Letter to the Editor: Clifford Thompson Responds to Joel Rhone

January 24, 2021   •   By Clifford Thompson, Joel Rhone

Clifford Thompson Responds to Joel Rhone’s Review of His Book, What It Is (January 9, 2021):

JOEL RHONE’S REVIEW badly mischaracterizes my book. First, I did not set out to “humanize perpetrators of racism and Trumpism.” Rather, I tried to understand some of what was behind people’s support for Trump, which was part of a larger effort that the review overlooks altogether: to question whether my long and deeply held belief in judging all people as individuals is a viable stance for a black person in Trump’s America. Thus, my book is not “didactic” — I am not trying to tell other people how to act but questioning the basis for my own actions. In the same vein, nowhere do I write that it “doesn’t make sense” that “African Americans would categorically dislike or be distrustful of whites.” In fact, the opposite is true; I acknowledge coming to understand better, over the course of my life, why so many black people feel this way. The review faults my “obliviousness to the co-dependence between structural inequality and individualist ideologies,” a judgment that ignores my discussions of mass incarceration and racist policing. Overall, my book represents an attempt to get past my own preconceived notions in order to try to see what is in front of me. Joel Rhone might consider taking that approach the next time he reviews someone’s work.

Joel Rhone Responds to Clifford Thompson (January 15, 2021):

It’s true that in his memoir Clifford Thompson weighs the tenability of his long-held view about judging others as individuals. It’s also true that, within the book’s narrative frame, his pursuit of this inquiry is decisively triggered by the results of the 2016 election. The difference between “humanizing” followers of the (now) outgoing president and attempting to understand their support for him is quite marginal, but either characterization corroborates the opening claim of my review: Thompson’s memoir functions much like other works that have attempted to intervene in the 2016-inspired racial turmoil by embarking on similar interpersonal investigations. At the same time that the memoir might be taken as Thompsons’s inward reflection on his “long-held view” (given its generic status), it remains that he stages these interviews and his reflections on them as such an intervention. The text of one of the emails he sends to (potential) interviewees includes the following description:

I’m working on a nonfiction book that is a kind of personal tribute to the writer Joan Didion, who is in her 80s now. In her essays, Didion has shown a talent for looking at things as they are, instead of repeating things she’s heard and read or looking for evidence of what she already thinks. My idea is that the country needs that approach very badly right now, and it’s an approach I’m trying to take.


If I made the mistake of deducing Thompson’s aspirations for the book from his own articulations of them, then I can only ask his forgiveness. But given that this moment in the memoir follows his efforts to repudiate “color-blindness” in distinguishing it from his own concept of judging people as individuals, one would be hard pressed to claim that the memoir is free of didacticism. How else is one to take Thompson’s defense of his “unreasonable reasonableness”: “And there is a practical side to all this unreasonable reasonableness. Black people need allies. How long would you remain an ally if you were white and kept hearing White people ain’t shit?” [emphasis Thompson’s]

I’ve said in my review that, “Like several other habits of mind he finds he must break, Thompson sets out to check his Murray-inspired disgust for overly incensed cries of racial victimization.” And I extend my apologies for what Thompson must have found an unsatisfactory gloss of his efforts to understand other African Americans’ points of view (to clarify: I myself do not advocate the categorical dislike or distrust that I mention in my review and that Thompson referenced in his response). To offer a more gracious account, perhaps I will share the full text of the quote that introduces the moralistic sense-making of which he ostensibly becomes less certain. After describing how, in his youth, an episode of roughhousing left him feeling “so physically disoriented that I knew that one direction was up, and knew one was down, but didn’t know which was which,” Thompson turns this anecdote into an analogy for his sporadic moral confusion:

Sometimes incidents of skin-color cancer operated on me in a similar way. I knew that I believed in judging people, no matter who they were, as individuals; and I knew that many blacks disliked and distrusted whites automatically. I knew that one of those positions made sense to me, and the other didn’t. But there were moments when I did not know which was which.


Indeed, Thompson narrates several of these disorienting moments — ones by which he was moved to question his lifelong personal ethic — over the course of the memoir. Nevertheless, he does make judgments about the kind of conduct he finds more or less exemplary, even if he claims to be practicing empathy (or to be understanding other people’s perspectives better, as Thompson might clarify). While he makes space for dialogue with his former MFA students as well as with a National African American Gun Association member in his fourth chapter (these are exchanges he finds illuminating and with which he has no qualms), in at least two other places his efforts at empathy are overshadowed by his raising them up as examples of poor conduct. In one of these instances Thompson makes the educated guess that an African American woman is reacting with anger at the sight of his interracial family. He sums up her alleged thought process: “By failing to subscribe to a black identity as she defined it, I offended her sense of rootedness. She was angered by what she saw on the subway — which, however, was not us, but what was in her own head.” [emphasis Thompson’s]

This scene comes after one in Thompson’s first chapter in which he characterizes another woman’s admission of not having read a short story by Philip Roth this way:

It was not those four words that ended the conversation but their tone: hard and dry, like four gray granite walls of a closed-off room containing fixed, unchangeable ideas. It didn’t matter that the unspoken rules of our little group obligated her to read the things that other members passed along; it didn’t matter that another member of the group had seen something of value in this short story and thought that she and others might too. Her unwillingness to risk being made uncomfortable as a reader and her preconceived notions about Roth — what some assumed, from his fiction, to be his negative attitude toward women — overrode the rules of our writing group, and so she didn’t read Philip. [emphasis Thompson’s]


To Thompson’s credit, this is the scene after which he acknowledges that his judgment in this scenario was clouded by his “contempt for the fetishization of victimhood.” But alongside the fact that he immediately follows this anecdote with “That kind of thinking still drives me crazy,” thereby confirming his unchanged attitude toward this woman’s admission and the inflexible habit of mind that he claims it exemplified, he also retroactively reduces her choice to an unwillingness to be made uncomfortable. Upon reflection, he characterizes himself at this point in his life as “a good man with a blind spot.”

