Make Room for Me: A Review of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “THICK: and Other Essays”

5 min read

Icame across THICK: and Other Essays when I discovered a shortlist on the New York Times entitled, “Five Essay Collections by Women of Color.” Naturally, my interest was immediately piqued.

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s second book is an intricate collection of raw experiences, thought-provoking questions and intellectual discussions on subjects that revolve around one central theme, Black womanhood. THICK: and Other Essays is not a light read, but it isn’t academically dense either; the eight essays featured are written in such a way that eases the reader into each piece, then lightly begins the process of deeper examination and reflection.

“Thick,” the opening essay, draws the reader in with Cottom’s lived experience of feeling too Black, too big, too full of personality, and too thick for the world around her. The way she describes this feeling of thickness, a clever metaphor for a world where Black women are meant to occupy as little space as possible, was one I immediately resonated with. It’s a hard thing to articulate, the feeling of never really fitting in, even when, by all appearances, some Black women appear to fit in just fine. Cottom delivers this so eloquently that I knew this was a book I would finish.

“Thick” then begins to examine the struggles facing Black women writers. Cottom’s discussion refreshes the idea that Black women have been continuously excluded from public spheres of discussion because we are rarely seen as experts on anything.

The omission of Black women from the societal spotlight is nothing new; for centuries the contributions of Black women have been overshadowed, unaccredited, or forgotten. Similarly, Black women’s problems are frequently disregarded or minimized – unless we are the ones talking about those problems. Cottom relays that the entry point for most Black female writers is the personal essay; the telling of our stories in a way that is eye-opening yet tolerable for readers who do not live our experiences. Cottom describes this as, “…bleeding our personal lives into the genre afforded to us.”

For me, this part of “Thick” struck a cord and sang a song. As a writer, I continuously strive to step away from writing solely about my lived experience at the intersection of Black and female. And, as Cottom describes, it’s a lot harder said than done – especially when the work that is most praised by publishers and readers is the work that shines a light into our personal lives.

Two other essays that I found most poignant were “Dying to Be Competent” and “Black Girlhood, Interrupted.” These essays are powerfully emotive, as they highlight specific traumas that are prevalent among Black women.

In “Dying to Be Competent,” Cottom shares the heart-wrenching story of her experience navigating a healthcare system that often makes the assumption that Black women are too incompetent to advocate for themselves. “In Black Girlhood, Interrupted,” she tackles an issue that is often ignored: sexual abuse and rape culture within Black communities. Cottom’s engagement with the reader really comes out in these two essays, which, due to the emotional content, is appreciated. They spoke profoundly to me because they attempt to tackle the narrative that reinforces the myth of the ‘strong Black woman.’ This stereotype isn’t always perceived as a bad one.

Yes, Black women are strong, tough, resilient and steadfast. But this constant description of us causes an erasure of safety for Black women and girls. We are robbed of the ability to be vulnerable, sick, depressed, abused or hurt. Black women are strong, but our bodies still need care. Black women are resilient, but we still deserve protection from abuse and violence. Both essays should include a trigger warning, so consider yourself warned.

The other essays explore topics such as beauty, politics, the idea of exceptional Blackness, Black consumption in white spaces and professional connections with Black women. The collection is a beautiful blend of in-depth analysis and grounding individual experiences.

At times, THICK: and Other Essays reads like a conversation you may have with a relative; you know, that smart Aunt who knows a lot but is also cool? Cottom breaks up a lot of the essays with witty humor, sharp writing and moments of clarity where the reader will certainly utter hmph out loud.

It is important to note, Cottom also openly acknowledges that she is speaking on some of these issues from a place of privilege, as an award-winning writer, professor, and sociologist. She understands that some of her readers will be reading from a different perspective, but it is a stark realization that even in a place of “exceptional Blackness,” Tressie McMillan Cottom is still not immune to the experiences lived by most Black women.

THICK: and Other Essays is a book for us, by one of us. One that should be passed around to mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, and coworkers. It will break your heart, but also give you deeper insight into where true healing needs to begin in our community.

It is a book that matters because we matter.

Our lives matter.
Our contributions matter.
Our bodies matter.
Our problems matter.

And we are deserving of as much space as we need to heal from trauma and thrive by way of our successes. I thank Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D. for creating a space in literature for a book that is, rightfully, thick.

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