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Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy Paperback – August 12, 1984

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Editorial Reviews


"Robert Farris Thompson is the art historian of Africa who has turned his talents to Afro-America and sketched the course that creative new work is likely to follow." -- Eugene Genovese

This landmark book shows how five African civilizations -- Yoruba, Kongo, Ejagham, Mande and Cross River -- have informed and are reflected in the aesthetic, social and metaphysical traditions (music, sculpture, textiles, architecture, religion, idiogrammatic writing) of black people in the United States, Cuba, Haiti, Trinidad, Mexico, Brazil and other places in the New World.

"A wonderfully enthusiastic book...Mr. Thompson is a professor of art history, but he takes his subject in the round, not in any specialized or compartmentalized manner. He is part anthropologist, part art critic, part musicologist, part student of religion and philosophy, and entirely an enthusiastic partisan of what he writes about."

-- The New York Times Book Review

"Centuries of racist assumptions go packing it in Flash of the Spirit." -- The Village Voice

"This is art history to dance by." -- The Philadelphia Inquirer

From the Inside Flap

This book reveals how five distinct African civilizations have shaped the specific cultures of their New World descendants.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage Books ed edition (August 12, 1984)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0394723694
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394723693
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #128,781 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Stephanie Rose Bird on March 11, 2003
Format: Paperback
If I could give this book 6 stars I would. Robert Farris Thompson presents our rich, ancient history making it quite clear that African Americans are not an isolated group but a group intimately connected to particular cultures and societies in West Africa and the African diaspora. The rich text is generously supported by illustrated plates. Essential reading for those who wish to gain an understanding of African cosmology, philosophy and art in relation to the African diaspora (North and South America, copious information on Brazil, the Carribean etc) Great reference material for students, artists, writers, researchers and thinkers. As an educator, writer and author I highly recommend this book.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By D. Pawl VINE VOICE on August 31, 2007
Format: Paperback
I had the privilige to see Robert Farris Thompson, when the FACES OF THE GODS exhibit came to the Seattle Art Museum. Dr. Thompson came to speak about the history of the orishas (gods and goddesses) in the santeria and vodoo religious practices amongst the Afro-Cubans, Afro-Brazilians and African-Americans. What sets Thompson apart from other scholars is his genuine passion for the subject matter he has well-researched, as well as his vast knowledge of the Diaspora, and the cultural interconnectedness of people of African descent throughout the globe.

FLASH OF THE SPIRIT examines on a closer, more intimate level the cultural significance of the gods and goddesses depicted in mythology and art of those who are practitioners of (among other religions) Yoruba, Santeria and Voodoo faiths. We see beautiful and powerful illustrations and photographs of the jewelry, textiles, plates and figurines used in worship, and we also get insight into the characteristics of the gods and goddesses, their meaning in the lives of those who pray to them, and how this plays into other parts of society, human interaction and behavior. I come away from this book feeling that we are lot closer than we think, and that while "African-American" and "African" are important distinctions to recognize in terms of cultural definition, they are also at times parallel and quite similar to the indigenous Native cultures of South and Central America, as well as other parts of the world. This is fascinating material and Farris Thompson's writing style is pure poetry. I guarantee that once you start reading this book, you won't be able to put it down.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Earl Hazell on June 7, 2000
Format: Paperback
I enjoyed this book when I first read it as much for the kinds of bridges it seemed to make as for his own writing style and subject matter. R.F. Thompson, who I had the pleasure of meeting once in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is someone who along with being highly knowledgeable cares a great deal for the subject. Where the book could be considered lacking I would say is it's way of seeming dated. It bares some cultural prejudice which, considering the cultural remoteness of the subject matter when compared to the intellectual/cultural arena of the writer(African and African-American, Afro-Cuban/Hispanic culture vs. Post-World War II Ivy League) - and how well he did anyway- is forgiveable, but present nonetheless. If you are expecting some pretty powerful things to be said about Coltrane, or the early days of Rap music and Hip-hop dance (now in its third decade of existence already), or Modigliani, or other things that are in the forefront of the present culture's mind, to a certain degree you will be disappointed. However, if you had no idea other than the Alex Haley "Roots" era rhetoricals about the derivation of many African-American and Hispanic/Hispanic-American cultural paradigms, this will enlighten you in ways that will have you going to the bookstore to see what else he and many others have written on the subjects. I recommend it- particularly for lovers of European modern art, studies of religion, and other things influenced by the Mother country.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 30, 2000
Format: Paperback
Thompson's work on African retentions in New World artforms is seminal in the field of African Diasporan art history. However, Flash of the Spirit reads more like a best seller than a textbook. Fascinating details and insights into the meanings of art from Haiti to Georgia to Brazil, with excellent context for all objects. Great for anyone at all curious about African heritage, religion, and art. Occasionally thick reading, as one must trace entire cosmologies, but well layed out, full of illustrations, and textually easy to follow. Thompson makes an obscure genre easily accesible to readers of varied backgrounds.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
What can I say that has not already been said about Robert F. Thompson's Flash of the Spirit? He does an excellent job reporting on the African retentions that exist in the Americas. I really enjoyed this book for several reasons, but the main reason we I continued to use this book as reference point is because it has done what none other book has done, which is investigate the African retentions that exist in North America. This was important to me because I had heard growing up that African Americans being the farthest from Africa practically lost all of their cultural ties to Africa. Thompson reveals that this is not the case at all and provides numerous examples indicating that the one of the strongest cultural influences that contributed to African American culture are the people from the Kongo Angolan region.

This put a new twists on things, but made me look at life from a different perspective, as the author discuss the origin of the term funky and jazz. As well as elaborate on various African American cultural expressions like the ones demonstrated in the Supremes' movements "Stop" and "Talk to the hand" that all seem to come from this region.

This book was a real treat and a true classic, that you will enjoy for years to come.
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