Alice Randall was born in Detroit, grew up in Washington, D.C. and graduated from Harvard in 1981. She has been a journalist, a country songwriter and a screenwriter. Her first novel, The Wind Done Gone, a parody of Margaret Mitchell's infamous Gone with the Wind, drew international attention when the Mitchell Estate attempted to prevent its publication. Naturally, The Wind Done Gone went on to become a New York Times bestseller. Randall's second novel, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, continued her text-on-text explorations. She lives in Nashville with her husband and daughter.
In Pushkin, a snappy literary journey whose engine is
Harvard-educated scholar and single mother Windsor Armstrong, is
set in modern Detroit and at Harvard and St Petersburg and Nashville.
Randall reminds us that Alexander Pushkin was the descendant of
a 100 percent black African, who was given, like a dog or a horse,
to Peter the Great. She goes on, "The man who invented the
modern Russian language, the Russian Shakespeare who influenced
Tolstoy and Chekhov and Turgenev—and through those Russians,
Hemingway and modern American literature—that man was a descendant
of a black slave."
Robert Birnbaum: Has anyone asked you to pontificate
on the significance of Brown vs. Board of Education?
Alice Randall: No one did. [chuckles] But, in
fact, it is interesting to me that this is a novel very much about
the aftermath of Brown—the opportunities and the
disabilities. I think it is very much a post-Brown novel
because Windsor [the novel's protagonist] has a chance to go to
the Ivy League—she is born in the cradle of—
RB: I read this as she only could to go to Harvard.
AR: [laughs] She escapes her strange adolescence to Harvard. But
she has spent her childhood—she was born in '58, '59, in the
kind of community that didn't exist 20 years after Brown.
Which was an almost all black community in Detroit with black businesses
and private schools and things of this sort. Jesse Jackson talks
now about people feeling, being nostalgic for the heyday of the
one black barbershop and one black funeral home. Our wonderful Lani
Garnier at Harvard talks about what they are feeling nostalgic for,
[which] is this sense of community—a sense that in that place
and in that time there was a sense of belonging.
RB: I assume that in a work of fiction the protagonist is normally
not the author. There are some parallels between Windsor's life
and your life. Having said that, I am trying to understand why you
presented Windsor's view of Harvard as a safe haven, an island of
AR: I presented Windsor as seeing Harvard as a safe haven, almost
as some kind of welfare office. She was trying to escape her family.
It was a structure she could escape to. Windsor isn’t me.
I don't think a significantly autobiographical novel—to make
a comparison—I think it is, for example, less autobiographical
than the novels of Scott Fitzgerald. He has Amory Blaine, a character
who goes to Princeton. I have one that goes to Harvard. Amory Blaine
is not Fitzgerald. He is influenced by him.
RB: Why did you go to Harvard?
AR: Why? [long pause] That's an interesting question. [laughs]
As opposed to what did I get from Harvard? I think I went to Harvard
because there were two universities that I spent time in as a child,
one was Harvard and one was Amherst. And those were the two universities
that I applied to. My mother lived with a man, Jerry Lindsay, who
I liked a great deal, who was a black professor and associate dean
at Harvard. And so I had reason, in my adolescence, to come and
spend time at Cambridge. My mother had done some consulting work,
and I had spent some time at Amherst. I did fall in love with Harvard
RB: It was not about reputation, just your familiarity with it?
AR: Yeah, I spent a lot of time at Jerry's apartment on the Charles
River (which is very different than Windsor's experiences there)
as an 11 and 12 and 13 year old. I don't think I am a reputation-oriented
person. I do love the physical libraries of Harvard—not just
Houghton. I was somebody who didn't go to a lot of classes. I got
up in the morning. I had breakfast and I went to the library and
I started reading. [laughs]
RB: Did I read correctly, perhaps in the press notes, that someone
referred to your living in Nashville as "taking up a Deep South
AR: I don't read any of those publicity materials, so I don't know.
[laughs] I live in Nashville, was born in Detroit and grew up in
Washington D.C. And went to school in Cambridge for four years and
then moved to Nashville a year out of Harvard to become a country
song writer, interested in the metaphysical poetry that I found
in country songs and the connection to the American Metaphysicals
that I had read. I would say that one of my interests in returning
to the South is that my father's family was from Alabama. And I
think the only thing I knew my father to be afraid of was—this
was not a conscious intent—the South. He never went back down
South until I graduated from Harvard. He claimed he never wore a
pair of shoes until he was 13 years old. And I think I was interested
in confronting—this is on an unconscious level—the land
of my father's birth and the land of which my father was so afraid.
