A few months ago, we had Caroline Randall-Williams on the show, to talk about her amazing creative journey. Now, we get to hear from her amazing mother, Alice Randall, who is an award-winning author and songwriter. She has a phenomenal origin story about growing up in the iconic Motown era in Detroit...and she talks about how her life would forever change after the birth of her daughter.
Marcus: Welcome to another episode of the #CreativePower Hour, I’m your host, Marcus Whitney, and today, our guest is the most awesome, Alice Randall.
Alice: Hey Marcus, it’s wonderful to be with you.
Marcus: I’m so excited I was able to get you on the show, I know this is an incredibly busy season of life for you.
Alice: Crazy busy, but I’m jealous that my daughter has already been on the show. (So) I have to be on here with you.
Marcus: Well, you both are just incredible, creative entrepreneurs, and givers to this community but (also) the broader community. And you’ve been so kind to me and my wife. You’re just very, very thoughtful, so it’s great to be able to have you on the show, and share sort of what I know about you to the audience who listens and watches the show.
Alice: Well, I consider you to be the coolest man in Nashville. I am thrilled that you and your wife Rachel pay any attention (to us) and notice us and we’ve been able to collaborate on some things.
Marcus: We’re overdue for dinner, okay. So let’s make that happen.
Alice: We’re overdue for dinner. Yes.
Marcus: This show always starts with an origin story. I am obsessed with hearing yours. Because I just know, like, I don’t know enough about it. And you have such an amazing background. It’s actually one that inspires me because I like to be the type of person that does lots of things, but not for the sake of doing lots of things, but because I’m genuinely interested and I can do them.
And you are someone who keeps doing lots of different things, but like, at such a high level, so I am really interested to hear your origin story and kind of how you got the confidence and the breadth of skills to be able to do the things you do.
Alice: Well, I’m 60 years old, about to be 61 in May, and I’ve been thinking about that a lot because I’m just about to publish novel number five. And novel five (my fifth novel) is called Black Bottom Saints and it has everything to do with my origin story.
Because I started asking myself two questions. One, I ask myself why did I lie when people asked me the question “who is your favorite writer?” The first writer you loved? And I would always say Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, sometimes Charlotte Bronte. All of that was real to me, but when I look back at it, I realize it wasn’t true because I knew I really wanted to be a writer since I was three or four, and I didn’t meet those authors until maybe fifth grade.
Another thing I thought about later in life (to bring this 360), particularly in this “Me Too” moment, so many people are abused, and experience some kind of sexual assault, or other kinds of assault, and it becomes defining of their entire life. And I have been a seriously abused child. I always knew that. But my life has actually been really wonderful. And I started asking myself - I don’t think I’m that much more special than other people - why was it so different?
And I came to the same thing: The Ziggy Johnson School of Dance.
I was born in Detroit, Michigan, in May of 1959. At that time, there were more black girls living in the city of Detroit than ever lived in any city in the world in history. I’ve been able to prove that with the Census.
Alice: So I was one of those 80,000 black girls under 18. In a city that had less than 1,000 black women over 65.
It was a city of young people.
Alice: If you ever think about that and the Great Migration - you don’t take the old folks - they don’t go. So I was born there (in Detroit), and I attended (an inner-city - ghetto - what we called at the time) dancing school called the Ziggy Johnson School of Dance.
What was amazing about this thing, was that all the doctors’ children went there, and the lawyers’ children went there and the prostitutes children and the gamblers children. It was a real intersection and it was such an amazing school.
Literally, the Supremes performed on the programs, the Temptations performed on the programs, Sammy Davis came, the Mills Brothers, Marvin Gaye; they used to love it. It was (Marvin Gaye’s) favorite place to watch a show once a year on Father’s Day.
And I realized that Ziggy was not teaching anybody to dance in that school. It was a citizenship school for black girls.
Alice: It taught us how to be resilient.
Alice: It taught us how to be resilient. He took these wild and weird stories, of people like Night Train Lane, who had been abandoned into an alley and wrapped in newspaper. When I think of the things my mother did to me, I’m thinking “it’s not as bad as what happened to Night Train.”
There were all these things (Ziggy) would show you about innovation and resilience, and being referential to your own self.
Dancing with a drum of your own memory.
He had prepared me to transcend any trauma.
QUOTE #1: PREPARE TO TRANSCEND ANY TRAUMA.
