A life transformed by mambo

Robert Farris Thompson changed the Western world's understanding of African culture.

Michael Marsland

Michael Marsland

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Robert Farris Thompson ’55, ’65PhD, looked very much like someone who went to Andover and Yale in the 1950s, which he was: Brooks Brothers shirt, patchwork madras shorts, penny loafers. How unlikely is it that this paradigmatic white Anglo-Saxon Protestant changed the Western world’s understanding of African culture? As unlikely, perhaps, as a Yale residential college adopting a Yoruba word—“Ashè,” which means “make it happen”—as a rallying cry.

Thompson, who died on November 29 at age 88, was the former Colonel John Trumbull Professor of the History of Art at Yale and a professor emeritus of African American studies. To the world of art, he was a pioneering scholar who examined on their own terms the cultural products of the “Black Atlantic”—a term he coined to refer to the African continent and its American diaspora. Thompson was noted for describing the philosophy of a culture whose ideals and tenets were expressed in art, music, and dance more than in text. Another of his themes was how the Black Atlantic aesthetic had permeated American culture. “We can’t know how American we are unless we know how black we are,” he told Cathy Shufro for a profile in this magazine in 2010.

To Yale students, he was the infectiously enthusiastic teacher of such courses as New York Mambo, as well as the inspiring master of Timothy Dwight College from 1978 to 2010—longer than any other head of college at Yale. He brought to campus such famous guests as David Byrne, Keith Haring, and Tito Puente.

Thompson told his origin story as if it were that of Spider-Man: a native of El Paso, Texas, he went on a vacation to Mexico City in 1950 with his family. In a hotel dining room, he heard mambo music for the first time. “Mambo irradiated me with classical Afro-Atlantic music, and there was no turning back,” he told Shufro.

His journey led him, as a student, to seek out mambo in New York clubs like the Palladium; then later to Africa, where he did field work in Yoruba culture as a graduate student in art history; then throughout Africa and the Americas in a six-decade pursuit of Black Atlantic scholarship. He began teaching at Yale in 1964 and earned his PhD in 1965. Last May, Yale conferred a fourth degree on Thompson: an honorary doctor of humanities.

Frederick John Lamp ’82PhD, former curator of African art at the Yale University Art Gallery and a former student, wrote that Thompson once told him the secret to his success: “I am shameless.” Lamp says it showed, because “he didn’t have a dancer’s body, but he never let that stop him from going full-out to learn every tango and mambo dance step, every multimeter rhythm, every chant and praise song that he could. He didn’t care if you liked it. He liked it, and that was abundantly obvious as he reveled in all that he did.”   

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