WHAT IT IS by Clifford Thompson


Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man's Blues
Email this review


A black writer tussles with race in the Trump era, taking his questions directly to the president’s supporters.

At the opening of this graceful and searching clutch of essays, Thompson (Twin of Blackness, 2015, etc.) explains that, at age 54, he’s at a crossroads. He’s long tried to think of race through the lens of idols like James Baldwin and Albert Murray, alert to racism but slow to anger over it, comfortable with white people while feeling that, often, “being American means being white.” But Trump’s election, and the racism it has exposed and often supported, has left Thompson unsettled. Taking his cue from another idol, Joan Didion, the author levelheadedly assesses the state of his racial temperament through memoir and reportage. He recalls his experience with race as a student and writer; his interactions with the children he’s raised and mentored; and the comfort he’s taken in jazz as a proxy for working through those struggles (these sections contain the author’s most lyrical writing). The heart of the book is Thompson’s reporting on interviews he conducted with three Trump supporters after the election to understand “what was going on in this country about which I had developed such uncertain feelings.” They’re not fire-breathing racists, but their masks as freedom-loving Americans often slip, revealing casually bigoted attitudes about blacks and Hispanics. Triangulating those conversations with chats with a Bronx-based nonprofit leader and the head of the National African American Gun Association, Thompson concludes that the most pernicious problem America faces regarding race, “the cold heart of the trouble,” isn’t ignorance or outright bigotry but indifference. The author isn’t despairing, but the book concludes with a sense that there’s plenty more work to do.

A coolly delivered yet impassioned study of how much Trump’s election has shifted and revealed Americans’ thinking about race.

Pub Date: Nov. 12th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-59051-905-9
Page count: 160pp
Publisher: Other Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2019