When, in fact, he was characteristically an extraordinarily courageous
man, mentally, intellectually and physically.
RB: I am hardly an expert on the South, but I have a sense that
Alabama could be more foreboding and dangerous for a black person
than Nashville, Tennessee.
AR: [long pause] I am married to my second husband. I worked for
my first husband's father before I married him. I met him working
for his father. He was Avon Williams, a black state senator. My
first husband is the same age as I am. He went to Williams College.
The Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the lawn at his 13th birthday
party. That would be about 1970. And that was in Nashville, Tennessee.
I think you don't know Nashville very well. And, in fact, Franklin,
Tennessee and Columbia, just 25 minutes from my home, is considered
to be by people in the Mississippi Hate Watch Project or whatever,
to be a strong hold—
RB: Right, the Klan originated in Pulaski, Tennessee.
lawyer in that county offered to defend the three men who
admitted to murdering that boy. That would not happen in America
AR: So Nashville has its own complexities, and
it is not a Deep South city, but in fact the Klan was founded in
the state. And I had recorded a song about a man who got lynched
between his wedding and his reception. I am very proud to say that
was on my Grammy-nominated album. I also did a song called “Letter
to Pulaski,” so I think you chose the fields in which you
are going to work. [laughs]
RB: Do you still go to social events where you don't know people?
AR: [quizzical look]
RB: You are at party and you start talking to someone whom you
don't know and they initially or inevitably ask, what is it that
So what is it that you do?
AR: Well, again, being in Nashville, Tennessee, people don't ask
you what you do. They say, "What's your church home?"
[laughs] In Boston they ask you what you do. I do go to parties
and meet people I don't know to some degree, although Nashville
is a smaller town and I have come to know almost everybody in Nashville,
black, white and green. I would say, "I am a mommy, and I am
a wife, and I am a friend and a writer." My most important
work for me is being a mother. Which does not mean that I think
that writing is not important work—I do think it’s important
RB: Your C.V. does range over music and film and writing. What
AR: I helped to desegregate a private girl's school in Nashville
called Harpeth Hall. And I served on the board of that.
RB: Desegregated a school recently?
AR: [laughs] So you see. I volunteer teach at Montgomery Bell Academy
that Dead Poet's Society was based on. Probably if I wasn't
volunteer teaching there they wouldn't have any black women academics
there. I don't get paid to do that. I have been on the board of
Bell Meade Plantation for a long time. They have been interpreting
the history of the 11 white people who lived there at any one time
and I [voice rises in volume] tried to get them to focus on the
200 to 300 black people that were living there at any one time.
RB: Are you having a good time?
AR: I have a good time. My husband was on the board of the Hermitage
[Andrew Jackson's home] and withdrew from that. So we win some of
our battles and—
RB: I love it when Jackson is lionized as a great small 'd' democrat
except he liked to kill Indians.
AR: I'll tell you a story about Andrew Jackson and us. David (AR's
husband) may or may not be a direct descendant of Andrew Jackson.
Even before the Thomas Jefferson circumstance there has been a push
to find that out. And I keep saying I don’t want to find out
that [voice rises] my husband is related to the Indian Killer, Andrew
Jackson. I do not want to know that. I will have to deal with it
if we do discover that. David's family has been in Davidson County
for nine generations, in slavery and freedom. Interestingly enough,
when freedom came, one of his direct ancestors was [one of the]
twin[s], Prince Albert and Taylor Ewing and one of them stole away
to freedom and fought with the victorious Union Army in the Battle
of Nashville. But shortly after the Civil War, the same white man
who helped start Vanderbilt Law School prepared Albert and Taylor
for the bar. Clearly, their father was some very important white
man. They were given the name of Ewing who was the man who named
Nashville and they lived at Overton's plantation—who was Andrew
Jackson's lawyer. And Andrew Jackson only had three slaves baptized.
One was this woman and the other two were her two children. So we
may have unfortunate relations in my husband's family. But that's
not my family. [laughs]
RB: You really would feel badly about that? Or embarrassed?
AR: I would not feel embarrassed because we are not responsible
RB: You said you didn't want to know.
AR: I would not be thrilled by that; I would not consider that
an elevation. No. But on my own father's side, I am probably the
descendant of a Confederate general. Langston Hughes has written
about this more eloquently than me, a long, long time ago. It is
a complicated thing to be a descendant of slave owners and slaveholders.
