At the same time Newt Gingrich was fending off protesters and hawking copies of his conservative manifesto to booksellers in McCormick Place last June, a very different kind of book on American politics was being quietly passed out to the same dealers by its author, a man some people might call the anti-Newt.
The book is “Whitefolks” #1 : Seeing America Through Black Eyes, a straightforward, self-published look at race and American society from a black perspective. The author is Lowell Thompson, a 48-year-old former advertising executive who hopes to introduce into our collective vocabulary such terms as “Amerinesia”–described in the book as “the debilitating mental disease that afflicts ‘white’ America’s leaders whenever they are confronted with racial issues. . . . To an Amerinesiac, race was never a problem in America before the Civil Rights Movement of the late 50’s and the 60’s.”
Thompson seems an unlikely anti-Newt. When his contemporaries were joining the Black Panthers in 1968, the 20-year-old Lowell was following the rules and avoiding embarrassing questions. He says he sympathized with the civil rights movement, but from a distance. “I joined the advertising industry three months after Martin Luther King was assassinated,” he says.
A second-generation Chicagoan, Thompson grew up on the south side, living out his teens in the Robert Taylor Homes. He was among the first African-Americans to break into the mainstream advertising industry, working for several large firms over the years and eventually becoming vice president of Burrell Communications Group, a black-owned agency.
In 1980 he left that position to work on a freelance basis and in 1991 he founded a local nonprofit agency, Partnership Against Racism, to fight prejudice through advertising and other forms of communication. While working for the group and writing articles on race and racism for advertising trade magazines, he came up with the idea for Whitefolks.
Thompson says that writing the book was his way of sorting through the many questions that had formed in his mind over the years, like “What happens if black America evaluates white America and questions its premises?”
“Once I started I realized I didn’t know enough to write it, so then I started reading a lot of books,” he says. “I really got an education.” He also designed the book and painted the cover illustration.
While some people may not like the title (“It’s not equivalent to saying nigger,” Thompson says. “It’s not even equivalent to saying honky”), the book manages to gently put current issues and events like affirmative action, the O.J. Simpson trial, and Colin Powell’s possible candidacy in the context of Thomas Jefferson’s little-known white supremacist writings and 370 years of history.
“From 1619, when the first blacks arrived, till about the mid 1640s or 1650s, there was no concerted effort to make black people into slaves,” Thompson says. “They were originally indentured servants, just like the white people who were indentured servants. And they intermarried, they intermixed. But when the white landowners started to see that they needed a lot more labor and they needed cheaper labor, that’s when they decided that somebody had to be the nigger. That’s when they created the idea of black people being somehow different from everybody else.”
Thompson says that this historical context is crucial to understanding arguments about the fate of programs like affirmative action. “If you just looked at the news media now and you didn’t have any sense of history, you would think that Americans were always against preferential treatment,” he says. “But if you think back past 30 years ago, you would see those Whites Only signs, and you would see that they go back for another 300 years.”
Thompson is distributing the first 500 copies of Whitefolks on his own, mainly through independent bookstores and organizations, and financing the whole thing out of his own pocket and through speaking engagements. He plans to write a series of books on race relations.
He’ll be discussing Whitefolks and the issues it touches on–including the O.J. verdict–and showing off his four-foot-by-five-foot illustration tonight at 7 at Pangaea Gallery & Coffeehouse, 233 W. Huron. Admission is $5, which goes toward the $50 cost of the book if you buy a copy. (The paperback edition will cost $12 and be available in February.) Call 664-6203 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.