Afton Thomas is the Associate Director for Programs at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi. Afton talks about Oxford as the progressive south, and the importance of continuing to share stories of the past so we can live better today and in the future. At the time of this interview, Afton’s involvement and voice in the community had led her down a political path as she made the decision to run for Alderman in the city she now calls home.
“I’m a lover of people and I love to have conversations. I’d like to think I’m a good listener. I’m a deep listener. I’m an only child who has lived in four different states. That connection I’ve had to try and make anew, a few different times, is probably why I love that process of getting to know people.
I don’t move to a place and then try to insert what I think that place should be like. That is something that I’ve observed others do, especially in my time here. Moving to the south, some people say, “Oh, why would you move there?” Or, “They’re just so backwards there.” And those things don’t cross my mind.
There are reasons why everyone thinks and feels the way they do. I also understand that what we say in a moment is influenced by something that happened that day. We might be given a little grace sometimes. I mean, maybe can get away with that once or twice . But, we have off days. That is a part of who we are too, and should not be our whole selves.”
“From age seven to nine or so, my mother was dating my stepdad. But he is my dad. I have two of them, my biological father and my stepdad. And they are both dads. And I only use that “step” just so that no one gets confused. They began dating when I was seven, and they got married when I turned nine. He is from St. Kitts, so he’s West Indian. I grew up in St. Louis.
Where I grew up, my elementary school was predominantly black students and maybe 50/50 teachers, black and white. Not a lot of any other ethnic groups. And that continued in junior high, the same school district, and therefore in high school as well.
Meeting my now dad, he didn’t register as different to me. It wasn’t until he came to a school play or some school event and someone else would interact with him. He has an accent. I would go, “Huh, okay. I guess he is different in some way.”
And one day I went to school and someone said, “You know, my mom says that Jamaicans beat their wives and that your dad must beat your mom.” And I mean, I am nine. I’m in fourth grade, but I had enough awareness to know that that was unfair. And so I said, “Well, number one, he’s not Jamaican. I don’t think Jamaicans beat their wives, but he isn’t Jamaican. There’s a distinction there. But that isn’t a fair statement.”
So I knew very early—didn’t have this terminology—but that Black people are not a monolith. We are not one way. That kind of continued. My dad is an engineer and worked for Anheuser-Busch most of my life. Still does as a consultant, but he retired from there formally. Growing up, I spent summers in Dublin, Ohio, and Columbus, Ohio. He was a project manager and so we went where the project was.
My mom and I would swim all day and go see dollar movies. I was in the pool. My mom was reading her book and she made me wear these floaties even when I knew how to swim.
So there was a girl about the same age as I am. And I think she was from the south, but I don’t mean anything other than it’s where I live now. Not saying anything about her. She came up to me in the pool and she said, “I like Whitney Houston.” That was it. It wasn’t “My name is…” “Would you like to play with me?” It was, “I like Whitney Houston.” Based on—I don’t know what—my race, I suppose.
Again, not from a conversation with my parents or anything, I recognized that she was trying to connect with me, and wasn’t sure of how to do that. And later that summer we continued to play. I said, “Oh, okay, great. I’m Afton. You wanna play?”
So we continued to play and I got a girl talk game. My birthday’s in the summer and I got it for my birthday. She was there and we were trying to figure out the game and I was reading the instructions and the same little girl says, “Give that to me. My dad says, y’all can’t read.”
So we took it up a notch. I asked her to leave. That hurt my feelings. I can read. And so I asked her to leave and my parents saw her walking downstairs. I was upset and I told them what happened, they told me that that was a reasonable thing to ask her to do. To leave.
The next day she came back and she apologized to me. I’ve heard my mom tell this story. My mother watched me show that little girl that I played clarinet. I do lots of things. I wanted to be a lawyer for most of my life. At that particular time, I wanted to be a Supreme Court justice, like Thurgood Marshall. And I wanted to meet him.”
Race in America
“It’s heavy. I haven’t been able to process what has taken place yet again in Minnesota. The TV has really been off. We have been grieving the loss of my mother-in-law, as you know. And I don’t even know if I’ve done that. I’ve been just moving, just trying to get things done. My husband left to go be with his mom, and I had to be a solo parent. There are plenty of solo parents, so I will not [complain] about that. But you miss your partner when they’re gone and you have to do it all.
