Poet, scholar, and teacher, South Carolina native Dorothy Perry Thompson lends a vital and vibrant voice to scholarship and the arts. Her first book of poems, Fly with the Puffin (96 Press, 1995) reveals a distinctly female and distinctively African American sensibility. Thompson's poems confront issues including race and gender, as well as celebrating the strength and the enduring quality of love that enliven family and community. Her subsequent books, Priest in Aqua Boa (96 Press, 2001) and Hurrying the Spirit: Following Zora (Palanquin Press, 2002) mark the resilience and flexibility of the African American spirit. Dr. Thompson’s poems have also been published in an impressive array of journals and anthologies including: My Soul is a Witness: African American Women's Spirituality, Poems from the Green Horseshoe: Poems by James Dickey's Students, The African American Review, Catalyst, Carolina Literary Companion, Caesura, Black American Literature Forum, The Sucarnochee Review, Spirit and Flame, 45/96, The Baltimore Review, and Southern Poetry Review.
Like her poems, Thompson's scholarly work is deeply concerned with the
place and presence of African Americans in life and letters. These published
works include (among many others) an essay, "Daddy Saved in Snatches: The
Quilting," which appears in Father Songs: Testimonies by African American
Sons and Daughters, and a chapter titled "Africana Womanism in Gloria Naylor's
Mama Day and Bailey's Café" (forthcoming in a volume on Naylor from
University of Florida Press). Among the writers who have most deeply
influenced her, Thompson cites Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Gwendolyn
Brooks, Djuna Barnes, Ernest Gaines, Alice Walker, Rita Dove, Zora Neale
Hurston, and Nikki Giovanni.
Thompson has presented her poems and her scholarly research in venues across the United States, among them Boston, San Diego, Chicago, Phoenix, and Atlanta. This range of activity demonstrates clearly that she is a writer and scholar of importance well beyond the Southeastern region where she is best known.
Born Dorothy Perry in Springfield, SC in 1944, Thompson grew up with siblings Edna Hall, and Norman (Josh), a brother James who would die at the age of 37, Andra (Lit), and Todd Whaley in the Wheeler Hill neighborhood which has figured so prominently in many of her poems, among them "Shotgunning" and "The Middle Room," both of which appear in Fly with the Puffin. A child of two working parents, her father as a carpenter and her mother as a shirt presser in a laundry, Thompson remembers that her childhood was "rich with people, talk, things to do" and "bare of material things." She also describes her early years as "naive, happy, and passionate (about everything: folks, school, books, boys, dancing . . .)."
Thompson was educated in the public schools, graduating from Booker T. Washington High School in 1962. She received her B.A. in English from Allen University in 1968, and a Master of Arts in the Teaching of English from the University of South Carolina Columbia in 1974.
Subsequent to receiving her MAT, she taught for several years in the public schools of South Carolina, notably Riverside High in Saluda, Lower Richland High in Hopkins, and Dreher High in Columbia. She then returned to graduate school and earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of South Carolina Columbia in 1987. Dr. Thompson holds the distinction of being the second African American in the history of the University of South Carolina to earn a doctorate in English, and being the first African American to do a creative writing dissertation at that university (under the direction of James Dickey).
Of her position as a minority woman in graduate studies in English at the University of South Carolina Columbia, she has recalled getting "lots of support from the clerical staff (mostly African American women) in the English department, and from fellow graduate students. Some professors breathed more easily and actually talked to me once they saw I could write my name; others tried their best to ignore me.”
Of studying under poet James Dickey, she writes "At first, working with Dickey was like having a father from whom my mother was divorced: he met me on special occasions, gave me money (good advice) and hugs & kisses (compliments), then forgot who I was until the next special occasion. Near the end, I could sense some real respect (me for him and vice versa) and some coherence in how we worked together." To young people entering higher education and other aspects of adult life, she extends the following entreaty:
“Please, please master the language, not just the rudiments but the elements of style that raise you above "C" level, that make you interesting to listen to. Grab at every piece of information about the world (its past and its present) that passes your way so that some of it will stick and you'll know enough to appreciate being alive. You'll want to know all kinds of people and places and be able to function wherever you land.”
At the time of her death, Dr. Thompson was a Professor of English atWinthrop University where she taught courses in American literature, writing, poetry writing, and African American Studies and where she also coordinated the African American Studies Program. She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta, The South Carolina Academy of Authors, and is listed in Who's Who Among American Women.
She and her husband, Johnnie C. Thompson (also a 1962 graduate of Booker T. Washington High School) are the parents of Johnnie, III, Danya, and Jene. They have five grandchildren.
The poem "God, After Atheism" is reproduced here by permission of the author.
God, After Atheism
Sometimes, you're the Chacmool,
a stone warrior, jungle-rooted,
resting on your side.
You have watched
the giant movie that is life
split down the middle, spewing
shards of obsidian. There are
a few I cannot see, as they began
with Eve, ancient
and behind me.
Sometimes, you help me sing songs,
thread feathers into my dress
and will not let me pass
hills of pine and spikenard
with no word about them
to my son.
you stop the air in my throat
’til I clutch the railing
along the stairwell
and know that it is you
halting my climb to bed.
I dream of vipers,
and lose my children
in a thick marsh
until I promise
to give you the camera
to begin again.
In these lines, Thompson makes clear her African American identification when life emerges as “shards of obsidian,” a volcanic glass known chiefly for its blackness and hardness. She also asserts her strong feminist position, citing “Eve, ancient / behind me” as her true progenitor, one whose identity doesn’t change. The poem’s title suggests that the speaker in the poem is re-establishing a connection with God after a period of denying God’s existence. Of the patriarchal god she addresses, the reader must conclude that he is both powerful and mysteriously inconsistent, sometimes “a stone warrior, jungle-rooted,” and at other times a moviegoer.
The poem’s central metaphor is that God is a maker of movies, not just a viewer. The speaker, who has taken his camera from him, must finally give it back, and stop trying to make the movie that is life on her own. Still, this God has a rather untrustworthy nature. Sometimes he helps the speaker in her work (singing songs, decorating her dress, making her share with her son the wonderful things she sees) and sometimes he punishes her with terrible, threatening dreams—perhaps for being too creative on her own. Thus, when the speaker in the poem promises to give this god the camera “to begin again” she is not only giving herself another chance in life, but giving the movie-maker God a second chance as well.
Thompson’s poem to her daughter, written after her first round of treatment for breast cancer, appears in Priest in Aqua Boa and is printed here by permission of her estate. Dr. Thompson died at her home in Rock Hill, South Carolina, in January 2002 of metastatic breast cancer.
To Danya, My Daughter
After the choosing, earth
or a high crypt in the left arm
of the cross at Almwood,
After the strong arms
of your husband, your brother’s tears,
come tell my spirit.
After the long drive to leave me,
the slow black line,
tell them the purple click
of my heels on the dance floor
and the swirls of silk
tickling my legs.
Tell them the lines
I put down against
agony, the verse after verse
Tell them the time
I knew the great Ancestor Goddess
would hold me above
that last shaking.
Have them wear my shoes
and eat my lines.
Then come, daughter. Come
tell my spirit
again and again.
I will hear you
and I will
last updated 5/30/2002