FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Are You White, Black or Human?

Some of my best friends are colored. All of them are, actually.

And so I introduce you to Lowell Thompson, artist — indeed, psycho-realist, as he calls himself — recovering ad man and “colored person.” He’s also, you might say, the king of irreverence and political incorrectness, but this is only because he’s also a dragon slayer. The dragon is racism. There’s no way to engage with race politely, but there’s a way to yank the seriousness out of it.

What race are you? What color are you? Race is the American divide, a border wall deeper and more profound than the one Donald Trump wants to build. Cultures merge and evolve, but race — “color” — remains impenetrable, a line more fundamental, it would appear, than humanity itself.

Thompson had a revelation about this some years ago, with the help of the profession to which he had devoted his life: “The key to understanding the race problem is one word: branding,” he said in a 2014 interview. “Not only were cattle and slaves branded, but America became the world leader in branding through advertising. And the greatest ad campaign in American history was for American racism: By branding Africans as subhumans, it justified the slavery that America’s success is based upon. My job now is unselling racism.”

In his determination and commitment to do so, Thompson has given his life over to creating transformative change. Martin Luther King called it “creative altruism”: deconstructing the walls that divide, undoing institutional prejudice and unfairness. He has become, in the process, part of the bubbling cauldron of social evolution.

Thompson, who is African-American, grew up in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes. He was a kid who loved to paint and found his way into one of the city’s major ad agencies when he was a young man. This was in the late ’60s; doors were opening, thanks to the civil rights movement. But the opening was fleeting. By the early ’90s, there were almost no African-Americans left in the business. He told me one of his memories from those days. The receptionist at one of the agencies where he was then freelancing challenged his presence in the office: “Aren’t you the mailroom guy?”

Finally he had to address the situation. He did his research and wrote an article called “The Invisible Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.” That was the beginning of his transition to political activism.

“I’ve been trying to come up with an idea to solve America’s race problem for over 25 years,” he told me. “Could I use what I learned in advertising?”

Turns out the answer was yes. The first thing an ad has to do is capture attention, grab people by surprise, pull them in. An irreverent sense of humor also helps, along with an ability to see through and beyond the basically unquestioned social realities that shape our lives.

Thus, as Thompson began to see it, confronting and eliminating racism in American society wasn’t simply a matter of moral scolding. This is called political correctness: demanding, pleading for, better behavior from white people in positions of power toward non-white people in positions of vulnerability. As he saw it, the problem is race itself — a bogus concept of division.

He decided to take on the concept, to challenge the idea that the “color of one’s skin” was a natural division among people, a reasonable igniter of distrust . . . and that, my God, all the human occupants of Planet Earth were one of five colors — black, white, yellow, brown or red — and those colors negated their complexity as human beings. This offended him not just as a man but as an artist.

And this is where the irreverence started coming in. Race was simply too absurd to take seriously. So, in the mid-’90s, when he wrote a book called White Folks: Seeing America Through Black Eyes, he decided to step over the PC line. He devised an ad campaign for the book announcing, simply, “White Folks for sale.”

Oops! Way too funny, and way too non-PC. A local radio station refused to run the ad. We can use sex and violence to sell products, but we dare not stir up the horrors of American history.

Flash forward a couple of decades and Lowell Thompson is walking through a Barnes and Noble store. He notices a large display of adult coloring books and realizes these are a thing now — and suddenly another politically incorrect idea pops into his head. He decided to create a coloring book. The title would be: “Some of My Best Friends Are Colored.”

Thompson has pursued the project through hell and high water, you might say. Shortly after he came up with the idea, “I almost died,” he told me. His blood had stopped coagulating at one point, he collapsed on a public street and was rushed to a hospital. They saved his life and he was able to push on with the project, which includes holding public events in which participants get a chance both to color and talk about race. A flyer he passes out asks: Are you black, white or human? A box next to each option contains the appropriate color. Only one of them makes sense.

Initially the project was funded by a charitable foundation, but, oops again, the word “colored” proved to be too controversial to higher-ups in the organization and they backed off, and he has pursued it on his own.

The irreverence and the crayons are both central. With both, he’s reaching, I believe, for a child’s openness and sense of possibility. We can’t free our thinking until we let go of what we know.

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
August 23, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Notes on Inauthenticity in a Creeping Fascist Nuthouse
Andrew Levine
Recession Now, Please
Rob Urie
Mr. Trump Goes to Kensington
Jeffrey St. Clair
Deep Time and the Green River, Floating
Robert Hunziker
Earth 4C Hotter
Kenneth Good
Congo’s Patrice Lumumba: The Winds of Reaction in Africa
Pete Dolack
The Realism and Unrealism of the Green New Deals
David Rosen
The White-Nationalist Great Fear
Kenn Orphan
The War on Indigenous People is a War on the Biosphere Itself
L. Michael Hager
What Netanyahu’s Travel Ban Has Revealed
Ramzy Baroud
Jewish Settlers Rule the Roost in Israel, But at What Price?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Is Environmental Protection Possible?
Josue De Luna Navarro
What It’s Like to Grow Up Hunted
Ralph Nader
They Don’t Make Republicans Like the Great Paul Findley Anymore!
Gary Olson
Whither the Resistance to our Capitalist Overlords?
Dean Baker
On Those Downward Jobs Revisions
Rev. William Alberts
Beware of the Gun-Lover-in-Chief
Helder F. do Vale
Brazil: From Global Leader to U.S. Lapdog
Laura Finley
Educators Actually Do “Work” in the Summer
Jim Goodman
Farmers Need a Bill of Rights
Tom Clifford
What China’s Leadership is Really Worried About: Rising Debt
Daphne Wysham
Saving the Planet Means Fighting Bipartisan Corruption
Tierra Curry
Amazon Fires Put the Planet at Risk
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Decentralize Power and Revive Regional Political Institutions
John W. Whitehead
American Apocalypse
George Wuerthner
How Agriculture and Ranching Subvert the Re-Wilding of America
Daniel Murphy
Capital in the 21st Century
Jessicah Pierre
400 Years After Slavery’s Start, No More Band-Aids
Kim C. Domenico
Finding the Comrades: Maintaining Precarious Sanity In Insane Times
Gary Leupp
“Based on the Fact She Won’t Sell Me Greenland, I’m Staying Home”
John Kendall Hawkins
The Chicago 8 Trial, Revisited
Rivera Sun
Tapping into People Power
Ted Rall
As Long as Enemies of the State Keep Dying Before Trial, No One Should Trust the State
Jesse Jackson
The Significance of the “1619 Project”
Thomas Knapp
“Nuance” in Politics and Public Policy? No Thanks
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and Endangered Species, Wildlife and Human
Mel Gurtov
China’s Hong Kong Nightmare, and the US Response
Ron Forthofer
Sick of Being a Guinea Pig
Nicky Reid
Why I Stopped Being White (and You Should Too)
Jill Richardson
As the School Year Starts, I’m Grateful for the ADA
Seth Sandronsky
Rethinking the GDR
Adolf Alzuphar
Tears / Ayizan Velekete
Stephen Cooper
General Jah Mikey: “I Just Love That Microphone, Man”
Louis Proyect
Slaves to the Clock
David Yearsley
Moral Cantatas
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail