Tressie McMillan Cottom is a Sociology PhD candidate at Emory University. You can find her on Twitter consorting with the famous and the no-names, while sharing serious information, HGTV live tweets, and the most polite side-eye in the South. She was the first person I emailed about the #IRLProject
The drive to Atlanta pushes all of my buttons. I cycle through a stream of reminiscence and regret over the past; panic and worry about the future. Game Seven of the World Series is in progress when I arrive at the hotel. I’d thought about finding a bar to watch, so as not to compound my loneliness with images of people and places I love, but by the time I get there I’m so tired that all I can do is lie down and turn on the television. Eric Hosmer is on third base and I’ve got a Priceline hotel in Atlanta and in that moment neither one of us is where we want to be. Home.
Eric Hosmer is on third base and I’ve got a Priceline hotel in Atlanta and in that moment neither one of us is where we want to be. Home.
This project is beyond me. I know it when I have the initial idea. I know it when I reach out to Tressie McMillan Cottom to ask for her professional opinion, and I know it when I send emails to 30 people, many of whom don’t know I exist. The Kickstarter is an anxiety roller coaster – What if no one gives? What if everyone gives? If everyone gives, I have to take this cute idea I’ve been pulling out like a party trick and turn it into a real thing. And I definitely don’t know how to do that.
So when Tressie texts and tells me she is not teaching at Emory this semester because she’s knee deep in dissertation and job search, I die a little inside. I don’t know if “Imposing on People” is a cardinal sin outside the Midwest, but had I known this project would require it on a daily basis, I would definitely have bailed early. Except that a pattern is emerging–every time I ask for help or make myself uncomfortable, something lovely happens. This email hits my inbox a few minutes later :
Come meet Visiting Kate, who is doing a cool-weird project. Also, I’m in town for two days. 🙂 It’s a two-tier set-up.
On Friday, let’s meet for the divine apps and maybe a cocktail at Pinewood. Choose a time but for now I’ll say 7? Just to get the ball rolling. Looks like Me, Deena, Melissa and Maybe Nati can do that.
Early lunch on Friday. I’ll be handling some business at the department, i.e. throwing together a job talk. Lunch at 11:30 at say Whatever They Now Call The New Doc Chey’s. Looks like that would be me, Visiting Kate, and Kate C.
Also, did I forget to invite anyone? Invite people.
It’s so perfect. It’s so her, that I am comforted, though still nervous as a cat when I meet her and her friend Melissa at The Pinewood, a little restaurant and bar where you know you’ll eat well as soon as you read the menu. We bond over the food—Grit Tots with chili aioli sauce and pork belly biscuits with orange marmalade. She’d had a biscuit two weeks prior when she was in Atlanta and tells me she’s been thinking about it ever since. Since I keep a running list of Food I’ve Eaten That I Wish I Could Eat Now, I know exactly what she means. We agree to get two biscuits rather than sharing.
“I was waiting for that face,” she says, when I take the first bite, and I know it sounds dumb and I can’t explain why, but that was the moment I knew everything was going to be ok.
I’ve rewritten and deleted and danced around this piece because I couldn’t get to the heart of what I wanted to say. Tressie McMillan Cottom is the next-door neighbor you want when your kid gets sick or your redneck brother in law pulls out a gun. She’s the bridesmaid you want when you’re having second thoughts; the college professor who makes all the difference and changes your vocation. She’s the boss who works hardest and plays fair and actually tells you where she’d like you to improve in a way that makes you want to do better.
I think she should be the President. I’d like her to reorganize the DMV. And I would nominate her for Pope, except that she and Francis are enough alike that Imma let him keep his job.
I would nominate her for Pope, except that she and Francis are enough alike that Imma let him keep his job.
She’s the trailblazer who is constantly checking in with the folks at the back to make sure they are keeping up. So forgive me for the five day delay in posting, but if you’ve got 2,000 easy words for a woman whose favorite musical artists are Dolly Parton and Prince, I’ve got a road trip for you to finish.
It was her work that made me start believing sociologists should run the world. They don’t spout opinion or hearsay or their crazy cousin Buddy’s theory about immigrants because he once knew a Mexican. They get their information the old fashioned way–driving around and asking questions and talking to people and when they are finished they add up the numbers and tell the story. But Sociology isn’t where she started.
It was her work that made me start believing sociologists should run the world.
