Keith Thompson: The Interview, And The Roadmap Into Black Life (Hint: It’s Not What You Think)

17 Oct

Keith Thompson

Keith Thompson


Seems I can’t meet with my new friend, Keith Thompson, without him plying me with little gifts each time I see him. This time it was a Cannonball Adderley CD for me, (Adderley was a jazz saxophonist who played with Miles Davis among others), and two sets of earbuds and pen/styluses for my daughters.

The CDs are the consistent gift. The best part about getting them are Keith’s history lessons, learning the story behind the artist, and the history of black music. With this gift, Keith shared the background story…”Cannonball’s 1958 album “Somethin Else” had a power lineup featuring Miles, Art Blakey, Sam and Hank Jones. Following that album Cannonball joined another power lineup in Miles band that featured Coltrane, Bill Evans, Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers on Miles’ album “Kind of Blue” one of the greatest jazz recordings ever. After that album, Miles kicked Cannonball and Coltrane out of his band because they were still using drugs and he had recently kicked the habit.”

Keith, 47, works at Brown University and has a beautiful family, consisting of a wife and two daughters. We met through a mutual friend about six months ago, and Keith quickly learned that I had a blog about race relations. He said he was curious about it, and would read it, which I was glad about, but didn’t pay too much attention to his declaration. Until, that is….

He started reading it, and wrote me a lengthy email saying how engaging he found it, and then declared that he was going to read Wendy Jane’s Soul Shake, post-by-post (two years worth), start to finish.

Keith is a deep thinker, attracted to thought, art and artists, questions, and discovery. A force of energy that is both contagious and at times, for me potentially exhausting, due to his mental gymnastics vs. my slower thinking brain. We’ve had brief conversations and emails here and there about my blog as Keith was reading it, and I knew I wanted to sit down with him and ask some pointed questions about WJSS, as well as his point-of-view on what I’ve heard him call “black life.”

So, on a golden September afternoon, we sat outside on the Brown University campus, on the bench beside Keith’s favorite bench–favorite because he can sit there and think without being noticed by passersbys, something Keith, strategic as he is, figured out, pointing out how co-workers all noticed him and said hello as we sat on the not-as-perfect bench.

We chatted about life in general, like what I consider his super Dad status earned by surprising his 12 year-old daughter with One Direction concert tickets at the last minute when for months she thought she wasn’t going. I had told Keith shortly before this afternoon that I wanted to meet and interview him soon, and I assumed that this day would be it, but as we sat there chatting, I couldn’t muster up the courage to ask if we could do that. It wasn’t until as the sun started to go down, and the air became chilly, and we went back to Keith’s office, I found my “in” to begin our interview.

As we sat, Keith brought up not associating with certain people, and especially not bringing his family to events where there are people he wouldn’t want them associating with, and it reminded me of one of my interview questions. But that was one I wanted to ask later. The first thing I wanted to know was this:

WJ: What in your background, your growing up, shaped your thoughts about race?

KT: I have no background things that really shaped my thinking. Most of my thinking evolved from observations and through reflective thinking. No ah ha moments that shook my core, I always had a social conscience and that just became more honed as I became older and more worldly. When I started looking at other races and other cultures struggle that lead to the thinking every race and people have challenges. But one difference I see is other races take an active role to make it better. Life is my inspiration, people, regardless of race are my role models and inspirations. I know it’s a great deal of sorrow in the world, but I know it’s a great deal of love, peace, understanding and progress. That is what I seek through education and conversation.

WJ: You are the first, and only person I know that has read my blog from start to finish. What compelled you to do that?

KT: Respect. Based on our first conversation, with you telling me, “this is what I’m doing..(with WJSS blog)”. I was curious. I wanted to see what road you were going down–how you would tunnel yourself into looking at black life.

At that moment Keith, pulled out a sheet of paper and pen, and started drawing all these lines in a form and appearance that mimicked the skin of an onion. Only the lines weren’t parallel. They crossed over one another, creating intricate layers of delicate, intersecting pathways.

“This is the path into black life,” Keith said as he drew.

