By Laurie Paolicelli
“Decades before I valued myself enough to be careful for myself, I was careful so that my mother would not worry.”― Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick: And Other Essays
In Chapel Hill, we are surrounded by stars of all kinds, but the most important, by far, are our teachers. Without them we would be just another town on a hill.
On a late summer night not long ago, at a small black book store situated on a quiet street near Durham, almost equidistant from the University of North Carolina and North Carolina Central, a group of four prestigious women were on a platform debating the writings of celebrated author, speaker and UNC-Chapel Hill Professor, Tressie McMillan Cottom.
On the panel was Naledi Yaziyo, owner and curator of Rofhiwa Books in Durham; Carliss Chatman, Professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law; Lindsey Andrews, Director and Founder of Night School Bar, and the recipient of this fundraising event; and Dr. Cottom herself.
Events like this are common in a college town. Book readings, public discourse, and debates are often held in public venues. What was surprising in this one was the diversity of the overflowing crowd, all of whom were captivated listening to McMillan Cottom speak.
Tressie McMillan Cottom is a sociologist professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, columnist for the New York Times, and a 2020 MacArthur Fellow. Her 2017 book, Lower Ed, has been cited by influential American policymakers, among them the esteemed senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. Cottom published Thick: And Other Essays in 2019.
Her curriculum vitae is astonishing. In addition to being an associate professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS), she is a senior faculty researcher with the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP), and a faculty affiliate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society.
Thick: And Other Essays has been described as “a kind of manifesto.” The essays touch on topics as diverse as sexual abuse, divorce, the death of a child, and broader issues dealing with race, beauty, and education. McMillan Cottom interrogates how assumptions about wealth, competence, and pain undermine black women’s efforts to achieve health and financial security.
“My family is a classic black American migration family,” McMillan Cottom writes in Thick. “We have rural southern roots, moved north, and almost all have returned. I grew up watching my great-grandmother, and later my grandmother and mother, use our minimal resources to help other people make ends meet.
We were those good poors, the kind who live mostly within our means. We had a little luck when a male relative got extra military pay when he came home a paraplegic or used the VA to buy a Jim Walter house. If you were really blessed, when a relative died with a paid-up insurance policy, you might be gifted a lump sum to buy the land that Jim Walter used as collateral to secure your home lease. That is how generational wealth happens where I am from: lose a leg, a part of your spine, die right, and maybe you can lease-to-own a modular home. We had a little of that kind of rural black wealth, so we were often in a position to help folks less fortunate. But perhaps the greatest resource we had was a bit more education.”
McMillan Cottom is a vital part of our mission to be one of the finest universities in the country. Freedom of expression has long been a cornerstone of this mission and, while we haven’t always lived up to our goals, it is not for lack of trying. McMillan Cottom is both a sentinel and a messenger, a star in our midst, an example of our hopes and ideals.
Tressie McMillan Cottom on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah
Sample Podcast: “Earn Your Slay”
Tressie’s New York Times Newsletter
Orange County Book Stores:
Epilogue, Franklin Street, Chapel Hill
Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill
Purple Crow, Hillsborough
For information on the 75th Anniversary Celebration events of the NAACP Chapel Hill/Carrboro Chapter, visit: https://naacp75.com
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.
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