“When They Go Low, We Go High”: Keeping Calm in the Critical Race Memoir

January 8, 2021   •   By Joel Rhone

What It Is

Clifford Thompson

IN THE DAYS FOLLOWING the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Archive of American Folk Song dispatched its field workers in 10 different regions across the United States to solicit average Americans’ opinions about the bombing and FDR’s ensuing proposal for a declaration of war. A second round of recordings invited a response to the prompt “Dear Mr. President,” giving citizens a chance to address their anxieties about the affairs of the nation to President Roosevelt. These man-on-the-street interviews featured white servicemen, immigrant workers, and African American pedestrians, whose comments offered a complex picture of social and political issues ranging from everyday racial prejudice to contentious labor disputes. They also provided a detailed poll of public opinion to federal agents, bolstering the case for a national consensus on America’s moral imperative to enter World War II.

For many Americans, the fallout from the Trump presidency has itself amounted to a declaration of war on American democracy. Historians and political scientists, editors and columnists have generated article after article comparing the present crisis to other critical moments in our national history, often zooming in on the Civil War and post-Reconstruction periods in order to gauge the magnitude of what the Trump era has unleashed. Following mass protests against police killings, writers across genres have focused on would-be white allies in pursuit of racial reconciliation. Books such as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (2018) and Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor (2020) offer anti-racist self-help to well-intentioned white Americans, while Claudia Rankine’s Just Us (2020) decodes everyday instances of racial misunderstanding. In his 2019 memoir What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues, Clifford Thompson takes the man-on-the street approach. A follow-up to his 2015 book Twin of Blackness, What It Is explores how Thompson has navigated issues of race and social difference before and during the Trump presidency, a mission he pursues by traveling coast to coast to interview everyday Americans about the fate of the nation.

Thompson sets out to uncover the racial complexities he thinks have been lost in the echo-chamber culture of Trump’s America. The memoir documents his ambition to “determine where I stood with my countrymen, to decide how I felt about them, to get a feel for just a little of what was going on in this country” — questions Thompson tackles by interviewing several Trump voters over the age of 70. The memoir’s tone of centrist idealism reinforces Thompson’s commitment to breaking down the partisan barriers that have left Americans in angry ignorance about their racial counterparts. Firmly positioned within the polarized milieu that followed the 2016 election, Thompson advocates an anti-sentimentalist approach to unraveling the layers of prejudice that, he claims, have distorted Americans’ perceptions of and relationships with one another. Most of Thompson’s anecdotes are meant to flesh out and humanize the MAGA-hatted bogeymen who have confounded mainstream pundits and analysts for some time now. Thompson aspires to peel away the layers of vitriol so that we can see things and people “as they are.”

Thompson aligns his memoir with the work of Joan Didion and Albert Murray, whose attitudes toward social and political conflict he aims to conjure in his own prose. In reflecting on how he looked to New Journalists such as Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson to inspire his early writing, Thompson recalls that Didion stood out for her capacity to balance the intimately personal with sober objectivity. In her 1991 essay “Sentimental Journeys,” for example, Didion took on the swirl of racialized reporting that, in the absence of corroborating evidence, pinned New York’s looming crime crisis on the Central Park Five. She cut through media coverage of the putative threat posed by New York’s ghetto “underclass,” focusing on the economic precarity that coexisted alongside New York’s booming finance industry. She also conceded that Black nationalist organizations and other protest groups were right to push conspiracy theories about the targeting of Black youth by the police, given the district attorney’s use of coerced statements extracted from minors with no legal representation to frame five Black teenagers. In essays like this one, and in the pieces collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), Didion wrote against conventional wisdom and popular sentiment in order to get at the truth. Thompson aims to model a similar anti-sensationalism in his assessment of the state of the nation following the election of Donald Trump.

Thompson gives further force to his anti-sentimentalism by comparing his method to Albert Murray’s jazz philosophy. Thompson develops Murray’s reverence for jazz as a cultural aesthetic into an extended, multipronged analogy over the course of his memoir, showing how the penchant for improvisation, one of jazz’s defining characteristics, reflects the cultural tactics of Black Americans struggling to “find a way” through decades of racial violence and inequality. The widespread and deep-seated influence of jazz on American cultural production buoys Thompson’s belief in a national project that belongs as much to African Americans as to the white supremacists who seek to claim it only for themselves. He even sees Didion’s writing as “jazzlike” in the way its “phrases riff on one another” and in how she “gets to the heart of things without knowing beforehand what is there.” Bringing Murray and Didion together, Thompson lays the groundwork for his own unsentimental writing on race in America.

