“You Learn Things When You’re Ready to Learn Them”

November 15, 2015   •   By Kemp Powers

AWARD-WINNING essayist/novelist Clifford Thompson’s briskly paced new memoir, Twin of Blackness, is a coming-of-age tale that will likely seem familiar to Gen X African Americans who were raised lower middle-class in the post-industrial urban centers of America. The ’70s and ’80s were turbulent times for many young blacks who found it challenging to navigate their way through the societal doors that had been kicked open just a few years earlier by their predecessors during the Civil Rights era.

Growing up in Washington, DC, as the youngest child (by a wide margin) in a large family meant that while his older siblings had vivid memories of living through the ’60s, the young Thompson found himself emotionally alone in a brave new world in which the “equality” won by blacks was more of a feel-good dream than any sort of reality. A self-described “non-fighting, non-fucking, white-talking brainiac sissy punk” teenager, finding out what it meant to “be black” became a circuitous journey that carried him from the streets of Washington to the campus of liberal Oberlin college (where he learned some conservative lessons) before unexpectedly landing in the clubby, micro-aggression-laden New York publishing world.

His book wonderfully synthesizes the insecurities facing those who find themselves, to quote the late, great Nina Simone, “young, gifted and black.” While many of those insecurities stem from ongoing societal racism, a surprising number can come from trying to measure up to the unwritten (but clearly understood) set of expectations put forth by peers in the black community.

Thompson and I were able to delve into some of the issues addressed in his book over several days worth of correspondence.


KEMP POWERS: I found your title immediately interesting. What would you say is the meaning of the expression "Twin of Blackness"?

CLIFFORD THOMPSON: Between the chapters of the memoir are short reflections I call Interludes. But I begin with a Prelude, which provides the title and is short enough to put here in its entirety:

I have come to think of blackness as my twin. The proof is that we came along at the same time: 1963, the year of my birth, also brought the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I feel toward blackness the way one might toward a twin. I love it, and in a pinch I defend it; I resent the baggage that comes with it; I have been made to feel afraid of not measuring up to it; I am identified with it whether I want to be or not — and never more than when I assert an identity independent of it. 

What prompted you to write this book?

I was taken with the idea of trying to make some sense of my life in a way that would potentially be illuminating for others. I have long struggled with questions regarding race and identity, and it struck me that the conclusions I came to might just help a few other people who have dealt with similar issues; even if those folks reject my conclusions, it sometimes helps to know that there are others dealing with the same questions. Also, for me, writing a memoir involved sharing my thoughts on subjects that are dear to me — literature, jazz, comics, film — which I love to do. And in my telling, there is a connection between the arts and the exploration of issues of identity and belonging.

I loved the description of your childhood early on, when you had 16 extended family members living as neighbors on a single city block. My upbringing in Brooklyn in the 70s and 80s was similar. What do you think was the benefit of this environment? Were there any negatives?

It’s hard to think of any. When you’re a child, of course, your environment is your environment, and most of the time you don’t think to question it, or think about how it could be different, or consider its advantages. Now, living in a Brooklyn apartment, and having neighbors who move out before I learn their names, I can appreciate what I had as a boy: I was surrounded by people who cared about me.

You talk about your relatively late introduction to notable black authors like Baldwin. The discovery of these writers seemed to provide a kind of comforting insight into the racial challenges you’d always faced. Considering you were born in Washington, DC, a city that is home to Howard University, do you think you might have chosen to stay closer to home or attend an HBCU had you been aware of them earlier on?

Excellent question. Like the rest of humanity, I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, part of which describes his time at Howard — the Mecca — a place possibly unparalleled in terms of the resources devoted to exploring different aspects of black culture; a place Coates describes as a gathering place for black people of every imaginable background. It would be hard for a black person to read about that and not think, “Hmm, what might have happened if I’d gone there?” But there’s not much percentage in the woulda-coulda-shoulda game. One’s journey is one’s journey. You learn things when you’re ready to learn them. Oberlin is a great school where I learned a lot, not all of it having to do with academics. And as enriching as an education at an HBCU might have been, I don’t know that attending one would have forced me to confront the same questions, the questions that have been so important to my writing.

Your decision to attend Oberlin seemed pivotal, both defining you as a writer while simultaneously complicating your racial journey. 

Sure. As is true for a lot of people, I guess, the college environment could not have been much more different from the one where I grew up — which, of course, is part of the point of leaving home. In my case, I went from a lower-middle-class, entirely black urban neighborhood to a small, predominantly white environment surrounded by cornfields. The change challenged some assumptions I had formed, one of which was that in post-Civil Rights era America, people would not self-segregate. What can I say — I was 18 and very naïve. 

The self-segregation seems to have caught you off guard. And your actions in response got you put on what you called a kind of "racial probation" by the other black students at Oberlin.