RB: I am fascinated by this notion of "one drop." There
is a limited stable of people we are descended from—
AR: Well, the "one drop rule" is a rule that evolved
out of the plantation South, of the "laws" of an immoral,
illegal society. I try to show the absurdity of that. The only way
it is encountered in my book is to say that if Queen Victoria has
one drop of black blood in her, which some people [do] argue, I
still don't think that makes her in any meaningful way, black. At
this point you cannot look at someone's DNA and determine his or
her race. Race is a cultural construct in the most complex sense.
It’s a profound cultural construct, and it is imposed upon
people who appear "black" with all the constructions put
around that. I think it is time to consider it, again, as a construct
and not to be accepting this idea of the "one drop rule."
RB: People don't think that's [the one drop rule] is valid, do
AR: A lot of black people still think that way in America. In the
way that people will argue that Beethoven is black, in that he has
some black ancestry. Or my own father had green eyes and red hair.
My grandfather looked much whiter than you do. But he absolutely
perceived himself as a black man. So, in some sense, they were living
by those rules. My grandfather was not a man who another person
looking at him could visibly determine was black. But he chose to
live as a black man all of his life.
RB: Does it strike you that the racial tensions in the United States
will ever be resolved? That perhaps it's a societal fault line that
will always be there?
It strikes me as rather the opposite, actually. The first line of
my book is, "Look what they done to my boy." And the heroine
overtly connects that to a line in the Godfather, where
Don Corleone is confronted with the body of Sonny. But when I taught
this book up at Princeton—
RB: "Look what they have done to my son."
AR: Exactly. So that black issue "boy" versus "son."
But the young women at Princeton, they immediately heard the echo
of Mamie Till. "Look what they done to my boy." There
is a parallel; she is watching him on the television. That is the
echo of the dark—what we saw in the body of Emmett
Till—that world is no longer possible. What Mamie Till's
tragedy—is not a tragedy that is really possible in America
today. That was only 1954. That's why my father was afraid to send
his child down South. That has changed. Profound things have changed.
RB: Not possible? So when some poor old man is dragged behind a
truck for three or four miles in Texas a few years ago, is that
not a crime of the same kind and culture?
AR: One of the complexities of that circumstance—you will
always have crazy people, crazy people doing crazy things. The saddest
thing about the Emmett Till case is that every white lawyer in that
county offered to defend the three men who admitted to murdering
that boy. That would not happen in America today. The fact that
there were crazy white men who would kill a white boy is not surprising
or that there be crazy black men who kill white boys for being in
the wrong neighborhood at the wrong moment. But that every sane
respectable lawyer, every single one. That just came out in Mamie
Till's book this year. And for a black child to have to live in
a county and know that there is not one white male authority or
lawyer who would stand up for justice, and your right not to be
killed. That is a degradation, every day, living in that county.
And there is no black child in America, I don’t believe living
in a county like that today. It is young white men who heard Bob
Dylan's songs who went back and tried to get black people off Death
Row. The one I love and gives me a chill is [about] the Birmingham
Church bombing. The person who was a young white boy who grew up
to be a white man, listening to that song about Birmingham, and
decided he would one day find justice for those little girls. That's
a wonderful story, and that is America of today.
RB: Why was the Emmett Till case finally reopened?
AR: I'm not certain. I do think—I did get to serve on the
Robert F Kennedy Book Awards, and I think it was announced last
week that the autobiography of Mamie Till-Mobley got a special award
RB: That's also strange. That book was published in October 2003.
I received a review copy in April 2004.
AR: It's a really interesting book. She did die in the interim.
It does bring up the issue that all three [of the murderers] sold
their stories to Life or Look magazines, admitting
completely that they did this murder and creating an atmosphere
in which I guess some people feel that someone should be prosecuted
or the case looked into.
RB: So looking back how long did writing the Gone
with the Wind parody, The Wind Done Gone, take?
AR: It depends what question you are asking. I published it when
I was 40, but I was thinking about since about the time I was 13.
So 27 years.
RB: You didn't put pen to paper—
AR: It took me a year and something to actually write it.
RB: Somewhere you expressed discomfort that it became a matter
of litigation, the book' s publication. I wasn't clear on that circumstance.
Did your publisher Houghton-Mifflin submit the manuscript to the
[Margaret] Mitchell Estate? Or make an announcement? How is it that
it was litigated before it was actually published—which seems
to be prior restraint?
AR: Well, we certainly thought it was prior restraint of speech.
In the normal process of publishing books, you send out advance
copies. We did not. They never told us how they got a copy of the
book. And then they went to court. They literally served papers
on us. No prior conversation, nothing.
RB: I have not read Gone with the Wind. I wonder, have
more people seen the movie than read the book?
