Interview by Liv Linn
Kimber Thomas is a native of Jackson, Mississippi. She received her
bachelor’s degree in English from Alcorn State University and her
master’s degree in Afro-American Studies from UCLA. She previously
worked as an oral historian for Jackson State University’s Margaret
Walker Center and for the Southern Foodways Alliance. This past
summer, Kimber completed a research project in Mound Bayou, MS, with the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance. Currently, she serves as a field scholar for the Southern Oral History Program at UNC.
Liv Linn: What work were you doing in Mound Bayou?
Kimber Thomas: This summer, three Robertson scholars and I conducted a research project on the founders and early settlers of Mound Bayou, which is a historic black town located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. We wanted to find out where Mound Bayou’s early settlers came from, where they lived, worked, and worshipped once they arrived in Mound Bayou, and above all, what their roles were in helping Mound Bayou become of the most prosperous all-black towns in the nation.
Through archival research, which included searching the town’s archives for maps, ordinance books, and obituaries, and genealogical research, which included searching Ancestry.com and the records of the U.S. Freedmen’s Bureau, the students and I uncovered a wealth of information about 50 of Mound Bayou’s earliest residents.
LL: What drew you there, and what do you think is important about it—the town and/or your work?
KT: One of my most inspiring undergraduate professors was born and raised in Mound Bayou, and I have always admired her pride for the place she called home. When the opportunity came up, I jumped on it because I knew it would allow me to experience Mound Bayou in all of its fullness. I think it’s extremely important to preserve the history and heritage of Mound Bayou, which is so rich and important, for future generations.
LL: Tell me more about your work with black material culture. What is material culture, and why are you interested in it?
KT: My own work focuses on the materiality of black life in the American South. I’ve always been so intrigued by the ways black people “makedo” with what they have in order to create new worlds for themselves. My dissertation will pair oral history with material objects to explore this further. I’m really, really excited about it.
LL: What do you like about oral history? Can you talk about a memorable interview/story you’ve collected?
KT: I’ve just always enjoyed talking to people and listening to their stories. Growing up in Mississippi, that was the way people talked to you—through stories. My mother and my aunts —and my daddy too—are the best storytellers I know, and I try to channel their voices sometimes when I’m writing or working on creative projects. My most memorable oral history was with my grandmother earlier this year. It was so amazing to hear and see her tell her life story to me, and I feel so much closer to her after that interview.
LL: What projects are you currently working on?
KT: I’m currently working on a short essay about tea cakes for my “Writing Material Culture” seminar. Back in the day, black women in Mississippi would call tea cakes and fried bologna “the black man’s steak and gravy.” I’ve taken this idea and just run with it. The essay is written in the form of a love story; it’s about food, race, power, and relationships in the American South.
LL: Who were some of your role models growing up, or who has most impacted your academics and career?
KT: My first grade teacher, Imelda Brown, was one of the first people to introduce me to southern black culture. On Fridays, she would turn on James Brown or the Temptations in the classroom and let all of the students dance. I remember one day, she taught us all how to do the “mashed potato” and the twist. She also told me when I was 6 years old that I would be a writer. Her words have stayed with me throughout this journey.
I’ve had several other teachers like her, but my other big role model is my mom. I’ve always admired the way that she handles things, and the way that she treats people. She raised my sister and I to be proud, and she also kept black culture around us a lot. We had a lot of art and films around the house growing up, and we often had dance-offs to this song by Junior Walker and the All-Stars called “Cleo’s Mood.” She and my teachers have most impacted my academic and professional work.
LL: What’s an achievement of yours of which you are most proud?
KT: Graduating summa cum laude from the best HBCU in the land, Alcorn State University! And being an auntie, too! (Although my niece is actually not my achievement!) Her name is Kaisen and she’s one. She loves chicken and grapefruit and we share kisses on FaceTime—a minimum of—twice a day