Caroline Williams and Alberta Bontemps
Virginia Festival of Books
Husband David and I are spending the weekend at the Virginia Festival of Books. Yesterday morning I used the work out room. It was the first time in my life I've worked out in a hotel. My new road food is chocolate almond kashi go lean bars and black coffee. I've lost 19 pounds! Friday noon I spoke at a talk hosted by the African-American Authors Reading Group( a magnificent book club) about Rebel Yell. Thursday night I was on a panel with John Casey Maud Casey and Liz Benedict entitled Muses, Mentors and Monsters. Benedict who conceived of, edited, and contributed an essay to the volume moderated. John talked, brilliantly, about Peter Taylor being his muse. Maud talked about her father being her muse. I talked about my daughter being mine--and Alberta Bontemps being my literary midwife. We each read a bit from our essays on the subject. You can read their essays in Benedict's book. I promised to post the whole of mine on my website. Here it is.
I am a literary orphan. I did not have a mentor. I have not taken a single beginning, intermediate, or advanced fiction course. There wasn’t a day I knew I could do it--until I had done it. Orphans have children. Mine is my muse.
Caroline. My very first writing room was a desk beside my daughter’s crib. I wrote while she slept.
I credit Caroline with the fact I have never experienced a bout of writer’s block. Her existence was simply too compelling.
I had to write to populate her bookshelves with the books I thought she needed that didn’t exist, the books that would tell her who her people were: from intelligent illiterate southerners migrated north, to confederate aristos; from black intellectuals stuck beneath the cotton curtain, to beige hippy girls in D.C. to brown gangsters in Motown.
And I wrote to make it easier for her to be the writer I knew looking into her infant eyes she was born to be.
When I was an undergraduate at Harvard there was an African-American reading room on an upper level floor of Lamont Library. Hung with portraits of Harlem Renaissance figures.. I wrote a fair bit of my thesis on mothers and daughters in the novels of Jane Austen beneath the portrait of Arna Bontemps. When I married Arna’s lawyer grandson then birthed a baby with Arna’s eyes and gave her Arna’s mother’s name it was with an acute sense of obligation.
I was born in 1959. My daughter was born in August of 1987. A friend from my high school days working at Knopf gave me Beloved as a present. I read it and felt like I had been kicked in the stomach by a mule. Cuddling with my baby daughter in duplex in Chelsea I wept for the luxury of milk that belonged only to me and my sweet Caroline. The theft of breastmilk, by a man called school teacher scorched my mind. Beloved is a cathedral of a sorrow song, a sorrow song made complete and resonant. And for me it was the end of and era of sorrow songs. Tucking Caroline into a Moses cradle where she was watched over alternately by her Mama and her nanny while her father worked as the youngest member of the American UN delegation, playing jazz, and country, and classical music for her, crazily making my friends wear latex gloves to touch her, I could not fail to recognized, my baby was born into a different era, I wept for the beauty of a book that revealed so much of my daughter’s great-grandmother’s world, wept harder to realize Grandma would be dead before she could tell Caroline her tales, that Beloved would be what she had. But more significantly, though it was hard to recognize just as the post partum hormones were rushing through my body, A task had been achieved. Evil had been transformed into beauty by layers of loving perception, intelligence and imagination; the past was nailed back into the past stripped reader by reader of shame. Coming quick on the heals of another masterpiece of 20th century African American fiction, Ernest Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men, the masterpiece Beloved is for me the end of a literary era, leaving much significant about black lives beyond plantation desperation for a next era, for this era, to claim.
I waited for my daughter in the Nashville home of Arna Bontemps’ widow. I alternated between two rooms, her guest room and Arna’s old library. I had a bed in both. Left near exactly the way it looked the day Arna was stricken at a wake with a heart attack, the library had a bulletin board with notes and invitations, it had a typewriter and file cabinets, and the most wonderful collection of books including a book on black cowboys, extraordinary first editions many inscribed by his friends (Baldwin, Wright, Hurston, and Hughes) to him, and a giant family bible. One midnight run to the toilet I stopped to page through the bible and discovered, reading a funeral card tucked between its pages, that Arna’s mother’s name had been Mariah Caroline Pembroke. We had dismissed the name Mariah because of the association with hearsts, black Mariah. We had dismissed Caroline because we thought we knew it wasn’t a family name. That night I claimed it.