AR: I have no idea if that's true. I would say certainly the book
is a more significant—supposedly in the English language after
the Bible, it's the most published book in English.
AR: That's what they put out. Certainly Gone with the Wind
is not the second or third or fourth most viewed movie. People underestimate
the importance of Gone with the Wind and the damage it
does. To give a specific example, in Japan, where Gone with
the Wind is immensely popular, when there were black service
men on trial for rape of a Japanese woman in Japan, shortly after
this litigation began, what was most likely to influence the perceptions
of the Japanese public about those men was what they had read in
Gone with the Wind. There is no single English book as
popular that touches on the subject of the Negro "character."
And to show the level of interest, news crews from Japan followed
me to Atlanta, contacted me in Nashville. It was a big story in
Japan. I met a Miss China who was in law school in America. Her
first introduction to America was reading Gone with the Wind
in translation. I have had friends who have gone to Yugoslavia who
happen to have the last name of Scarlett and they keep getting asked
about Brett and Scarlett. If you happen to be a person from Boston
and you have grandmother who is 80 years old, in Boston, even if
you have not been down South, her view of the character of the southern
Negro was likely to have been influenced by Gone with the Wind.
So whether or not you read it, you have been influenced by somebody
who had read it.
RB: Okay, so you had been thinking about since you where 13 because
at that age you were disturbed by it?
AR: When I read the book, I was confused and offended. Confused
probably more than offended. I was a little girl in all black enclave
of Motown, and then I moved to Washington D.C., where I lived in
a very liberal, largely Jewish intellectual progressive lefty enclave,
and that's where I was when I was reading this book. Here the main
character's husband was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and it’s
a good thing. I was actually confused. I thought, "Is there
another Klan?" I knew that the party of Lincoln was the Republican
Party who was evil, evil, evil, but had formerly been good. I was
trying to think, "Was the Klan a public service organization?"
Because she was so thrilled that he was off on a Klan raid. Did
raid have different meaning? I knew that the word 'nice' used to
mean 'foul.' I learned that, at my very good school. I didn't know
that 'nigger' once had a very different meaning. Because then there
were people calling people 'niggers' right, left, and center all
through this book. So I found it confusing and then shocking.
RB: I don't remember the book being any part of any canon. When
I went to high school, it wasn't being read. I don't know anyone
who read that book.
AR: Where were you?
and tried to get black people off Death Row.
AR: All I can say is—
RB: —I don't even think I know anyone who
has read that book.
AR: That just speaks to whom you know. It's hugely read down South,
still. But my book was six weeks on the New York Times
bestseller's list, in the top 10. The vast majority of people who
came out to my readings—200, 300 at a time, were black people
who felt injured by that text. For example, you may not be thinking
about it, but Malcolm X mentioned it in his Autobiography.
Specifically, he talks about being degraded by watching the movie
and a whole summer of his life being ruined by it.
RB: Honestly, when The Wind Done Gone came out, I didn't
get what the hoopla was about because I have never taken the Mitchell
book seriously, on any level.
AR: It so pains me to hear you say that. It really pains me. I
think it speaks to the deep sense of injury that black people feel.
One of the stories that touches me the most in my experience is:
I went down to speak at the Tennessee Williams Festival—it’s
a high-end literary festival and you pay a couple of hundred dollars
to register, and it's in the [New Orleans] Garden District, and
there are some panels, and it's quite interesting. And then my speaker's
bureau said, "There's these people that want you to come down
near Lafayette, Louisiana afterwards." I'm expecting more tea
and cocktails, but I figure I'll drive down there and they want
to pay me to come down there and do this thing. My husband and I
are driving down on a Sunday, and I get down there and see it is
a community center in a housing project. The woman who is picking
me up is literally missing a leg, looks like she has recently been
on chemotherapy. She tells me she has been hard to reach because
her mother might be dying. I could not believe when I saw this woman,
that she is there. She said she saw me on the Today show.
I got to the place and these women had largely taken out a loan
in their community to bring me down there. [Pause.] You are talking
about survival literature. None of these people could afford to
buy my book. The woman who picked me up was a black woman on crutches,
missing a leg with a dying mother, and she said they thought that
the local arts agencies were going to help them and when it hadn't
come through, they had gone and taken out a loan. It was all I could
do to speak and not weep. And then they were mad at me—a story
about my insensitivity—because on the way there we had stopped
to see a plantation and, of course, I am interested in plantation
history, and we stopped to see the plantation. Most of these women
at this community center were the descendants of slaves from that
plantation. Most of them had never set foot on that plantation in
their whole lives. They were still so appalled by it. Many of them
worked as domestic servants or their mothers did. And they were
bussed out to go work as domestic servants in other people's houses.
