Tag Archives: Tressie McMillan Cottom

Easy Beauty/Difficult Beauty

Picture of book cover and author. Author photo is from chest up, in white top and black jacket, with white skin and black hair

Debbie says:

This is Part I of a two-part blog post; the second part will come after I get a chance to read Easy Beauty: A Memoir by Chloé Cooper Jones. I came across this book because Tressie McMillan Cottom, one of the most perceptive and compelling thinkers I know, interviewed Cooper Jones in Cottom’s capacity as a guest host on the Ezra Klein Show. The interview is stunning, and it makes reading the book inevitable, though it may take me a few weeks to get to it.

Cooper Jones is severely disabled, from birth, with a visible disability and significant chronic pain. The interview (and by extension the book) is not about disability, but Cooper Jones takes her own body, and her lived experience, as the starting point for thinking about beauty–in general and in specific. She credits the concept of “easy beauty” to  philosopher Bernard Bosanquet.  “Easy beauty” describes the things that most people immediately perceive as beautiful: a sunset, a rose, a laughing child. “Difficult beauty” describes things that take longer to learn to appreciate, perhaps requiring some knowledge, or some exposure or experience. Cooper-Jones gives the example of some abstract art, or some music in a vernacular we don’t understand as a kind of difficult beauty:  once we know enough about what the work is and what its intention is, we can learn to find it beautiful.

Closer to the realm of this blog’s main focus, she talks about beauty and the disabled body: physical (conventional) beauty is an attribute that some people have, and most people aspire to in some way. Beauty products are sold primarily to the aspirational: lose weight this way, use this cream or serum, buy this shampoo and you will get closer to beauty. However, the visibly disabled are simply excised from this entire world of chasing beauty: since nothing they can buy, or use, or try will ever let them into the world defined as “beauty,” they simply go unmentioned and unnoticed. Cooper Jones attributes her intellectual achievements, which are very substantial, to the early awareness that if she couldn’t be “beautiful,” she could be smart.

Even the interview has a great deal more to chew on: Cooper Jones is a parent, and raising her son has been a major factor in her conscious effort to re-imagine the world around her. Having grown up with the very natural assumption that people are either cruel or indifferent and independence is the only goal, having a small person to parent made her decide that she didn’t want to pass those preconceptions on, and since children learn from what they see, she would have to reformulate her own expectations and behavior into something she wanted her son to learn: neither an easy nor a quick process, and one with many false starts and failure modes.

Under Cottom’s incisive questioning, Cooper-Jones goes lots of places in this interview: to the Beyoncé concert that provided her with an epiphany about being your whole self, and the party for Peter Dinklage where she got a front seat at the performance of other people’s expectations about her commonalities with Dinklage … and her own. Both of these are mentioned in most reviews of the book, but no one mentions her throwaway comment about Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (paraphrased): “Beth has no personality, and no flaws. She’s just there to be sick and die, and for her death to have an effect on her sisters.” For me, that exemplifies Cooper Jones’ ability to turn your brain around in a couple of sentences … and since the whole book is about her turning her own brain around, it’s no surprise that her skill in that is extraordinary.

Whether or not you plan to read the book, listen to the interview, because first, Cottom is clearly entranced with the book and the author, and her enthusiasm lights up the entire conversation and, second, Cottom is no stranger to thinking about easy and difficult beauty, and is completely willing to engage with Cooper Jones at the level this work needs and deserves.

I’ll be back in the next four to six weeks to finish this up with my reactions to the book, and I’d love to hear yours.


Thanks to waywardcats for the pointer to the interview.

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Overturning “the Lie that Has Made Country Music Bad, Boring and Fake”

Brittney Spencer performing under multicolored stage lights
Brittney Spencer performing in Nashville

Laurie and Debbie say:

The incomparable Tressie McMillan Cottom has a long read, The Black Vanguard in White Utopias, up at The Undefeated. Like everything Cottom writes, the whole thing is worth your time and attention. We especially appreciated her analysis of the racial history of the country music scene and how that is playing out in the 2020s, which is not to undervalue her writing about the music, the venue, or the Jason Isbell concert that sparked the piece.