This comes back to the idea of an absolute definition of how to be black. In my freshman year, mainly because of where I was situated on the campus geographically, I hung out with a lot of white friends and had the audacity (though I didn’t think of it that way) to date a white woman who lived in my dorm. The next year, again thanks to geography, I made black friends, and through them I came to understand that many black students saw my new black friendships as steps toward redeeming myself. That, frankly, pissed me off.

That’s really funny. Have you ever done anything with the intent to be an agitator, whether to other blacks or to whites?

The idea of viewing myself as an agitator makes me laugh — this is Cliff Thompson we’re talking about: the shy, quiet, nervous little guy whose idea of a wild time is sipping Old Granddad while reading Norman Mailer essays and listening to Miles Davis records from the 1950s. And yet, if there are different ways of being black, maybe there are also different ways of being an agitator, and if that’s true, then maybe mine is writing down views I have not seen anywhere else concerning race, as I tried to do in Twin of Blackness and in the essay “Eric Garner and Me,” which appeared in this very publication. To put it in a nutshell, I object to what is happening to black people in this country and I object to prejudice against anyone, and you’d be surprised how seldom those two views are expressed together.

Do you feel like you "measure up" to your blackness now?

I think the idea is not so much measuring up to an absolute notion as coming to understand that there are different ways of appreciating and celebrating blackness. My way may not work for you, but the key thing is the appreciation and celebration. The writers Debra Dickerson and Touré refer to that idea as “post-blackness.” I call it simply “blackness.”

I found some of the similarities between your experience and mine as a creative writer bordering on eerie. From strong proficiency in English down to an interest in writing and drawing comic books as a child. Do you feel there are some common traits and experiences shared by black Americans who have joined the creative class of artists and writers?


Yeah, I remember feeling like such an oddball during much of my adolescence, then being relieved to arrive at Howard and encounter other freshman wannabe writers, musicians, and artists who also had hidden copies of Sting’s "The Dream of the Blue Turtles" that they only listened to when they were alone. In the book you say your "personal Mount Rushmore" of creative heroes is Muhammad Ali, J.D. Salinger, Bill Cosby, and James Baldwin. Will you tell me why you chose each one? And, have recent accusations against Cosby caused you to remove him?

The list, as you’ll recall, also includes Charles M. Schulz, Stan Lee, and Albert Murray — seven in all. Each one contributed to the formation of my sensibility and/or provided a model to which I could aspire. I loved Cosby’s humor and his way of telling a story and observing small details; I loved Ali’s humor, too, and the way he could be down and — literally — fight his way up again; as an aspiring cartoonist, I found inspiration in the very human characters of Schulz and Lee; Salinger and Baldwin provided models for developing a writer’s voice; and Murray helped me to understand the cultural inheritance of black Americans. About Cosby — recent events have broken my heart. And yet I have long maintained the importance of separating the artist from the art. Cosby’s art (and I would call it art) remains great, and the revelation that he himself is a deeply flawed, perhaps disturbed individual does not change that.

If you were to make a new list, would you replace him? 

There will be no replacement of Cosby on my personal Mount Rushmore; he remains there, not only because of the reason I just gave but also because, well, I’m 52 now. In my book, I refer to Murray as “the seventh and final face” on my personal Rushmore, and that’s because I have reached an age at which my sensibility is probably more or less what it is going to be. 

Something that struck me as I read your book — I found your evolution to be as reflective of the enduring American narrative as it is the African American one. Doesn’t the quintessential American immigrant story involve a less-educated first generation spawning a second generation that joins the professional class, followed by a third generation that baffles its predecessors by undertaking seemingly fruitless careers our elders consider more born of ego than practicality?

I can’t really speak to the immigrant experience, though you could say I’m a product of the migrant experience: my parents, like a lot of black people of their generation, left a rural setting (Virginia, in their case) for an urban one (Washington, DC). And the model you describe actually fits my family, if you consider my siblings — who are much older than I am — to be of a different generation. My parents never went to college; my siblings have professional degrees; and I, arguably a member of that third generation, struggle to make a living stringing sentences together as beautifully as I can. As far as my writing career being “more born of ego than practicality” — you ain’t just whistlin’ “Dixie.” 

How has your memoir been received by your family? Were there any revelations in it that they found surprising?

The members of my family who have mentioned it at all have responded positively. One of my sisters admits that she has been afraid to read it, because she doesn’t want to see bad things happening to my younger self, toward whom she felt motherly.

What do you enjoy writing about these days? And what’s your next project?

When I’m not doing freelance work or teaching, I’m putting together a second book of essays.

Looking back on those tumultuous years of personal growth, would you say you’re content with your life now?

I could use some more money, but otherwise, yes.


Kemp Powers is a playwright, screenwriter, and storyteller living in Los Angeles.