Metaphor, Mobility and ‘Genius’

Tressie McMillan Cottom
6 min readOct 7, 2020

I know enough demography to know that I am a statistical outlier. My family is from rural, Eastern North Carolina. You do not have to be familiar to the area to understand that when said that way, “Eastern” connotes a very specific cultural geography: it is the poorer part of the state, most directly marked by European colonialism and slavery, and at the crossroads of regional immigration and economic shockwaves.

There is a geography textbook in my office with a copyright of 1919 and a handwritten inscription on the second blank page: “Property of Eunice McRae”. Eunice was my great-grandmother. We do not know where the textbook came from. It isn’t hard to imagine it was one of the secondhand books that white schools sent to Black schools as cast-offs during U.S. apartheid.

A letter and aged textbook
Letter from Tyne Employment International Agency circa 1940s, copyright Helen C. Hill

Our family archivist sent the book to me just a few weeks before COVID rocked the foundation of our daily lives. There was a mimeographed contract stuck in its pages with a note from Aunt Helen that “this is still in good shape!” “It” is an employment contract between an agency in New York and my grandmother and her sister, Helen. Both Helen and the letter are in very good shape.

The contract is for “clean” girls from the U.S. South who want to work for “nice, white families” in the North. The agent will loan the girls her one-way bus fare and place them in good homes or, if they aren’t suitable for domestic work, in a button factory.

That is the contract that pushed my grandmother out of her home in rural North Carolina to follow her big sister to Harlem in the 1940s, at the very end of the second and final wave of The Great Migration. My grandmother left behind a toddler daughter, just as her older sister had left behind her three young daughters — all in the care of Eunice McRae.

I keep touching that document and tracing the pages of that geography book this week as it is announced that I am a 2020 MacArthur Fellow. This isn’t a time to be precious. The moment is full and heavy and edifying and overwhelming and thrilling.

Still or perhaps because of how thrilling it is, I keep wondering, how did I end up here when we started there? For all I know about how cruel mobility metaphors are for promising opportunity where there is so much oppression, I cannot deny that I am…

Tressie McMillan Cottom

Sociologist. Writer. Professor. MacArthur Fellow. Books, speaking, podcast: