Tressie McMillan Cottom receives Gittler Prize

Tressie McMillan Cottom delivers remarks in the Gittler Prize ceremony.
Tressie McMillan Cottom delivers remarks in the Gittler Prize ceremony.

By Jarret Bencks
Photography by Dan Holmes
October 31, 2023

Celebrated cultural critic and sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom urged students to be bold in asking questions, and to defend the right to be curious in an address at Brandeis on Oct. 27.

McMillan Cottom visited campus for a residency and award ceremony as this year's winner of the Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize. The prize was created in 2007 by the late Professor Joseph B. Gittler to recognize outstanding and lasting scholarly contributions to racial, ethnic and/or religious relations. The annual award includes a $25,000 prize and a medal.

McMillan Cottom's work touches on a broad range of cultural issues, from the racial hierarchy of beauty standards and the class codes of dressing for work, to the predation of for-profit colleges and the historical impact of racial capitalism on plural democracy.

Her first book, "Lower Ed," published in 2017, focused on the impact of for-profit colleges in the United States. From 2019 to 2021, she co-hosted the Black feminist podcast "Hear to Slay" with author Roxanne Gay. t  Her 2019 collection of essays, "Thick," was a National Book Award finalist that reimagines the modern essay form. 

McMillan Cottom is a professor with the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill and a columnist for the New York Times. In 2020, she was selected as a MacArthur “genius” Fellow.

She was formally presented with the Gittler Prize by Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz in an award ceremony and lecture at Rapaporte Treasure Hall Oct. 27.

The Gittler medal on a display stand.
The Gittler medal.
A stack of books.
“Thick” by Tressie McMillan Cottom, recipient of the 2023 Gittler Prize.

In her remarks, McMillan Cottom described how she gets inspiration from the iconic Black scholar-activist W.E.B Du Bois, particularly his ability to be so prolific during extremely critical times. As movements grow to ban books from schools and libraries in states across the country, we are now in a critical moment of our own, where curiosity has been labeled a public enemy, McMillan Cottom said.

"The times are calling us into a moment. It is a time, I suspect, that feels a lot like Du Bois' moment in time, in part because there are a lot of the same forces," she said. "And this is the space where I try to write and I try to intervene and where I try to work, I try to demonstrate and show what it means to critically engage in public discourse in a way that encourages people to be boldly curious at a time when it is very risky to be curious."

She urged students to be active in defending the right to be curious.

"I hope you do take up arms wherever you end up, and you become a voice for our evolving program of freedom; you take seriously every public of which you are a member, and you invite them into this fight of being a critical voice for the spaces that matter, for information, for art, for learning, for what is fundamentally our most basic of human privileges. And that is the right to be curious," McMillan Cottom said.

McMillan Cottom was nominated for the Gittler Prize by Associate Professor of Sociology Sarah Mayorga, who teaches a course that features "Thick" as the core text. Mayorga introduced McMillan Cottom in Thursday's ceremony.

"Students love Dr. McMillan Cottom's unique voice and beautiful prose. They love how she weaves sociological insight with personal history. She centers the experience and expertise of Black women to show that we better understand the world when we take their perspective seriously," she said. "From an instructor's point of view, her work is a godsend."

Past winners of the Gittler Prize include Carol Anderson, Howard C. Stevenson, John Paul Lederach, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Martha Minow, and Gustavo Gutiérrez. The prize is administered by the Samuels Center for Community Partnerships and Civic Transformation on behalf of the Office of the President and Office of the Provost of Brandeis University.

Along with her address, McMillan Cottom visited classes and engaged with the Brandeis community for three days as part of her residency.

Tressie McMillan Cottom speaks at a podium.
Tressie McMillan Cottom, recipient of the 2023 Gittler Prize, delivers some remarks.