Robert Farris Thompson

Colonel John Trumbull Professor of the History of Art and Professor of African American Studies

Robert ThompsonRobert Thompson, B.A. 1955 and Ph.D. 1965 Yale University, faculty member at your alma mater since 1964: You came to Yale from El Paso thinking of little but football and graduated four years later with a newly kindled passion for art. During a two-year stint as a private in the U.S. Army, you kept the encouraging words of George Kubler inscribed on a page of exam blue book in your shirt pocket, a beacon calling you back to Yale, where you would concentrate on the arts of Africa. You earned the first such Ph.D. in the History of Art at the University, simultaneously frequenting the jazz clubs of New York City, where your skills as a drummer were often called upon.

Cornel West has called you “one of the greatest pioneers in the study of Afro-American culture and African culture,” and you were probably the first person to use the term Black Atlantic to describe the intersecting worlds of Africa and the Americas, famously bringing home the point to generations of undergraduates by demonstrating Yorùbá dance steps and seamlessly seguing into the Supremes and on into hip-hop in lectures that packed halls first in Street Hall and then at the Yale University Art Gallery. Your message reached a far vaster public in your exhibitions African Art in Motion and The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds at the National Gallery of Art and Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas, which opened in New York City and traveled to museums around the nation. You made form of music, practice, and dance, and no one ever saw African art the same way again.

No book of the twentieth century in African and Afro-American art has had the lasting impact of Flash of the Spirit, a seminal work that has remained in print since its publication in 1984, and which received a huge thirtieth birthday party in the form of a conference devoted to its resonance through time in December 2014. This theme was recapitulated this past February, when the College Art Association devoted its Distinguished Scholar Session to you. But you do not look in the rearview mirror: you have written so many books and articles since Flash, from Merengue to Tango to Aesthetic of the Cool to Jean-Michel Basquiat, and you now focus on Mambo, the book of the beat to your life’s soundtrack.

Yet especially important in the context of this Yale College faculty meeting is your life at Yale, your home. For half that time—thirty-two years—you served as master of Timothy Dwight, where your very essence was refined from Master Thompson to Master T to the simple letter T, as many students knew you. You taught them to find their creative powers, and you gave them a word in Yorùbá to express this, a word to release the power of the spirit. We greet you now, in turn: Àshe!

Tribute Editor: Penelope Laurans