Robert Farris Thompson, RIP.

I am saddened to learn of the death of Robert Farris Thompson, one of my intellectual heroes; Holland Cotter’s NY Times obit (archived) is lively and captures why he was so remarkable:

Robert Farris Thompson, a self-described “guerrilla scholar” who revolutionized the study of the cultures of Africa and the Americas by tracing through art, music and dance myriad continuities between the two, died on Nov. 29 at a nursing home in New Haven, Conn. He was 88. […]

Born into an upper-middle-class white family in Texas and educated at Yale, Professor Thompson is remembered by colleagues and students for his energizing thinking and his extravagantly performative presence.

In the Yale classroom, where he taught African American studies for more than half a century, he turned lecterns into percussive instruments. On research trips in Brazil, Cuba and Nigeria, he was known to exchange his J. Press madras shorts for the robes of an initiate into tribal religious societies.

He spoke and wrote of African civilizations as infinitely varied ethical, philosophical and aesthetic systems. To grasp their complexity and sophistication, he said, required a “guerrilla scholarship” that combined art history, anthropology, dance history, religious studies, sociology and ethnomusicology. This hybrid practice repeatedly took him out of the academic ivory tower and into rural Africa, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and hip-hop clubs in the Bronx. In all these environments, he was equally, and exultantly, at home. […]

He took a stab at law school, but he dropped out after a year and went back to Yale to do graduate work in art history. There he studied with George Kubler, a historian of pre-Columbian Mexican and Aztec art, who approached his subject with the kind of unquestioned respect that at the time was customarily awarded in academia to European art.

For the young scholar, Professor Kubler’s approach validated his own already high regard for the arts of Africa and its diaspora. Professor Thompson’s subsequent career would constitute a long, rigorously argued campaign of advocacy for the global civilization he called the Black Atlantic, a name he coined.

It was an argument rarely made at a time when African art was often filed under “primitive” and relegated to ethnology collections. Professor Thompson’s 1965 Yale Ph.D. in African art was only the second one ever awarded by an American university. […]

At the same time, he was relentlessly peripatetic. Beginning with a Ford Foundation fellowship that took him to Nigeria to research Yoruba art in the 1960s, he made field trips across Africa, South America, the Caribbean and the United States. Over the years, he visited almost every African nation. He was fluent not only in French, Spanish and Portuguese but also in Ki-Kongo, Yoruba and a variety of Creole and tribal languages. […]

His book “Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy” (1984) was widely read in the art world and beyond. Its analysis of how African civilizations were essential to the shaping of art, dance and music in the Americas arrived at a high moment of multiculturalist consciousness and in the midst of the growing hip-hop scene; Professor Thompson would later write about contemporary artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Hammons, Keith Haring and Betye Saar.

He also did influential work as a curator. Two exhibitions he organized for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, “African Art in Motion” in 1974 and “The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds” in 1981, emphatically lifted African material out of an ethnographic niche and into a fine-art context.

The exhibition “Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas,” which he presented, working with C. Daniel Dawson, at the Museum of African Art in New York in 1993, changed the very idea of what a museum exhibition could be.

That show was made up of two dozen altars from various centers of Afro-Atlantic worship. Some were historical objects. Others were created for the show by Afro-Caribbean ritual practitioners and consecrated on site. And still others were recreations of untransportable altars — like the sand altars to the goddess of the sea on beaches at Rio de Janeiro — reconstructed as dioramas by the museum’s design team. […]

He was aware that his brand of advocacy scholarship, the scholarship of someone who deeply believed in the power of belief, was rejected by some academics (“fud-duds,” he called them) for whom scientific-style objectivity was the only valid approach to cultural history. His response: “Love, and also religious passion as an aspect of love, far from destroying objectivity, can push us to an objectivity beyond all academic understanding.”

Like another of my heroes, David Graeber, he had a revolutionary vision of the world and didn’t care if the scholarly world had problems with it. I highly recommend Flash of the Spirit, which has changed the way I think about things ever since I first read it.

