April Grayson was born and raised in Mississippi. She left the state after college and returned again 10 years later to tell stories about her home state and, in particular, about the Civil Rights Movement and the history of race in Mississippi through oral history and documentary films. April is the director of Community & Capacity Building at the Alluvial Collective, formerly the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, an organization that works to hold space for difficult conversations.
“I am a native of Mississippi and I am fifth generation Mississippian. My family roots are down in South Mississippi, in Jones and Jasper Counties, but I grew up in Mississippi Delta in Sharkey County in a little town called Rolling Fork. And so I was born and raised there and that was incredibly formative in my view of the world and really what has brought me to where I am now in my life.
I tell that story a lot in my work at the Winter Institute. I left Mississippi after college. I fled, even though it was very unconscious that I was fleeing or subconscious in some way. I lived away from Mississippi in Seattle for almost 10 years, where I met my husband, who’s a New Yorker—a Brooklyn boy—and after living there for 10 years, just kept feeling the call to come back to Mississippi and tell stories about my hometown and about Mississippians and particularly about the Civil rights movement and the history of race in Mississippi.
And so I moved back to Mississippi—to Oxford—where I honestly had spent one whole day ever in my life before I moved here. But on that day, I had really made some connections with people that I was like, “Oh, I can go back to Mississippi and have people that really are interested in these same issues that I’m interested in.” Because I was not convinced of that for a while. And that is really why unconsciously I left. I was very lucky that I worked for a very great boss at a high tech company at the time who loved to travel. And so I said, “Hey, how about I take a couple months off to travel and then I come back to this job for a few months and then how about I work remotely from Mississippi because I’d really like to move back to Mississippi, but I like this job.”
And he said, “Let me think about it.” And a few hours later he came back and said, “Okay.” And so my husband and I went to Asia and traveled for a few months and came back to Seattle to this job with the idea to move to Mississippi. We knew that the economy was taking a downturn at that time. This was 1999, 2000. It was the high tech bust. So actually at our going away party the night before we drove away with our filled up truck, my boss took us all aside and said, “Um, I have something to tell you. The company is folding. Nobody has a job anymore.”
So we got in the truck and drove to Mississippi and were like, “Wow. That whole thing that we had planned isn’t really panning out quite the way that we thought.” So when we got here, I was scrambling for unemployment and contract work.
I had befriended Susan Glisten, who was the founding director of the Winter Institute, and it was this fledgling little organization based at the University of Mississippi, like a year old. And it was a one person show that she was running, and she had said, “When you get back to Mississippi, give me a call.” So when I got to Mississippi, I’m like, “Here I am, and I don’t have a job so I can volunteer.”
She said, “We have these oral history interviews scheduled for the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Riders coming up in a couple of weeks. Do you wanna join?” And I said yes. Myself and Susan and a handful of southern studies graduate students went to Jackson for a few days and did series after series of oral history interviews with the Freedom Riders who were having their reunion. And I suddenly thought, “Okay, despite all the uncertainties of this, I think I made the right choice. I think I’m in the right place. It’s gonna be okay.” And then I somehow, I got referred for a lot of film crew jobs. So there was a series of documentaries that were being filmed in Mississippi around that time. They were just really temporary jobs, but I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is why I came back.”
In the meantime I continued to volunteer with the Winter Institute doing interviews and, and they began growing their work in some communities. And so it just grew. And then eventually Susan was able to hire me part-time and then eventually full time. And so that’s how I got with the Winter Institute, and it just sort of has snowballed.
My family roots here are a huge draw. But Mississippi has been the epicenter of so much around the history of slavery, the history of the Civil War, and the potential for our country to fracture permanently. It certainly has fractured in ways that have not been fully healed. So it’s been the site of so much trauma, but also so much resistance and modeling of organizing and activism and all the things that carry us forward.
I could never fail to find a good story in any corner of this planet, but the stories of Mississippi, I think resonate with me so deeply I understand the language so deeply. Both from the point of view of white families that have really problematic histories…my great-great-grandfather was a Confederate soldier, so I have lived firsthand the ways that white southerners are deeply problematic. And I have also lived the ways that some white southerners have been fighting for the right thing. And then I grew up in a predominantly Black community in a predominantly Black school where I also witnessed firsthand the stories of people who were impacted, but also the stories of the ways that they resisted and the ways that they found strength. They’re just beautiful inspiring stories to me.
I do think that Mississippi reveals the worst of America in a lot of ways, but also honestly, the best in America. And I do think that our history often doesn’t allow us to avoid the subject in ways that other parts of the country can. Wrestling with it is so complicated and I think many of us in Mississippi understand that complication in ways that other parts of the country don’t or are just recently coming to understand a bit better or begin to look at a bit better.”
“A prompt that we use in our work at the Winter Institute is to tell the story of your name. Many people’s stories are very fascinating. So my name is April Lea Grayson, and yes, I was born in the month of April. So I always got a lot of teasing that my parents weren’t very original, but I like it. But my middle name is Lea and it’s spelled L-E-A, because my parents wanted to feminize it when I was born, because I was named after my paternal great grandfather, Ryan Lee Grayson, who was my father’s favorite grandparent. And he has these wonderful memories of him as a child. And he died when my dad was a child, so he wanted to memorialize his grandfather in my name.
