Tressie McMillan Cottom asks who black women’s voices are for

Cottom interrogates her own story loudly enough for others to hear themselves in it.

I started reading Thick during an airport incident involving a misplaced bag and multiple flight delays. I was tense—feeling the slow burning rage of being treated paternalistically with no resolution in sight.

Airport incidents have a way of bringing dynamics of black­ness and womanhood out into the open. I knew I could not express myself in full: my image would precede me, impatience would be stereotypically assigned, carelessness on my end would be assumed, my African name would only add another layer of paternalism, my “educated accent” could only reach so far, my character would be judged, my words anticipated. My helplessness would be labeled as aggressiveness, ignorance, and emotionalism. These frameworks would allow people to think they knew me. (It is amazing how my black womanhood miraculously gifts every person I encounter with this prophetic ability!)

Unfortunately, black women are used to these frames. They invoke thickness—of skin, of affect, of narrative—and all because of the contours of the black female body. Tressie McMillan Cottom is an expert on thick narratives, and her storytelling is masterful. Her interrogation of her own story and its necessary messages echoes long and loud enough that most black women in America can hear themselves in it, especially since the rest of America won’t hear them.