He spoke and wrote of African civilizations as infinitely varied ethical, philosophical and aesthetic systems. To capture their complexity and sophistication, he said, a “guerrilla scholarship” was needed that combined art history, anthropology, dance history, religious studies, sociology and ethnomusicology. This hybrid practice has taken him on several occasions out of the academic ivory tower and into rural Africa, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the hip-hop clubs of the Bronx. In all of these environments, he was equally and exultant at home.
He was born on December 30, 1932 in El Paso. Her father, Dr. Robert Farris Thompson, was a surgeon; her mother, Virginia (Hood) Thompson, was a local patron. Professor Thompson later recalled that on a family trip to Mexico City in 1950, during his senior year of high school, he had heard mambo music for the first time, and that this experience instantly sparked his passion. for African culture and let him know that, especially in the form of popular music, this culture was everywhere around him.
“Mambo,” he said in a 1992 interview with art historian Donald J. Cosentino in African Arts magazine, “has become my dominant obsession.”
After graduating from Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts, he entered Yale, where he took various humanities courses and practiced the drums, with the intention of pursuing a career in jazz. During a two-year stint in the military, he was acclaimed as a drummer in an army talent show; in 1959, he released an Afro-Cuban-style percussion album, “Safari of One”.
He tried his luck in law school, but dropped out after a year and returned to Yale to do graduate studies in art history. There he studied with George Kubler, a pre-Columbian Mexican and Aztec art historian, who approached his subject with the kind of undisputed respect that at the time was usually accorded in universities to European art.