We should note that in describing himself in these early chapters, Thompson speaks of the way he once was in the past tense. Part of the way he narrates his journey of personal development — or what he describes as his effort to determine whether a Black person in Trump’s America should still judge people as individuals — includes his being confronted with statistics about mass incarceration, policing, the percentage of white Americans who voted for Trump, by all of which he has been moved to understand things in a more complex light. But Thompson finally arrives at self-interest as a means of overcoming indifference, which he identifies both as an obstacle to his own aspirations for “helping others” (the “it” in the following quotation) and which he finds central to “this American racial trouble of ours.” He then prescribes self-interest to confused and well-meaning 45 supporters:

It is, I think, a matter of overcoming indifference in the only way that works: seeing what’s in it for me. Maybe this applies, as well, to the indifference of the white guy who doesn’t consider himself a racist but voted for Trump and doesn’t see why people of color should hate him for that. Maybe if he were made to understand that if conditions were better in the neighborhood where his precious children might accidentally find themselves one day, their experiences there might be better too …


While it is outside my jurisdiction to critique the rationale behind Thompson’s stated personal goals (after all, the book is a memoir), it should be acknowledged that here Thompson offers up self-interest as the thing that flummoxed supporters of the 45th president could in fact use more of. Thompson takes issue more with a misplaced individualism than he does with individualism itself. Seen this way, individualism not only prevails in What It Is, but is also suggested to remedy what Thompson sees as the ills of the political moment. I won’t say anything further about this fact.

Clifford Thompson Responds to Joel Rhone (January 17, 2021):

Where to begin? My book is being covered in a kind of snowfall of casual, well-meant misinterpretation. It may be helpful at this point to attempt what readers of the review and our exchange may be missing, which is a clear summary of What It Is. So:

As I explain in the book, I am a black man who was raised with the belief that I should not judge anyone according to skin color. While I still maintain this belief at bottom, it has been tempered by over half a century of living as a black person in America, which has involved learning about, and having personal encounters with, racism — including institutional racism. A crisis point came for me with the election of Donald Trump, who, among other things, received both the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan and the majority of votes cast by white Americans in the 2016 presidential election. The tough question I asked myself was: Did it make sense to maintain my belief in judging whites as individuals when so many of them voted for this man? In order to try to answer my own question, I set out to discover what a small handful of white Trump voters actually think, on the theory that their views might be representative of the views of others. (As I admit in the book, my methodology is not quite scientific.) Thus, my aim was not to “humanize” Trump’s followers, but to understand their views, however noxious those views might turn out to be, as a way of deciding what my own attitude should be toward these people, others like them, and whites in general — individually and as a group. The difference between my approach and an attempt to “humanize” these people is therefore not “quite marginal.”

With his closing comment above, Rhone suggests two things, both of them erroneous. First, I am not suggesting that Trump voters focus more on their own self-interest. Lord knows they do enough of that already. What I tried to say in my book is that: (1) all people, to one extent or another, feel indifference toward those who are not close to them, partly as a means of self-preservation; (2) moral appeals to Trump voters are thus of limited use, since they will not penetrate that wall of indifference and attention to self-interest; and therefore, (3) the way to encourage Trump voters to care about the concerns of others may well be to appeal to their self-interest — to help them see the good that such caring for the concerns of others may do for the Trump voters themselves.

Second: Rhone continues to suggest that my focus on individuals blinds me to the existence, or importance, of institutional racism. What Rhone seems blind to is that learning about institutional racism (for example, mass incarceration) is a large part of what led me to reexamine my belief in judging people as individuals. Here is the thing: institutions are made up of individuals, and individuals, in their role as voters, have the power to shape institutions. I offer one example. During Barack Obama’s presidency, the Department of Justice — an institution, last time I checked — filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas over discriminatory voter laws. But then Obama’s presidency ended; voters (individuals) chose Trump as president; Trump appointed Jeff Sessions as attorney general; and the Department of Justice, under Sessions, switched sides in the Texas case. The defense (or am I the prosecution?) rests.

As for my book being “didactic,” Rhone appears to confuse didacticism with the holding and airing of opinions. I invite Rhone to consider what an opinion-free nonfiction book would look like. I’ll say it again: my book represents not my attempt to tell others what to think, but my examination of my own views, with the hope that said examination might prove useful to others.

¤


Clifford Thompson is the author of Twin of Blackness: A Memoir, Love for Sale and Other Essays, and a novel, Signifying Nothing. His book What It is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues was published in 2019.

Joel Rhone is a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, where he studies the role of African American literary production in the logics of multiculturalism. He is the author of “Bringing it Back to Baldwin: Myth, Memoir, and America’s Racial Reckoning,” recently featured in The Drift magazine.