Book Review: Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom. The first week this book came out, I drove to the nearest bookstore—a Barnes and Noble twenty minutes and fifteen miles away in Huntersville, North Carolina, a suburb of Charlotte—to purchase a copy. Normally I would get it from Amazon, but I decided to spend that money locally instead because Dr. Cottom is a southern woman author and it is important to me that local retailers are aware of how I spend my money. I looked for a good twenty to thirty minutes, give or take, before I finally broke down and asked someone for help. This person searched the computer and said they had one copy in the store. I questioned the wisdom of that and insisted there be more copies because Dr. Cottom is a distinguished academic and an outstanding local southern woman author and we needed to highlight and promote those—assiduously. This young, white, person that presented as male agreed—without being patronizing to this elder, which I appreciated—and wondered why there weren’t more copies. Given what I know about Huntersville, I had a feeling but didn’t voice it aloud and I’ll let you speculate and infer as to what that was. We searched for another fifteen minutes with no luck and I left the store with only a few books (none of which were Dr. Cottom’s cuz they only had that one undiscovered copy)—a book lover never leaves a bookstore empty-handed; I don’t care if we are on our last dime for food, we will always leave the store with a book in hand, even if we have to steal it (kidding—or not). I purchased a digital copy and eventually a signed copy from Epilogue Book Cafe in Chapel Hill because if the digital copy becomes a favorite, a physical copy should follow—don’t argue; thems the rules.

I am a white girl that grew up poor around lots of racist white West Virginia hillbillies and bullies who thought they could just go off on their shady and not-so-shady bigoted rants because I suppose my somewhat quiet introverted, observant nature along with my blue eyes, blond hair, and fair skin gave them the misguided presumptions that I was of the same degenerate predilections. Then, my senior year in high school, I moved south and have lived here now for thirty-plus years while also working up and down the East coast. I’m a fairly amiable person that gets along with almost everyone because I had to—it was self-preservation. Also, I had a traumatic childhood; I won’t go into specifics but that trauma made me hypersensitive to people around me and their proclivities; I intuit decently, almost perfectly, like another form of sense or perception, or the overlooked umami taste perception. So, when Dr. Cottom writes “It is to anticipate white people’s emotions and fears and grievances, because their issues are singularly our problem”, in Know Your Whites, I nodded alongside saying ‘yes, yes, this’ to the ether as I was reading. Prior to this, I first read The Problem With Obama’s Faith in White America in The Atlantic, the premise to Know Your Whites, and almost busted a gut because same. As a poor under-educated white woman whose nickname was Dizz, I realized early on that I should keep my mouth shut, listen, observe, and ask as many questions as possible, learning as much as I could since when I did open my mouth, people usually automatically dismissed me as an airhead that didn’t know much and to be fair, I kinda was for a time. Playing dumb (and my whiteness) meant I could easily slip in and out unnoticed from just about anywhere metaphorically and literally. Being able to travel between all the various social, class, and ethnic cultures, I could easily adapt to those around me to glean the conversations had. I am endlessly curious and ever so eager to learn about anyone and anything. What I learned wasn’t all that shocking. Even within some of the most liberal-inside-the-beltline circles in Raleigh, the Triangle, and the beltway, I got to witness some of the shadiest discussions of discriminations I’d ever in my life heard, and not only against Black people—especially once Obama became popular. Reading Dr. Cottom’s essay explored and expressed this perfectly—what I felt and witnessed but never could articulate. The problem eventually became how to confront, communicate, and urge them to reconsider their bigotries, if not for others then for themselves, their families, and society, and that’s something I have failed at but still continue to attempt unsuccessfully, unfortunately. Socratic questions and appealing to their empathy sometimes help but then with others, the appeals fall on dead ears and you have to give up and move on. It is disheartening.

This book will be a sociopolitical staple and significant cultural source for decades, possibly centuries, to come—if we, or our Democracy, lives that long; given the current news, I’ll keep the fatalism to a minimum—for now.

Dr. Cottom delivers her singular and oh-so-particular flair of wisdom—to wit, a prodigious amount of sociopolitical and cultural expertise of the professional and personal. The essays establish a foundation of cultural and feminist insight that can live on beyond the horrors of the current 24-hour news span that has murdered our brains of late—well, okay, my brain. Her ease and distinct charm of delivering this prose so earnestly and completely is a testament to her abilities as an educator—an empathetic educator because she genuinely wants you to learn, if not to make her life and the lives of Black women easier, but society easier, and, unlike some, she gives you a logical amount of space for that to happen.

If you follow Dr. Cottom on Twitter or have read any of her work, y’all already know what I mean when I say a logical amount of space. Her Twitter feed alone is a champion class to clueless white women and men as the emotions she triggers inevitably bring out the ill-mannered, disrespectful gatekeepers in force, and that’s among her followers to say nothing of the racist trolls she invalidates with some clever dig at their entitlement that usually sails ever so lofty over their empty heads. She’s brilliant and her dark wit and radical honesty will make you spew tea all over your monitor—sometimes uncomfortably, of which is something I admire and value greatly; there is nothing like some good militant honesty to educate and humble some people and their big egos, and a lot of y’all out there need humbled, if not totally annihilated at the very least (I can without a doubt wholeheartedly include myself in that long queue). Knowing when to stay in our lane is a skill lots of us need to form—that and listening—is just one of the many lessons she imparts.

Her discourse on the Sinema façade in her New York Times columns is unequaled and spot on. There is her fascination with Dolly and her love of Hallmark and Lifetime romance movies, as well as this essay on country music for “how the genre has been divorced from its multiethnic roots to become what it mostly is today: a cultural playground for white identity politics dressed up as innocuous middlebrow culture” that she assessed nicely and oh-so-accurately—a statement from another Times column. She is a veritable font of the sublime in most things sociopolitically and culturally feministic, but pointedly, Black Feminism as her writings expound biographically on Black girlhood and womanhood experiences that extend to the individual though analytically shifting those themes broadly and interpersonally as to explore the more intersectional sociopolitical and cultural divide fully if not completely. “And these are arguments, in the philosophical sense. They are written to persuade, to change, to effect.”

There are very few essayists, or writers, in general, that I can personally relate that enlighten me so profoundly and Dr. Cottom is one of them. This book is a favorite—I highly recommend it and anxiously anticipate any future books and projects.

Fixing my feet means knowing how badly the outcomes are likely to be for persisting and pursuing, but doing it anyway. I fix myself, even when it causes great pain to do so, because I know that I cannot fix the way the world sees me.

When I write, I am fixing my feet. I am claiming the ethos, or moral authority, to influence public discourse. And I am defying every expectation when I do it.

My writing has a high body count, as the kids say.

With the privilege to read and to think comes great responsibility.

Whiteness is a violent sociocultural regime legitimized by property to always make clear who is black by fastidiously delineating who is officially white. It would stand to reason that beauty’s ultimate function is to exclude blackness.

Beauty is not good capital. It compounds the oppression of gender. It constrains those who identify as women against their will. It costs money and demands money. It colonizes. It hurts. It is painful. It can never be fully satisfied. It is not useful for human flourishing. Beauty is, like all capital, merely valuable.

Internalizing your inferiority is violent.

Writing is democratic. Writing well is not.

The royal “we” take our cues about what ideas matter from whom we must recognize before we ourselves can matter.

© 2022 Matilda London/Pamela Gay Mullins

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