News & Ideas

A Deeper Sense of Her Own Story

Alice Randall. Photo by Ashley Hylbert

Alice Randall authored a story of high artistic achievement after graduating from Harvard-Radcliffe in 1981, making her name as a writer of hit country songs performed by Trisha Yearwood and others and of such novels as The Wind Done Gone (Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

The details behind that story now await discovery—and processing—in nearly 100 boxes at Schlesinger Library. We asked Randall about the experience of reviewing and preparing her papers, the creative life they reflect, and more. Her answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Why is the Schlesinger Library the right home for your papers?

A: Though I arrived in Cambridge in 1977 as part of the first class of women directly admitted into Harvard College, memories of Radcliffe are central to my Harvard narrative.

Be it working for the Radcliffe Forum; planning dinners for the likes of Kate Millet, activist and author, or Irish Senator Gemma Hussey and Huber Matos, one of the four generals of the Cuban Revolution; strategizing with then-President Matina Horner to help me achieve an independent study with Julia Child; borrowing Radcliffe china for elaborate dinner parties in North House for a short-lived organization called Harvard Friends of Food; or speaking at Drew Faust’s last Radcliffe Day, Radcliffe shines bright in my memory—and no part of it shines brighter than the Schlesinger. 

When I was an undergraduate, I experienced one of the great pleasures of my life in the Schlesinger Library. I held a 19th-century cookbook and was told by a librarian that the copy I held was the only known copy of the cookbook, and then I was allowed to cut the pages. As far as I knew I was the only person living who had read those words. I found that exhilarating. I have loved the Schlesinger Library since I first sliced open those pages and discovered that through the reading and study of antique cookbooks I could taste history. At the Schlesinger I came to understand, while still a teen, that I could better understand the day-to-day life of women and how class worked in America by understanding what was required of different women in different kitchens—or by learning what certain women required other women to do in the kitchen. The Schlesinger cookbook collection changed my life. 

It was at the Schlesinger, hearing that “archive talk”—the day-to-day gossip of those doing the business of the archive—that I learned to look for the small moments in large lives that made me the novelist I am. To donate my papers to a library that contains the papers of Julia Child and Angela Davis is to assure that my papers will live as I have lived, in the company of complex and powerful women.

Another reason: Kenvi Phillips. The Schlesinger had hired a curator of race and ethnicity who is profoundly well-read in the literature that has mattered to me and to my writing. Meeting Phillips, I was struck by the profound insight she brought to the hard questions of ownership, privacy, readings, and misreadings, all of which come into play when a black person gives their papers to a predominantly white institution.

Q: Was the process of preparing this collection for the Schlesinger also a process of self-discovery? Were there themes that surprised you?

A: When my grandfather Will Randall—a cream-colored man labeled “Negro” in the 1930 Federal census—died, my father showed me a letter my grandfather’s white half-brother had written to the black family on the occasion of my grandfather’s death.

Best as I can remember, my grandfather’s white brother described an idyllic, bucolic childhood shared in nature, hunting and fishing with a pal unacknowledged as kin, acknowledged in the letter as a loved playmate of youth. DNA has since proved they were kin. After I read that letter my father burned it. He explained that the literate and prosperous uncle’s letter had to be destroyed because my grandfather couldn’t read or write. Will Randall hadn’t had a chance to tell his side of the story, to narrate and document his childhood, didn’t have the opportunity to leave a record, to have a say with his words on paper. My father wouldn’t let his half-uncle’s record stand as my grandfather’s history.

Preparing my papers for donation became a celebration of the privilege of being literate, the privilege of owning a house and having had an opportunity to hold on to so many of the bits and pieces and scribbles and drafts that I created as I lived and that I collected in the process of living.

Q: I assume moving to Nashville not long after you graduated from Harvard, in 1981, was one major turning point in your development as an artist. Can you describe some of the others?

A: Moving to Nashville was important to me because it was a turn to the South and a return to the South. It was a place I could use as a perch to look down to Alabama and to look up to Detroit—to Motown from the perspective of a second and very different Music City. 

