This is a thought-provoking and moving personal account of ‘What It Is’ to be black in Trump’s America that will resonate with many people. Clifford’s experience is all the more poignant for the context provided by interviews with Trump supporters ... Clifford is a powerful essayist and a good interviewer ... there’s plenty to learn from his talks. The result of his labours is a powerful and engaging book. I can only admire his reason in an age of unreason.
Thompson concludes, with his penchant for self-examination, we are all indifferent to others in one way or another ... Thompson leaves us unsettled at this point. Should we all accept the fact of indifference and move on? That would seem an unsatisfying response to the racial crisis of our times ... He sometimes celebrates his individualism using stereotypical descriptions of African Americans who do not share his views, such as his curt dismissal of his more race-identified black college classmates as acting out psychological black-nationalist fantasies prompted by their integrated upbringings. At such times, he seems to be channeling some of the 1980s- and ’90s-era culture wars of his mentors, Murray and Stanley Crouch. Yet, when he confronts the contradictions of race in present-day America, Thompson’s individualism can lead him to moments of profound descriptive beauty, such as his too-brief recounting of his conversation about firearms and racial identity with the founder of the black gun owners group, and his decision, with which he ends the book, to go to a gun range and do some shooting. He imagines himself carrying a gun in defense of his race. It’s a fantasy experience, full of contradictions and in many ways simply absurd. But that’s also true, Thompson seems to be saying, of so much of the ways we imagine race in America.
In What It Is, the reader experiences, via Thompson’s plaintive and disillusioned voice, the discomfort of personal recalibration. Thompson explores the world as it is and carefully thinks through how each of us can find our place within it.
Certainly, the mode of address advanced in What It Is is Baldwinesque in the way it seeks to take the pulse of the nation ... But the occasional pathos of Thompson’s prose, which stands in stark contrast to Baldwin’s solemn ruminations, raises the question of how seriously we’re supposed to take him ... The line Thompson attempts to toe is a difficult one. On the one hand, his memoir’s primary ethos boils down to a universalist commitment to humanize perpetrators of racism and Trumpism ... Thompson is hamstrung by an oversimplification of race and how it works, especially when combined with his commitment to studying individuals in isolation from larger political factions and social groupings. By viewing racism as something that Black Americans must unlearn just as much as whites, Thompson categorically misconstrues racial prejudice as a bad interpersonal habit and thus fails to link individual instances to larger, systemic trends ... Ultimately, Thompson wants to craft a handbook for good citizenship, a didactic guide to how decent Americans ought to get along ... What is perhaps most illuminating about Thompson’s memoir, though, is that he isn’t moved to anger by racial inequality itself, or even by the interpersonal animus that perpetuates it ... Thompson conceives of race as an obstacle to democratic American life as opposed to one of its structuring conditions, which might explain his wonder at the pervasiveness of anti-Black racism and his obliviousness to the co-dependence between structural inequality and individualist ideologies. Yet What It Is does valuably ask its readers to think about what and how we’re feeling in relation to our present politics, an exercise that might better inform the way we come to grips with them.
The opening two chapters and the concluding one are the strongest. Here he tells his own story and the insights that attach to it, blending (consciously or not) the voices of his mentors Baldwin and Murray as he reflects both inward and outward. The remaining parts of What It Is, in which he chronicles his interviews with white Trump supporters, are less engaging than the personal insights because Thompson’s shrewd analytical voice is drowned out by the words of his interviewees. Using Didion’s method, he asks them pointed questions about racism and reacts only in asides to the reader. In doing so, he relinquishes the microphone a little too long. Still, What It Is is an engaging and important book, an earnest attempt to analyse our chaotic moment and to project a possible way out of it through dialogue and reflection.
Speaking with a variety of individuals, Thompson also takes a hard look at his own actions and behaviors, including his failures ... This frank and personal examination of race and racism in America will be an important addition to many collections.
... [a] graceful and searching clutch of essays ... 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.