One nitpick, though: I don’t care for the term “tribal languages” here (and I don’t think Thompson would have liked it either). It has its place if you’re talking about, say, Native American tribes and the referent is clear, but in “a variety of Creole and tribal languages” it just sounds like “those primitive languages spoken in Darkest Africa.” The no-longer-extant Times copyeditors would, I hope, have caught it in the old days.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    in Ki-Kongo, Yoruba and a variety of Creole and tribal languages

    [my emphasis]


    Thompson’s revolution doesn’t seem to have spread so far as to liberate the NYT’s obituary writer from patronising exoticism. Tribal. Forsooth! (as we say in my tribal language.)

  2. Didn’t read to the end, did you? But I realize you were overtaken by righteous indignation and had to vent immediately, and I sympathize.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    There are many too many entertaining and colorful anecdotes about Prof. Thompson to fit into a single obit. I am for random small-world reasons facebook friends with his daughter, and have over the years reflected that it was perhaps a mistake not to take his massively-popular big-lecture class when I was an undergraduate. That was part of a larger pattern of refusing to take any massively-popular classes taught by celebrity professors, on the contrarian theory that how good could anything liked by too many of my fellow students actually be. I may have overdone the contrariness.

    The class was popular in part because it was rumored to be (shock!) “entertaining” and also (gasp!) an “easy A,” but … this was in hindsight in large part due to a deliberate strategy of his to convince middle-of-the-road students who would have otherwise thought that African culture (and, just as importantly, its influence on modern American culture) was a peripheral niche subject (like, um, linguistics …) that to the contrary it was instead the sort of thing that everyone ought to want to know at least a little about as part of a good general liberal arts education.

  4. Stu Clayton says

    Flash of the Spirit

    I couldn’t find it on the German amazon site. The only hit for that title was “Flashes of Light from the Spirit-land, through the Mediumship of Mrs. J. H. Conant”. I’m guessing that’s not a new edition of the Thompson book under a posthumous pseudonym.

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    Stu: maybe the internet doesn’t want you to see amazon’s U.S. site rather than German site but you’ll have less trouble (if they don’t have “foreign editions”) with the U.S. publisher’s site?

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Didn’t read to the end, did you?

    I did, though. It’s just that I like to nurse a grudge.

  7. And quite right too.

  8. I still hold a grudge against a third-grade librarian who made me read and interpret a paragraph from Willy Ley’s Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel before she would let me borrow it. (Not to mention Yale, for requiring me to take a course in Chomskyan voodoo.)

  9. The university only required Chomskyan voodoo of you because you had for some quirky reason gotten mixed up with the linguistics department. If you’d been pursuing graduate studies in art history or African studies or Afro-American studies (to limit the list only to fields where you might have been able to get Prof. Thompson on your dissertation committee) you could have easily avoided that fate, although who knows what frying-pan-to-fire alternative things you might have gotten stuck with.

  10. So true. But I was young and foolish, and had believed my undergrad linguistics teacher when she assured me Yale was a holdout against the Borg.

  11. My only comment is: What a well-spent life!

    I only wish I’d discovered earlier what a well-spent life is. You only get one chance.

  12. Or perhaps not, like the Hindu or Buddhist skeptic devised by Ray Smullyan, who teaches that all this talk of leaving the Wheel of Incarnation behind is so much wishful thinking, when we know or should know perfectly well that all souls have a life beyond death forever and ever.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes, “wishful thinking” is a slippery concept to deploy in polemic.

    The whole point of De Rerum Natura is that we have no need to fear death, because it’s the end and nothing of us survives it at all. (To which contemporary non-Epicureans doubtless responded “You wish!”*)

    * In Latin. Or Greek, more probably. You know what philosophers are like.

  14. (Smullyan’s Easterner is a counterpart to the Western claim that reincarnation is mere wishful thinking.)

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    Contrasting pseudo-rationalistic Rome to the Mystical Orient of course leaves out the African perspective. Some words from the late Prof. Thompson (which I saw quoted in part in a semi-public social media post by his son and then traced to another fully-public online source): “It’s not enough, then, to talk of nature worship or the veneration of ancestors in Kongo civilization. Upright trees are seen as the sentinels of the moral dead. Upright trees are mimed in the famous Kongo pose where one stands to begin something important with one hand on hip, the other raised before the body. Trees, twigs, sticks and herbs are communications to the spirit; they are, in fact, the spirit, all acting under God. The dead are ultimate medicines; their souls can be activated, sometimes, as MacGaffey shows, by arousing their anger with noisy detonations of gunpowder, exploded to attract their attention, like a mighty shoul [sic?] written in fire. At all times this material center of the religion, the nkisi, with its feathers of plenitude and connection with the realm of Nzambi, and its hidden earths leading to the grave and the accumulated insights of the ancestors traces, materially, the power line leading from God to the dead and back again, crossing the Kalunga line, the body of water, the clump of forest (mfinda), which serve as classically envisioned boundaries between the two worlds.”