Alice: In a community of other women. For one, I was born in Detroit city with that “chin up” Detroit attitude. My father was really a strong man and a smart man. Some people said he had both legitimate and illegitimate businesses. I’m not really sure of that. Because he kept it very sanitized on my side. And he is no longer living, but he was certainly a stunningly beautiful man and a man everybody in his community respected. I remember a story that I haven’t been able to put in any of my novels but I’ll tell you here is that my parents divorced when I was like 8 or 9 and I was moved to Washington, D.C. and went from an all black world (in Detroit) to a very integrated, liberal world in a progressive private school in Washington, D.C. where we called our teachers by their first names.
And, no grades, and I of course learned in that school (this is 1969-1970) that drugs are horrible, they’re killing the black community. And then, I’m thinking about my father’s friend Lafayette.
I knew Lafayette was a drug dealer. The cocaine or heroin king of Detroit. My father, such a strong man, and so respected in that community, who had so much respect for his daughter. He let me go to Lafayette’s house, on Boston Blvd. With his Rolls Royce parked out front, and screamed at Lafayette. And asked why he was doing what he was doing to the black community.
And Lafayette took it.
What was wild is that the next part about that is what my father said when we walked out of there - “you don’t know Lafayette like when I knew him before he came back from the Korean war.”
He came back and all he could say was “1, 2, 3...Jump.” My father was basically saying America Broke Lafayette.
So I thought he was sort of being an apologist for him and I didn’t like that. Shortly after, I can’t remember...one or two years later… Lafayette was gunned down by a young woman that he was trying to extort sex out of for a little bit of money she owed him.
My father said: number one, you should not put a weak person in a desperate situation because you don’t know what they’ll do. He put that woman… but more importantly, he shouldn’t have flexed his power on her.
QUOTE #2: THE POWERFUL SHOULD NOT OPPRESS THE WEAK.
Alice: So it was wild. So I came out of a world of storytelling and powerful storytelling where the stakes were really high. In that world if people make the wrong decisions, they die or go to jail.
And then I moved into a world that was completely intellectual. My father decided Detroit was too unsafe for me and I really spent very little time with him after fifth grade.
And I was in a very progressive world (in Washington, D.C.) where I was interpreting and studying the Vikings and making barley soup, which I loved and started my lifelong love of culinary things. And with no grades I was learning to spend time in the library and just start at the As and read through.
So my childhood had a whiplash quality because part of it was very, very black and Detroit and part was very progressive in Washington. Our school was specifically founded by Haulocaust survivors, black people and some very progressive white episcopalians.
It was integrated. It had black people from the beginning; didn’t add them later. The motto was we were supposed to be like the Jews of Masada. We would rather die than do something we didn’t believe in. And that we were supposed to not supposed to drive, ride on or design the trains to Auschwitz.
Alice: I’ve been thinking about that a lot. We live in a time now where most young people don’t even know what Auschwitz is. The majority of Americans (about half) don’t know. I’ll never forget it because I knew people in my growing up who still had the tattoos on them and this school and this school really had a commitment to reading both Haulocaust literature and also literature about enslavement and seeing the connections.
One of my favorite childhood experiences right after Martin Luther King was killed, an example of good that can happen from this. He was killed on seder. We had just moved to Washington. We moved in January and he was killed that April. It was seder that year; the next year friends of ours Marcus Raskin from the institute of policies studies (a leftwing think tank) but together a Freedom Haggadah that was black and jewish and transcending the entire Haggadah to the slavery experience in honor of Martin Luther King.
Marcus: Yeah, and that goes on today. We still see Haggadah’s today that connect that story of enslavement to the American story of enslavement.
Alice: So, by the time I got to Harvard, I only spent one year ever going back to my mother’s home. As soon as I got there, I started supporting myself because I couldn’t really get normal scholarships because they were really well-to-do people and so I started a bread-baking business, immersed myself in my studies. I loved Jane Austin and Shakespeare and Harlem Renaissance with Nathan Huggins and this whole world of learning and thinking and industry because I had to put myself through. And I had that daddy with the bad background and I could never tell him that my mother was not treating me right because he might have done something pretty dramatic and probably cataclysmic and so I don’t believe in guns or any kind of violence.
Marcus: Yeah but he doesn’t sound like a guy who would be afraid of really anything.
Alice: No, one of the terrible things he once asked me after my daughter was born. So he comes to visit me after my daughter was born and you have to imagine he’s wearing black wool pants probably a black silk shirt, red golf sweater to visit his baby grandchild.