They worked in houses everyday. You can afford not to be influenced
by Gone with the Wind, but every black domestic woman working
in someone's home throughout this country, including Zora Neale
Hurston, who died working in someone's kitchen in Florida—I
can assure you that woman she worked for had read Gone with
the Wind. And that's part of why she couldn't perceive the
intelligence in Zora, even though she worked in her kitchen. There
are no black domestic servants that have the luxury that you had
of not being attuned to Gone with the Wind. I will also
tell you in the last political election right before my book came
out, that a conservative running for president chose a black woman
as his running mate. That very night in Nashville was heard—the
engineer for NPR's Fresh Air told me after I gave an interview,
that he heard the jokes about the woman, "Lord Mr. Whomever,
I don't know nuthing about being no vice president," quoting
Gone with the Wind. Gone with the Wind is a slick
piece of political propaganda. It is not a romance novel at all.
If you are writing a romance novel, you wouldn't have needed to
mention black Reconstruction-era congressmen. If you are writing
a romance novel—in fact, all the other southern Romance novels,
everybody else loves their mammy. Scarlett does not like Mammy.
She refers to Mammy as having elephant eyes. Scarlett is at odds
with Mammy. Gone with the Wind argues three things. It’s
more about 1937 than 1837: One, black politicians are incompetent.
There are over a hundred pages directly to that point. Two, black
people are unintelligent, particularly women, and three the proper
role of the black mother/woman is to rock no baby of her own but
to take care of a white charge. Mammy has no children. I have been
asked to go to some very hostile, rarified white audiences in the
Deep South (I have had death threats, and I have gone on tour with
Pinkerton guards the first time) and I have figured out how to break
the ice. I ask them a question, "If you had a plantation as
big as Tara and you had as many slaves as O'Hara, would you let
someone as dumb as Prissy work in your kitchen?"
AR: And they burst out laughing like you do. I said, "When
Mitchell wrote Prissy dumb, you would have to believe that all black
women are idiots, to think that Prissy would have gotten near anybody
birthing a baby." So in my book, I switched that around and
Prissy has intent. She intends for Melanie to die. She is there
when Melanie almost dies and the day she dies. And that is an important
difference. I think Gone with the Wind is as important
a piece of propaganda as Karl Marx's Das Kapital.
RB: Mein Kampf?
AR: I put Mein Kampf worse. There's no question.
RB: Are people still reading The Wind Done Gone?
AR: It hasn't gone out of print so far. It is being taught at over
17 universities including Harvard, Princeton, Brown, North Dakota.
It is being taught in courses on everything from American literature
since the Vietnam era. It is being taught in courses on Women in
the South as one of the preeminent examples of American parody.
Even though it was crucified in the upscale mainline press—New
Yorker, New York Times—the book has been vindicated in
the academy. Somebody said 'tata' was a lazy misspelling of Tara.
'Tata' in southern English means 'breast'—they are living
in the breast of Mammy. But more than that, 'tata' is the word that
came from the Celtic into the American South to mean, "You
are welcome," among people of power and inequality. And so
if a grandchild gives her grandparent something, he says, "Ta,"
meaning, “I am indebted to you, but you are less than me.”
That is exactly the world that slaves and their masters lived. And
in my book, in the 1000 pages of Gone with the Wind, Mammy
doesn't have a name. In my book, I don't give Scarlett a name, she
is just called 'other.' But Mammy has a name—Palas Athena.
One of the ways in which slaves were parodied in the plantation
period is that they were given high-falutin names like Cicero to
degrade them. So for someone to say it's mere misspelling of Tara—I
was thinking, did you read Cracker Culture, which is about
this common culture and the Celticization of the blacks and Blackization
of the Celts.
RB: Wow that's a tough word to pronounce —'Celticization'
AR: Very tough.
RB: So here we are, it's 2004, and man writes a book called The Known World that is about black slaveholders and it goes on to win some awards. What do you think?
AR: [pause] I love books. I am very fond of that book. I was excited
when it came out. I thought it has many of the concerns that my
book had, in one sense. Although one of the topics of my book is
how blacks read Gone with the Wind, mine is a very experimental
novel about the process of reading. It's a text-on-text response.
The subject of my book is the reading of Gone with the Wind,
not the American South. I do like that book and want to speak up
about it in social circumstances. And I spend a lot of time among
what I perceive as rank and file black teachers and preachers—that's
not a book that has captured the African American black imagination,
in my experience. And so it’s very interesting—I, even
at the Nell Painter retirement conference at Princeton, which was
a family reunion for black academics from all over this country,
people were not talking about that book. I don't know what it means
that a book that is being crowned as the preeminent novel of blackness
is not a book that seems to me—
RB: I don't see it that way. It's a great work of the imagination.