  16. PlasticPaddy says

    Will a sufficient number of gunpowder detonations result in a Nzambi apocalypse?

  17. David Marjanović says

    Only one way to find out.

  18. We’re gonna need a bigger nkisi…

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    Where is Almeida Samo?

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    Kusaasi trees are grammatically animate (or used to be, anyhow*), and the win “spiritual identity” of a tree can be a person’s spiritual guardian (sigir), a role more often performed by the win of a human ancestor.

    This is why Atiga “Tree” is a common personal name, and also Akudugu “Iron”: the “iron” in question being a marker driven into the tree to show its particular status.

    Trees can also be sɔɔnb “witches.” The Kusaasi concept is really more like our “vampire”, referring to someone who drains another person’s life force. They’re not necessarily outright evil; I’ve got a folk story about a man whose wife (unknown to him) is a witch, who goes to some length to save him from a neighbour, who is also a witch**. (So is the local chief; it’s almost as bad as the Conservative Party round those parts.)

    I expect that if we all lived in scrub savanna we’d be more mystical about trees too.

    * In the Bible translation, this changed between the 1976 and the 1996 versions. I blame Modernity. And possibly Vatican II.

    ** He gets into trouble initially because he forgets her good advice. There is a Moral (though expressed in a way that would not pass the highest feminist standards, alas … he should have paid attention even though she was a woman, we’re told.)

  21. “like a mighty shoul [sic?]”

    Surely “a mighty shout”. Or is that what PlasticPaddy meant?

    Y’gotta watch ‘erself ’round lang-widge-hat. Them-all’ll shoot off an allusion quicker ‘n a snake can blink. And anybody knows a snake ain’t nohow got eyelids.

  22. 1 Thess. 4:16-17:

    For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
    Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.


    The Greek word translated as “shout” was:
    (biblehub Greek, for the verse)

    κελεύσματι (keleusmati)
    Noun – Dative Neuter Singular
    Strong’s 2752: A word of command, a call, an arousing outcry. From keleuo; a cry of incitement.

  23. David Marjanović says

    And anybody knows a snake ain’t nohow got eyelids.

    Yes, it does. They’re transparent and fused. Neener-neener.

    Transparent windows in lower eyelids are surprisingly common among squamates.


  25. David Eddyshaw says

    1 Thess. 4:16-17

    The Kusaal Bible has tans “shout”, which by a happy coincidence (for the translators) is what Kusaasi thunder does, too.

    On the other hand, “the sun is shining” is also winnig tansid nɛ “the sun is shouting.” The sky is a noisy place thereabouts.

    On reflection, this may well be connected with the fact that wʋm “hear” (like Hausa ji) basically covers all physical sense modalities other than sight. (The snake which bit Paul’s hand on Malta in Acts 28 is said to wʋm the heat of the fire, for example.)

  26. goes to some length to save him from a neighbour, who is also a witch

    “What, bitch, you think you gonna drain my husband’s life force, you got another think coming! His life force is MINE!”

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    A male neighbour, as it happens; witchcraft is admirably equal-opportunity in that culture …

    Though, as yet further evidence that All Men are Brothers (alas, and not sisters), those accused of witchcraft* are much more likely to be older women than younger women, or men of any age.

    The king of the Mamprussi is immune to witchcraft ex officio (as in European tradition, royalty is itself powerful magic.) Women driven out of their villages as witches are customarily taken as supernumerary wives by the king, which means that they are safe from retribution, though still not welcome back home. They live in a witches’ village, where they are at least able to be self-sufficient and are left in peace by their neighbours.