Isbell, who is white and male, has a radical political stance which is out of keeping with the country music industry. One way this shows up is that he regularly features women, especially Black women as opening acts. The eight women featured in the 2021 Nashville concert series Cottom attended were Brittney Spencer, Mickey Guyton, Amythyst Kiah, Shemekia Copeland, Allison Russell, Joy Oladokun, and Adia Victoria.

Despite living on a fantasy island of its own making, the country music industry is struggling to ignore Black Lives Matter, especially the white reactionary response. Country artists, fans and critics are duking it out in culture wars over vaccines, critical race theory and conspiracy theories. The more country music ignores the social and political moment, the more disconnected from its fan base it becomes and the more culturally impotent it appears. The problem for country’s gatekeepers is that plenty of people still have a healthy appetite for the genre’s white utopianism. But that audience wants country music to reflect its political anger. A new, expanding audience dabbles in country’s artistry but detests its politics. That audience wants a country music product that does not traffic in conservative nostalgia.

Unsure of how to reconcile these competing demands, the mainstream country music machine’s playbook is erasure.

Cottom’s piece combines historical research, interviews with Isbell and many of his opening performers, and incisive commentary.

To see how ugly sonic segregation is in today’s country music, it helps to know where it started. While the genre has always been sentimental, country music used to acknowledge public problems like the Vietnam War and wage theft and corporate greed and political malfeasance and domestic violence and even the civil rights movement. But in the 1970s, a backlash to the 1960s’ progressive movements crystallized into a political ideology when Richard Nixon made overtures to white voters through an appeal to country music. Nixon declared the first Country Music Month in 1970, and his new “silent majority” strategy started a long courtship between Republicans, white voters and country music.

Then the 1980s arrived and a significant share of country’s audience got richer. More money attracted more political grift.

And …

Material conditions do not exist in country music for the same reason country music cannot platform Black voices. Race is materiality. Country tropes erase the who, what and why in their myth-making because those are directly tied to the racial conditions that country listeners are escaping. There is an Applebee’s but no taquería on a rural main street because there are no immigrants. Jobs are blue-collar but never service work because that work is racialized and gendered. There are no unions because unions have become female and non-white. There is no wage theft or cheating bosses because white country artists have more in common with bosses than workers. The country music racial repertoire is a soundtrack for an ethnoracial petite bourgeoisie that likes beer and agrees on who should not exist.

Cottom goes on to brief profiles of the various opening performers. She particularly name-checks Shemekia Copeland’s “Clotilda’s on Fire,” about the last slave ship to land in the United States. The images in the video are well-tuned to the subject matter.


Cottom’s conclusion?

Whatever the country music machine chooses to recognize, this Black country vanguard in cowgirl boots, Afro puffs, sequins, purple velvet, blowouts and graphic tees made beautiful music at The Ryman. Each night served a different slice of Black female interiority that is rarely seen in country or anywhere else. It was Black music and it was undeniably country. “Hell, yes, I make country music. Black people make country music,” Victoria told me. “But we cannot sell white people the nostalgia for a romantic white past.” Black country artists cannot sell white nostalgia because being Black is evidence of country music’s most sacred lie.

It is hard to mythologize millions of white Americans’ desire for a sonic landscape where the civil rights movement never happened and Oliver Brown never integrated public schools, and Marsha P. Johnson never threw a brick through a plate-glass window and Eric Garner wasn’t choked to death and Breonna Taylor wasn’t killed as she slept in her own bed. Maintaining that lie has made country music bad and boring and fake. The irony is that Black artistry troubles the lie with truth that would save white mediocrity from itself, if whiteness could stop drowning long enough to let it.


Thanks to Marcia C. for the pointer.

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