Murray introduced this emphasis on multicultural nationalism in his 1970 book The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy. In addition to quoting and paraphrasing this work extensively, Thompson also recounts the time he spent with Murray decades before becoming an established writer. Clearly, Murray’s understanding of African American cultural agency has deeply influenced his own, especially his vision of a Black aesthetic that has flourished despite the endemic biases of mainstream American culture. Murray seeks to preserve this vision in What It Is, despite being compelled at times to distance himself from Murray’s “often expressed disdain for those blacks and other minorities who […] plac[e] their status as victims at the center of their art or other work.” 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.

Thompson admits that his style of confessional race memoir is light years away from the stoic meditations of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) and No Name in the Street (1972). In fact, Thompson forgoes a thorough discussion of Baldwin’s literary achievements, opting instead to enshrine him as a model for how to navigate the reality of one’s racialization in the world. Baldwin was, Thompson says,

the first model I found of one who brought everything he had to bear on opposing racism without being racist himself. His fiction, particularly the underappreciated Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, and his nonfiction, none more eloquent than The Fire Next Time, are the work of a man who rages at injustice but loves deeply and without regard to pigmentation. While the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., along with other aspects of the backlash against the civil rights movement, left Baldwin embittered and disillusioned, they did not ultimately compromise his humanity or make him into a racist. He remained, for me, a model of how to conduct oneself with regard to race.

Certainly, the mode of address advanced in What It Is is Baldwinesque in the way it seeks to take the pulse of the nation. And Thompson isn’t alone in his reverence for Baldwin as a fierce critic of America’s Cold Civil War; like Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me (2015) and Eddie Glaude Jr. in Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own (2020), Thompson acknowledges Baldwin as the architect of the modern-day race memoir, a genre that has gained momentum with titles as wide-ranging as Kiese Laymon’s Heavy (2018) and Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016). But the occasional pathos of Thompson’s prose, which stands in stark contrast to Baldwin’s solemn ruminations, raises the question of how seriously we’re supposed to take him. The closest Thompson comes to Baldwin’s portentous excavation of his own Du Boisian double-consciousness is his description of “race-related aggravation” as “skin-color cancer.”

The line Thompson attempts to toe is a difficult one. On the one hand, his memoir’s primary ethos boils down to a universalist commitment to humanize perpetrators of racism and Trumpism. While he says that he “was never indifferent to white racism,” he also claims that it “doesn’t make sense” that African Americans would categorically dislike or be distrustful of whites. Yet his pledge to “judg[e] people, no matter who they [a]re, as individuals” runs into the realities of routine racism when his neighbors call the police as he attempts to enter his own apartment building and when he is moved to take to the streets to protest the killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland. Thompson is hamstrung by an oversimplification of race and how it works, especially when combined with his commitment to studying individuals in isolation from larger political factions and social groupings. By viewing racism as something that Black Americans must unlearn just as much as whites, Thompson categorically misconstrues racial prejudice as a bad interpersonal habit and thus fails to link individual instances to larger, systemic trends. He knows “about racism in everything from housing to employment to the legal system to environmental health,” yet he also summarizes his family’s own race ethic this way: “[I]f racism was the cause of black people’s problems, then racism was the very last thing that a black person, in particular, should embrace.”

Ultimately, Thompson wants to craft a handbook for good citizenship, a didactic guide to how decent Americans ought to get along. He affirms that he “came from a family who believed in judging others, in Martin Luther King’s famous phrase, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” but while he takes as a given that this liberal utopian ideal has yet to be realized, he also strongly insists that Black folks should resist the urge to hold any prejudice against whites who have caused them no direct personal injury. The ethic he retrieves from his childhood upbringing — “they’re not all the same” — is the one he holds up for “good” people to live by.

As is perhaps clear from this discussion, Thompson emphasizes the society-sustaining force of the family, which becomes the memoir’s other major through-line. He admits to a life-long aspiration to parent “productive members of society” (a centrist turn of phrase he deploys without a hint of irony). Among other group identities, family and religion supply his sense of “rootedness,” a sometimes affirmative, sometimes troublesome term he uses to gesture toward different kinds of collective identification. In the end, Thompson casts doubt on the social utility of racial rootedness, which he claims has enraptured not just white nationalists but also their Black opponents. If African American cultural production affords any sense of belonging, it does so because it evidences the “fact” that the idea of America belongs and is indebted to everybody. Thompson discusses several memorable moments that stand out from his experience of raising two daughters who are now fully grown — his way, one might conclude, of squaring his rootedness in an idea of African American cultural heritage with his wariness of all racial chauvinism.

