NATASHA THOMAS: Challenging Conversation Corners — New Life, New Challenges

It’s been some time since my last post on Unheralded. There are a few reasons for this:

The start of the fall semester is always a busy time, especially since it follows a summer PhD residency for me, the second — of three — of which I completed just this past July.  But ultimately, the heaviest hitting contributing to my busy-ness this particular fall is the fact that I recently moved across the country from my hometown of Grand Forks. Surprise (if you didn’t already know)!

For the longest time, I was hesitant to say where I was going or why, only that I had left my position of clinical assistant professor at the University of North Dakota after a long and arduous fight to preserve the school’s music therapy program, which remains slated for suspension despite countless efforts of some of the most magnificent faculty and students I have ever had the privilege to know.

But my reasons for leaving North Dakota aren’t really what this post is about.

This post is about the process of finding the place I chose to start anew, why I felt such a need to be so closed-lipped about the transition early on and what I hope to be learning and sharing on this blog in the coming time I’ll be spending here, however long that may be.

First, for those of you just dying to know where I went — if you don’t already know — “here” is now New Orleans. Quite the shift from the pastoral tundra! But more on that later.

At the time of my departure from North Dakota, my life felt like one giant failure.  My husband and I had been going through fertility treatments to no avail. An attempt to start a commission on Diversity and Inclusion in Grand Forks was met with everything from ambivalence to outright animosity from some members of my local community, and to top it all off by mid-March, I was facing the loss of my livelihood and the demise of a program from which I had graduated myself in 2008.

It seemed like for every spark of light I attempted to create, there were clouds twice as big overhead just overflowing with darkness and rain. I was harassed online by a white supremacist who utilized photos from my Twitter Feed to claim I was corrupting youth in my work at UND, and several diversity -themed Facebook Events I was part of were spammed by this same individual and his followers — some of whom were local to Grand Forks — with horrific images and comments alleging alternately that I was an ISIS lover and that I deserved to be set on fire, hit by a car, etc., etc.

Meanwhile, I had total strangers in my hometown telling me my life wasn’t that bad, to stop making so much out of nothing, calling me a fascist who wanted to silence their free speech and offering me all sorts of tips on where I could shove my concerns about the world, a world that suddenly felt entirely too small and exposed.

I was easily recognizable as one of few people of color in my community (and a vocal one, at that), and combined with all of the previously mentioned stressors, by May I felt as though I had no privacy, no space to breathe and no way to recuperate in any sort of meaningful way from what I think we can all agree was a pretty rough year.

Enter New Orleans.

I had started applying for jobs all over the country the moment the news of my program’s suspension broke because I thought, “this is it, I’m gonna be out of a job any minute!” And in those first few weeks after the decision was announced, I applied for just about every open music therapy position I could find. None of the positions I was applying for particularly moved me at the time, I just literally thought I had no job security where I was.

I actually remember even resisting to apply for the position I now hold in New Orleans because it was south of the Mason-Dixon line and being a woman of color in an interracial relationship and so fresh out of an already stressful environment, part of which was related to my race, I really wasn’t feeling like the South was worth the headache.

But then I was flown down for an in-person interview and everything changed.  People warned me about the humidity in advance, told me it would feel like a suffocating wet blanket. But when I first stepped out of the airport into that “air you can wear,” as some call it, I was instantly in love.  That wet blanket felt comforting and nourishing.

And the RAIN. Let me tell you about the New Orleans rain. There truly is nothing else like it. During hurricane season — which was barely beginning when I interviewed but in full tilt by the time we moved — that rain can announce itself with a fury that surprises you if you aren’t prepared for it. No gradual buildup or drizzled warning, just instant downpour.

I learned to carry an umbrella with me everywhere. And I found this oddly comforting. too.  Like it was some sort of divine acknowledgement that yup, life can sure flip your world upside down sometimes, whether you like it or not, but better to buck up and prepare for it than stay indoors all day.

Best — and probably most necessary — of all for me, I wasn’t so visually exposed as a person of color in New Orleans. I could blend in. My husband and I recently attended the Beyonce Formation Tour on its New Orleans stop, and it dawned on me as I was trying to help our Uber driver find us after the show that it was actually easier for me to tell him to look for my husband as “the white guy in the checkered shirt” than it was to use my default self-descriptor of “I’m the black person.”