Then, we’re sitting and the baby is sleeping, and he says “I’ve been watching Oprah, and it’s come to my conclusion that I think your mother may have abused you - did that happen?”
And I said yes.
Alice: And he said “why didn’t you tell me?” And I said because I think you would have killed her or had her killed, and I didn’t believe in that, so I had nothing. And he said “that’s the only thing I would have known to do.”
Alice: And so he said “I left you with nothing.”
And so I said here we are now, we’re in a different place. And it didn’t interrupt our love.
I couldn’t tell him until he was a different level of mature.
Marcus: Until he was a different person.
Alice: Until he was a different person. And so it was interesting. While I’m completely supportive of an aggressive defense of children, and being aggressive in creating laws to protect children from abuse, I’ve always thought those laws should not be draconian, because it’s very hard for children to pull the trigger if the laws are draconian because even I thought about, in my circumstance, other people and other people in the family who were dependent on the individual; what they would do. I was prepared to pay my own way, but I realized that everybody wasn’t.
Marcus: Okay, so, I just learned a ton. And we moved through a good portion of your life. We got right up to Harvard. Through that process, we talked about dance and we talked about everything you learned from Ziggy. You started talking about writing, and that you knew from age 3 to 4 years old that you wanted to be a writer. Let’s circle back to that, and everything else you said was incredible and actually very clarifying, in terms of who you are, but bring me back to the writing.
Alice: Well my father, this man that I’ve been talking about. Of course he didn’t read any normal children’s books to me. He read The Michigan Chronicle, which is the black paper, which he would call “the colored paper.” And it was printed on green paper, so I thought it was called “the colored paper” because it was colored green; but it was called “the colored paper” because it was the black people’s paper, and I didn’t even know for years later that it was even called The Michigan Chronicle. I didn’t even know the name of the thing; it was just “the colored paper.”
But he would read aloud to me from that newspaper, instead of from books, when I was a little girl, and I fell in love with a column that Ziggy had in that paper. He had a column, “Zagging with Ziggy.” I loved it. It was entertainment gossip, and basically local Detroit news and entertainment gossip, and it was delicious, and I loved that column.
I wanted to be a writer ever since I heard that column. I realized that’s why I wanted to be a writer since I was three because I saw Ziggy every week typing in his office in between teaching us, and I wanted to be a writer!
I wanted to do that thing. And my father would also read to me from The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News, Action Line and Contact 10. I can still remember when those came out.
And when I moved to Washington, he would send me those columns.
My father was a great storyteller, as you can tell and he was interested in language. But Ziggy was the writer and I wanted to be a writer because I had known a writer since I was born.
And really focused; I was in Ziggy’s school from the time I was 3.
So they say I wrote my first word and it was “yellow” y-e-l-l-o-w … my first word I spoke was a song lyric, it was “scooby-dooby-doo-baby.”
I did not say momma or daddy, I said “scooby-dooby-doo-baby.”
And my mother was so crazy that I could never understand why that song lyric “sometimes I feel like a motherless child a long, long way from home” why people thought it was so sad.
Because I thought being a motherless child a long, long way from home sounded like Heaven!
(She and Marcus both laugh)
I could not understand why it was so miserable!
So at the age of 4 or 5 I started to think about multiple meanings of singular text. I didn’t know that’s what I was thinking about.
But I was in a language-rich environment, my father was reading to me constantly. One of our favorite daddy-daughter dates is he would get me up at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning when the newspapers were being thrown off of the printing line, we would pick up the newspapers, from the line, and go sit in some cafe, and he would literally start on the front page of the paper, the big news about Vietnam. He thought everything would be of interest to me.
He was willing to explain it all to me.
Marcus: That’s incredible.
Alice: And he would read me the newspaper; the two of us. We each got one.
So by the time I arrived in Kindergarten, I read fluently, but one of my first weird academic traumas (you might identify with) is I was in all black private school, St. Phillip’s Lutheran School, with really cool kids, and I didn’t know the ABC’s in order and I could completely read.
So I was like the only kid in the class out of the whole kindergarten who didn’t know their ABCs.
It looked like I was the worst one, because I didn’t know the normal thing.
Alice: Everybody else could sing their ABCs. So that was really shocking because I didn’t even realize there was an order to the letters.
That had never even occurred to me and it was very complicated and it didn’t even make sense because I certainly hadn’t even seen a dictionary.
