Thick and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom
I will start by saying that I am deeply sorry for my completely unanticipated hiatus from posting reviews. Truthfully, this is the first book I have actually finished this year. I say this with a consumate amount of shame, but here we are, midway through February, and there’s nothing I can really do about it. However, if I had to pick a book to be your first 2019 read, Thick would be it. Run, literally, and go get it.
My best friend gifted me this book only days after it came on my radar, and I was so excited to get into it that I stopped reading Becoming at what was arguably its most interesting point to start it. Little did I know that this would be one of th emost inspiring texts that I have ever read. The first and title essay alone snatched up my attention before it even started. Each essay is precluded by lines from a selected work, song, poem, etc. “Thick” is prefaced by three quotes, one of which is from Lucille Clifton:
these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty spaces. these hips
are free hips.
I knew then, that this book was for me — a thick, dark skinned Black girl from the southern sister to Cottom’s native North Carolina. I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing and dancing about my hips. As a dancer, my artistic focus has been to make Black woman celebratory dances in a field that likes nothing more than to shut Black women out (while voraciously stealing from us), especially Black girls and women that look like me. So, my heart leapt with anticipation for what I was about to dive into.
Cottom writes the kind of deeply researched yet conversational academic essays that I am going to graduate school in the fall to write. She tells her stories of being thick and bowlegged and Black and woman with a sense of self-assurance that sometimes made me laugh out loud while also writing “YES!!” in the margins of the text because her stories are my stories — whether they are my own or passed on to my by my mother or grandmothers or great aunties. She tells our stories and then directs you to the receipts just in case you want to check her facts. I excitedly flipped back and forth to read every single corresponding note in the back of the book, and expanded my 2019 reading list extensively in the process.
In Thick, Cottom writes on the Black woman’s body — how it is judged by our own, by others and the life or death outcomes of that judging. She reminds readers to “Trust Black Women,” and of the consequences of stripping Black girls of their girlhood. She discusses the heirarchy of Blackness in how one is deemed more or less acceptable based on being “black-black” or “worthy black” ethnic black.
Whether at a dinner table or in grand theories, the false choice between black-black and worthy black is a trap. It poses that ending blackness was the goal of anti-racist work when the real goal has always been and should always be ending whiteness. (Cottom 152).
In only eight essays, Thick provides an extensive and thorough look at the experience of Black women in America, and proves, as Cottom writes in “Girl 6,” that “[Black women] are trustworthy subjects, of our own experiences and of ways of knowing” (Cottom 220). I am often a slower reader of academic essays; I truthfully have yet to finish Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power inspite of begging my father to go half on its purchase with me so we could read it and talk about it together (He hasn’t read it either). What sets Thick apart is that this was a collection of essays in which I saw myself on many levels. In addition to seeing my own thoughts and experiences amplified, in Cottom, I saw for the first time a Black female academic from the South like me, truly doing the kind of work that I want to do myself.
The reason I created Literary Black Girl is the reason why I do almost everything in my life — to give space and credence to black women. To effectively “Trust Black Women.” To echo my experience and those of the women and sister friends around me who are living the same thing in different states or countries and have lived it in different times. Too often, Black women are told to be quiet to save the “race.” As Cottom writes in Thick, “We are taught to blame ourselves. We fear reprisal for speaking up. But black women and girls face additional burdens of protechting the reputations of black boys and men. As black feminists have argued, that burden has trapped us in cultural silences that a focus on gender violence alone cannot capture” (Cottom 193). I have seen this play out in my own family. My Nana will never come out and tell you that she was raped. My Grandma died a year ago this month, and with her went the things about which she remained silent. I didn’t learn of the traumas of her daughters, one of whom is my mother, until a year ago.
Why are we so quiet?
I am so grateful for Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom for writing this book because in doing so she is making much needed noise. She refuses silence in exchange for the comfortability of men and the white supremacist culture around her. Speaking up is part of how we get free. Because of reading this book, I will be a little more loud and unapologetic in my own life. You should read Thick and Other Essays if you want to do so, too.
Have you read Thick yet? If so, let’s chat in the comments below. What were your takeaways? I’d love to know!