Even before interviewing him over Zoom, the face of Jeremy Thomas ’21 was already familiar to me. Out of all the political science lectures and panels I’d attended, it was rare if I didn’t see Thomas’s name somewhere on the screen. Most of the time, in fact, his name was front and center. Effortlessly put together in a jewel-toned polo shirt and black-rimmed glasses, Thomas was often a mediator or a featured guest giving advice to younger students.
He laughed when I told him this at our interview, and from that moment, I knew that my sense of intimidation had been unwarranted. Despite his warm demeanor and the fact that he self-identifies as a “rambler,” I still felt nervous talking to him. Just like Thomas, I hope to pursue a career path which allows me to “resist the U.S. criminal legal system and the violence it perpetuates.” But these are his words, not mine.
I spoke to one of Thomas’ close friends Maya Foster ’23, who initially met Thomas last year when he served as her Community Advisor (CA). She, too, mentioned that Thomas seems eternally “put-together” — and yet, as Foster put it, “He is a person, not just an idea.” She recalled one long evening spent in their common room, debating over who was the greatest rapper of our generation. I understood her perfectly when she described Thomas as dualistic: human and playful, and yet extraordinary in his accomplishments.
Thomas is the epitome of what I and many other students interested in legal and political studies hope to achieve. He was one out of only 32 people in the United States to receive the 2021 Rhodes Scholarship, which entails a full ride to Oxford for postgraduate studies. Thomas will be spending four years at Oxford to earn a Master of Studies (M.St.) in English and American Studies along with an M.St. in US History. After that, he will attend Yale Law School — perhaps one of the most prestigious law schools in the world.
John E. Kirkpatrick 1951 Professor in Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Adam Sitze served as Thomas’ thesis advisor and taught him in multiple courses. He praises Thomas extensively on the “extraordinary daring, verve, truth, and imagination” expressed in his writing.
“Jeremy reads in the way that students used to read before cellphones were invented. He chases down footnotes, he nurtures doubts and harvests open questions, he keeps a thought-notebook, and he listens to his gut feelings,” Sitze effused. “This is part of the reason why he writes with such originality.”
On top of his academic achievements, Thomas has continuously created positive change within Amherst’s institution and community throughout the past four years. It took everything in me not to just blurt out, “How did you manage to do all of this?” Over the course of our 90-minute conversation, my question was gradually answered — by his eloquence, creativity and deep passion for bettering society.
Grounded in Law, Wading in Histories
Thomas is from Missouri City, a seemingly ordinary suburb of Houston, Texas. But, over quarantine, the discovery of a sugar purgery by an archaeologist revealed a shocking past that had been lying dormant underneath the manicured lawns of Missouri City: The land Thomas’ family lives on was once just a small part of a sprawling sugar plantation.
“It’s what Toni Morrison meant by her writing of Beloved — she wanted to memorialize the violent histories layered on the ground beneath our feet,” Thomas said. “And, in spite of repression, history always emerges.”
Years earlier, Thomas had attended high school on that same land. It was a public magnet school with a focus on global studies, and Thomas graduated with an interest in pursuing a career in international human rights law. “Like Amal Clooney,” Thomas laughed. “She’s amazing.”
“My ‘tagline’ in my college applications was that I wanted to explore the relationship between narrative and the law,” Thomas explained. And, typical of the depth and coherence of his accomplishments, Thomas is graduating Amherst with a double major in English and law, jurisprudence, and social thought (LJST). “My English major gave structure to exploring the abstract concepts communicated through narrative, and the LJST major sort of grounded these questions,” Thomas elaborated. “The active translation between the two has been a really generative experience. And it will hopefully turn out to be fruitful, as well, once I get to Oxford.”
Specifically, Thomas noted three courses which invigorated this process of “translation.” The first was called “Black Speculative Fictions,” taught by Professor Marisa Parham, now a tenured faculty member at the University of Maryland. “She is quite easily the smartest person I’ve ever met,” Thomas enthused, “and that doesn’t even do her justice. If there are words to capture how that class changed the way I think about the world, I don’t currently have them.” The other formative courses Thomas noted were “Introduction to Legal Theory” and “Apartheid,” both taught by Professor Sitze. “I’m lumping those two courses together because they did two specific things in common,” Thomas explained. “They both seriously interrogated the category of ‘the law’, really questioning that label instead of taking it for granted. And then that segues into a realization that the changes in ‘the law’ as a category guide the direction of history. With this idea in mind, you can look at an event in history and realize that it didn’t have to happen that way.”
I began to see how Thomas’ interests in English, law and history coalesced into one coherent passion. But I was still curious as to why and how Thomas had shifted his focus from international to domestic work throughout his time at Amherst. The answer was rooted in a few formative internships, serendipity and — of course — intimate histories.
On top of the rich history grounded in Thomas’ hometown, his own family carries a complex history — one which is not tethered to the land in Missouri City, but rather, reaches across the United States’ time and space. “Being back home in Texas feels like a return to the South, in terms of my family,” Thomas reflected. “My great-great-grandparents were born and raised on plantations. Then, my maternal grandfather’s family came from Arkansas. And both of my paternal grandparents are from New Orleans.”