It’s a different kind of rhythm. I think James and I are both wired this way…we can kind of compartmentalize. That’s maybe not always the healthiest. I’m not bragging about it. So my heart these days, I’m not really in tune with it. I’m keeping going. I’m just always moving.
And so I don’t really know. I know that my heart is—if I sat still—it’s sad, it’s worn out. Being in the pandemic and with the death of George Floyd and Brionna Taylor…
That was really hard. It’s still hard. It’s not something you get over. I feel like it’s getting harder to not talk about those things. You know, you go to work and you just continue to do, and it’s not putting on a face, it’s just how I’m wired. But it’s getting harder to do that. You’re just feeling it at every turn. You try to be just, and do things that way and teach your children and model that behavior and then you don’t see it done in public by those we trust. You don’t see things that you are trying to instill in your children on the screen and in the news that you read.
You’re trying to figure out what you can do. This is probably not a novel idea. My parents, my grandparents and their parents…things happened around them and they tried to figure out what they can do. I find beauty in that. I think that as a community, as a circle of friends that we have here, more and more people are doing that, trying to figure out what they can do. Not being satisfied with, “I can’t do anything.” Just because I’m not in a position of [power,] that doesn’t mean that you don’t have individual power. Even just having conversations is doing something.”
“We moved here in 2012. I started at the Southern Foodways Alliance and because Southern is in the title, we do all things southern. And so I felt for the first time, you don’t do food. You’re not from the south. You can’t talk about me maw, and papa. You know, I’m being funny, but that was coming at me a lot. I felt for the first time like I was clearly an outsider and I pressed up against that. Like, “No, I’m not.’
And I’m finding some common ground here. My my grandmother is from Marigold, Mississippi. She lived there until she was four. So I mean, you find those connections. In my work every day, in our programming, making sure that we are touching on many different topics. Native Americans. Making sure that there’s a little bit for everyone within that realm of southern culture. And sometimes it’s a stretch, but we kind of need to stretch those boundaries.
[It’s important] that you broaden that lens, that you’re including more people in the work that you’re doing, as opposed to just staying with the traditionally, narrowly defined identity of what the south is.
I want you to be able to see yourself or something that is of interest to you. And then I also think the other side of that is that it is important that we know things that are outside of our bubble, outside of our religion, outside of our race, our culture, outside of our community, outside of the socioeconomic class that we live in that is important for a holistic view on things so that we’re not so narrow, so that we are building understanding for people. It’s just trying not to let those narrow categorical buckets define things. I think that that is important.”
“I met James in college. I had never dated outside of my race. So, I talked about elementary school and what that demographic, looked like. So we spent some summers in Columbus, Ohio, but then we moved there the summer before eighth grade up until the fourth quarter of my junior year. It was a handful of Black people, majority white, and maybe five handfuls of Asian people. So now we’ve got like three groups of people. I was one of a handful of Black students and it didn’t bother me. It was just what it was.
There was a Black parent association, and my parents were a part of that. Just trying to give some sense of belonging so that we could build community. It also meant that we didn’t date each other, because you were fighting for the same guy. Or it could be the cousin of your best friend or the brother of your best friend. The pool was really small. So I’m setting up that I’ve now lived in and have gone to school in these different environments. And when I get to college at Columbia, Missouri, it’s more of the same of what I just experienced in high school.
So when I met James, I was open. I was just open to friendship. We started as friends that worked at the same bar. We also learned that we lived in the same apartment complex. And he was smart. He’d say things like, “Why should you have to drive your car? You know, I can just pull up outside and I can bring you and then I can drop you off.” We studied together for classes. And we just kept it just very casual. I found him easy to talk to about race, about about life and things and anything that made me uncomfortable. I feel like starting as friends and being able to have open communication was a great foundation for us.
But I remember our coming out as a couple. That event was a concert. And it was a predominantly black community there, and he was probably one of only five white people there at this concert. And so heads were turning but everyone was okay. James is from Kansas City and he had the flip experience, where he was one of a handful of white people in predominantly black spaces. And that is just how life, happened.
