Writer to Write Podcast: Heather Ann Thompson

For this blog post, I listened to the Writer to Writer featuring Heather Ann Thompson — a historian and academic at UM focusing specifically on African American studies. Shockingly, I found almost all of the topics she discussed to be relevant to my experiences as a writer — specifically, through my time at Michigan in Color (the space on The Michigan Daily for students of color to talk about our experiences on campus).

First, I 100% resonated with her background as a writer — down to my mom also being my “first editor.” My mom, an English major, always encouraged me to write. On the one hand, this meant that I don’t remember ever consciously realizing I enjoyed writing, it was simply something I’d been doing forever. However, on the other, that doesn’t mean writing is an easy process for me. This is particularly true regarding my writings at Michigan in Color. Given that all of my articles and stories were narrative based, I had to invoke or reference my identity as an African American male in every.single.piece. of writing. Done once, this can be freeing. Done often, it can be exhausting. However, much like Dr. Thompson, this writing is still worth it to me because I care deeply about the material. I truly feel that, at the end of the day, if my pieces helped even one person, it was worth any labor (emotional or otherwise) that I put in.

Furthermore, I resonated with Heather Ann Thompson’s distinction between writing solely for academia and writing for the public arena. Her rationale for creating such a distinction is that writing for the public arena involves making the writing more accessible for people outside of the world of academia. At Michigan in Color, we routinely ran into this problem. As a space focused on social justice, our pieces were often saturated in terms that people outside of the SJ community may not have ever encountered. In my head, pieces with SJ language are the equivalent to academic pieces — both are only able to be consumed by certain audiences. However, to make it more accessible, it’s necessary to shift the tone and language of the writing. That way, more people can understand the topic and actually take lessons from it.

Where my experiences and opinions diverged a bit from Dr. Thompson’s is in her insistence that “everybody’s truth is right.” Although she clears this up a bit during the audience questioning where she admits that extreme situations — like the Holocaust — don’t have multiple sides, it still seems like many of the issues that I see as one-sided may be seen as having multiple sides by her. Particularly, given my interest in issues related to race (and her studies on the topic), it sounded like she sees there being multiple sides to the issue, and all deserve to be equally heard. Furthermore, while Dr. Thompson acknowledged her privilege as a white woman, she went on to say that it’s her job to tell people’s stories from their vantage points. A core tenet of Michigan in Color is that we can only speak about our own identities. Even when we cover events, we send people who share that identity. That’s based on the assumption that it’s nearly impossible to tell a story from another person’s vantage points because you don’t share the experiences they do. Given Dr. Thompson’s success, I’m sure she’s aware of this and found ways to navigate it, so I would have been curious to learn more about what that process looks like for her.

All in all, I enjoyed listening to this talk because of our shared interests in the African American experience. Although there are some areas I would have liked to hear more about, it was still very helpful to hear how someone else (particularly someone of a different identity) thinks about their writings on these issues.

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