Read the biographies of men and women who changed the world and almost none is a straight line, from aspiration to success. Tressie went to North Carolina Central University, a historically black college, instead of Yale which recruited her. She graduated and got a good job with Sprint, training the people who worked in their call centers. But after a couple years of moving every three months, she was done. Her mother Vivian drove a U-Haul truck all night to New Mexico and they packed her belongings and went back to North Carolina, and if you follow TMC only for the tweets about Vivian (who, like Madonna needs just one name) you would be doing yourself a favor.
She describes herself during the next few years as “rudderless” but I would use another sailing term – “letting out the sail.” When the wind dies, one of the simplest fixes is to just release the tiller. The boat moves imperceptibly, waves bouncing up, down and sideways, basically any direction but forward. It takes patience to wait and watch for the moment the sail changes from slack to taut, but once it does, you’re moving again, often in a completely different direction.
This is how, one August morning she woke up, picked up her phone and called the college she had attended and told them she wanted to come back to school. The woman in Registration who answered, found her undergraduate record and asked her to hold for a minute, before returning to the phone to report, “Ok, baby you’re going to start next week right?”
This was not, in fact, right. Given the fact that school was about to start, Tressie had imagined she’d wait until January.
“But I’m so Southern,” she says, “that all I said was, ‘Yes ma’am.’”
But I’m so Southern,” she says, “that all I said was, ‘Yes ma’am.’
Sometimes the wind picks up faster than you think.
Those classes led her to Emory University where she will receive her PhD. She’s written for big publications and been asked for her opinion by others and there is no sign that this trend will slow, because it’s not just in the field of Higher Education and the study of For Profit Colleges that people want to know what she thinks. So when they call, she answers, cranking out such dizzying word counts that I have no idea how she does anything but write. Yet here’s a recent tweet:
tressie mc (@tressiemcphd)
11/5/14, 11:16 PM
Today I wrote a thing, submitted a thing, coded a thing, skyped into a class, led a call, scheduled three things. Never. Went. Outside.
Ok, she probably has a Vitamin D deficiency, but c’mon, this is superhuman living at its best.
And yet she wanted to know what I thought about that pork belly biscuit. Melissa tells us about pitching a piece to the Huffington Post and how well it went, which she attributes to advice Tressie gave her. We talk personal lives and my complete lack of dating game and she says, “Oh. Well my first instinct is always to start fixing you up,” which brings up her recent texts and matchmaking efforts on Melissa’s behalf with a man whom she describes in this way, “He doesn’t love Jesus, but he does have good teeth.”
She recounts a few additional qualities in a way that is neither fawning, nor withholding, and this is another thing about her I love—this willingness to stand in the gap and be a feminist who does not call the race of men idiots, except when individual representatives of the race deserve it. Don Lemon was apparently so butthurt by what she wrote about him that Vivian has called a moratorium on Don commentary. I think he should count himself lucky. She tells the truth and if you find yourself in her sights, I promise God will not come to your aid, yet she has never given in to the brand of righteousness that is often particular to the Internet–resorting to cutting words over perceived insults, and bringing out her followers en masse like a schoolyard bully. No, if she comes after you…you deserve it.
…this is another thing about her I love—this willingness to stand in the gap and be a feminist who does not call the race of men idiots, except when individual representatives of the race deserve it.
The heading on her blog says this: Some of us are brave and it’s not just rhetoric. Too often I have seen people with power who are unwilling to use it on behalf of those who could never pay them back, while selling it to the highest bidder. It’s the opposite with her. She rebutted a horrifying personal attack piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed with a post SHE WROTE ON THE SIDE OF A HIGHWAY. The post resulted in a petition with 7,000 signatures and the eventual firing of the writer in question. She’s consistently refused television appearances—you can’t buy her. The work she is doing right now requires this sort of commitment.
At lunch the next day I ask her about having said she sometimes weeps over her data and she tells me it happens frequently. For profit colleges have slashed and burned their way through the wallets of marginalized students in this country, gorging at the federal money trough, while producing graduates who are thousands of dollars in debt and can’t get a job. What’s the repair for such a broken system, I ask, and as she describes a solution that takes actual lives and outcomes into consideration, I have no doubt she is correct. This is not just data to her. It is real people and it is heartbreaking work, and here is her secret—she will let her heart be broken, but she will continue to fight.
…here is her secret—she will let her heart be broken, but she will continue to fight.
We finish up and walk outside saying our goodbyes. She looks tired, but tells me she has some ideas for the project that she wants to think over and suggests we talk sometime soon. I walk to a nearby coffee shop and write for two hours before closing my laptop and turning my compass north. Over the next few days she will tweet about the project multiple times, taking my audience from 400 to 12,000.