Alice Randall was born in Detroit, Michigan, in an enclave of Motown populated almost exclusively with refugees from Alabama. She grew up in Washington, D.C., and then attended Harvard University, from which she graduated in 1981 with an honors degree in English and American literature. In 1983 she moved to Nashville to become a country songwriter. The only African-American woman in history to write a number-one country song, she has had over twenty songs recorded, including two top ten records and a top forty. Her work includes the only known recorded country songs to explore the subject of lynching ("The Ballad of Sally Ann"), mention Aretha Franklin in the same line as Patsy Cline ("XXX's and OOO's: An American Girl"), and give tribute to both the slave dead and the Confederate dead ("I'll Cry for Yours, Will You Cry for Mine?"). Ms. Randall is also a produced screenwriter (a movie of the week for CBS) and has worked on adaptations of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Parting the Waters, and Brer Rabbit.
The mother of Caroline Randall Williams (who is the great-granddaughter of the Harlem Renaissance poet Arna Bontemps) and the wife of attorney David Ewing (a ninth-generation resident of Nashville and a great-great-grandson of Prince Albert Ewing, the first African American to practice law in Tennessee), Alice Randall Ewing lives deeply down south. Early in their courtship, Alice and David took Caroline on her first trip to Atlanta, a city that has long been important in Aliceís family because it is where her father, George, was briefly enrolled at Morris Brown, one of the nation's oldest black colleges.
The entire family is involved in documenting and preserving the history of people of color in the American South, with particular interest in the history of enslaved women and enslaved children and in the formerly enslaved who went on to striking academic achievement or whose children did. They have lectured, researched, consulted, and written about these topics, and have served on the boards of a variety of museums, historic houses, and institutions concerned with preserving and documenting the lives of enslaved people and their descendants, including Belle Meade Plantation, Carnton, the Hermitage (Andrew Jackson's home), Traveler's Rest, the Metro Historic Commission (of Nashville), the African-American Historical and Genealogical Association, the Family Cemetery Project, the Andrew Jackson's Slave Descendant Project, and Fisk University.
A Conversation with Alice Randall
Q) There are so many ways to approach this book historical, racial, literary, autobiographical. For you as the writer, what is the most important?
A) The Wind Done Gone is a story of reading, writing, and redemption, the story of a woman, a black woman, who reads her way into writing and writes her way into redemption. It is in some sense my story. When I was a girl of six or seven I fell in love with the television series Batman. And like many loves, there was something I hated in it too: I hated the fact that no one who looked like me was in the story. For two weeks after that awareness I was frustrated. The third week I wrote myself in. I literally began to write out Batman scripts and write a part for me into them, a Bat Girl part. My Bat Girl wasn't a sidekick; she was a catalyst; every time I wrote her into a story, she changed its ending. When they took Batman off the air, I made my first long-distance phone call. I wanted to save the show.
Later, when I read Gone With the Wind (GWTW), I fell in love with another pop culture artifact. This was a troubled love from the beginning. I had to overlook racist stereotyping and Klan whitewashing to appreciate the ambitious, resilient, hardworking, hard-loving character who is Scarlett. Like so many others, I managed to do it. Then one day, rereading the novel, an enormous question arose for me from the center of the text. Where are the mulattos on Tara? Where is Scarlett's half-sister? Almost immediately I knew I had to tell her story, tell the story that hadnít been told. Tell it because the silence injured me.
Q) In some sense, then, you are assuming the role of a "revisionist historian" and supplying what could have been, if GWTW was history and not fiction, a part of the story that has been consciously or unconsciously left out or suppressed.
A) Yes. GWTW ó the book, the movie, the costume, the quips ó has reached the status of myth in our culture. GWTW is integrated into the fabric of our culture. It is more powerful than history because it is better known than history. Unfortunately, GWTW is an inaccurate portrait of Southern history. It's a South without miscegenation, a South without whippings, a South without families sold apart, a South without free blacks striving for their education, a South without Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass. GWTW depicts a South that never, ever existed.
When I was growing up in Detroit, what I like to call Detroit, Alabama, the two phrases my father spoke to me most often were "Speak up, son, you're not down South," and "I want you to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves." I think I prefer to think of myself as a dutiful daughter than as a revisionist historian.
Q) Is the story you have written historically plausible?
A) Everything in the book is historically accurate and quite plausibly could have happened. One of the things that is exceptional is the existence of a diary. We know white women of privilege frequently kept diaries during the period, and many of these diaries have been handed down to us. Precious few diaries written by people of color have come down to us, but they are not unknown.
Many readers will be surprised by the character of the black Congressman, and some may consider him an anachronism in nineteenth-century America. Many blacks served in the Congress throughout the South during Reconstruction. This is fact, not fairy tale. I very much hope the book will provoke a new consideration of the Reconstruction period, particularly as it relates to African-American history.
Other readers may be surprised by Cynara's education. In fact, I dare say some will be surprised by her very intelligence. To those who find her intelligence improbable, there is nothing I care to say. To those who find her education improbable, I suggest they take a closer look at the writings of Frederick Douglass or Phillis Wheatley. And I inform them that black women attended and graduated from New England Medical College and Oberlin long before 1870. It is also suspected that black woman attended the Seven Sisters in the nineteenth century, passing for white.