    One of my enterprising Ghanaian colleagues discovered that many of the witches had cataracts, and organised a field trip to operate on them all in the village. Unfortunately I was in Europe at the time, and was thus deprived of an experience I would have valued …

    * By a sɔnpʋt, “witch-namer.” It’s a regular profession, like being a dentist.

  28. wʋm “hear” (like Hausa ji) basically covers all physical sense modalities other than sight
    Russian slyshat’ also covers both hearing and smelling, although not touch.

  29. David Eddyshaw says

    Actually, clywed in Welsh covers pretty much the range of ji, too.

  30. Actually, clywed in Welsh covers pretty much the range of ji, too.

    That’s true of Spanish sentir as well, at least for some speakers. I use it for touch, taste and smell only, but both my grandfathers had it as their unmarked verb for ‘to hear’.

  31. David Marjanović says

    Anyone know what range it has in French? It seems to cover touch and smell for everyone, but I haven’t noticed any cases of it going beyond.

  32. Not French, but Swedish:

    Swedish verbs of perception from a typological and contrastive perspective
    Åke Viberg
    Uppsala University/Sweden


  33. David Eddyshaw says



    Something I only recently realised about Kusaal verbs of perception is that “see that” is expressed differently from “hear that”, “think that” etc: whereas the latter type take a content clause introduced by ye “that”, in a construction very much parallel to the English, “see that” never does; it’s construed with a following clause introduced by ka “and”, in what is a sort of different-subject serial-verb construction, more like English constructions of the “see him walking” type.

    (The reason I didn’t see this earlier is that ka can actually also be used for “that” introducing a content clause, though it’s a lot less common than ye in that role; so the difference between the two structures is usually not immediately evident.)

    However, “hear that” takes the serial-verb-like construction when it refers to actual ongoing perception of a sound, as in “hear him saying”, but not in the equivalent of “hear that he has said”; so the difference is presumably between immediate physical perception and more abstract kinds of perception (i.e. not “perception” stricto sensu at all, really), and it’s just that the “see” verb isn’t used for anything but immediate perception (otherwise, I think you’d have to use baŋ “come to understand” instead.)

  34. David Marjanović says


  35. David Eddyshaw says

    Kinda, I suppose. Though I think I’m just making rather heavy weather of saying that the Kusaal construction for verbs of perception is different from the construction for verbs of cognition and communication; apart from the difficulty that the constructions can look formally very similar (or even identical), I was probably mainly led astray by the fact that the English “see” extends into the semantic field of “understand”, whereas Kusaal nyɛ – doesn’t.

    This probably goes with the fact that nyɛ is also the usual word for “find.” On the other hand, wʋm “hear”, quite apart from also meaning “smell” and “feel”, is the usual verb for “understand” (a language in general, or a particular thing that’s just been said*), and actually can be used as a communication verb, in senses like “I’ve just heard that …”

    And after all, there’s no reason at all a priori why a language should treat “see” and “hear” as closely parallel semantically, just because English does ,,,

    * You feel me? [Kusaal Fʋ wʋmya koo?, Hausa Ka ji ko?]

  36. Trond Engen says

    Today my wife took me to an art exhibition. One of the works was a photo of a young woman, apparently with albinism. It was titled Ya pu no, yɛ n’dɔ no – The rejected daughter. I don”t know which language the first part is, but I know enough to know that it’s an orthography from West Africa, and quite possibly Ghana. May our resident Ota-Voltaist help?

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    Well, yɛ n’dɔ no looks like Twi yɛnnɔ no “we don’t love her”, where the verb is “love” and the spoken sandhi change nd -> nn would more usually be reflected in the spelling; that seems to fit the context, at any rate. “We” is the default vague subject, like “they” in English, so you could render it “she is not loved.” The first bit could be yɛpo no “we reject her”, maybe. People writing African languages often aren’t very consistent spellers (or I could just be wrong.)

    But I don’t really know. (And I know very little Twi, come to that.)

    The ɛ ɔ do indeed suggest West Africa. And if it is indeed Ghanaian, Twi/Fante would be much the likeliest language on first principles.

    In old-fashioned Kusaal orthography, Ya pu no would be “You haven’t trodden on it.” For various reasons I feel that this rendering is less likely.

