An Interview with CUNY’s Dr. Gordon E. Thompson on “The Assimilationist Impulse”

gordon_thomspson_headshotBy Richard-Olivier Marius

A general interest in James Baldwin’s critique of Richard Wright’s “Native Son” inspired Gordon E. Thompson’s text “The Assimilationist Impulse in Four African American Narratives,” (Edwin Mellen Press, 2011).

In Thompson’s understanding, “Baldwin felt that Wright was channeling, one might say, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’” During the interview,Thompson, a Ph.D. recipient in American Studies from Yale University and currently an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Black Studies Program at the City College of New York, does not expound on the link between Stowe and Wright. It is, nevertheless, this perceived connection between Stowe’s “Cabin” and Wright’s “Son” which inspired him to explore further in his book what other connections Stowe’s work might have with other kinds of African American narratives.

“assimilation meant finding a means to demonstrate that one remained attuned to Black culture”

A compilation of works by five celebrated African-American writers–Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright, and LeRoi Jones– “The Assimilationist Impulse” speaks to issues circulating around the discourse on African American experiences with assimilation. While Thompson remarks that “assimilation is viewed with suspicion by African Americans,” his work seeks to reconcile conflicting ideas about it by highlighting the deep roots of the phenomenon within the African American community, especially as it affected those who represented it to the world. Indeed, there are diverse views about assimilationism. While Thompson finds that Douglass would view assimilation as a “civilizing process beyond race,” he notes that Booker T. Washington, James Weldon Johnson, and Richard Wright were all sensitive to its “ideological dimensions.” For Wright, Thompson says, “assimilation meant finding a means to demonstrate that one remained attuned to Black culture” even while appreciating and engaging in lifestyles historically associated with “white culture.” Ultimately, Thompson suggests, “The Assimilationist Impulse” demonstrates the inter-relatedness between “African American narratives and culture and that of white America.”

Dr. Thompson’s webpage:

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