides with race and class will find this book exceptionally giving. I imagine teaching a gender/family studies class from “Dying to be Competent” alone. Perhaps, Cottom has done it after all: successfully made herself a moral authority not just a legal one. In the end, Thick is an offering to Black women thinkers, assuring us, as Barbara Christian (1987) once proclaimed, that we are, in fact, not hallucinating about what we feel and know is. It is a call for Black women to be their very thick selves: robust in stature, full of contradictions, and replete with rebellion.