Flyboy Meets Guerrilla Scholar

Left: Robert Farris Thompson, Caribbean Cultural Center Tribute, New York, 2019 (Flickr); Right: Greg Tate reading at NYU, New York, 2013 (Wikimedia Commons)

Mulling over how to deal with the passing of Robert Farris Thompson, the famed “guerilla scholar,” as he termed himself—he was 88 when he died on Nov. 29 in a nursing home in New Haven, Conn.—I turned to the recently departed Greg Tate (he died on Dec. 7).  In his essay in 1984 on Thompson among several in Flyboy in the Buttermilk, Tate posited this: “Now understandably some of the brothers and sisters out there got problems with Thompson, seeing how he’s a white guy. Several from your heritage by slavery and oppression and all that s–t, how do you put up with one of your oppressors progeny trying to come off hip reclaiming it for you? Regardless, I have to give it up to Thompson on three counts: his perspective is Afrocentric rather than Western academic; it’s more informed by genuine reverence and enthusiasm than by the savage arrogance we’ve come to expect as the Anglo-Saxon norm when pondering Africa; and he knows too much to be ignored. Period.”

Tate’s nimble thought, the variety of cultural, musical, and linguistic references that compete and merge in one sentence, approximates Thompson’s versatility and flare. To Tate’s way of thinking, Thompson “was loaded down with the tools of Western scholarship…” and in possession of the “incantatory powers of Yoruba priest.” In his appraisal of Thompson as a “believer in the Black Atlantic tradition,” Tate, a self-described Black Bohemian Nationalist, situates him rightfully in the caravan of iconic griots such as W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Cheikh Anta Diop, Chancellor Williams, Ivan Van Sertima, and Yosef Ben-Jochannan. Much too much to quote here is the extensive interview Tate conducted with Thompson, where he extolled his young mentee with his early years in El Paso, Texas, to his intrepid journey as anthropologist, ethnomusicologist, and most eminently as a “guerilla scholar” around the globe and beyond, and even with the promise of a book that would show New York City what it really is, “an incredible African city.”

Both Tate and Thompson were incredible and matchless interpreters of our cultural complexities, finding where they converged and presented the most remarkable possibilities, be they accidental or Oriental. In his closing comments on Thompson, Tate allowed Thompson to speak of himself in the third person: “You have people who say that Thompson seems wedded to the notion of cool, because he wants to be popular or vulgar even. Well, man, I take that as a compliment because what I really hear them saying is ‘don’t mess up our art history with street n—-r talk.’ But there’s no way they’re going to stop the attempt to fuse so-called high art history with so-called street. Because I’m a guerilla scholar, and I take my cues from what I hear and so if someone tells me to stop emphasizing cool, then perhaps I’ll start emphasizing chill, if they like.”

To fully grasp the essences, the essential lessons of their conversation you must read Tate’s essay, or any of his profiles in the Village Voice, and then turn to Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit. Listening to them in metaphorical flight would be akin to a duo between Charlie Mingus and Eric Dolphy, with a choir of Yoruba drums or kora underlying their exchange of parlance. In effect, their books and articles are only intimations of what they did on the lecture tour, and to catch just one presentation from Thompson, as so many of his students enjoyed during his long tenure at Yale University, must have left an indelible imprint.

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Herb Boyd

Herb Boyd is a journalist, activist, teacher, and author or editor of twenty-five books. His articles have been published in the Black Scholar, Final Call, the Amsterdam News, Cineaste, Downbeat, the Network Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. A scholar for more than forty years, he teaches African American history and culture at the City College of New York in Harlem, where he lives.