I hope we build a body politic so thick with contradictions and nuance and humanity and blackness (because blackness is humanity), that no black woman public intellectual has to fix her feet ever again to walk this world. (32)

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s extensive work as a public intellectual, in a variety of print and visual media, has been distilled into Thick, the award-winning book of essays in which she self-reflexively examines the potential impact of the much-maligned “personal essay” and from there goes into money, beauty, culture and history. Get into her work, and the vast & ongoing array of her cultural contributions – including a podcast cohosted with Roxane Gay! – at her website.

Talking Points

If you’re not sure where to start a conversation in a breakout room during Book Club, find an example in the text related to one of these themes. Or, pick a passage that stood out to you and share it with the group.

  • Beauty & ugly in relation to scarcity & oppression
  • Smart as opportunity vs inherent quality
  • Race, gender & expectations of pain, strength & resilience
  • “Structural incompetence”
  • Theories of whiteness

Get Into It

New York Times

Five Essay Collections by Women of Color

“Profound and expansive cultural commentary.”


Interview: Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom

“In everything she writes and researches she is rigorous, expansive, and incisive.”

Close Reading

Being too much of one thing and not enough of another had been a recurring theme in my life. I was, like many young women, expected to be small so that boys could expand and white girls could shine. When I would not or could not shrink, people made sure that I knew I had erred. 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. Thick where I should have been thin, more when I should have been less, a high school teacher nicknamed me “Ms. Personality” and it did not feel like superlative. (7)

Graduate students are not people. In the academic hierarchy, graduate students are units of labors. (8)

Black girls and black women are problems. That is not the same thing as causing problems. We are social issues to be solved, economic problems to be balanced, and emotional baggage to be overcome. (10)

The essays in this volume dance along the line of the dreaded “first-person essay.” Dreaded beacuse the genre has become identified with so many people and things that our culture loves to hate: women, people of color, queer people, young people, and the internet. (16)

The personal essay was an economic problem and a social problem dressed up as a cultural taste problem. (18)

In a modern society, who is allowed to speak with authority is a political act. (19)

Smart is only a construct of correspondence, between one’s abilities, one’s environment, and one’s moment in history. (27)

I hope these essays break open space for black women thinkers to do what we are already doing but for better rewards. (31)

I hope we build a body politic so thick with contradictions and nuance and humanity and blackness (because blackness is humanity), that no black woman public intellectual has to fix her feet ever again to walk this world. (32)

Decades before I valued myself enough to be careful for myself, I was careful so that my mother would not worry. (40)

Beauty isn’t actually what you look like; beauty is the preferences that reproduce the existing social order. (44)

Whiteness exists as a response to blackness. Whiteness is a violent sociocultural regime legitimized by property to always make clear who is black by fastidiously delineating who is officially white. (45)

When I say that I am unattractive or ugly, I am not internalizing the dominant culture’s assessment of me. I am naming what has been done to me. And signaling who did it. (60)

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that ugly is as ugly does. Both are lies. Ugly is everything done to you in the name of beauty. (72)

Blackness is not a paradox. Blackness is. It has to be for whiteness, at any point in time or space, to enact its ultimate expression: elasticity. Whiteness, the idea, the identity tethered to no nation of origin, no place, no gods, exists only if it can expand enough to defend its position over every group that challenges the throne. (112)

The eternally future-looking American story is about a tomorrow that is disconnected from yesterday precisely because the story of the nation does not come off particularly well in that retelling. But I have come to believe that it did not matter that Obama had faith in white people. They needed only to have faith in him: in his willingness to reflect their ideal selves back at them, to change the world without changing them, to change blackness for them without being black to them. (114)

I cry and am angered by and passionate about what Trump’s election is doing to human beings and social institutions. But I am not disappointed. If you truly know your whites, disappointment rarely darkens your door. (118)