Books In Conversation
CLIFFORD THOMPSON with David Winner
What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues
(Other Press Books, 2019)
Clifford Thompson’s What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues meticulously details one black man’s loss of innocence after the election of Donald Trump. In searing, sometimes funny prose, Thompson tells of his growing up in working-class, African American Washington DC, his marriage, and fatherhood. With bracing honesty, he admits a degree of youthful naivete about racism that was shattered by the 2016 election. Not content with just anger and outrage, Thompson actually goes out to try to get some idea how the majority of white Americans could have voted for a lifelong open racist, perfectly happy to have KKK support. Ignoring the refrain of “we can’t talk to them,” echoing throughout much of America after the election, Thompson asks white Trump voters in California direct questions about race and culture. He delves bravely into our cultural divide while illustrating the book with his own poignant artworks showing himself from the back, vulnerable, in an alienating era.
David Winner (Rail): On SNL, soon after the election, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock mocked liberal white women who just didn’t get the extent of American racism and were surprised by the result. I felt unfairly left off the hook as a white man, but I got the point. You write that after Trump was elected, “my mind, at first, refused to accept that this had happened” and seemed jolted by the election despite your awareness of our history of racism. I wondered to what degree you do feel that the 2016 election was a culmination of a deep racism in our country that people of color may be more in touch with.
Clifford Thompson: I will say, flat out, that people of color are more in touch than others with racism in our country. How could it be otherwise? I don’t think the election was a culmination of racism so much as an exposure of deep divisions that were there all along. It’s not news, of course, that there is a sizable number of Whites out there who are not just casually, unthinkingly racist but unapologetically so. What surprised some of us, even (some) people of color, was that the majority of White supporters voted for the race-baiting Trump, and the question became how many of them voted for Trump in spite of his racism, while holding their noses, and how many did so in part because of it. The other question is whether it makes a difference. Those were among the questions I set out to explore.
I don’t want to speak for all Black people, because I think Black people’s reactions to the election results probably run the gamut. One of my best friends, who is Black, was as jolted by the election result as I was; on the other hand, I know Black people who were predicting that Trump would win even when, for example, the New York Times was saying that Hillary Clinton had an 85 percent chance of becoming president.
Rail: Your book has been compared with works by James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and you discuss Albert Murray and Joan Didion. But I don’t think those writers went around the country interviewing people a la de Tocqueville. Wanting to get a handle on why people would vote for Trump inspired some of that, but I wondered what got you to write a book with interviews. You do very little editorializing. I get the feeling that you give us exact transcripts of these conversations. I haven’t read anything like it.
Thompson: I’m glad to hear you haven’t read anything like it! What I wanted to do, in part, was put my own spin on some things my literary heroes did. James Baldwin, to my knowledge, never interviewed White supporters of conservative Republican presidential candidates, but in The Fire Next Time he recounts his visits with Elijah Muhammad and other members of the Nation of Islam, with whom he had some differences of opinion. Joan Didion, another hero whose work I refer to in the book, certainly interviewed a lot of people. If I sought to emulate anything with my approach, it was Didion’s determination to see for herself what was going instead of basing her beliefs on second-hand reports. And yes—those are exact transcripts.
Rail: You confess to wondering when young “if Black people should be doing something to help [them]selves,” and later you look back and declare “Oh, Clifford” after someone pretty racist espouses the same view. The use of your full first name really moved me. Big corny question. Can you tell us some of what you learned about yourself in the process of writing this book?
Thompson: Not corny at all. One of the things I say in the book is that humans, generally speaking, need to feel grounded in some set of beliefs, and that those beliefs can often make us willfully blind to what is in front of us. It’s a special person who can see around his/her/their beliefs and look at things objectively. And so what I learned about myself is that while I would like to think I am that special person, I am not, at least not always. I have long believed in the value of judging all people, if I must judge them at all, as individuals, and I have long believed in calling myself an American, because of the history of Black people’s contributions to this country and despite the country’s history of oppression. But the book is an attempt to reevaluate my core beliefs in light of what is in front of me, even if that means finding fault with what I have believed my whole life.
On the subject of what Black people should be doing to help themselves: want to hear two shockers? One is that I think maybe Black people can do more to help themselves, ourselves, at least sometimes. The other is that I don’t blame Black people for this, and it’s not our main problem. Black people are—news flash—human beings. We have to deal with being a historically despised people, and we have to be perfect? Try that yourself for a while, if you’re critical of Black people. If you run into trouble, give a holler.
Rail: “So if you’re Black and you’re unarmed, and you get got shot and killed and you haven’t done anything, do you think that that person is paying the price for what someone else has done,” you ask the same man whose vision of race inspired the “Oh, Clifford” comment, one of several calm and considered questions to Trump supporters. Are you Socratically revealing the logical fallacies of his thinking, or was this all about trying to grasp his mindset?
