Department of Afroamerican and African Studies (DAAS) Professor Heather Thompson wouldn’t describe her journey to DAAS as typical. Thompson grew up in Detroit, where she was always surrounded and influenced by Black people and the surrounding community. To her, the way that the media portrayed Detroit was entirely inaccurate to her experience.
“When all other white families were moving out of the city, my family moved into the city… The community that I lived in is not the community that the outside world thought that they understood. In other words, the way that you would read about Detroit is that it was this hellhole, murder capital of the world… to me, Detroit was this incredible place where everybody that I knew from the mayor to my teachers to the person that ran the bank, everybody in authority, everybody that I learned from… everybody that was important was Black,” Thompson said in an interview. “There was such a disconnect between the narrative that America had about Blackness and about the Black city that I grew up in, it made no sense.”

This was the instigating question that motivated her to pursue a rewarding career in African American studies. Thompson earned her B.A. and M.A. in History at the University of Michigan, back when DAAS was still the Center of Afroamerican and African Studies (CAAS). She then earned her Ph.D. in American History at Princeton University.
“I didn’t even know where Princeton was. I started graduate school with a five month old baby, I remember showing up at Princeton with him, and I burst into tears because I was like ‘Dylan, I can’t even believe we’re here,’” Thompson said.

She came back to DAAS in 2015 as a joint professor in the Residential College and DAAS, and she now holds a position as Professor of History as well. Her courses are all cross-listed and primarily focus on crime, punishment, and civil rights movements.
“Even though I’m an historian, I have always written about the history of Black studies and worked on African American studies and Civil Rights history… I actually came from Temple (University) before I came here, and I was in the department of Black studies there too, so it was important when I came to Michigan to be part of DAAS,” Thompson said. “At DAAS I also co-founded “the carceral state project” — we do symposiums, informational workshops, crime and justice issues around the area… We’re also running a major research project on campus having to do with criminalization and confinement.”

Outside of DAAS, Thompson helps run history consulting firm, History Studio, featured on podcasts and network television, and published books — one of which won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2017. 
“When I wrote (“Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy”), it took 13 years to write it because the state of New York didn’t want the story told, that these cops had murdered so many people on the inside. I was finally able to name the shooters, and it took forever to do it… I was teaching my History of Detroit class when I got the announcement that I won the Pulitzer Prize, and I couldn’t believe it. All I kept thinking was ‘finally, these prisoners will be believed.’”

This year, she was awarded the 2020-2021 Guggenheim Fellowship.

“When I got the Guggenheim, it was like ‘oh my god I can’t believe it, now I’m going to get to write this book.’ So, it’s like everytime something like this happens, at some level, I’m always like ‘kid from Detroit,’ I still can’t believe it,” Thompson said. 

Even after all her accolades and accomplishments, Thompson fondly remembers her origins as a kid from Detroit. She notes that having a mentor was crucial to her career development. Without one, she says she wasn’t sure if she would have ever gotten this far. 

“I remember so acutely, I don’t think I would’ve ever imagined writing an honors thesis at Michigan had I not had a TA — I remember being in her class and raising my hand to discuss something, and some guys were snickering in the back of the classroom, like ‘what do you have to contribute,’” Thompson recalls. “I remember fighting the tears, and the TA took me to coffee and was like ‘you know, you’re really good at this, you’re really smart, you’re really good at this, and I think you should write an honors thesis in history.’ I will never ever forget that, because if it had not been for that, I’m not sure I would’ve ever been a history major, none of it probably would have happened... That’s why I think DAAS is important to me because if we didn’t have that program, if we didn’t have that space, I would worry, I feel like we need that space.”

To this day, Thompson continues to study and uncover the answer to her root question: Why are the perceptions of Blackness in America what they are today?

“To me, understanding the disconnect between white narratives of African American history, or simply blackness, was always something that I needed to understand, I needed to figure it out, I needed to make sense of it,” Thompson said. “My own biography is more complicated than it looks on the surface when you look at me, but nevertheless, as a white woman, I’m very well aware that I’m still not writing about my own experience. In other words, I’m writing this from the outside, and I have to write from a position of listening and not trying to tell someone else’s stories.”