So, where I’m getting to is that we have had open communication. We have talked about ways he is Jewish. We talked about religion. And now we have these two children that we are keeping that communication going and not sliding them into any box. Because what we know for a fact is, I am Black and he is white, and they are no more one or the other. They are their own, and they have to work out what that identity is for themselves. We talk openly with them about how people are going to maybe read you a certain way and you will learn how to either go “that’s fine” or maybe you pick your battles. You tell them, that is not how you see yourself. Those conversations just organically happen. That is my family life. It is open conversation all the time.”
Center for the Study of Southern Culture
“We’ve been trying here for the last year and a half to connect things by theme. That’s helpful… connecting that history with the present day or trying to have talks that speak to the past, but also look forward. We’re trying to find that connection. If there’s a problem, looking at it and connecting it to the past. For example, last semester, voting rights was a theme that we had. Voter suppression is today and has been in the past. And so we had a series of talks. Dr. Carol Anderson was a part of two events with the center. She served as our Gilder Lecture lecturer, which is usually a historian. And she talked about voter suppression, historically speaking, and then brought us into the now and her follow up event was in a round table with Kevin Cruz and Jim Downs, and they talked about voter suppression today.
They all got together and talked about voting history, voting rights, and voter suppression. And so that is what the center is doing. We try to do that more and more, not just having one-offs, but trying to make some connections there. So maybe there’s one that looks at the past, but then there’s another, about how that is still an issue today.
Today’s virtual talk was similar. “We are Worth Fighting For” is the name of a book, that Joshua Myers, a Black Studies professor at Howard University just published along with former students at Howard University about the 1989 protests there. And why I thought that that would be a great speaker to have during our series in the spring is that I’m also a part of a task force of about 13 appointed members on campus, appointed by the provost for a similar, 1970 protest that happened on the University of Mississippi’s campus. And that protest was a peaceful one of black students who showed up at a concert.
So 1970, so it was integrated and I used air quotes because it wasn’t a lot. They weren’t welcomed. There were lots of challenges inside the classroom. Outside the classroom. Students organized the Black Student Union, and it came about in the 1970s. They put together, discussed and presented 27 demands. And among those 27 demands, were that they wanted a Black Studies degree. They wanted Black faculty. They wanted the custodians—the Black custodians, because they were and they still are today, predominantly Black—wanted them to make a living wage. Still things that we are fighting for today. So there’s the past and the present circle. The list of their demands. And so they took that to the chancellor at the time.
They also did this peaceful protest [at a concert for] Up With People. Fulton Chapel is where they were. And they must have organized, coordinated with the Up With People to see if they could come on the stage and stand. And they did. These Black students came, they walked peacefully through the chapel, went up on the stage, and they stood there and they put their fists up. Their Black Power fists. Up With People also in solidarity at that time, stood with them and they walked out.
I’ve talked to a few of them. And we’ve also collected some oral histories of them saying they remember walking out and feeling like, “Oh, that went well.” And that the students in the audience—the predominantly white audience—didn’t seem upset or anything. It had happened without a hitch.
They walked in eight minutes, stood up there, came out, when they came out, the state troopers, the local police were there. And 89 Black students were rounded up and some snatched from their dorms—weren’t even outside—and taken to the local jail. Jail and some to Parchman. Over 20 of them went to Parchman for peaceful protesting where they hadn’t done anything.
So I’m on this task force. It was the 50th anniversary. We commemorated it last February before the pandemic. Thankfully it happened. It happened. It was a two-day event. Telling that story, reenacting some parts of their hearing. They learned that they had been surveilled, things were still kind of getting pieced together. Some of them had never been back to the university. Some went to Parchman, some were suspended. And then eight of them, who they call themselves the Ole Miss Eight, were expelled, were kicked out.
One of which was Dr. Donald Cole, who then came back to the university and was in a vice chancellor position until he retired last year. The provost recognized that there’s some repair that needs to happen and some reconciliation. And that the story needs to be told more. Our students should know about it as part of history. James Meredith happened, but so did this and some others, and still up until the present day,
Everyone has their own unique story, even what I shared about 1970, we are learning that those students…no one of those students had the same experience. They were arrested, they had that in common, but were their parents supportive? Were they not? Were they able to go on and get into another college? Did that event stifle their growth? Were they traumatized by that experience? No one story has the same ending. And so I think we continue to tell these stories because it reaches individuals and groups of people each time.
