Paisha Thomas walks in the footsteps of her ancestors

The musician, artist and author, who performs as part of Soul Sunday at Natalie’s this weekend, has discovered a new sense of focus centered on Black liberation.
Paisha Thomas
Paisha ThomasScott Woods

Scrolling through the images of sculpted pottery Paisha Thomas has posted on her website, a number of which celebrate the Black female form, the first thing that strikes you is how there are no wasted details. A skilled editor in the kiln room, Thomas has a way of scraping away any extraneous bits of clay, leaving each piece in beautifully minimalist form.

In recent months, the musician, artist and author has started to apply a similar approach to her own life, jettisoning those pursuits that don’t align with her ultimate goal of Black liberation, which she described as paramount to her existence.

“I’ve been really trying to hone my focus on my life purpose, and getting my ancestors their restorative justice,” Thomas said. “I’m 48. I’m tired of frantically chasing so many things, of trying to delve out my attention to all of these different places. … I was absolutely overextending and doing the absolute most. And I want what I do to count. Not that I can’t play, but it should not be frivolous, because I feel like that would be a waste.”

As part of these efforts, Thomas recently stepped back from booking Soul Sundays at Natalie’s, passing the torch to Qamil Wright, whose inaugural event takes place on Sunday, April 2, and features Cherimondis J and Thomas, whose inclusion Wright described as essential. “I wanted to do a send-off for Paisha, because she’s been the host all of these years,” Wright said in February. “I want to show her some gratitude for even creating this space, and then trusting me to be the one to take it over.”

Since departing Natalie’s, Paisha has dedicated a bulk of her time to her studies at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, where she’s working on scholarship toward a dual master’s degree in social justice and divinity – a combination she said should help “open doors to advocating for better policy” upon graduation. Thomas also hoped to place a greater focus on her own artistic output, both musically and working with clay, which has become a way for her to give more tactile shape to those who came before her. “I can’t even touch the clay without thinking of my people,” said Thomas, whose current artwork has her exploring the ways white supremacy and systemic racism have impacted the food system, taking shape most recently in a “learning artifact” depicting a Black woman cook.

“And this woman, she’s in the kitchen, and two white women come into the restaurant, and when they see her, they go, ‘Oh, don’t worry, the food is going to be delicious, because it’s cooked by her,’” Thomas said, detailing the figure's backstory. “This big, fat Black woman, she clearly knows how to cook, and it must be supernatural. It’s not that she had to make do, and that she had a superior capacity to transform [food] under enslavement. No, it must be magic.”

Born in Piqua, Ohio, Thomas traces her lineage to the slaves who worked on the Virginia plantation owned by John Randolph, who, in his will, stated that upon his death, all of his slaves would be given their freedom. The will also granted each slave over the age of 40 a 10-acre parcel of land on property Randolph had purchased in Ohio. But while the slaves were eventually given their freedom, the promised land never materialized. Thomas has since taken up the cause, bringing awareness to her ancestors’ plight and continuing to fight for reparations, even holding conversations with Where Is My Land, a California-based organization centered on helping Black families and descendants claim financial justice.

“On my birthday in 1991, my grandma – my mom’s mom – she and a group of Randolph descendants went to the Miami County courthouse and filed a petition to get our land back,” Thomas said. “It didn’t work, and all of the politicians wrote them and said, ‘Get a lawyer.’ And they weren’t able to do that in 1991, but I’m like, ‘Okay, we’ll get a lawyer.’”

Thomas’ bloodlines echo not just in her social justice pursuits, but in her general thirst for knowledge, her family tree dotted with historians and teachers. Thomas’ great aunt, for one, logged time as a History Maker, documenting the previously overlooked accomplishments of Black Americans. “There were people who were very educated, very willing to learn, who knew languages and history and who were very Black-oriented,” Thomas said. “And I’ve always been curious, but I know now I also came from that.”

But before Thomas could step into this newly focused existence, she first had to confront recent traumas – particularly a series of personal and professional challenges that left her reeling at the end of 2022, which included everything from a romantic breakup to unexpectedly becoming the primary caretaker to her 11-year-old grandson. These tensions were further heightened by the pressures Thomas experienced filling a leadership role in the local social justice movement in the particularly intense weeks and months that followed the death of Donovan Lewis, who was shot and killed by Columbus police in August 2022.

As she has in the past, Thomas eventually turned to music, writing and recording a new, still-unreleased song that served as an emotional exorcism of sorts. Even in demo form, the gutting track hits like an out-of-time blues spiritual, Thomas singing of finding respite “under the streetlight” in a voice that’s deeply mournful yet somehow resolute.

“In September last year, I had a Streetlight Guild performance coming up … but in my own life I was going through absolute, unprecedented hell. … My life hurt really bad, and it was almost too much,” said Thomas, who at her lowest point even developed a suicide plan. “But I knew we had this show coming, and I knew if I could just get to the Streetlight Guild, it would be so healing and restorative, because I’d get to tell my story and play with these people that I love in a building I adore. So, I started writing the song in that mindset: If I can just get to the streetlight. And then the rest of the song wrote itself.”

Thomas ended up performing the song a cappella during her September concert at the East Side arts space, describing the moment as transformative.

“I wrote the song that day, and my band members were like, ‘You can’t be throwing stuff at us at the last minute like that,’” Thomas said of the decision to perform the track unaccompanied. “And I just look back on it now in awe, because it was such an inspired moment. Even though it was like, ‘Girl, you’re not taking us with you,’ everyone still came along.”

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