Alice: I came home after the other kids were making fun of me, and the teachers didn’t know what to make of it, like is this kid totally behind? What is going on with her? I actually also had extreme myopia and ended up having to have glasses later that very year, so I probably couldn’t even see.
They were probably encountering me as if I was severely mentally limited.
It was a really complicated but also really defining experience. I finally told my father what was wrong - everybody knows this song!
I thought I was just a song that I didn’t know. There seems to be this magic song that if you don’t know this song you’re not allowed to go on. I could sing one thousand songs - and it was the ABCs.
And so he had everyone in the family help me learn the ABCs. It was like Akeelah and the Bee!
For the next two or three days, every corner boy and every doctor’s wife was singing Mary Alice Randall the ABCs!
So that was great because I learned that my progress is not going to look like everyone else’s.
QUOTE #3: YOUR PROGRESS IS NOT GOING TO LOOK LIKE EVERYONE ELSE’S.
He was going to teach me that song, but he also taught me that they needed that song and I didn’t.
He said I didn’t need that step until I needed a dictionary. Then he showed me what a dictionary was, and how it was all organized.
But the other really cool thing before that was when I was in my nursery school; which was an all black nursery school, (the teachers) wanted us to paint these representational art, you know your normal house, dog, whatever. And there was going to be a big art show that was a big thing in black Detroit and we were all working toward it.
And I kept on wanting to put up a pink; and surround one pink with three different greens or blues; and then put the same pink next to it. Because I realized the pink looked different when I surrounded it with different colors.
That was very abstract. I loved it; I was engaged with it. And the woman was sitting there telling me I had to do this other thing for the art show; and that they knew I could do it really well, and I thought - well, I’m going to do this really amazing version of this thing and they’re really going to love it.
Alice: They refused to put up my art. And it was an interesting decision. I think my father could have flexed on them and my mother could have done something and they would have put up the art.
But we took that penalty and it was very devastating to me.
My father put it up in his dry cleaners that he owned! And it was my very first art show!
And my mother was still trying to interpret it and say “well I think that one looks like a race track and this one looks like…”
And my father said: “Alice says that they are just the colors and movement…”
He got what I was saying when I was saying when I was four years old. They are just the colors; don’t be saying they look like anything else.
QUOTE #4: LET OTHER PEOPLE KEEP THEIR OWN RULES IF THEY WANT.
He gave me an art show and so I learned, let other people keep their own rules if they want.
I don’t like those rules; I did not conform. I took my game somewhere else.
Marcus: That is so empowering.
Alice: It was so empowering and it was interesting because they were so lost. I had to go in the school with my family and hold my little four year old head up. All the other kids and families had their art there and I didn’t have mine there. And we still attended, and I supported their art - I love other people’s art. I still loved what they did. I couldn’t see why they wouldn’t let me do what I wanted to do too.
But, sometimes you have to go into another space.
And I have found that I became a community space; and so what I loved is that as much as I went to Harvard and read about Jane Austin and Shakespeare; through that art show; that I am in connection with my community, and the street, and talking to everyone; high and low, from my very first performance.
That meant the world to me, because there were men and women who walked in there and just saw the liveness of the colors. They just saw the play; just saw the wildness; and it made them smile. And I was so glad to have done that.
So by the time I was 6 I learned “I’m not your ordinary student,” I didn’t know the ABCs when everybody else knows it, and I didn’t want to do paintings like everybody else. I knew the house didn’t look like a house and the dog didn’t look like a dog. These other 6 year olds might have been interested in their houses and dogs, but I knew the one I did did not look like a house; it was not interesting to me; I was like “what is that?” I did not want to do that.
Marcus: Yeah, yeah.
Alice: I knew the one I did. I loved their’s for them, ‘cause for all I knew, that was abstract.
Marcus: It makes sense and also whenever people talk about their childhoods, it makes me feel things, because we were all children at one point, you know, that’s why I love to talk about the origin stories, and I feel so happy for you; that you got to get that lesson at age 6 because as you know there’s so many kids, when they go to school, for one reason or another not “in” or not “accepted,” or not “normal” or whatever, and they don’t get that support anywhere. Nobody reinforces, “you’re five,” we’ll take our show elsewhere, or “you can make your own show,” or any of those kinds of things. And then, you know, that stuff has long-term ramifications, so for you to get that lesson at 6 is just like…
Alice: I feel so fortunate, because I did get that artistic space, and then even though I was literally kidnapped from Detroit to Washington, D.C. in one of those weird/normal kid being kidnapped by the other parent; my father literally didn’t know where I was and all of that. My mother did put me into this wildly wonderful school, Georgetown Day School, that didn’t have grades and that really was very free spirited and would often give us the work on Monday and you would just do it self-paced during the week and hand it in on Friday.
