Thompson, Dorothy Perry
Poet, scholar, educator. Born Dorothy Perry in Springfield, South Carolina, in 1944, Thompson grew up with five siblings in the Wheeler Hill neighborhood of Columbia, South Carolina, which has figured so prominently in many of her poems, especially those 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 described her childhood as “rich with people, talk, things to do” although it was “bare of material things.” She also described 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 in 1974. After receiving her M.A.T., Thompson taught for several years in the public schools of South Carolina, notably Riverside High School in Saluda, Lower Richland High School in Hopkins, and Dreher High School in Columbia. She then returned to graduate school and earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of South Carolina in 1987; she holds the double distinction of being the second African American in USC’s history to earn a doctorate in English and the first African American to do a creative writing dissertation at that university (under the direction of James Dickey). Of her landmark position as a minority woman in graduate studies in English at the University of South Carolina, she 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.”
As a poet, scholar, and teacher, Dorothy Perry Thompson lent a 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. Thompson’s poems have also been published in an impressive array of journals and anthologies including 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.
Two poems in particular serve to illustrate Thompson’s central concerns. The first, “God After Atheism,” presents God as a movie maker and the poet as a human being who has picked up the camera for her own creative purposes. In effect, the poem demonstrates the importance of black identity, citing hard, black pieces of obsidian as part of earliest creation, and then explains the necessity for the poet to surrender the camera to its original owner. The poem’s title suggests that the speaker is re-establishing a connection with God after a period of denying God’s existence. Of this God, the reader must conclude that he is both powerful and mysteriously inconsistent; 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 also giving the movie-maker God a second chance as well. The second poem, “To Danya, My Daughter,” is a profound and moving testimony to the power of maternal love and the importance of a spiritual consciousness shared by generations.
Like her poems, Thompson’s scholarly work is deeply concerned with the place and presence of African Americans. Published works include an essay, “Daddy Saved in Snatches: The Quilting,” which appears in Father Songs: Testimonies by African American Sons and Daughters, and a chapter entitled “Africana Womanism in Gloria Naylor’s ‘Mama Day’ and ‘Bailey’s Café’” in Gloria Naylor’s Early Works, edited by Margaret Anne Kelley. Asked about writers who most deeply influenced her, Thompson cited Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Gwendolyn Brooks, Djuna Barnes, Ernest Gaines, Alice Walker, Rita Dove, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nikki Giovanni.
At the time of her death, Dorothy Perry Thompson held the rank of professor of English at Winthrop University where she taught courses in American literature, writing, verse composition, and African American studies and where she also coordinated the African American Studies Program. She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta and the South Carolina Academy of Authors (2002). She and her husband Johnnie C. Thompson, also a 1962 graduate of Booker T. Washington High School, raised three children: Johnnie (III), Danya, and Jene.
Dorothy Perry Thompson. Personal Interview. 12 June, 1998.
–––. “Daddy Saved in Snatches: The Quilting.” Father Songs, Testimonies by African American Sons and Daughters. Edited by Gloria Wade-Gayles. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1997.