Despite its ambition to counter conventional thinking about race and politics in America, What It Is ultimately echoes a conservative contrarianism that has seized the mainstream. Thompson’s enumeration of the epiphanies afforded by fatherhood falls in line not just with Cold War assumptions about the centrality of the nuclear family but also with the tropes at work in Coates’s Between the World and Me and in recent albums by Jay-Z and Kanye West. Coates’s memoir takes an epistolary form, an open letter ostensibly to his son that outlines his social criticism; in Jay-Z’s album 4:44 (2017) and Kanye West’s Ye (2018), the birth of a daughter leads to the realization of the artist’s complicity in misogyny. Such as investment in the hegemonic force of the family is of course not specific to male African American writers and artists, but across these works, all of which claim a critical distance from mainstream cultural conventions, notions of the centrality of the nuclear family provide a normalizing power and a latent signification of societal good.

Thompson’s efforts to salvage good people from bad beliefs resonates with President-Elect Joe Biden’s vow to “bring everyone together,” as if the disdain for nonwhite immigrants and refugees expressed by MAGA followers is due to a lack of familiarity with these populations. The compassion and understanding Thompson offers to a handful of individuals who harbor anti-Black and xenophobic opinions might make sense in a vacuum, but in a post-2020 election world — where the specter of Trumpism lives on in white nationalist militias and #stopthesteal conspiracy theories that seek to disenfranchise millions of Black voters — this impulse amounts to absolving these individuals of the fascist threat their opinions pose in the aggregate. In seeking to view these individuals apart from the consequential collectivities they represent, Thompson calls attention to the dangers of liberal sentimentalism, which have found a new resurgence in this fraught political moment.

In concluding his investigation into “this American racial trouble of ours,” Thompson argues that indifference, ignorance, and denial — what he calls “The Big Three” — pose the largest obstacles to anti-racist social change. Ignorance, he says, “can be eroded” through education, and denial — “which suggests feelings of guilt, which in turn suggests the presence of a conscience” — can potentially be overcome by moral argument. This leaves indifference “at the cold heart of the trouble.” While systems of racial advantages, disadvantages, and double standards are maintained in part by Thompson’s trifecta of social ills, he ultimately fails to see how these are not mere psychological failings but in fact consequential exercises in privilege and power, which can’t be toppled by or countered with empathy or mutual understanding. Nevertheless, Thompson represents white Americans’ dismissals of racial and economic inequality as “the flip side” of “the big flat rock of freedom,” leaving “space for a culture of our own” to counter potential feelings of unpatriotic hostility with nationalist pride. In the end, What It Is shows the essential ambivalence of the contemporary race memoir: the tension between the need to critique America’s regimes of racial inequality and the compulsion to affirm the promise of the nation’s founding ideals.

What is perhaps most illuminating about Thompson’s memoir, though, is that he isn’t moved to anger by racial inequality itself, or even by the interpersonal animus that perpetuates it. The violation that he feels most deeply is registered in his sense that

Black Americans are, in sum, and simply, a people to whom different rules often apply. But if we have an attitude because of that, then we’re not being … reasonable. And while I continued to feel personally that blacks should take the high road with regard to all this — that we should not be anti-white, that we should judge others as individuals — it began to anger me that we were expected to take it.

This statement seems to undercut the book’s primary conceit, which is that one must wade through the distractions of sentimentality in order to understand the world factually. Up to this point in What It Is, Thompson has established that his commitment to resisting racial bias comes from his primary sources of inspiration: his family, his literary influences, and African American culture more broadly. But because he refuses to relate individuals to broader social formations, the flash of feeling expressed in the above passage finds no purchase for substantive social critique. What surfaces in this admission is a kind of unfreedom, which he describes as a palpably enforced sense that he must internally police the undignified responses that would otherwise be appropriate to the routine violations of a fundamentally anti-Black social world.

As has been true for the genre of the race memoir more broadly, What It Is attempts to salvage the mythos of American liberalism even as it documents intimate instances of its coming apart. The high road he insists his readers must take is bordered with the signposts of neoliberal respectability, which Thompson experiences as a mode of self-imposed surveillance. Like so many others, Thompson conceives of race as an obstacle to democratic American life as opposed to one of its structuring conditions, which might explain his wonder at the pervasiveness of anti-Black racism and his obliviousness to the co-dependence between structural inequality and individualist ideologies. Yet What It Is does valuably ask its readers to think about what and how we’re feeling in relation to our present politics, an exercise that might better inform the way we come to grips with them.


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.