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Arts & Culture

Genius Award Winner Tressie McMillan Cottom On Being 'Too Much,' A Black Woman In America

Tressie McMillan Cottom
MacArthur Foundation

Tressie McMillan Cottom, a UNC Chapel Hill senior research professor, was last month named a 2020 MacArthur Foundation fellow, known as the Genius Award. Foundation officials describe Cottom as someone who "combines analytical insights and personal experiences in a frank, accessible way in exploring a range of issues on race, gender and education."

Cottam, an author, is also a Charlotte native, which she talks about in this edited reading from her book of essays "THICK: And Other Essays," a National Book Award nonfiction finalist.

Tressie McMillan Cottom: I was pregnant at 30, divorced at 31, lost at 32. How else would I have ended up in a place called Rudean's? Rudean's was an institution. It sat in a strip mall on a street, Beatties Ford Road, that had once been the heart of the new Black middle class in Charlotte, North Carolina. As went the fortunes of Black homeownership, entrepreneurship, wealth creation, citizenship and health, so went Beatties Ford Road. Rudean's held on.

You grew up on jokes in Charlotte, North Carolina, about the old players and the aging fly girls living out their glory days at Rudean's, that nightclub that also sold fried fish plates and chicken wings. You had to get there early because parking was slim-pickings and there were only maybe a dozen or so tables pressed up against a long wall on the empty side of the room.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Cottom's columns have appeared in The New York Times and other major publications. She's testified on Capitol Hill and been interviewed on NPR, The Daily Show and other media outlets. She often speaks on what she sees as the perils associated with for-profit colleges, which her first book focused on — "Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise Of For-Profit Colleges In The New Economy" — and the challenges of being an African American woman in this country.

McMillan Cottom: I am living, as are all Black women in this moment, in the most fortuitous time to be a Black woman in the history of the United States of America. And still, the empirical reality of being a Black woman is unacceptably bad. I am least likely to be employed. If employed, more likely to be underemployed and underpaid. I am more likely to not have access to health care. And when I do have access to health care, for that health care to diminish my life chances in health outcomes. I am more likely to die in childbirth. My children are more likely to die in childbirth. My children are more likely to be born poor and to attend under-resourced schools.

That's the reality of being a Black woman in the United States of America right now. And that's still as good as it has ever been. That's what happens when the story of your narrative in a country starts with forced enslavement, chattel slavery.

Glenn: Here's Cottam reading again from her book of essays, "Thick."

McMillan Cottom: 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. A high school teacher nicknamed me "Miss Personality," and it did not feel like a superlative. On one of my first forays into publishing anything, an editor told me that I was too readable to be academic, too deep to be popular, too Black to be literary, and too naive to know that I was supposed to be showing the rigor of my thinking in the complexity of my prose. He quite literally told me I made too much sense. I had wanted to create something meaningful that sounded not only like me, but like all of me, and it was too thick.

McMillan Cottom: So are things better? They're always better. I think that Black woman, in particular, over the last half a generation have entered into the labor market with a sort of new understanding of themselves. As a worker, I think that we are dominating in the civic sphere. I think that what is more common now is that our work is visible in a way that it has not been, historically.

And I'm going to give credit to Black women for that. I'm not sure that's about the progress of others. That is about Black women. I think for once, claiming our work is our own, refusing to allow it to be rendered invisible in organizations and groups or letting other people take credit for our labor and our work.

Glenn: And some people might say that you have made it. You have been published in The Washington Post, The Atlantic and other major publications. But I heard you talking and you said something that I found interesting in terms of — but you're not on the full-time staff. Can you address that?

McMillan Cottom: So one of the things that I was pointing out is that when you do see Black women in these publications, where you do not see us is on the masthead. And the difference is about power and economics and protection and safety. So when you are writing about things that large parts of the population don't want to think about — racism, sexism, classism, inequality, social unrest, social injustice — you need an institution to protect you to a certain degree.

And so while I write for a lot of these publications, it is typical of me to write for them, but not to be invited to be part of the institution. Not to have the editorial support, not to have the editorial protection of my work when the audience gets riled up. And that is actually true for most of the Black women that I know. Almost all of us are doing that as a second-, third- or fourth-shift job. And publications are happy to let that happen, right? When you need someone of color to just speak to an issue, it is safer and less expensive to just bring us in ad hoc.

Glenn: Well, let's shift to "For Profit." You have written a lot about that and about the concerns you have when it comes to for-profits.

McMillan Cottom: My concerns actually start in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is where I grew up and where I was living when I was working in the for-profit college sector. And so the problem is that they come at a very high cost. For-profit colleges historically are more expensive than not-for-profit higher education.

The other piece of the cost puzzle is how little return you get for what you have paid for the degree. Listen, Harvard is expensive. But no one is concerned if you graduate from Harvard with six-figure student loan debt. That is because we understand intuitively that something is worth what people are willing to pay you for it. The labor market doesn't value the degree and the credential (from for-profit schools), and so the students are trapped.

Glenn: And the majority of them, are they still African Americans? At one time it was over well over 50%.

McMillan Cottom: I think it's still about 50, 55%. Still, about three quarters of all students enrolled in the sector are also women.

Glenn: Circling back to African American women and issues of gender: Your book, "Thick," a lot of people associate that title with body type, but it goes well beyond that. Can you tell us about that?

McMillan Cottom: Each essay in the book is sort of playing on our expectations and assumptions about things that we think we know everything about. So one of my great goals with that book is that for everyone to read it coming away with maybe a slightly different understanding of the world than other readers — but experiencing the world differently because they have looked at the world through someone else's eyes for a short period of time.

Glenn: And you also said ,I heard you speaking, saying that you hoped that it would be a "gold rush" for African American women.

McMillan Cottom: I certainly hope so. I hope that by understanding how much smarter, how much our lives are improved upon, by understanding the world through someone else's eyes, would create demand for more people to do this kind of work at the highest levels with the support and the investment that, frankly, other thinkers and writers have always gotten. I want a gold rush for Black women thinkers and writers to do this kind of work at their highest levels of ability — not because it's just good for them, but because it is good for all of us. We all become smarter and better when we have that.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a UNC Chapel Hill professor and senior research professor and a 2020 MacArthur Fellow, which comes with a $675,000 cash award.

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