5 Things I Learned After Seeing Tressie McMillan Cottom & Roxane Gay At The Hammer Museum

In the midst of studying for midterms, I felt a deep longing to leave UCLA, find a cute little brunch spot, and stay there forever—happily eating Nutella crepes for the rest of my life. I admit it. I had a BAD case of midterm malaise. School was becoming too much, and all I wanted to do was get away. As midterms came and went, I continued to feel a deep longing to explore and sought out opportunities for a fun night out. A Hammer Museum exhibition starring cultural critic, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and bestselling author, Roxane Gay, seemed like the perfect opportunity. And it was seriously AMAZING! Here are five things I learned from the event:

1. What Cottom’s Book, Thick, is About

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a professor by day and a writer by night. The majority of her conversation revolved around her debut collection of essays, Thick. Thick, Tressie explains, is a physical description that has followed her (and many other black girls) since adolescence. Attempting to move beyond assumption, Tressie uses “thick” as a “meta-metaphor” for American culture. In modern times, Cottom explains, there is a great incentive to be “thin in cultural analysis.” Social media provides a shortcut for thin analysis: always be negative. Black women, she argues, cannot exist within this or other thin narratives. Black women disrupt and complicate simple analyses of society.

2. Opinion Writers Are Important 

Both Cottom and Gay emphasized that opinion writers model the “dominant” topics of public discourse. The two discussed David Brooks, a white opinion writer for The New York Times. David Brooks is an “anointed” public thinker. There is, however, no such investment in black opinion writers or their experiences and insights. Right now, black writers primarily write as their second job and Cottom laments, “are they ever gonna get someone who can afford be a critical thinker and who can do it as their first job or their only job?” 

3. You Have To Be Able to Afford Integrity 

Cottom and Gay revealed the secret to their writing success: having a day job. A day job, they explain, provides the luxury to say no to writing about topics that you do not have anything meaningful to comment upon. A day job combats the “economic incentive” to otherwise “manufacture critical thinking on demand.” This ability to control one’s writing creates the integrity. Integrity is not freely given out but is a privilege that must be be afforded. 

4. There Are No Shortcuts in Life

While discussing her unusual usage of footnotes, Cottom discussed her struggle establishing legitimacy as a black writer. She revealed that her heavy use of footnotes is threefold in purpose: to excise background thinking, to combat assumptions of natural “black wisdom” and to place all influential figures in her life on an equal playing field. Cottom proclaimed that she always makes a point to tie her intelligence to her schooling. She is not an exceptional black woman, but rather a well-educated one. 

5. We Contain Multitudes 

Both Cottom and Gay continuously emphasized that they do not speak for all black women. Their thoughts and opinions come directly from their unique life experiences. What frustrates the two, however, is the misconception that a single black woman provides enough diversity. The two desire a world in which there are black women writers for whom they can disagree with and black women who are valued for their expertise in areas other than just themselves. Too often, black women, they remark, are forced to shoehorn their real expertise in favor of their lived experience. 

I’m so glad to have attended the event! From this, I have discovered two intelligent black writers who are not afraid to speak their truth. The opportunity to listen to two intellectuals who have eloquently pondered and written about the world was truly awe-inspiring. I have not yet read their books, but I heartily intend to!!