Each time you tell a story, some things hit you a little differently, resonate with you a little differently. And I think that that is the hope. That is the hope. In the work, that little tiny thing that I do and that the center does, is that we are moving that conversation, any conversation forward. Amplifying, lifting up, and also hoping that people are latching on to some nugget of history and how it applies today. Things aren’t happening out of thin air, you know? So we need that constant reminder.”
Running for office
“I started with defining myself as the love for people, right? I bring us back to that, that this has become a tagline. But it didn’t start as the tagline. It just organically came. And it sums it up for me. I want Oxford to work for everyone, for everyone who lives here. And that means putting people at the center of the decision making. And that is why I’m running. I don’t feel that that is the case in every instance. The decision is made and we are told about it, but not the conversations that led to that decision.
Over the summer of 2020, it’s been a lot going around nationally and also here.
But I think it empowered people to do it here as well…taking space, protesting on the square, reminding our elected officials that we have a voice. I mean, standing downtown with signs and letting ’em know that we want this monument to come down. After the university, let’s make it happen on our square. I mean, we’ve had two [Confederate statues] in this little town, not that far from each other. So you can’t help but think of those protests, those voices getting creative and writing letters, emailing our local officials.
Who are you listening to? I don’t want the definition of a politician or our elected leaders here in Oxford to be a person who owns a business, or someone who’s been on the planning commission, or someone who has lived here all their life.
That’s what I’m up against. “Why would you run?” “You’re not from here.” “You haven’t managed an x-million dollar budget.” But I am an everyday person who lives in this community, and we need that variety, that voice on the board as well. And more than one of me. Someone who is younger and that isn’t from this place and has lived in other places. And not because I think that I can tell you all the things that we should do. But there are different experiences. That makes everything better. And so that is why I am running.
I think that I have an opportunity to change that representation, what children think, and what fellow neighbors think our leaders can look like. I think that I am at least allowing you to think about that. It doesn’t have to be one way.
I had a forum last night and I’m walking a little taller. I’m feeling like I’m scrappy. I think outside the box. I don’t take well to, “No, we can’t do that.” Or, “It’s never been that done that way. That’s not how we do it here.” I don’t take well to that. I don’t really understand that. And I’m not just talking about our local leaders. I’m talking about in anything in life, at work, even in your family dynamics. Someone saying, “Oh, we don’t do that. That’s not what we serve on Thanksgiving.” Why not? You know? We could, we could. Let’s try it. And then we don’t have to do it that way again if it didn’t work well on the plate or whatever. If I can toot my horn a little bit, we could use that.”
The wedding day
“On my wedding day. . so here we are. What could be described as two different people. Two different races, two different faiths coming together. The people who love us coming together. We had lots of blended families, mine included. And James is with his brother’s dad and his wife. All the people who love us, but not in that traditional defined way of family, what that looks like. Same sex couples. Just everyone was there. That was peace. That was coming together for the love. The union. Witnessing the love of a couple the community finds dear, and that was peaceful. I just think that was a good representation of difference coming together, being in one space and learning from each other.
We had a chuppah and we jumped the broom and we smashed the glass all at the same time with the Baptist preacher, who has known me all my life. We did it all.
Don’t worry about being right all the time. You know, lean in and listen. Do more listening than talking. It’s not what I did today, but you did that. Those were our roles. But lean in, do more listening. Don’t just jump to a conclusion.”
-Have you ever had to move to a new state? Talk about the transition.
-Share a time when you became newly aware of a difference that had been there all along.
-When did you learn to stand up for yourself? Can you recall a specific story?
-How have you processed social strife recently?
-Are there ways you could broaden your lens as you consider the history of the place you call home?
-How do you see outside of your bubble?
-Have you ever dated outside of your race?
-What are the stories we need to tell and retell again? Why?
-Tell me a time you saw a great example of peace.