In 'Thick,' Tressie McMillan Cottom Looks At Beauty, Power And Black Womanhood In America

Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom discusses upending stereotypes of black womanhood.
"Thick And Other Essays," by Tressie McMillan Cottom. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Beauty. Politics. Inequality. Gender. Money. Familiar themes endlessly discussed. But are we hearing every essential voice? Rhetorical question, because the answer is obviously no.

For example, not enough of us have heard the searing analysis from sociology professor and black feminist thinker Tressie McMillan Cottom. In her new collection of essays, Cottom says her work is animated by what’s still seen as a “radical idea … black women are rational and human.” From that assumption, she works her way analytically through politics, economics, history, sociology and culture.

“It rarely fails me,” she says.


Tressie McMillan Cottom, writer, columnist, and professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Author of “Thick: And Other Essays,” a collection exploring the identity and experience that defines black womanhood in America. (@tressiemcphd)

Interview Highlights

On the title of the collection

“If they’re wondering where I’m going with that, it says a lot about the reader, first of all. Young readers, people who spend a lot of time on social media, maybe in popular culture absolutely see it and start laughing. They think it’s a bit of an inside joke, because it is often used, especially in culture and African-American culture, to mean a certain type of physical presence. And this is where everybody usually starts Googling a picture of me, and I would just really suggest no one do that. But, it does usually suggest a certain presentation of femininity, of being somewhere between thin and what we would probably call fat. There’s this category out there that we think of as ‘thick.’ But there’s also, one of the plays on the title essay is that idea that I also wanted to connect how we move through the world physically as women, with black women’s bodies in this world, and connect that to our political thought and the way that we think and approach the world.

“I have an understanding that black women, like any other group of people, any other subculture, has a political philosophy and a ideology. And we’ve got a history of thought. And that history of thought, when I reflected on the things that had been most instructive in my own learning over the course of becoming a girl and a woman in this society, this thing kept resonating with me of nuance, of depth, of complexity in the history of that thinking. And to me that was just another way to think about ‘Thick.’ And then I wanted to write essays

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