I am part of a big enough collective now that multiple individual dimensions of my character matter. The texture of my hair, the deepness of my skin’s pigment, my accent, all of these are indicators of a familial and cultural history that is valued here. People love hearing about where I’m from and where my family lived before the place I was born because it adds to the spice of their community.

And I love learning from others as well. There are so many black professionals in New Orleans. It makes me wonder if part of the reason so many nonblack people think we all live off welfare in the ghettos of hell is because they’ve never had the opportunity to live or travel somewhere where black people are the educated, “working” majority. Not just visible in the streets but visible in places of education, health care and beyond. But that’s another blog post!

Now none of this is to say that North Dakota is a terrible place that failed me and continues to fail every person of color who ever lives there. North Dakota is full of complications, and yes, I believe I personally was failed as a black professional by the institution I used to work for, but NoDak will always be “home” to me.

And believe me when I say New Orleans is no nirvana of racial peace and harmony, either. There are deep, fascinating, heartbreaking divides here that I really have yet to explore but am very much aware of.

Every place has its issues.  But I think that where a person finds themselves internally in their lives often requires an external environment that can match, nourish, support and challenge them. And for me, in the most internal turmoil of my life, I have needed New Orleans —  and its rain to match; its unpredictable wildness feels oddly reassuring to me.

But I’m also aware that challenges exist, and that more challenges will come.  Some already have. But this is where I feel I need to be at this time in my life in order to continue the work toward crafting the best version of myself, in the interest of doing the most good that I can for the world.

I was quiet about the transition initially out of fear for my safety. I didn’t need my white supremacist heckler to digitally follow me across the country and sic new local cronies on me (especially when the cronies in the heart of Louisiana were likely to be more deeply rooted and organized).

But also I’ve felt guilty. I felt like I had abandoned my students in North Dakota and failed all of the people who looked up to me for being “such a fighter.” But as I’ve been taking these first few months of distance to be silent, resettle and replenish myself, I know now that the fight in me never died. It’s still burning.  It’s just had to be relocated.

Sometimes, the wind changes and you just have to adjust in order to keep your light protected and allow it to shine at its brightest. And eventually, you pray the light will burn brightly enough to reach the place you left; so they’ll know you are OK, yes, but also so they will be able reap some of the benefit you always meant for them to experience. Because no matter how far away a person relocates, a piece of themselves — and that care that initially lit their fire — always remains connected to the place they left.

So I’ve relocated. But I hope to stay connected.

Some specific avenues I can already see myself exploring are the ways in which “North Dakota Nice” mirrors “Southern Charm,” expanding on my theory of the Black Professional as a gateway to better understanding Black America in general and looking at the ways in which wealth inequality can double-down on racial inequality right beneath our noses.

It’s really quite intriguing how New Orleans, like many cities, seems to have these vastly disparate entities living in parallel universes within it; the Southern elite and the working poor coexist right on top of each other, in completely different worlds, traveling in different circles and yet inhabiting the same city, sometimes within mere steps of each other.

A Walgreens noted for the homeless population that loiters around it is situated right next to the city’s largest for-profit hospital. A block away from one of the seediest streets in America sit some of the best, most expensive restaurants at which one could ever have the pleasure of dining.

In many ways, this happens in North Dakota, too, albeit with a few more miles between disparities. But all that and more surrounds each of us every day at any given moment. And for the first time in a long time, I look forward to exploring such things again, online and off. And I hope that light reaches you back home. I really do.

2 thoughts on “NATASHA THOMAS: Challenging Conversation Corners — New Life, New Challenges”

  • Mara Campbell October 4, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    Woman, I sing your praises. I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear you went to New Orleans. I hope that you and Bernie continue to get to know that glorious city, heal from the inside out, and keep lighting up the world. North Dakota is great in a lot of ways, but being in a place where you aren’t singled out by your skin will make it easier for people to hear your words. One day this MUST change, but in the meantime, you can breathe a little and eat some fried gator.


  • Melissa Rohwedder October 5, 2016 at 8:43 am

    “Sometimes, the wind changes and you just have to adjust in order to keep your light protected and allow it to shine at its brightest.” This is so true for so many. But the fear of the unknown keeps people stuck. I moved to SD from Texas 10 years ago, and find it difficult many days. Protecting my light here is not always easy when the social fabric is made of stone. But we adjust. I’m inspired by your courage. Maybe the wind is changing.


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