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 safety.
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 early.
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 residence?"
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.
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 you do? 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 work.
RB: Your C.V. does range over music and film and writing. What else?
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. [both laugh]
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 for that.
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 they?
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?
AR: 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?
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.
RB: 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 was black.
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 experience.
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 child.
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?
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