About tonya

Growing up in Gulfport, Mississippi, I relished in the porch lessons of my maternal grandmother, Elmyrtis McCune Thames, a proud, former sharecropper and domestic, her friends, and a beautiful world of plain, hardworking people. I loved being transported to different worlds through the conversations of my grandmother’s friends Mrs. May-Lee, Mrs. Ruth, Mrs. Cornelius, Mrs. Grace, and Mrs. Louise or my aunties: Annie Ruth, Betty Jean, Alma Ree, or Myrtis Bell. The mosaic of their hues and melodies of voices enriched my life in seismic ways I am still trying to figure out. In their conversations, through the very way they said “honey ‘chile” or “what,” I learned the power of language and inflection. By listening to their stories of working for other women, I learned the importance of how I should treat people fairly and with dignity. I learned to dislike the meanness of one of my grandmother’s employers, Mrs. Mary Doolittle, and appreciate the kindness of another, Mrs. Bonceil Downs. From those porch conversations held by folks I admire to this day, I learned that pedigree is second to character; hard work is good; never succumb to the jeremiads of others; and, that plain folks who are systemically marginalized still contribute to the American narrative. I learned that pride cometh before a fall, so be grateful and humble because the Creator said so.

On my grandmother’s 5′ x 7′ porch, there are/were conversations that range from cooking to politics (that includes formal government politics, church politics, and politics on the job). In my youth, I enjoyed “shelling” peas, stripping greens (collards, turnips, or mustard), swatting flies, and watching chitterlings being cleaned, so I could hear those conversations. In those conversations, I learned about more than local folks. I learned about people like Rev. Dr. King (though pronounced in dialect as “Dr. Kane”), suffragist Fannie Lou Hamer, and the murders of teenager Emmett Till and NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers. I learned that I was to be a respectable human (funny how they never said “girl” or “woman,” but human) who should remember what they were letting me hear.

Yes, I came of age in the world where children were to be seen and not heard. I came of age in a world where children were “just there” and sometimes companions of old folks who, although they did not write formal autobiographies, told their stories enough that a biography could be written about them. For example, on her porch, in a part of town known as Magnolia Grove, Mrs. Doris Evans, affectionately called “Granny,” shared a personal story when I was going to college. As we cut coupons, a favorite pastime for her, she told me that if a boy talked too sweet to me, tell him to take a cold shower. Looking up from coupon cutting and straight into my eyes, she said, “tonya I should have been at school, not behind the barn. I was just a girl and him in there—referring to her husband in the next room—had me not thinking about school. Men folks come, go, and give you a headache, but that learning you are going to get at Tougaloo will take you places that I only see on television. Do not come back her with a sprout—southern reference to a baby—of yourself. You hear me?” They were so willing to share. For example, Tuskegee Institute graduate and educator Mary Williams Norwood shared with me one day, as we were cleaning silver under her car port, in Columbus, Mississippi: “do not run from a fight, you will kick yourself later.” This advice came along with the story of how she, a daughter of a farmer, worked in the cafeteria to supplement her tuition at Tuskegee. To this day, when I visit Tuskegee, I think of her more than I do of educator Booker T. Washington.

On the porch, we got love as well as whippings. It was normal to see kids observing adults talking and mimicking their behavior. Like the adults, we entertained ourselves with adult card games like gin rummy, spades, and bid whist. We participated in adult parties by providing comedic relief through our mocking of adult dancing.

My brother, cousins, and friends moved in and out of areas that were adult. For instance, when those porch conversations turned to gossip or PG-13 rated adult conversation, we were told to “go get water” or “go out and play.” We understood the cues! And, went ahead to make those childhood memories that included kickball, hide-and-seek, hopscotch, marbles, 1-2-3 Red Light, and jump rope.

I went to school and shared laughs with all kids: Asians, blacks, whites, octoroons, quadroons, Creole, & Cajun (I grew up sixty miles east of New Orleans). And, from porch conversations to my larger external world, I grew up with a purpose although no one ever used that word.

In one of those porch conversations, I heard a story about a young woman, who lost her parents. She was told to enter the house of the king, but not to reveal her ethnicity. The king became fond of the woman and eventually made her queen. Later, there was a decree that ordered the murdering of the queen’s ethnic group. While her cousin asked her to go to the king on the community’s behalf, the queen replied that she could not enter the presence of the king unless summoned. Her cousin asked her “Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14) Although I never heard “purpose”, per say, and although I was a child listening to stories, I understood the message: I was made for a time such as this.  I was to carry on the work of those before me even if the work was dirty and thankless; I was to do it with dignity.

On the porch, the unofficial living room or parlor of most southerners I know, I learned to be human and to fight for fairness because every person deserves a chance to do the incredible!

On my maternal grandmother’s porch, I learned to be fair. She would hold court on that porch among her friends, my family, and family friends. If I had a penny for every time I heard, “it is just not right” or “to be fair,” I would have over $100 dollars. The folks who came to that porch told the best stories and sung the best songs. I owe those porch conversations my life because they got me interested in telling stories (history), activism, and living a meaningful life, not one full of stuff. I suspect those porch lessons encouraged me to settle into Quakerism later in my life.

The porch is where I spend time with the best hubby in the world, Anthony L. Taylor, discussing my love for the richness of life, appreciation for art, and deciding what plays and concerts we will attend. On our porch, we laugh hysterically. I play sports, serve as caretaker of two rescued dogs and a rescued cat, and worship at the Fallowfield meeting house of the Religious Society of Friends. It was on my porch I came to know that, politically, I am an Independent. I am fiscally conservative. I respect the tradition that liberates and celebrates the goals of the Constitution and the advocacy of self determination.