KT: As I got into the blog, I respected your voice—you’re asking questions black people don’t want to answer or research because they don’t want to say they don’t know something. MJ. How do you think you should know more about MJ than me? Ruby Dee. People get offended because they’re saying how can you write about one of ours? Maya Angelou. Maya Angelou is worldly. She doesn’t belong to “us.”

What makes you the expert on this? You do the research on it.
WJ: After reading the entire blog, what is it about to you, what did you learn or take away from it, if anything?

KT: You touch on a lot of stuff, but when you say you’re interested in black life, you don’t really venture out, …the Sammy Davis’s, the Cannonball Adderley’s, the people who influenced Michael. The icons that all of these people stand on. Mostly, you’re in this pocket–Erykah Badu…De La Soul…

Keith hits the keyboards on his desk computer and puts on a Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans tune.

Dig into this. This is black life. No words. It’s universal. Break down a song. This is black life right here. This is the out of the pocket. This is what you’re missing. Miles (Davis) about to take off here…you need to go to abstract.

You are digging into intellectual neighborhoods that people aren’t comfortable with, but you should. You’re not doing this for black people, you’re doing this for yourself.

On Erykah Badu’s (Live) album, the song Rimshot leads with a sample from Miles Davis’s So What.

Though he doesn’t say it right here, I gather Keith is showing me how Erykah Badu is paying homage to the shoulders of black life she stands upon.

As I let Keith’s words soak in, I am not surprised by what he is saying. As I write my blog, I do not have a set path. I don’t know exactly where my journey will lead, or what are the questions I want to and need to ask and explore as I look at how people, primarily black and white people, connect, and don’t connect, and why, and how we differ, and how we are the same, especially when it comes to how we view how race impacts our lives.  I realize my journey is perhaps not one straight, target path, and instead more like the intersecting, layered, complex path that is black life itself, as Keith so aptly illustrated.

What I am not surprised about is how he says I stay in a certain pocket, as he rattles off the names of Erykah Badu, De La Soul, and Michael Jackson. It doesn’t surprise me because I have always been drawn to popular, contemporary culture. You’re much more likely to find me watching the Oscars over a PBS British literary classics series, at a Bruno Mars concert over a jazz concert.

As I sat there, I was also reminded and felt slightly embarrassed by the memory of my older sister Sarah and myself at the New Orleans Jazz Festival some years back. I wanted to be sure we saw Shaggy perform because I was sure he’d perform his then current song, It Wasn’t Me. The song, raunchy but fun, made me want to dance, and I love a song that makes me want to dance, and the artist that sang with him on the cut had a beautiful voice, even though he’s singing about getting caught cheating on his girl.

We did see Shaggy perform, and my sister grooved along with me, but she chided me as next we saw Wyclef Jean perform on another stage, saying that Shaggy wasn’t singing about anything with meaning, and that she liked her artists to have a message delivered through their music.

As I sat in Keith’s office, I turned off my guilt trip over just wanting to like fun dance music, and popular artists much of the time.  I made a mental note of Keith’s comments about what he noticed in my blog, and asked him another question that’s been on my mind from previous conversations.

WJ: I remember you saying several times that there is a certain segment of the black population that you don’t affiliate with and then you sent me that article about Chuck D (of Public Enemy) that spoke about certain black hip-hop artists and record-labels who perpetuate the minstrelsy of rap–of this image of young black men as misogynistic, dangerous thugs out to scare–and entertain white folks. I get what he is saying there, but can you tell me more about what this means to you and what you mean when you say “my people” and “not my people?”

KT: I don’t segregate myself from people. But it’s a clear difference between people, everyone has that in them. You see two people that dress the same, look the same, seemingly act the same. When I have a conversation with them I do what most people do. I make a choice based on the conversation. It’s not necessarily the eyeball test, that’s discrimination. It’s actually what they are saying and how they are saying it. I’m not opposed to people expressing themselves, not at all. I just don’t subscribe to people that call women out of their names, disrespecting our elders, calling each other the N word or referring to themselves by that word. We owe it to the people that came before us to be better. I’m a progressive thinker and if someone isn’t progressive in thought and are disrespectful to our race they are not my people. Full Stop!