Q) If there is a historical element to the novel, what were some of your literary models?
A) Reading Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys was a revelation to me. I loved and still love Jane Eyre, but Rhys's telling of the madwoman's story made me examine my assumptions. One novel delighted me, one expanded me. The Wind Done Gone was inspired by Wide Sargasso Sea. And of course Cynara owes a debt to Moll Flanders; both narrators are capable of a similar unabashed candor in describing romantic ardor.
In general I have a special fondness for the form the novel took when it was young. In addition to Moll Flanders, I could mention Clarissa, A Sentimental Journey, and Sense and Sensibility. These are works that I love which my heroine would also have read. My novel owes something to them, most particularly, perhaps with regard to the plotting of the central love story of the book.
Another of my favorite novels, one that Cynara could not have read (it was written after her death), is Hurstonís Their Eyes Were Watching God. Several critics have suggested that the affair between Janie and Tea Cake is the most positive romance between a black woman and a black man in American literature. I hoped to add to the exploration of this theme. If I have achieved something in this direction, I think it is largely in the portrayal of Cynaraís erotic curiosity.
Of course, I was also influenced by the reading of slave narratives published and unpublished, notably the works of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, as well as the diaries of white women of the period, including the diary of Mary Chesnutt, who noted and I paraphrase from memory that white women "were willing to point out the mulattos on every place but their own."
And then last, but perhaps not least, there is country music. I'm an admirer of primitive forms and have written country songs for a while now. You can hear, I hope, some of the rhythms of country blues in Cynara's prose.
Q) There are a number of more personal, autobiographical reasons that compelled you to write the book. Could you elaborate?
A) I come from a long line and have married into two different families of black people with Old South blue blood running through their veins. We call ourselves the not-so-tragic mulattos. I like to call us the ironic mulattos: we know we're black and we know we got the blue blood in us. Cynara's people are my people. To elaborate further would take us into the world of oral history. I have always been told that I am the direct descendant of a Confederate general, and to this day I believe that to be the case. I grew up with discussions about the conflict inherent in being the spawn of slaves and slaveholders.
When my grandfather died, his half-brother (his white brother) wrote my father a letter describing the childhood the two brothers had shared in Alabama. My father let me read that letter. Then he burned it. The day my grandfather died he couldn't read or write more than his name. My father said he couldnít let words on paper become the dominant truth just because they were words on paper.
I said earlier that my father frequently instructed me to "speak for those who cannot speak for themselves." Somewhere along the way I guess I decided I wanted to write for those who could not write for themselves.
Q) The Wind Done Gone can be understood as a story about a mother-daughter relationship. Can you describe that and then say how your relationship to your own mother figured in the writing of the book?
A) TWDG is a novel about a woman who feels that she has always had a rival for her mother's affections; I never felt that. It is also a novel about the play of politics on the passion of mother-love, an intimate portrait of racism. Racism is not reserved for the public sphere. I learned that quite painfully in my own home.
My mother was a glamorous high-yellow beauty and successful career woman who on the surface bears little resemblance to Mammy, but they share a particular trouble a difficulty in loving that which is their own, particularly those who are dark.
The book is not autobiography thickly veiled. It is perhaps prescient, though. When I began writing this novel, my mother was well and thriving. In my novel a daughter with a troubled relation to her mother is summoned to her mother's deathbed. She must decide whether or not to go. After writing that scene, I got a call from my mother's doctor telling me that she had only weeks or months to live. I wrote it then it happened to me.
Q) You've had an interesting career, or rather series of careers. Can you tell us how you jumped from journalism, to country music, to writing screenplays, to writing fiction?
A) I always wanted to be a novelist. I got involved with the other writing to find a way to support my "serious writing." Along the way the other genres became my serious writing in their own time. I'm proud of being the first African-American woman songwriter with a number-one country song, but I'll be glad when I'm not still the only one.
Q) You are a black woman who very deliberately moved back to the South. You describe the book as a reconciliation/healing with the South. What do you mean?
A) I like to say I was born in Detroit, Alabama. Everyone in my grandparents' neighborhood in Detroit had come straight up from Alabama on the train. The watermelon truck came down their street more often than the Popsicle truck. People were always talking about "down South" with much fear and loathing! My father would not let my grandmother take me down there, even for a short visit. As I said earlier, he hated the South. I can remember the day my relatives in Alabama first got to vote. We were so happy and grateful and confused as to why anyone would remain in a land where they remained permanently estranged.
As I got older and then moved on to Harvard, I came to realize that the world of the South was my world. As disconnected from the South as I was, as afraid of it as I was, grits figured in my family traumas, I had a daddy who claimed he had not worn shoes until he was thirteen years old and mysterious relations who had once owned great plantations and slaves. But more than this, I realized that I came from a storytelling people and a haunted people and I wanted to continue to live among them. And I wanted to write among them. I heard in the voice of William Faulkner the experience of my people told in tones of love and hate but devoid of respect, missing aspects. I feel this book bows toward Faulkner, and Capote, and Lee and says, "Yes, and this too is true. There is more. Listen, and Iíll tell it." Over time I came to see the South as an abusive mother of black culture, but its mother nonetheless.