When I wanted to do my report on the Vikings by cooking food or whatever; I was given the space to do that.
QUOTE #5: I WAS GIVEN THE SPACE TO GO ON MY OWN ADVENTURE.
And I never had a job working in an office until I was well in my forties.
I’ve worked for myself with that baking business; it did not prepare me for any kind of normal conforming life…
I just love to actually work, actually engage, actually make art, actually make money…
I’ve never learned the administrative meeting thing. I do it when I have to, but…
Marcus: So we had a show, with Caroline (Randall Williams, Alice’s daughter). And, we talked about her upbringing, obviously you were a part of that.
I’d love to ask you about you bringing Caroline into the world. Because, I’ve never been able to do that, and you two have such an incredible relationship. You know, a lot of people have good relationships with their parents, but you have like a working relationship, like you all are, there’s like a mentor, spiritual sister. You’re mother and daughter, but you know, y’all are tight, so talk to me a little bit about - it feels like when she came into your world, things changed…
Alice: Yes, and you know, nobody has ever really asked me that question like that, Marcus. And I want to just stop and say, you are truly a special mind and spirit. One of the things you do, is you discern where the center of things are. Where the center is.
And where the center that takes us forward is. And the center that takes us forward is always the obvious center. So actually, you have really drilled into my story.
Caroline was a huge changing/turning point for me. Two things; one, and I say this because I want to be optimistic and provide light to people who are in this situation now, particularly young people - I had a really, crazy abusive mother. So, being a good mother was always my number one ambition. It’s my number one, two and three ambition - to be a good mother.
So one, it mattered a lot to me. I have a wonderful, amazing daughter, and having Caroline, we had an amazing experience from the very beginning.
So, much more so than I ever wanted to be married, I wanted to be a mother.
And so when I was married and had Caroline, actually it was a very difficult pregnancy that (doctors) tried to get me to abort. Literally, I spent almost six months on bed rest. And I remember that first big ultrasound I could see her sucking her thumb. And I named her in utero there Caroline on the table. They said don’t name her, because you’re going to lose her.
I said, I may lose her but I’m going to name her, pray for her, pull for her, think for her, and I will mourn if she dies, but it will be with the name.
So that was really interesting from the very beginning we had the thing for supposedly six months where (the doctors) said you may have this child but you are probably going to die if you bring her into the world.
So I actually had that moment many times over six months they kept saying “pick her or you.” And I said, I’m going for her.
She was delivered in emergency Caesarean. At first they looked at her and just thought she was not right. For the first few months they thought Caroline was probably blind and deaf and severely mentally brain injured.
From the birth, from the problems going on and from the oxygen they had to give her at birth.
And I still loved her.
So we started off, literally, since I wasn’t sure if she could see anything, or hear anything, if she was awake, she was never put down. Because I would say “how will she know there’s anyone there loving her?”
I would literally waft sweet-smelling things in front of her nose because the only sense they thought for sure she had was smell.
So I would make little smell-poems and smell-short stories in front of her.
It ended my first marriage because he couldn’t even really handle that.
She couldn’t roll over at three, and and fourteen months she could barely say “momma.”
But my best friend Mimi and I were just down for her.
I was able to afford a full-time nanny, and she literally was not put down if she was awake.
I said, “if she has a tiny world, it’s going to be wonderful.” She’s got her mother, who is going to be devoted to her.
But, at some time around 16 months old, she went from not even saying “momma,” and you can imagine that was heartbreaking, to saying “artichoke please.”
And now I say “if she was brain-damaged” I guess I was having Einstein. She’s smarter than I am and one of the smartest people I know!
Which shows you doctors don’t know everything!
And she was not an early, quick reader, and things like that, and among the three year olds, she was the only child who did not sign her name on her art, and that was hard for me, but it taught me things like humility, and also, I still adored her; I still loved her, so what’s wonderful about Caroline and I, is people who know us now think I only love her because she turned out to be brilliant and beautiful and amazing. But we started off when I could feel her amazing soul.
When I thought she would be the child who could never even go into a normal kindergarten.