A beautifully written story and —
AR: I love the book.
RB: Here’s the thing. Last week I got an email from a history
professor in Texas who argued that Jones had done a disservice [to
whom?] because he did no research.
AR: What I am saying is in the same way you didn't read Gone
with the Wind and don't know anyone who read it. I am telling
you out in the country my experience is that black people don't
like the book, including the ones who have read it. There is a disconnect,
and historically—I am not a historian—the majority of
black people who owned slaves owned their own relatives to free
them. And the question I hear that is raised, on many occasions,
at cocktail parties where blacks are the majority, is why is it
that white America wants to love a book about black people who own
slaves? I personally respond to it more as a poetic independent
work of the imagination. I do think there is a process of gate-keeping
and gate-opening and that the two books that the gate keepers have
opened up right now with black voices, are about black slave owners
and a black torturer [Danticat's
The Dew Breaker] They both happen to be lyrical, interesting
novels. However, there are other lyrical interesting novels out
there that are being misread, under-read.
AR: There are some interesting emerging voices. And it hard for
them to emerge. I think Pearl Cleage does interesting work.
Jeffrey Renard Allen?
AR: All I can say is that Zora Neale Hurston got very bad reviews
in her time. It takes a while. I would rather talk about text in
text. I live in Nashville. I didn't go to an M.F.A. program. I don't
have any friends that review books. I am not in that world or any
part of that infrastructure. I don't choose to be part of that.
I still don't even have an agent. I am a busy-in-the-trenches-mom-wife-writer
living an actual life as a daughter-in-law... And reading.
RB: So you live your life, put your head down, write something,
and every three or four years you will pop up and go around and
then return to Nashville and start over again.
AR: I write daily.
RB: I mean that in between the publication of your actual work,
your name doesn't show up in odd places.
AR: I don't go to those places. And when I do go to New York, I
see my actual best friend who is a downtown mommy.
RB: Nashville has Vanderbilt and Tony Earley is there.
AR: And Fisk University.
RB: And isn't there a big writing festival there?
AR: The Festival of Books. Ann Patchett lives in Nashville.
RB: So is there a literary scene?
AR: I am a personal friend of Tony Earley. When they first moved there, a young poet mutual friend
introduced us. They were in our box at the Steeplechase. I like
to read books more than go to signings under most circumstances.
I go to support my friends—that I like because it's just a
celebration of the book. A wonderful sort of town meeting of books.
RB: So what moved you to write Pushkin and the Queen of Spades?
AR: I wrote my first book as a response to a text I found antagonistic
to me and to black people. This one I wrote in response to an author
and a text I found sustaining. I think that part of the subject
of my books is the experience of reading fiction in a black political
female context. That is a subject I have chosen to undertake. I
think that literature much more than the Ebony tower has been, books
have been the shelter that have sustained a lot of black minds.
RB: Who inhabits the Ebony Tower?
AR: Windsor. I think someone like Condoleezza Rice is in the Ebony
Tower. Windsor has Condi hair, and that's not unintentional [laughs]
which, as I point out, is really Mary Tyler Moore hair. I have sympathy—I
was driven to an airport recently by a literary guide, a black woman
who worked for a white company. She said, "I used to be in
marketing for a Fortune 500 company. And I couldn't stand it anymore.
I was stretched so thin. You don't know what it's like to be the
only black woman in the room year after year." She asked about
my daughter because I had spoken about her being the only black
child in accelerated math, and she heard me say that. "She
wasn't the only black child in the school? I wouldn't do that to
my child." I started off in an all-black school. So the dumbest
person in the class was black and the smartest person was black.
The one who cheated was black and the one who would never cheat
AR: That's the nice thing about being in a school with people like
you. You realize that it's really about character. What does it
say to my child that she had the right to go to one of the finest
schools in the South, but for four years, 5th 6th and 7th grade,
she was the only black girl in the accelerated math? Not just in
her grade, across the curriculum. She had a teacher—people
want to talk about affirmative action; I say we don't need affirmative
action if we have equitable assessment. When a teacher says to me,
and I am a pretty outspoken strong momma, that she is surprised
that my daughter is her best student. I turned back and asked her,
"Does that make it easier or harder for my child to be your
best student when you continue to be surprised by her achievement?"
There are no black males in America who have ever dealt with that
RB: How about a simple, "Why are you surprised?"
