Fall UHV/ABR Reading Series underway
By Beverly Tomek - Guest Column
Aug. 30, 2015 at 3:39 p.m.
Standing in the pouring rain on Broadway with a crowd of protesters shouting "I can't breathe!" Clifford Thompson refused to accept ready-made opinions about the movement he and so many others found themselves caught up in at that moment.
He and those around him that day in December 2014 were defiantly chanting Eric Garner's last words in reaction to the non-indictment of the police officers who choked him to death.
As Thompson wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books, he stood there caught between two ideological poles. On the one hand were those who believed unequivocally that Garner's death represented the lack of justice all blacks could expect in a white society. On the other were those who claimed that victims of such treatment must deserve it.
Thompson was just as angry as the others chanting on the Manhattan street that day, but he "lacked ideological cover." In this age of almost daily stories of police brutality and growing racial tensions, he believes that "the tragedy is that people don't realize who the enemy is." The enemy is the system that seeks to keep Americans divided and distracted. Thompson has never been one for racial divisions.
Thompson, the author of numerous award-winning essays, will inaugurate the 2015-2016 UHV/American Book Review Reading Series by sharing excerpts from selected essays, as well as his memoir, "Twin of Blackness," at noon Monday in the Alcorn Auditorium of UHV University West, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St.
Thompson has spent much of his life trying to reconcile his Americanness with his blackness, and his writings reflect that journey. In his essay "How I Became Black," he wrote about the effect writers like Ralph Ellison had on him as he grappled with his identity in his 20s. Ellison "helped me to figure out (that) the distinction between what blacks are and what whites are is - at least in America - largely false."
Black and white Americans alike are "products of a society that both our ancestors helped to shape." He cites author Albert Murray's argument that America is "incontestably mulatto" and describes how that notion led him to realize he is "no less American" than his white friends" and he can "look anyone in the eye as an equal in terms of having a culture." At that point, he began to publish essays that "discussed black culture even when that was not their primary subject."
The primary subject of many of his essays is jazz music. Jazz has allowed Thompson to define his identity "as both black and American" in concrete ways. Jazz, for Thompson, symbolizes the epitome of the African American legacy, melding his two identities together in a way that makes sense. It helps him remember that, despite a history of oppression, people with skin like his have a right to claim their stake in America.
A fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities and winner of the prestigious Whiting Writer's Award for his essay collection "Love for Sale and Other Essays," Thompson has published more than 80 essays, reviews and stories in literary and film journals. In addition to "Love for Sale," which is named after one of his favorite jazz songs, he wrote the novel "Signifying Nothing." He has taught at Columbia University and New York University and was a Schomburg Scholar at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He also has been editor in chief at Current Biography and Wilson Biographies.
Beverly Tomek is an assistant professor of history in the UHV School of Arts and Sciences. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.