  38. Trond Engen says

    Thanks. It may be of mild interest that the printed sticker next to it had c for ɔ in the title, but to the great (but discretely expressed) relief of my fellow visitors I could correct that with a lecture on orthography.

    I meant to link to a photo of the work and say that the artist’s name is Laura-Ann Morrison.

  39. David Eddyshaw says

    the printed sticker next to it had c for ɔ in the title

    That lends credibility to my impression that the original has got somewhat mangled in transmission.

    Unfortunately I can’t find anything much on the Intertubes about Laura-Ann Morrison to shed light on whether she has worked in Ghana specifically. And the clothing worn by the girl in the picture looks pretty non-specific; I suppose it was too much to hope for a giveaway like kente cloth or a proper Akan toga.

  40. This article talks about the art and about people attacked or murdered for their albinism, which is what the photo is about. It mentions Malawi, but the language is not Chichewa.

  41. David Eddyshaw says

    I think that the southern African thing is to do with witchcraft, and killing albinos for body parts. I think this is something of a step up from “rejection.”

    AFAIK there are no corresponding beliefs about albinism in West Africa. (Come to that, the beliefs about witchcraft among the Kusaasi are radically different too, and considerably less, well, evil.) The writer of the article seems to suffer from the common European notion that Africa is all one (titillatingly exotic) country/culture. In fact, Malawi resembles Ghana like Iraq resembles Wales.

    The few albinos I came across in Ghana didn’t seem to suffer any particular stigma. Mind you, this could easily be different in the south, which is culturally pretty different from where I used to live. I imagine also that it’s worse for girls, for reasons which are, alas, all too easy to imagine.

    I have an uneasy (and I hope, groundless) suspicion that Laura-Ann Morrison may herself have been indulging in a bit of exoticism in this. One would like to know more about the subject of her certainly striking photograph. What’s her actual story?

  42. The plot thickens… Here is a photo of “Norwegian/Ghanaian Model Laura-Ann Morrison”; the same as the artist. Elsewhere I find she grew up in Trondheim and Accra.

  43. David Eddyshaw says

    A redhead … All Threads are One.

    (African albinos are red-haired, of course, though in L-A M’s case I imagine the Norwegianism is the relevant thing. She doesn’t look like an albino at all.)

    Given that this demonstrates an actual Ghana link, I’m actually pretty certain now in my identification of the language (and my translation of it.)

  44. Here’s a short interview with her, which mentions something about an Ewe ritual, FWIW.

  45. David Eddyshaw says

    (The local language of Accra is actually Ga*, rather than Akan, but pretty much everyone in the south of Ghana picks up some Akan even if it’s not their L1.)

    Sadly my Norwegian is not up to making much sense of the article. As far as I can make out, it doesn’t say anything in particular about her own ethnic origin.

    * Which, I know from nothing.

  46. Trond Engen says

    David E.: That lends credibility to my impression that the original has got somewhat mangled in transmission.

    I thought about that, but I think not, because:

    Y: This article talks about the art and about people attacked or murdered for their albinism

    Yes. That’s an article about the exhibition I visited. It’s also where I found the photo. The typo on the sticker is not in the article, so the author must either have worked with material with ɔ or had the spelling corrected.

    The article mentions Malawi. I don’t know if that’s because the author knows about the practice from other sources or if the artist has provided commentary. If so, it’s of course just as meaningful to comment on Southern African traditional culture in Twi as in English or Norwegian. Come to think of it, the photo may well have been first exhibited in Ghana.

    Y: Here’s a short interview with her

    Good find. It’s from 2012, so not quite up to date, but her origin is not likely to have changed in the last decade.

    David E.: As far as I can make out, it doesn’t say anything in particular about her own ethnic origin.

    Not anything more exact than “Ghanese”. But there’s something in the way she’s quoted as speaking about Ghanese culture that makes me think her “Ghanese” mother tongue is English.

  47. David Eddyshaw says

    If so, it’s of course just as meaningful to comment on Southern African traditional culture in Twi as in English or Norwegian.

    True. Just because the language is Ghanaian, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the photo is supposed to be commenting about Ghana specifically. (And Ghana has a proud tradition of Pan-Africanism, dating back to Nkrumah himself, after all.) That would go with the absence of any particularly Ghanaian features of dress in the photo, too.

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