We bonded in true love and she was so much joy from the very beginning. And then when she could talk and the things that she does say, she is so wise.
She looked at me in fifth grade and said: we may both have the same father, but we do not have the same mother. She sees who I am.
And the one time Caroline ever met my mother, really as an adult, we walked out of there, and Caroline may have been in eighth grade. She always wanted to meet my mother and I always said “no I’m not going to do that because she really wasn’t right to me when I was growing up.”
But I took care of my mother for 18 months when she was dying. I try to do everything I can for someone.
One time after Caroline met her, she said “I don’t ever need to meet her again; you’re my she-ro.”
She could see how my mother treated me on that occasion.
Caroline has always been wise, she’s been deep. She’s made great use of everything I ever gave her. It’s so creative and imaginative, because I got to imagine my half of our relationship; so by the time she was in kindergarten/first grade I was the mother that gave her the Riverside Shakespeare and say…
QUOTE #6: SMART PEOPLE ARE NEVER BORED; MAKE UP YOUR OWN GAMES.
And she was a child who took to that.
So we cooked together, making crepes and risotto.
Our life is some kind of happy work/play. And what I love is that I truly do respect her. Now that I’m 60 and she’s 32, she’s an artist in her rising prime.
And it’s so amazing for me that I raised in my own house, a better editor than I am. That she is generous enough to now look back and support me in my work and the things that we collaborate on together.
She has exceeded me, and I’m thrilled with it!
Marcus: She’s just getting started, I mean goodness gracious. I get chills thinking about it.
Alice: But she’s third generation; because my father came out of Alabama and never had a pair of shoes since he went up to Detroit.
They never went to school because his father was tough like he was. So his father wouldn’t send him to school down in Alabama, because they beat the black kids so badly.
So my father never went to school until high school in Detroit. He became captain star basketball player. He memorized Hamlet!
He said it reminded him of the King James Bible. His whole vocabulary was only what he got in church. He learned to read in church. Then he got into Shakespeare. Then I did at Harvard, then Caroline did.
She’s a third generation Shakespeare scholar! I love that.
My daddy loved Shakespeare. I got it from my father. Then she took it to a place neither of us could have ever touched.
I’ve told her several times, you know Caroline, we’re some of the best that survived the middle passage. We’ve got it. All of us here in America who are black, are some of the best that survived the middle passage because we have the resilience. So having Caroline was a joy.
In my 20s I was a songwriter, so I came to Nashville from Harvard - and I was from Motown - so I knew that you could make money in the music publishing business. I knew I wanted to be a novelist; I was tired of having a little bread baking business, that’s a hard way to make money, although ultimately I made some good money in food, eventually.
I thought I would support my serious novel writing by being a songwriter!
And I did. I’ve had 30-some recorded country songs. Glen Campbell, Trisha Yearwood, Moe Bandy, some other people… wrote a video of the year for Reba McIntyre. And once I did that, I took a little venture I wasn’t planning into screenwriting and I got to work with Oprah’s company for a couple of movies, Quincy Jones’ company, I worked with Reggie Hundlin who produced Django Unchained. Reggie and I have been tight since we were 18 or 19. We met in a dining line. We lived in the same dorm house together.
Reggie and I have a project right now we’re working with Caroline on - the Black Bottom Saints TV Show Series so that’s really going. So Reggie and I have been together as collaborators for 40 years.
Marcus: So this is a good time to turn to this book (Black Bottom Saints) and maybe just quickly run through the previous four novels that you had, just so people can know.
Alice: The Wind Done Gone (2001), was a New York Times Top 10 Best Seller. It was the retail version of Gone With The Wind from a black perspective. The second one is Pushkin and The Queen of Spades (2004), which I love, which is about a black academic woman, who has a son who is a defensive lineman for the Tennessee Titans who is about to marry a white, russian lapdancer. And the whole book is either a suicide note or a love letter to her son. She’s either going to write her way into the wedding or write her way out of life. And what’s wild is I had three people who said after that came out - “how did you know about me?”
I didn’t know about you; I took that from someone else; I didn’t know your wife was a lapdancer!
But I love Tonya, my lapdancer. She’s tough and she’s got grit. She’s really cool. And that one took a lot of Tupac Shakur and Pushkin together.
The third one (Rebel Yell, 2009) is a black family spy novel and I may or may not have ever been in or related to a black family spy novel. My husband was in the foreign service and I definitely was in the foreign service world as a wife and was in Manilla during revolution. Wild West Times. Caroline was actually conceived in Manilla, he also served in Martinique and her father was also at the UN when she was an infant.