AR: I did ask her that.
RB: What'd she say?
AR: She said, “Because I have never had my best student be
a girl, to begin with," and then she wasn't going to say the
rest of it.
RB: She was the first female best student. [both laugh]
AR: So I say when Caroline gets a 700 on her math S.A.T., is that
really the same achievement as a white boy who sat in a classroom
all of his life with people who looked like him, with teachers who
expected him to excel? It's a complicated issue.
RB: Right. As they say in sports, it won't show up in the box score.
AR: But it's a significant intangible because whatever causes you
to do that when you are actually problem solving in the real world
may cause you to go further and do more. And that the extra effort
it takes to overcome that obstacle of the teacher—to give
an interesting example, one day Caroline said to me, "I won
at Hangman today." She is much more a little co-op hippie child,
[who] doesn't like to beat other people out. So I knew she won because
she wanted to win that day. So I said, "What was your word?"
This is in the third grade. "Existentialism." And I said,
"What made you think about that?" "The Spice Girls.
They are completely existential." "Caroline, that's ridiculous."
Those are my first words to my own child. And then I thought to
ask, "What do you mean by that?" And she said, "Because
the Spice Girls are just what they are in that moment. There is
no greater—" And I realized that, in fact, she was right.
But in that math class where that teacher was surprised if Caroline
gave an odd answer, she didn't ask what she meant. My daughter understood
what existentialism was in that moment and the Spice Girls, if they
were anything, were existential. So I said, "You know what,
your grandfather, he loved existentialism. He loved Malraux. Malraux
said, 'We are what we do.’ He also said, 'We are what we intended
to do, and intend to be to those we love.’ And your grandfather
loved that mitigation of the law."
RB: Your third grade daughter understood the word ‘mitigation’?
AR: If she didn't know it then, she knew it now. Which is why when
she was taking the S.A.T., eventually, she got one of the highest
scores in the country. The point is: you could either miscue them,
and a child who can withstand being miscued is a very complicated
RB: One of the ideas I took away from Pushkin and the Queen
of Spades is how easily children are hurt. I think about how
people will say, "Oh, children are so fragile." Or, "Children
are so durable and resilient." Can they be both?
AR: They are.
RB: What does it mean to say that they are both?
AR: It's an interesting thing. I had a mother who was a very bad
mother. And I think I am an example of: you can have very bad mothering
and still turn out to be a happy person. I am in love with my husband.
I adore my child. I have lots of friends. I personally believe that
large numbers of people are hyper-resilient. It only takes a small
amount to make people tremendously resilient to extraordinary harm.
I raised my child on the opposite. I try to harm her as little as
humanly possible. But I think when you are nurturing a child, both
as an individual and as a state—because some children are
incredibly fragile and a lot of adults become fragile. My daughter
has been exposed to racism since she was three years old. She is
a new generation of upper-middle-class black children, exposed to
racism. When I was a little girl at three and four and five, I wasn't
exposed to racism. I was in an all-black environment, and people
expected me to be president of the United States—had these
grandiose expectations. I remember almost driving off the road when
Caroline said, "Such-and- such little boy wishes I was white,
because he could invite me to go swimming with him." I have
people call, crying to me, that they were so sorry that they couldn't
invite Caroline to their child's birthday party because my child
was black and they were having it in a place that they felt that
people would not appreciate it. One funny thing was that my child
said to one child, "My mother says this place is a racist enclave."
And this woman had the nerve to call me up and say, "Alice,
I have bone to pick with you. I am so upset. Caroline lied in the
car pool this morning." I said, " What did she say?"
I was very surprised. Caroline is a very truthful child. She said,
"Caroline said that Bersheba was a racist enclave and that
you wouldn't even allow her there." [raises her voice] "I
did say that. I think it is."
AR: "You should not be repressing my child from stating the
truth. You should be concerned why your poor child has to be victimized
that you would own a house in a racist enclave." [both laugh]
RB: Resonant of a scene in Pushkin where Windsor as a
child is at the ice cream parlor with her father and says out loud,
"Look at all the peckerwoods."
AR: "Look at all the peckerwoods, Daddy." Windsor is
sheltered. What I am exploring is rarely outed in black psychology—is
that there is protective black racism that shelters many black children.
My father did not believe there were any attractive white women
or children. If he did, he never let me know, to the day he died.
And when I might wish for straight hair in a moment in passing,
he said, "Jesus had hair like lamb." [laughs] "You
have kinky hair just like Jesus." He would make up things.