But my biggest turning point as an artist occurred in high school. I was hospitalized and scheduled for a spinal tap. The doctors couldn’t figure out how a talkative star student had suddenly become near mute. They hadn’t read Maya Angelou, or read her the way I read her. I got my idea for my silence reading Angelou. Young and idealistic, I thought someone would read the sign, know, and come rescue me. The good parent. A teacher. Someone. As the hour for surgery approached, I realized no one was coming. If I was going to be rescued I had to do it myself. I put a bright smile on my face, willed some light into my eyes, and walked up to the nurses’ station, where I explained in full and complete sentences, with neither too much nor too little emotion, that I was in need of no further treatment and would be going home. When my mother arrived at the hospital, in desperate whispers I offered her the story of my miraculous recovery. That day I learned the power of words chosen for a particular audience and the importance of surviving to fight another day. That was a turning point that led to all the others.

Q: What do the papers reveal about your creative process, as a songwriter, novelist, cultural writer? How has that process changed over the years?

A: That I write many, many, many drafts. That I sketch ideas that I don’t choose to fully explore. That I do not write to publish out of my psychological experience. I write extensively, and privately, as part of an ongoing self-analysis that doesn’t seep into my public writing. The process hasn’t changed much; the genres change. I get one version of the whole down. Then I expand. Then I refine. Along the way I translate from a private language to my public language.

Q: What discoveries await the researcher who studies these papers compared with the reader or listener who knows only your books or songs?

A: Friendship has been critically important to me. I love and treasure deep, long friendships. I don’t write about friendship. I live friendship. I think the papers will give a sense of how several extremely important friendships are the central private story of my life, the thing, along with being the mother of Caroline [Caroline Randall Williams ’10], that has made my life, despite a whiplash childhood, eclipsingly sweet.  

Q: Are there ways in which a broader African American history over the past 50 years is reflected in this collection?

A: Want to know something about the social life of bourgeois black Americans in the mid-South at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st—what we cooked, how we entertained, how the vanishing art of the thank-you note looked in its death throes, how we volunteered? Poke into my papers. Want to know more about Detroit in the ’60s? Take a look. Seeking to understand how the demimonde stays in conversation with the bourgeoisie, or black hippie life in Washington in the late ’60s and ’70s, or Nashville’s Music Row in the ’80s and ’90s? Or to understand friendship across ethnicity, or how artists not born to money balance creativity and commerce, or how suing an author is akin to censorship? These papers may be worth a look. Artistic life outside of New York City, outside of Chicago or Los Angeles—all of that is on display here. Engagement between art and law and art and psychoanalysis. Documents that touch on all of those themes appear in this collection.

One of the things the papers will do is complicate the understanding of what was called, in certain 20th-century circles, “Negro geography.” Who is connected to who, and where? The locations that are important to me include Detroit, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Los Angeles, and Cambridge. But they also include Tokyo, St. Petersburg, Russia, the southwest of France, Manila, where my child was conceived; Martinique, where she took her first steps, and many other places where I lived a black life and searched for others who were black in those places.

Q: As a deeply experienced, versatile, and accomplished storyteller yourself, do you have any specific hopes for how scholars tell your story? 

A: I hope researchers who come to view my papers come prepared to complicate their understanding of the African American experience, and come to the papers with a strong foundational knowledge of the black American experience in the second half of the 20th century. My world is the street. My world is the academy. My world intersects with Wall Street. My world is Tuskegee and Booker T, and it is W. E. B. It is Lil Hardin and Hank Williams. My world is black Hollywood. My world is a couch in an analytical office. My world is hippy-dippy Washington. Once upon a time the great Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark said to me, “I’m not counting on you to keep my secrets, I’m counting on you to ‘tell it,’ and when you ‘tell it,’ tell it true.” I’ll add this to that: I’m counting on scholars to illuminate multi-meanings of the singular text that is Alice Randall.

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