But Ryan Lee Grayson was the son of a Confederate soldier, my great-great-grandfather. And so like many white southern men of his generation, he was named for Robert E. Lee, the Confederate General. And that is a story that my grandfather and my father told me. I heard a lot about that history. My great-great-grandfather was captured on Lookout Mountain. He was imprisoned in one of the camps on the Great Lakes and had to walk back to the south, back to Mississippi after the war.
So it’s a pretty fascinating story, but they never glorified it. They never made it a big deal. It was what it was. There was never any sort of celebratory attitude about the Confederacy. My parents were always very truthful and realistic. And so it is very interesting to me that I carry the name of Robert E. Lee in my own name. And then my last name Grayson, is my father’s family name. And I’m married. I love my husband’s last name, but I just decided I really identify with my Grayson roots. They were in this tiny little community in south Mississippi, known in the area as a little bit unusual folk, truck farmers by trade, who really loved the land and could make anything grow. But also poets, painters, artists. And one of my dear members of that family was an early environmentalist, so I just really relate to all of those things. And so that’s why I kept my name, and I have it proudly. “
“As I’ve gotten older and we’ve been looking at a lot of family photos, you just see so much physical resemblance in certain people. And sometimes you say, “Oh my gosh, that is exactly me right there, like that mannerism or that trait or that personality thing.” And so I know that there are all these people before me, and I always wonder, who am I like? Whose qualities do I have? And so I think about my great-great-grandfather. Do I have some of those qualities or would I feel completely alienated from him? Could we have a good conversation about this? Like what, Yeah, I think about that a lot.
I would want him to know that I don’t look on him with hatred or anything like that. You hear a lot of justification like, “Oh, a lot of them were just farm hands that didn’t have any choice, but go join the Confederate army.” But my great-great-grandfather was an officer.
I guess I would want him to know that I certainly think that whole thing was a mistake and a travesty and that we’re still paying for it today. But I don’t hold any personal hatred towards him. As far as I know, my family never owned enslaved people. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere along the lines we found there was some evidence.
It would be a fascinating conversation. I’m not sure that we could have that conversation. How much could we have that conversation without it breaking down into somebody getting really upset?”
“We facilitate a program called the Welcome Table, which quickly revealed that people were eager to talk about these things and eager to move forward in some measure of wrestling with these histories and hopefully with a goal of some sort of healing, whatever that means. But they didn’t know how to talk about it. They were scared to talk about it. And it became apparent that they had their own stories around all of this. And it was through their own story, and building relationships through those stories that the really difficult work was happening. And so the Welcome Table is built on that foundation, that it is in the relationship building and the trust building, which is all holding hands with truth telling, that allows us to wrestle with the hard stuff and work towards a better world. A more equitable world.
It opens a lot of people up for learning more, rather than just running away from it. Something that we hear frequently is, “Why are you stirring up that history? You’re just causing problems by looking at history or talking about that. I would argue…I mean, the evidence for 20 years now in my life is the exact opposite. With Welcome Table, our work is really built around that notion that when we slow down, take some breaths, are open to hearing each other’s stories, that we can build a relationship that enables us to wrestle with the hard stuff better.
Over and over again in my work, people say, “Gosh, this was great. I never get to have these kind of conversations. There’s just never any space for them and we don’t know how to have them.” There is a thirst for that. That’s why I find my work so rewarding, is because it can get awkward for people. It can get clearly uncomfortable for people to bring up a lot of trauma. It’s not a lighthearted venture, but people find so much reward from it. I hear that gratitude for just holding space for that and for extending grace. And that’s one of the things that we say a lot in our work is, “We are meeting you where you’re at. We are here together to extend each other grace.” We are not fixing each other.
We lead every engagement with a firm rooting in what we call our guideposts, which are shared agreements. Often you see a sense of relief when we go over our guideposts because it’s clear that we’re creating a space for whoever you are now. You know, these are our boundaries on this, but they’re very big. If you’re coming in good faith, then you’re going to be able to adhere to them. There are occasionally people who don’t come in good faith and we have to manage that, but honestly, we don’t have to do a lot of management.
I literally could spend hours having this conversation with you about this whole situation and also a tension with that around who these spaces are created for and who they center. I’m not saying this about your work, but in our work, there’s always this sort of larger critique over work I do over, is it centering white people and their experiences too much? Is it catering to white fragility too much and things like that. And I think that’s a really important critique for this work in general. I’m always aware of that. I’m always holding that in my mind. Who am I asking to do the hardest work? Who is the least comfortable? Where is the trauma most likely to happen?”
-Have you ever left a place, only to feel drawn back? If so, what called to you?
-What is the difficult history in the place you call home? How have you wrestled with it?
-How do you manage the tension between what April calls”the best and the worst of America?”
-What is the story of your name? Does it carry positive or negative memories?
-Are there things about your ancestors that trouble you?
-Do you feel equipped to have difficult conversations about race?
-Share a time when you were able to have a productive conversation about race. Why did it succeed?
-Are there parameters that you have found can help difficult conversations?