Professor explores the power of personal essays

By IDOIA DIZON and JERRY WU | February 21, 2019

Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, talked about her new memoir Thick, a collection of essays on politics, culture and life as a black woman, at Red Emma’s on Tuesday. Cottom has appeared on The Daily Show and the Still Processing podcast. Her writing has been published in The Atlantic and The New York Times

While reading an excerpt from her book, she explained that the word “thick” describes how she had felt for most of her life. 

“Being too much of one thing and not enough of another has been a recurring theme of my life. I was, like all women, expected to be small so that boys could expand. And white girls could shine. When I would not, and could not, shrink, people made sure that I knew I had erred,” she said.“I was, like many black children, too much for white teachers and white classrooms and white study groups and white girl scout troops and so on.”

Even after trying to discipline her body and her manners to fit in, she found that her thinking continued to be too “thick” when an editor told her that her work appealed neither to academics nor to common people. 

Cottom cited the movement against personal essays as an example of the public’s general aversion to “thickness.” In a 2017 piece for the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino proclaimed the death of the personal essay due to the “cheapness” of its quick, first-person writing. Cottom disagreed with this assessment, pointing out that despite framing the entire genre of the personal essay as a simplistic and irrelevant cultural phenomenon, Tolentino had in reality singled out personal essays written by marginal individuals. 

“I do not want to read about men’s fascinations with guns or stock car racing, or long walks in the woods. I do not want to listen to stories about Lake Wobegon or the mild humor of white suburban interpersonal politics. None of these things appeal to me,” she said.

The problem, according to Cottom, is that despite outperforming almost everyone else in terms of attaining higher levels of education, establishing businesses and engaging in philanthropy, black women are, by and large, restricted from speaking authoritatively. For marginalized individuals such as black women, the personal essay is one of the only mediums through which they can speak authoritatively about something, even if it is only about their personal experiences. Cottom concluded that by declaring the death of the personal essay, people like Tolentino had taken that voice away. 

During the Q&A session, the conversation shifted toward the recent political scandals in Virginia. Cottom addressed a photograph of a person wearing blackface recently discovered in Va. Governor Ralph Northam’s medical yearbook page. Cottom commented on Richmond’s Confederate history and how Confederate-era ideas continue to remain embedded in the city.

“As a sociologist, I’m fascinated by Richmond when I drive around... It’s not just that the Confederacy is so real and present there,” she said. “It is quite possible to walk around in 2019 in Richmond and still feel so steeped in the politics of the Civil War discourse.”

According to Cottom, Confederate attitudes are so normal in the city that the governor was genuinely surprised by the broader national condemnation. Cottom believes that Northam had spent his formative years among Richmond’s white elite in an environment that has erased reconstruction and the civil rights movement from its consciousness. 

Cottom also received questions about her views as a black voter on Kamala Harris’ history as a prosecutor during her time working as California’s attorney general. Some progressives have criticized Harris for upholding wrongful convictions and ignoring requests for criminal justice reform. Cottom contextualized the black voter reaction to black candidates in her response.

“Electability should be based on a crude approximation of if we can trust someone. A better question than ‘Is she black?’ is ‘What kind of black is she?’ Answering this will give us a hint of whether or not a minority appeal to this politician will have a shot of being heard. Because as part of a minority group we have to ask ourselves: What can we appeal to when we do not have the power of majority politics on our side?” Cottom said.

Cottom concluded that rather than continuing to defend her problematic prosecutorial history, Harris would be on better terms with black voters if she simply conceded that her actions as a prosecutor were born out of necessity as a black woman working in a field dominated by white men.

Community member LaShay Harvey was not familiar with Cottom’s work going into this event but was surprised with its relevance to her own studies.

“I realized that my work with black women and reproduction mirrors the conversation about higher education because black women are marketed birth control as a means of escaping poverty by going to school instead of getting pregnant. But there’s something else happening in higher education that puts black women in debt instead of providing them with the sort of social security that it would for other women,” Harvey said.

Many in the audience described Cottom and her work as extraordinary. However, Cottom said that that is not how she wants others to see her.

“I am in favor of black mediocrity. Black exceptionalism is for capitalism. I am in favor of black people being allowed to be mediocre because they are human,” she said.

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