The fourth one (The Diary of B.B. Bright, Possible Princess (2013) winner of the Phillis Wheatley Award) got me way down from under 225 pounds.
And this fifth one (Black Bottom Saints) is the novel of my lifetime. It’s everything I distilled from living with trauma to transcendence about resilience, about how black culture can be a window into universal culture. So it’s both very black, and totally human, and world beat, too. And, it also has cool with alcohol and without alcohol cocktail recipes in it. One for each chapter.
So it’s in the form of a hagiography, so just quickly going back, my first novel, was a diary (Wind Done Gone), my second novel was a suicide note, my third novel was a spy novel, my fourth novel was done in the form of a diet book, and my fifth novel is a hagiography.
The old school, catholic lives of the saints, where all my saints are mainly wild black people, and two white people because I would never do something totally unintegrated.
Marcus: Okay, but talk about who the Black Bottom Saints are.
Alice: Okay, remember Ziggy? Who I told you had the dancing school, column, and was an emcee. Ziggy lived in Detroit, and he lived in a place called The Gotham Hotel, that Langston Hughes said was the number one black hotel in America; not just Detroit, in America. And everyone from Thurgood Marshall to Sammy Davis stayed at The Gotham, and it meant everything to them, because it was black-owned, it was very elegant, the food was very complex, it had extraordinary black art, it even commissioned black art. Artis Lane, who the Obamas commissioned a bust of Sojourner Truth that’s now in the U.S. Capitol; she did the original paintings of the men of Detroit, of black bottom that were in that hotel - when she was just in her 20s, so it’s an extraordinary place.
The black bottom saints are the people who are coming through Detroit, but some of them are, say Robert Hayden the first black Poet Laureate of the United States - who was from black bottom - who goes and teaches at Fisk for 23 years. So it was down here with Fisk, but comes back up to University of Michigan; but he’s coming through, so he’s one of the people Ziggy put in front of us. That’s how I knew about amazing poets from the time I’m three and four.
Because (Ziggy) introduced us to Robert Hayden.
So it is essentially 52 real people that are some of Ziggy’s closest friends and the ones I met as a child, but many of them are totally unknown names. So I’ve used a lot of black newspapers, original archives, original research, interviews with living people in their 80s and 90s to recreated these extraordinary, but often forgotten lives.
A black man who owned an island between Michigan and Canada, but not more than that, he was also the first black person on the Detroit Symphony, but also what he did with black-owned hospitals in Detroit in helping progress early heart disease treatment for black people in Detroit before certain things were available, including dialysis machines for black people.
Alice: And when people were thinking black heart chest pain was just hypochondria. So I’ve traced down this research. I spent two years tracking down all of Ziggy’s columns that I could find. I finally got 1,000 pages. Some of them are slight variations. He would sell one to the Pittsburgh Courier and one to the Chicago Tribune to make a little extra money, spin it, just put a few more paragraphs in it here or there. So it’s hard to say how many separate columns it is, but it’s about 1,000 columns.
Distilling who the most important people were. Identifying the ones I had jived with in my real life. Chasing down all these stories and then telling them in accessible 3-6 pages. So it’s a novel that is essentially made up of 52 short stories.
Marcus: Yeah. It sounds amazing. And who is your publisher?
Alice: Harper-Collins, who did Amistad, specifically. Which was the imprint. It probably has the most outstanding record in black literature of any imprint.
Marie Brown, who did books back to the 1970s that I loved, is my agent.
Marcus: She doesn’t do this work anymore, right? She’s just like doing it just for you.
Alice: Yeah, and she turned me down for Wind Done Gone and all the others, and when I sat her down for Black Bottom Saints she said “this is the book you were born to write.”
This has been so exciting. We’ve had Patrick Henry Bass on this, who has been the senior editor at Essence Magazine, helped found a whole part of the Essence festival that is book oriented, reviewed all my first novels (I did not know him at that time), and so it’s such a thrill to have someone who has followed all of my other novels, is now editing and publishing this.
And we’re doing some cool things. We’ve got a related deck of playing cards and I’m working with a wonderful Harlem artist, Jimmy James Green. How strange cool things happen. I’m not a big Twitter or Instagram person, but I called a former student of mine for help finding an artist on black Twitter. Within 48 hours my former student, Nate had found all of the hashtags and two relevant artists. One of them, Jimmy James Green, is about my age or older, but very active on Instagram and Twitter. Loved his art, and he’s done an entire subway station in New York City. I didn’t think I could possibly get him. He’s read the book; he said “I’ve been waiting all my life for a project like this.”
