Tressie McMillan Cottom is a sociologist, a professor, a writer, and a 2020 MacArthur Fellow—but above all else, she’s a truth-teller. If you’ve read her acclaimed 2019 collection Thick: And Other Essays, you already know this; likewise, if you follow her on Twitter. In fact, McMillan Cottom’s strongly argued takes have garnered her her very own opinion newsletter at the New York Times, a platform she’s lobbied for many more Black thinkers to have, particularly Black women.
This year, as we launch the second year of The Root Institute, the bittersweet moment in history that reached a climax in 2020 has resulted in an unprecedented level of interest and platforming of Black voices and experiences. Whether or not you believe America has in any way “reckoned” with race—and whether it proves to be yet another phase or trend, this is undeniably a moment so tangibly saturated with Black talent, representation and newfound opportunity (at least, in creative fields) that none other than Ibram X. Kendi crowned it a new ‘Black Renaissance.’ Also undeniable is that there is still much further to go in our quest for true equality and equity in America (and beyond), but as we consider the promise this moment has presented for Black creativity—we also wonder: What promise might it hold for Black critique?
In 2019, The Root’s former entertainment writer Tonja Stidhum posited, “if you want to protect Black art, protect Black critique”—because isn’t Black critique a form of Black love, too? Even Kendi stated that “we are tired of being race representatives.” So with the influx of Black representation, are we also ready to move away from the clichéd and oft-debated expectation that we withhold honest criticism of creators who look like us? Are we ever-obligated to “uplift” the race, even if and when we don’t feel the art meets the moment? Who gets to decide, who actually benefits, who is ever truly objective, and who might even be endangered by not only nonconstructive criticism but disingenuous unconditional support?
As McMillan Cottom reminds us, Black creativity has always resisted the white gaze—so, where does that leave Black criticism? We discuss in this “fireside chat” for The Root Institute 2021.
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