I met Lisa B. Thompson when she was at Harvard in 2010-11 as a fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute. We’d already “met” on Facebook, but meeting her in person was an automatic game-changer. Her generous spirit and ferociously funny personality made many a lunch or coffee date into an uproariously fun and educational event. I can’t walk by Chipotle these days and not think of her smile, her candor, her fierceness—and her love of burritos. Lisa’s become a wonderful friend and ally in this crazy world of academia, but she’s also become one of the peeps I look up to most. And as great as I think she is, it was during a heartfelt salute to her grad school mentor Richard Yarborough, for whom the American Studies Association’s Minority Scholars Committee named it’s new mentoring award, that I really saw the kind of soul and generosity Lisa brings to the academic world. She held forth in an early morning room crowded with scholars of all levels, and kept us laughing and tearing up as she expressed the love and respect she has not just for Yarborough but for mentoring as an important and viable project.
I think I identify with Lisa so much because she is the epitome of the scholar/artist. (The first time I’d actually heard her name was as the author of Single Black Female, her funny, touching, highly-regarded play, which was the toast of NYC in the summer of 2006. I can still remember everyone going to see it, and talking about it.) Her devotion to scholarly excellence—as a writer, professor and mentor—doesn’t take a backseat to her ambitions as a creative writer, and she moves smoothly between the two worlds with ease, balancing a remarkable lack of self-importance with a huge dose of self-assurance that makes her not just the perfect role model for peeps who are trying to do the same, but also a better cultural producer in both fields. Her first academic book, Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class– published by University of Illinois Press in 2009 and called “complex and nuanced” by E. Patrick Johnson and “path-breaking” by Valerie Smith—looks at representations and negotiations of black female sexuality in American popular culture, film, and literature, and received honorable mention for the National Women’s Studies Association’s Gloria E. Anzaldua Book Prize, 2010. Single Black Female, which has been performed around the country and was a 2004 nominee for LA Weekly’s Theater Award for Best Comedy, was recently published by the theatrical giant Samuel French. Lisa recently left SUNY Albany for University of Texas, Austin, where she’s an Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, and where she seems to be flourishing and enjoying life, if her Facebook statuses and late-night texts are any indication. She also has one of the best kids in the game. Read her work if you haven’t; see her play if it’s ever in your neck of the woods…There’s a new one coming soon. You’ll know about it cause I’ll be blogging, tweeting, and status-messaging about it with the quickness. Hope you enjoy her SPB Q!
Lisa B. Thompson. My trailblazing grandmother chose my middle name so I always use my initial in honor of her.
San Francisco, California. Yes, I’m a West coast sista. And no, you better not call it Frisco!
Stanford University, Modern Thought & Literature, 2000
Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class (2009)
I’m an old school bookworm so I cannot select just one favorite text. There are beloved books from each era of my life. During my girlhood Ezra Jack Keats’s Snowy Day sparked my imagination and warmed my heart. When I was a teen, reading Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow was enuf changed the shape of the universe for me. I carried it around all the time and performed the monologues for my girlfriends. During college I saw George Wolfe’s Colored Museum and felt assured that there was a place for my quirky, nerdy, irreverent, comic sensibility in the world.
Toni Morrison! Sula Peace, Frank Money, Pecola Breedlove, Bill Cosey, Jadine Childs and Milkman Dead? Such unforgettable characters! I also deeply appreciate her work as an editor and public intellectual.
I’m cheating again by picking two. I love Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger. His rendering of black Los Angeles is so rich and layered. I pray he releases it on DVD soon so I can finally dispose of my VCR! I’m also a huge fan of the Bette Davis classic All About Eve. I’ve probably watched it more than any other movie. It’s about the intricacies of female friendships and the backstage drama in the theatre world, so what’s not to love?
I absolutely adore the Duke Ellington masterpiece “In a Sentimental Mood.”
Academic text(s) that most influences your work:
Patricia J. Williams’s Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of Race and Rights; Glenda Carpio’s Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor and the Fictions of Slavery; Farah Jasmine Griffin’s Who Set you Flowin?’: The African American Migration Narrative; Daphne Brooks’s Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910 and Valerie Smith’s Not Just Race, Not Just Gender: Black Feminist Readings. I’m inspired by dazzling ideas expressed in gorgeous language.
Academic(s) who most influences your work:
I had the pleasure of working with Kimberlé Crenshaw, Robin D. G. Kelly, Valerie Smith, and Richard Yarborough as an undergraduate and Masters student at UCLA. They showed me it’s possible to enjoy an impressive academic career while also mentoring the next generation of scholars. I also cherish my time at Stanford. I credit my graduate school colleagues Darieck Scott, Meta DuEwa Jones, Richard Benjamin, Diana Paulin, Lawrence Jackson, Nicole Fleetwood and Asale Ajani for creating such a rich environment to learn, think and write.
Spending my sabbatical as a fellow at Harvard’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research was my career high. I call it my magical year in Cambridge. I conducted research for my current book project on contemporary African American theatre, and Colman Domingo directed a staged reading of my new comedy Mamalogues at the Hiphop Archive.
Without a doubt giving birth to my son in 2005 is my greatest moment. I still can’t believe that my play Single Black Female debuted off-Broadway six months later. It was like having twins! He’s my Nigerian American Prince. Although being a “momademic” presents numerous challenges, there is simply nothing that gratifies my soul more than being his mother.
You’re on a desert island and can only have 5 CDs/books/ or DVDs shipped in to you. What are they?
I’d take the entire Mad Men series—I never tire of watching that show. My library would consist of a massive volume of poetry such as The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Stevie Wonder’s Greatest Hits and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill would provide my island soundtrack.
Your favorite quote:
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Although I would revise that Frederick Douglass quote a bit to say broken people. Can you imagine a society where there are only strong children? Perhaps that shouldn’t be the goal because great wisdom comes from understanding your particular brokenness and using it to shape your journey and better the world.
Anyone who knows me knows that my weakness is dessert. I’m talking peach cobbler, oatmeal cookies, pecan pie, brownies, red velvet cake, apple pie á la mode . . . There is nothing better than devouring a decadent dessert while taking in a good movie. That’s my idea of heaven.