Alberta Johnson Bontemps applauded the decision. And she told me Mariah’s name might have really been Maria, or Caroline Maria or Caroline Mariah. She reminded me that records are not always right. According to the records of the State of Georgia she wasn’t even born. And Grandma knew herself to be well into her eighties.
As we spent day after day together, the doctors had proscribed modified bedrest, my husband was across the world with the Department of State, Grandma told me many stories from her girlhood in Waycross Geogia, from her origins, about the Aunt that raised her who had been alive in slavery times, knew slavery directly, about syphilis and turpentine camps and turpentine in home remedies and she told me stories of young Lang, that what she called Langston Hughes, and about how he named his feisty character Alberta Johnson after her. She talked about the relationship between Zora, and her husband, of the strange triangle Arna, Zora, Lang made and the square she, Arna, Zora, Lang made, and the different square Arna Zora, Lang, and the women they called Godmother made. She spoke of her early days in New York of her courtship with Arna, how she met him when he was her teacher, of what it had been like to be a writers wife, putting two babies in one carriage, toes to nose, then pushing them out into the snow so that Arna would have some space to create.
She said the thing about writers is that you can’t see them work. Sometimes it when they’re staring out into space that they do the best work. But for me the thing that was most significant was that Mrs. Arna Bontemps was telling me this not so that I would stand by someone who would one day be a writer, but she told me, because she recognized that I was a writer, and she was one too, and my baby might be another.
She wanted me to recognize the space that I would need to give myself. She wanted me to understand that sometimes I would work my hardest when it didn’t look like I was working at all. She wanted me to know all of what she gave up and she didn’t want me to give it up too.
And so it was in 1987 on a street called Geneva Circle, I had a unique perch from which to view the past and future of African-American Literature. And I had a literary midwife: an eightysomething year old beige black lady from Waycross Georgia who didn’t get published til she reached her nintieth year. Alberta Bontemps.
I could look on Grandma’s wall and see a poster of Saint Louis Woman with Arna’s name emblazoned beneath the title of the hit broadway show. I could see multiple editions of the Arna and Lang’s anthology of Negro Poetry and Arna’s Biography of of W.C. Handy and there was God sends Sunday and so many other books that paid for the floor beneath our feet and the roof above our head. And yet the books Arna had written and the books his friends had written, the books he collected and kept, none of them had Grandma in them. Grandma was proud to be the name sake of Langston’s Alberta Johnson poems but I knew Alberta and I knew those poems and she was nothing like Lang’s Alberta. The elegance, the intelligence, the wild graciousness of Alberta’s home, of Alberta’s way of speaking was not in any of the novel in Arna’s Library. Dorothy West had attempted something like it as had Nella Larsen, more indirectly. I wanted to write a Mrs. Dalloway about a women like Grandma. I wanted to go inside her mind and inside her domesticity and unraveled the choices she had made and the chances she had taken.
1987 for me was birthing, Bontemps, and Beloved. After that all I could do was start to write my own novels my own way which has a lot to do with palimpsest, bricolage, and parody—but much more with being a good mother and being a sturdy bridge between Arna, Alberta, and Caroline.
I was right about what I saw staring into my daughter’s infant eyes. I am the mother of a poet. Caroline Randall Williams.But I am not her literary mother. She has recently been a student of Amy Hemple’s, She is currently a student of Jorie Grahams. Joanna Kilink is her thesis advisor. Two weeks ago she completed her first manuscript, forty pages of poetry, titled Prelapsarian. Good Lord willing and the Creek Don’t Rise she will graduate from Harvard in May. Come August she will be teaching school down in the Mississipi Delta and at work on a new manuscript. My muse is well on her way to surpassing me. And I could not be more Mama or writer thrilled. Or certain none of it would have happened without Mrs. Bontemps—Alberta Johnson to Lang, wife to Arna, Grandma to Caroline, poet to critics of the obscure, midwife to me.