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My copy of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s #ThickTheBook, January 12, 2019 (Donald Earl Collins)

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book Thick: And Other Essays, like so many of the books I’ve chosen to read over the past six years, will stay with me a while. She is brilliant, period. I feel blessed having been on the journey of reading about her experiences, her views of the world, and her Blackness and Black feminism. There are so many nuggets and witticisms in Cottom’s Thick that I should sit down and plan out a way to mine her book for actual gold and platinum. It’s rich and thick like hot chocolate with hits of cinnamon and nutmeg, something to imbibe while taking a bite of a New York-style blondie (which I specialize in cooking-wise) or slice of chocolate torte cake here and there.

But there was one sentence that stood out, before I even began reading the book in earnest. As I randomly flipped through the pages after first getting Thick, this sentence hit me hard, dazing me like the day my one-time stepfather punched me in the jaw for the first time. “Everybody needs a crew,” Cottom wrote to start her “The Price of Fabulousness” essay, adding that she has “many because I am extremely fortunate.” Yeah, no kidding!, I thought immediately after reading that sentence. For a moment, maybe even 0.68 seconds, I was envious. Not like, “Oh my God, the arrogance of this one here!” kind of jealous. Nor was I the “I wish I was her!” green-eyed monster, either. I realized that since the last weeks of sixth grade and the beginning of three and a half years as a Hebrew-Israelite, I hadn’t really had a crew as Cottom defined it at all. That was the spring of 1981, when I was eleven years old, nearly 38 years ago, by the way.

From the day I let my one-time best friend Starling beat me in a fight over my alleged decision to join the Hebrew-Israelite cult and walk into William H. Holmes ES with a white kufi on my head, I had no crew. There’s a reason I consistently refer to my middle school and high school Humanities classmates as either “classmates” or “acquaintances.” They weren’t my friends, some were genuine bullies and assholes to me and to each other, and lacked in most forms of what grown folk would call social graces. They were my academic and (sometimes) athletic competitors, they were friends with each other, but only to a point. But one thing they could never, ever be was my crew or posse or homies or anything close to what Cottom meant. That Wu-Tang Clan-level of professional collaboration and possibly personal friendship didn’t exist in the cauldron that was that magnet program within an even more hostile public school system in Mount Vernon, New York.

College at the University of Pittsburgh was where I’d find friendships again, and maybe at times, the primordial beginnings of a crew. But these proto-crews never quite came together for more than a night on the town here or there. Quite frankly, the other thing my eclectic groups of friends and acquaintances had in common was knowing me. At least, the parts of me I was willing to show folks at the time. I knew most of them weren’t ready for the real me, because I wasn’t ready for the real me. Not at nineteen, twenty, or twenty-one.

Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellows Retreat, Berkeley, CA, February 17, 1996. (Donald Earl Collins)

Graduate school me, though, was more ready. My times at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon earning my doctorate were the closest I got to having a crew. At one point in 1994-95, I probably knew at least half of the Blacks, Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, and Latinxs on Pitt’s campus, and all of the Black diaspora students at CMU (the latter because there were so few of us there). But despite the common interests around campus climate, student and faculty diversity, mistreatment on the basis of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, the fact remained that my crews were eclectic and transitory ones. Masters students would be gone in two or three years. My warp-drive, single-minded race toward the doctorate made certain that any bonds I forged during those years wouldn’t last. There would be no collaborations or calls for career help or advice with these disparate groups. Not even when I lived off the fumes of my last grad school stipend check the summer of 1997.

Working in the nonprofit world and as contingent faculty has often meant being on the inside, but still feeling like an outsider, anyway. Or really, a fraud, because I never fully embraced the norms of nonprofit capitalism or academia as intellectual capitalism and exploitation. I became friends with a fairly eclectic bunch in these spaces, too. But none of them shared my passion for creative nonfiction writing, or have wanted an alignment between career goals and social justice fights, or even, have had a taste for basketball as a spectator or player.

I guess one could say that my wife and son and two of my closest friends are my crew, but that’s not how a crew works. They are family, a very supportive family to be sure, but family is muck thicker than blood or a crew.

So, maybe Cottom is right. I really, really, really need a crew. I’ve made it pretty far in parts of my life without one. I’m not sure how much more Sisyphus I can do on my own, though.