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Robert Farris Thompson ’55, ’65PhD, looked quite significantly like anyone 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 society? As unlikely, maybe, as a Yale residential college or university adopting a Yoruba word—“Ashè,” which signifies “make it happen”—as a rallying cry.
Thompson, who died on November 29 at age 88, was the previous Colonel John Trumbull Professor of the Background of Art at Yale and a professor emeritus of African American studies. To the planet of art, he was a pioneering scholar who examined on their have conditions the cultural products of the “Black Atlantic”—a time period he coined to refer to the African continent and its American diaspora. Thompson was pointed out for describing the philosophy of a society whose beliefs and tenets were being expressed in artwork, tunes, and dance additional than in text. Another of his themes was how the Black Atlantic aesthetic had permeated American tradition. “We cannot know how American we are except we know how black we are,” he informed Cathy Shufro for a profile in this magazine in 2010.
To Yale learners, he was the infectiously enthusiastic trainer of this kind of courses as New York Mambo, as properly as the inspiring master of Timothy Dwight Faculty from 1978 to 2010—longer than any other head of higher education at Yale. He introduced to campus these kinds of famed attendees as David Byrne, Keith Haring, and Tito Puente.
Thompson informed his origin tale as if it were being that of Spider-Man: a native of El Paso, Texas, he went on a vacation to Mexico City in 1950 with his relatives. In a lodge eating place, he listened to mambo new music for the initial time. “Mambo irradiated me with classical Afro-Atlantic songs, and there was no turning back again,” he advised Shufro.
His journey led him, as a college student, to search for out mambo in New York golf equipment like the Palladium then afterwards to Africa, in which he did industry work in Yoruba culture as a graduate college student in art background then in the course of Africa and the Americas in a six-10 years pursuit of Black Atlantic scholarship. He started educating at Yale in 1964 and attained his PhD in 1965. Last Could, Yale conferred a fourth degree on Thompson: an honorary medical professional of humanities.
Frederick John Lamp ’82PhD, curator of African art at the Yale University Artwork Gallery and a previous university student, wrote that Thompson as soon as explained to him the solution to his results: “I am shameless.” Lamp says it confirmed, due to the fact “he didn’t have a dancer’s system, but he hardly ever enable that stop him from heading comprehensive-out to study every tango and mambo dance action, each and every multimeter rhythm, each individual chant and praise tune that he could. He did not treatment if you preferred it. He appreciated it, and that was abundantly noticeable as he reveled in all that he did.”