"Rats have blue eyes." [laughs] But his protective racism
was very sheltering to me. It is one of those perplexing ironies
of life, because I think am truly not racist—my very best
friend is a Japanese woman. My closest male friend is a white man.
My second best friend is Afro-Korean. These are truly people I have
gone through the trenches of life with—I remember dating a
man once whose father said to me in all seriousness, "I just
don't believe in interracial relationships." I said, "You
know what, neither does my father." I said, "I've been
dealing with racism a long time. I was raised by one." [laughs]
One of the things Windsor and I have in common, and there are not
many, is that my father used to say, "You bring home a white
boy, the only question is whether I shoot you first or shoot him."
He was such an adoring father that was very unexpected. The difference
between me and Windsor is that my father did not die. He lived and
loved me until I was a strong woman. And my father was so different
when I was dating someone white. He said, "I can't help but
love who you love." And I saw him turn on that dime and move
into a different world. You are talking about a man who had been
raised in abject racist poverty in Alabama. To see him make that
kind of turn, you couldn't help but be a big-hearted woman yourself.
Getting back to this book—it’s a love letter to Motown
and that original black culture and about my father, one of the
most complicated parts of the book is I have chosen to write it
in the language of his people—which is black people in the
'50s and the '60s.
RB: Except for the poem.
AR: Yes, except for the hip-hop translation of the Dozens. Some
person, who offends me deeply, said that the poem and my language
were Seussian. Meaning from Dr. Seuss.
RB: [laughs] Oh, I thought it was some French adjective.
AR: [voice rising] I wanted to say to her, "Woman, long before
Dr. Seuss was bouncing his rhymes and that meter, there were the
Dozens and the black language games, predating Seuss." That's
like people listening to blue-grass and saying there is no black
influence in country music." I say, "Who do you think
invented the banjo?" But going back to this language of our
people, if you are in the minority culture—and that includes
women in an earlier period of powerlessness—if you are a mother
of five children and it's raining one afternoon. For one of your
children this a debacle because they can't go out and play for one
of your children, this wonderful because he doesn't want to wash
the car. You are seeing that one event, one moment, from multiple
perspectives. The same thing if you are a black person in a powerless
or less powerful circumstance, you have to figure out how this white
person, who has power over you, is responding to the situation.
When my father was hearing a Joe Louis fight in Alabama with the
white neighbors, when Louis won they couldn't scream and shout,
"Joe Louis won!" Or they could have all ended up like
Emmett Till, frankly. They had to walk home quietly and celebrate
in private. They had been invited to hear the black man get beaten.
They understood what they had been invited for. And so that is where
their safety came from, that understanding. Emmett Till didn't know
the code. He didn't understand where his safety lay.
RB: Do you know that novel by Lewis Nordan, Wolf Whistle?
of propaganda as Karl Marx's Das Kapital.
AR: I know it but I have not read it.
RB: It is a fiction based on theTill case.
AR: I have come up with relatives that have been arrested for reckless
eyeballing, when that was an offense.
RB: What's been the response to Pushkin?
AR: I don't l know what slow and fast is—I haven't done this
before except for that other time which was so peculiar. Well, it’s
exciting that O magazine said, "It was riveting and
really important about race." And Elle gave it a good
review and The Tennessean gave it two good reviews.
RB: Tell me about what you present on at your appearances.
AR: I give them an overview, and I talk about the sweep of the
Afro- Western experience going from Pushkin to Tupac, with W.E.B.
Dubois and Langston Hughes along the way. I have seen people arrive
at my readings with dog-eared copies. There is a core of my readership—black
intellectual women, educated women, and the down-home black women
who are dealing with these real issues of how race is constructed
in America in their real lives. They are following my writing and
following after it. And coming to the book quickly. I think, to
be completely honest, last time I was savaged by the press and I
think people thought I received too much press and that they are
not eager to give [this] book press. What is sad about that is that—I
am going to continue writing—I know even for this little amount
of press that I go to Chicago and thirty-five people have read it
and for a non-black book store, not like 200 at the other, that's
a lot of people. And that this is a book that is speaking to my
black readership. When I went to Princeton in the middle of exams,
black women showed up who had read this book to talk about and [were]
ready to engage, full of criticisms and evocations and interesting
readings of the book. I wish we had more time to talk about the
literary parts of the book I put a literary guide of the book that
I did myself on www.AliceRandall.com. What is so obvious is that this is the novel of
the aftermath of Brown. The sense of a loss of a black community,
the sense of a black person who makes it in the white world and
is so charmed by it that they cannot articulate the beauty of the
world they came from. It's a common problem.
© 2004 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing