Monday, January 14, 2019

Thoughts on “Thick”

“The op-ed writer’s job is to make their take work for me even if I do not share their cultural milieu.” -- Tressie McMillan Cottom, Girl 6, in Thick

On Monday on Twitter, @girlziplocked asked men to name the book they read that “radically revised your understanding of gender politics, heterosexuality and patriarchy in general.”  I responded with two largely forgotten 80’s classics, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Re-Making Love and Joan Nestle’s A Restricted Country. I read them in college, and in both cases remember having several moments of  “oh, that’s what that means…”  Ehrenreich’s book was, if I remember, more third-person and Nestle’s more first-person, but they both had distinct authorial voices, and they both managed to render a concept like “social construction of gender” in ways that even I could picture.  They historicized things I had thought were just given, and gave a sense of the human stakes involved. (Ehrenreich’s interpretation of Beatlemania remains the best I’ve seen on the subject.) They helped the world make sense, even as they argued in various ways that it could make much more sense if it took equality seriously.  On a personal level, they mattered.

I’d bet that there are young people now for whom Tressie McMillan Cottom’s new book, Thick, will work the same way.  

Longtime readers know that I’m a fan of McMillan Cottom’s, and that I consider her book Lower Ed essential reading. She and I both crossed over from for-profit colleges to non-profits, and we shared a sense that most of the comparisons people made between the two were too facile.  We shared a frame of reference.

Thick is about, among other things, the experience of being a Southern black woman in America, being “no one’s beauty queen and few people’s idea of an intellectual, public or otherwise, and showing up anyway.” (25)  Nobody has ever mistaken me for a Southern black woman; our frames of reference here are not the same. But she does what she calls the op-ed writer’s job so well that “push[ing] through the challenging parts” (175) isn’t difficult.  Her craft as a writer is so well-developed that even a true story of losing her daughter -- a heartbreaking and enraging chapter not to be read anywhere you need to keep a poker face -- somehow moves from personal narrative to structural critique to emotional gut punch without ever losing control.  

In a sense, her writing makes a move similar to Steven Spielberg’s camera.  Spielberg loves the child’s-eye view, usually incorporating a few shots like that to convey a sense of wonder.  McMillan Cottom does something similar, brilliantly. From “Dying to be Competent”:

“I never dreamed about weddings or boyfriends or babies.  The first dream for my imagined future self that I can recall starts with a sound.  I was maybe five years old and I wanted to click-clack. The click-clack of high heels on a shiny, hard floor.  I have a briefcase. I am walking purposefully, click-clack-click-clack. That is the entire dream.” (77)

Even some of the expository parts are written in simple language, as if explaining the background of a story to a child:

“We went to church and paid tithes and wore slips and we drank but had the good sense to be ashamed that we did.  We whispered when we said bad words and we valued hard work and education as evidence of our true worth. We did not want to be problems.”  (12)

Having built confidence in the reader that she’ll make things clear, it’s easy to follow her into academically-informed discussions of intersectionality or white fragility.  She makes those as clear and as vivid as the imagined clack-clack of her future shoes.

Fittingly, it’s hard to know which genre to consider these essays.  They’re personal, sort of, but she distinguishes them from “personal essays.”  Echoing Nina Eliasoph’s classic Avoiding Politics, she notes that black women “were writing personal essays because as far as authoritative voices go, the self was the only subject men and white people would cede to us.”  (23) Instead, she uses autobiography to ask “why me and not my grandmother? Why now and not then? Why this U.S. and not some other U.S.?” (27) They’re political in a sweeping sense, but they don’t usually feel like it.  They feel allegorical; they’re stories with morals, such as those one might tell a child. Slowly and patiently, to make sure he gets it.

The best artists -- writers, filmmakers, musicians, name it -- make it look easy.  It isn’t. McMillan Cottom takes great pains so the reader doesn’t have to. The book is extraordinary, compulsively readable, sometimes funny, always smart, beautifully written, and haunting.  I imagine somewhere a twenty-year-old version of me reading it, jaw dropped, whispering to himself “oh, so that’s what’s going on.”  Thirty years from now, he’ll remember that.  In the meantime, I’m grateful to her for working so hard, and at such a high level, to explain to the rest of us things that should be obvious.  She’s right. And she’s helping the rest of us see what she sees, one image at a time.