I said, but, you don’t have any connections with Detroit; you’re so associated with Harlem, you’ve done a whole Subway Station in Brooklyn, you’ve done a black church up there.
He said well, you know, I lived in a basement apprenticing to an artist you probably don’t know, John Anye Lockhart, in Detroit.
John Lockhart painted my childhood portrait when I was three years old!
He had lived in Detroit and apprenticed to the very man who painted my childhood portrait and was the painter of black Detroit.
I said you are my man. We worked together and he has done 54 original paintings. Our joker is Eartha Kitt.
Marcus: This is going to be amazing, and this is all coming out this year?
Alice: In August, and what’s exciting about it is that in the book Ziggy is on his death bed telling the lives of the saints so that his girls will have them when he’s gone. And the only person he wants to come see him is Eartha Kitt.
And in the book, well, I can’t tell you if Eartha comes or not, but Eartha makes a remarkable appearance and she gets to be the Joker. She doesn’t get to be a Saint, but she gets to be the Joker and she turns everything upside down.
SOMETIMES WHEN IT’S UPSIDE DOWN IT GETS JUST RIGHT.
You’ve gotta turn some things upside down to get them just right sometimes.
Marcus: Yes ma’am. Gosh. Is there anything else you have going on that you want to share?
Alice: I’ve loved everything that I’ve done. I worked on the Ken Burns documentary for all seven years and was in some episodes.
I’m teaching this semester on Black Country Music. That’s been an area of my scholarly research the last three or four years. A drill down into the history of Black Country Music. And, since we’re recording this from Nashville, I always want to shout out the name of Lil Hardin Armstrong.
She is the person that - you know, it’s considered with the big bang of country music that it’s Mother Mable and Jimmy Rodgers and the Bristol Stations. And everyone considers Jimmy Rodgers’ biggest song to be Blue Yodel #9. It says “Jimmy Rodgers and Orchestra.” Well, Orchestra was only Lil Hardin Armstrong and Louis Armstrong. And Louie is on a few bars, and Johnny Cash put him on the television show and so everybody knows that and was talking about it, but they never mentioned Lil, who was every bar. The piano was on every bar.
And she probably wrote the song. And I have been able to pull together and publicize that information, and I got Louis into the documentary.
But Lil, people are so far from knowing that. There wasn’t a space for that, and so I’m always interested in “where is the space for that additional information?”
What’s hard is, when people don’t know so much, you can only feed them tablespoons at a time of the new information.
Lil died on a piano bench singing St. Louis Blues in honor of Louis Armstrong.
After her death, Ringo Starr had a #1 hit on one of her songs.
She’s probably the most important songwriter that ever lived in Nashville. She went to Fisk for three years, and nobody even knows or talks about her here. There’s no plaque to Lil Hardin.
When you talk about important songwriters who should be in the Hall of Fame, she has (so many).
She says in an interview, “I just wanted to be a little star.”
I take so many lessons from Lil Hardin Armstrong.
THE GOOD WORK IS ITS OWN REWARD
And the good relationships. That Lil didn’t get the notoriety. Louis and so many jazz musicians owe so much to her. She studied classical music. She’s the one who could do the arrangements in the sheet music.
No matter who gets the credit, the joy of doing the amazing work, is what’s important.
Even though I’ve been supporting myself and making my own money since I was 19 years old, I’ve always known that making the art, making the transcendence, making the love and joy, all of that is ultimately more important.
The art is it’s own reward.
X’s and O’s came to me a really weird way, which is my biggest song. It was a #1 for Trisha Yearwood. It’s in the top 20 recurring country classics now, which is wild.
We all did it for the right reasons.
And we got an amazing song that has lived on for 20 years. Women got it. It was our real issues of how hard it was to be loving and make money in your home.
It’s been an adventure!
Marcus: Yeah, there’s no better way to end this, than that. But we’ll have you back on the show after the book goes global and your life is even more fabulous than it is now. Alice Randall, thank you.
Alice: Thank you Marcus, it’s always wonderful to be with you, you’re my inspiration!
Marcus: Yeah, you’re mine. More so after this show. That is just incredible. Thank you. Until next time. Peace.