Just as Thomas learned that the law informs the windings of history, he also knows that the time and place into which a person is born informs the available opportunities, which informs their whole life.
“Thinking about the fact that I had family members three generations back who were enslaved, and then comparing that to my own experience — it’s a really stark difference. When I was younger, it struck me as uncomfortable, but now it just strikes me as … so unbelievably random,” Thomas expressed. “I have cousins who have been incarcerated. They came from the same grandparents, and yet their life trajectories are so different. The criminal legal system fabricates our understanding of — for lack of a better word — ‘good choices and bad choices.’ I just happened to be born in a place and time where the ‘good choices’ were available to me.”
It is clear that Thomas has a profound understanding of his personal interconnections with history’s randomness and the criminal legal system’s arbitrary exercises of power. Casting off from this bedrock, he completed several internships which rendered concrete his passion for resisting this systemic injustice. All three involved working with attorneys to provide representation for those who fell victim to chance and the specter of “good choices”.
With each successive internship, Thomas felt more and more certain that he wanted to devote his life to “fighting the violence of the criminal legal system.” The summer before his junior year was particularly influential: Thomas did investigative work for attorneys at the Southern Center for Human Rights.
“A lot of those were felony cases,” Thomas elaborated, “and some were even life without parole or death penalty cases. It involved some really intense conversations, but it enabled us to get to know these individuals in a way that the criminal legal system typically doesn’t allow for.”
Thomas went on: “We would have to ask these really asinine questions, sometimes — saving someone’s life in this system doesn’t depend on questions of justice, it depends on calculations of ‘innocence’ or ‘guilt’. The nicest word I have for those experiences is ‘frustrating’ … but it’s also necessary.”
Thomas grimaced, and then inhaled.
Advocacy at Amherst
The most extraordinary thing about Thomas, though, is not his solemn understanding that there are violent histories playing out around him — it’s that he has never waited to act on his visions for change.
“Throughout my childhood, my parents would always repeat these few specific phrases to my siblings and [me]. The one that I think has been most consequential to my mindset these past few years is: ‘We should always leave places better than when we came,’” Thomas told me. “The world is available to my siblings and I in extraordinary ways. But you can’t walk around with gratitude weighing on you — you have to actively pay it back.”
Thomas has more than “paid back” his gratitude to the Amherst community. Most recently, he served as the president of the Association for Amherst Students (AAS). In this role, Thomas helped catalyze the movement throughout the Five Colleges to officially recognize that the consortium is situated on Nonotuck land; he also played a part in beginning the “Amherst Acts” donation match campaign, and he was able to participate in the conversations involving the defunding of the Amherst College Police Department. Outside of student government, Thomas served as the founding director of the Office of Student Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, focused on improving the wellbeing of all students through equity education and restorative justice. Thomas was also a captain of Amherst’s Mock Trial team. But despite the many roles Thomas has held, he explained that these community-based leadership experiences complicated his understanding of “advocacy.”
“For me, being able to see both the student and administrative sides of the institution solidified the idea that ambivalence can be just as destructive as bigotry,” Thomas stated bluntly. “When you’re working to create change, the most important thing is to have living principles, so that you have the tools to push through bureaucratic resistance. It just comes down to the fact that representatives must also be advocates.”
Foster reaffirmed Thomas’ commitment to authenticity and morality, telling me that Thomas is “kind and thoughtful to his core.”
“Jeremy is the definition of ‘kind but not nice’. In his advocacy and activism, he is not at all afraid to say what makes people uncomfortable — because he knows that that’s the only way change will happen. And yet, he has an extraordinary capacity to read the room and communicate in a productive way, without faking it. It’s exactly how he treats his friends, too: with kindness-driven-honesty. He’s truly a people-oriented person.”
Before we parted ways, I asked Thomas to sum up his experience at Amherst in five words or less. Though I thought this would be a difficult question, there were only a few moments of silence before Thomas confidently gave me just one word: “serendipity”. This word permeates everything from his friendships, to his academic direction, to his understanding of his place in our society.
As Thomas elaborated on his reply, he seemed to wander through these past four years, using the word “serendipity” as a trail marker. “I met Arielle Kirven ’21 on my creative writing LEAP trip during my orientation. She has helped me make it through these past four years,” Thomas said, smiling. “My thesis was called ‘Ida B. Wells, Lynching, and the 14th Amendment,’” he laughed, “and I know those three things seem so random to put together! But you need to interrogate what seems random to find hidden connections; that’s how my brain works.”
Between now and the fall — when Thomas will head off to Oxford — he’ll probably be listening to podcasts (he recommends “Still Processing”), taking his dog for long walks and finding joy in the serendipity of everyday life with his friends and family.
“I’m so looking forward to seeing how Amherst students will continue the legacy of improvement started by Charles Hamilton Houston,” Thomas expressed, “because the moment we live in is a terrible time, but it is also a beautiful time for creating change.”