Thompson: I wasn’t trying to enlighten anyone I interviewed, because I didn’t want to say anything that would interfere with their telling me honestly what they thought. And the question you quote was actually not a rhetorical question; it occurred to me in the moment, and once it did, I was actually interested in his answer.
Rail: We both went to Oberlin in the '80s, the first American college to admit African Americans. While you discuss friendships with White students, the college seemed generally pretty segregated then. Oberlin has recently been in the spotlight. Students accused the dining halls of cultural co-optation because of crappy sushi and, more seriously, an organization of African American students presented an extensive list of demands to the administration, which have been mocked by some as extreme and unrealistic. Can you talk a little about Oberlin and what you imagine to be the racial conversations going on there and in similar colleges and universities? You can also weigh in on the sushi if you’d like.
Thompson: Ha. I think the spotlight shines too brightly on Oberlin and other colleges too. I don’t want to suggest that what college students think isn’t important or valid, but I do think that people who are college-age are finding their way in life, and a natural part of that is rebelling against authority—sometimes for very good reasons, sometimes not. The reputations of colleges are needlessly damaged when the media focuses on every little protest. I think greater judgment is needed in deciding what to cover and what not to. Personally, I don’t think sushi ought to make the list.
As for Oberlin in the 1980s, I recall a fair amount of self-segregation going on. For the most part, Black students wanted to be with other Black students. One’s feelings about that are, well, one’s feelings about that.
Rail: You interview a man who founded an organization called the National African American Gun Association or NAAGA, and you go to a gun range in Manhattan. I won’t give away the remarkable ending of your book that stems from that experience, but can you discuss your feelings about African Americans and the right to bear arms? Easy access to guns is clearly a factor in mass shootings, but perhaps (the Black Panthers at the California state Capitol in 1967) Black people need arms to protect them from the violence being done to them.
Thompson: Yeah, I don’t want to tell groups of people who have traditionally been targets of hate that they shouldn’t arm themselves just in case. So I’m not anti-gun to that extent. What I support, though, are what people often refer to as sensible gun laws. No person with a history of mental instability should carry a gun, period, so I favor background checks. No one should have—for private use—a weapon that was built to kill enemy soldiers on a battlefield, period. That’s just common sense.
Rail: After a terrorist incident in Brussels in 2016, Belgian flags appeared on Facebook pages. Several people close with you got angry when you shared a post on Facebook by a college friend of yours (who is Black) that questioned doing so because of Belgium’s brutal colonial past, which included bringing Africans to Europe and displaying them in zoos. Until 2013, a museum in Brussels celebrated King Leopold, so contemporary Belgium and those atrocities aren’t so easy to disconnect. When a country gets hit by a terrible terrorist event (United States 2001), can we still discuss their brutal past?
Thompson: There is an understandable tendency to want to pull together in the face of a tragedy. It ought to be possible to acknowledge the pain that a country is suffering in the wake of an attack while also looking with clear eyes at that country’s past (and present), if only to avoid glorifying what ought not to be glorified.
Rail: Can you talk a little about the process of illustrating your own book? I’m particularly interested in the image of a figure in between the United States and Northwest Africa? I also wondered why a figure who could be you always has his back to the viewer.
Thompson: With the inside illustrations (which were done in acrylics, in color, and reproduced in black and white), I was trying to produce an image for each chapter that captured the spirit of what I was writing about. For Chapter Four, I did a painting/illustration of a person’s shadow falling onto a map between North America and Africa. Between those two continents, of course, is the Atlantic Ocean. In the illustration, “Atlantic” is abbreviated to “At.,” and I changed “Ocean” to “Sea,” so it reads “At. Sea”—a comment on how a black person who has never been to Africa, but doesn’t feel at home in America (because of its history of oppression) might find himself confused, or, as it is sometimes phrased, at sea.
Before it was decided that I would do illustrations for the inside of the book, I did what would later become the painting for the first chapter. It shows me as a boy in Washington, DC, shown from the back, staring out of a window at the back of my house toward the Lincoln Heights housing project across the alley. (Some of the kids who lived there would later become good friends of mine.) When I learned that I would be doing illustrations for the book, I thought it would work to continue with my narrator seen from the back, because that way the readers see not only him but what he sees. Someone else guessed that I was alluding to Miles Davis, who famously took to playing his trumpet with his back to the audience. I can't claim to have had that idea in mind, but as a jazz fan, I like it.
Rail: Can you provide a little bit of an update about your thinking on Trump, our country, and race since you wrote the book? A lot has happened.
Thompson: It may be best here to quote a short section of my book. One of the Trump supporters I interviewed gave me a ride in his Model A. Here is what I say about that: “I felt about my ride in this car the way I imagine some will come to feel about the Trump presidency: it was so shockingly out of date as to be novel, it was fun for a short ride, but not comfortable, or even endurable, over the long haul.”