I am at the top of the pecking order because of this jazz, points into the air at the sounds of Miles Davis wafting through the room, this book, as he picks up one of his current reads off the corner of his desk. (Keith is always reading about a half-dozen books at a time. To say Keith is an avid reader is an understatement.)

Based on a road map, we’re all different, we think different. There are black people who think they’re too good to speak with me. So, it’s really not a segment, it’s people–their actions.

Keith then spoke of friends who might look like they’re “hood” by the way they dress, and you might think when I say there are people I don’t deal with, that I am talking about them, but I’m not. Clothes and environment aren’t what make people, thoughts and actions do that. I love conversations from all places, it is no telling where you’ll find me and with who. I communicate with people and I make a choice based on interaction, not by anything other than that. I love my people, but just because people are black like me doesn’t make them my people. It’s complicated.

I want to help people be better people. I don’t deal with certain segments because certain people don’t want to get better, they want to get over.

Complicated, indeed!


WJ: When you think about race and race relations as it plays out in your day-to-day life, what comes up for you? Is it something you think about? What about with your daughters?

KT: I don’t deal with racism every day personally because I’m kind of in this cocoon. The older I get, the smaller my circle is. I am not around that crowd at work. I might see it a little, but I don’t have to really deal with it myself. Every stereotype doesn’t have to be addressed forcefully. Any chance we have to create dialogue is a chance to educate someone. We don’t have to be offended by every inquiry. Some people are curious, some people are misinformed, some people are just what they appear to be. You can’t just assume that just because someone asks a question on race relations, crime or anything around the topic it’s a racial attack. It is a chance to have a conversation and educate someone.

My oldest daughter, is a senior in high school, she deals with it on occasion. Mostly it’s out of people’s ignorance about our race, or better stated it’s because what they see on television, the web and hear on the radio. She finds herself on the defensive a lot because she is still learning how to deal with it. We have conversations about it, but she would prefer to deal with it herself. I keep my finger on the pulse of it, but the way we raised our children is we allow them to figure things out. If she can’t solve a 17-year old problem, how will she solve a 20-year old problem when she is at college. We give her air space to think of her own resolutions. I’m merely a corner man. If it gets too heavy we’ll step in, but until she says it’s too much we let her go and we continue the conversation. She tells me she can handle it herself. If she needs me, she’ll tell me.

WJ: Is there anything special you tell them?

They know it exists. We never really had to tell them. They know. They’re minorities in their schools. We haven’t had to talk about it, but when they ask a question we answer it. We can have a conversation. We tell them to be true to who your persona is. They are well read, they read the paper, they read books, they talk with family members. They know what they need to know right now, and as life moves forward they will continue to learn.


WJ: As we come to a close, do you have any advice for me and my continued journey with my blog? (Afterward I realized that it may have sounded like I was asking, “Black man do you have any advice for this white woman and her blog?” But what I really meant was as a reader, black or white, or otherwise, any thoughts on what I might explore next? What you’d want to see more, or less of?)
KT: Keep doing it. You’re not writing it for me. You’re writing it for you. It’s not about me. Stay on your journey. It’s your path. You’re trying to find yourself.

Remember Forrest Gump? He’s running and running, and then…he stops. You might get to a point where you’re ready to stop. Your tagline (connecting across colorlines ever since MLK and MJ)–there’s a lot of hues in between. Baldwin, Belafonte, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gil Scott Heron’s, Message To The Messengers.

The De-La-Soul song you posted (on WJSS Weekend Sounds)–everybody has an opinion on that. But that Sammy Davis thing I dropped, (a post on FB that Keith posted of Sammy Davis performing), no one’s seen that. An author that writes black but thinks white. Why don’t you give voice to underground people like that? You grow your blog by growing inside. Nina Simone. Michael Kiwanuka’s Tell Me A Tale. We have to stretch outside of what we know to grow.

Then, Keith puts on Gregory Porter playing a track from Be Good, “On My Way To Harlem.

“This is history,” he says

And, so, my journey continues…


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