Randall, Alice 1959–
Randall, Alice 1959–
Alice Randall 1959–
From historic firsts to legal landmarks, Alice Randall’s high-profile writing career has encompassed country music songs, screenplays and a controversial parody of Gone With the Wind. A trailblazer in Nashville, Randall was the first black American woman in history to write a number-one country song. Her first novel, The Wind Done Gone, a below-stairs version of Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War-era epic from the point of view of the plantation’s black inhabitants, was the subject of a sensational literary legal battle that became a test case for issues of copyright law, freedom of speech and historical accuracy.
Born Mari-Alice Randall in Detroit, Michigan, on May 4, 1959, Randall spent her early years in a neighborhood populated almost exclusively with refugees from the Deep South. “I like to say I was born in Detroit, Alabama,” she said in a Houghton Mifflin interview. “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.”
Her father, George Randall, worked in Detroit as a dry cleaner. He was an Alabama native and former resident of Atlanta, where he was briefly enrolled at one of the nation’s oldest black colleges, Morris Brown. A gifted storyteller, disturbed that his own father never learned to read and write, George Randall encouraged Alice both in her education and the development of a political consciousness. 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,’” Randall told Houghton Mifflin.
The complexity of race relations in Southern society—and the American psyche—was apparent to Randall as a child. A direct descendant of Confederate general Edmund Pettus, Randall had both black and white ancestors in the South. “I grew up with discussions about the conflict inherent in being the spawn of slaves and slaveholders,” she said in the Houghton Mifflin interview. “I like to call us the ironic mulattos: we know we’re black and we know we got the blue blood in us.” Her mixed-race background taught Randall that racism
At a Glance…
Born Mari-Alice Randall on May 4, 1959, in Detroit, MI; married Avon Williams 111 (divorced); married David Ewing; children: Caroline Randall Ew-ing. Education: Harvard University, English and American literature, 1977-81.
Career: Wolf Trap Performing Arts Center, Washington DC, writer, 1980s; songwriter in Nashville, TN, from 1983, writing lyrics for more than 20 country songs, including number one hit “XXX’s and OOO’s: An American Girl”; author: The Wind Done Gone, 2001; volunteer English teacher; wrote and contributed to screenplays, including XXX’s and OOO’s, a 1994 CBS television movie, Their Eyes Were Watching Cod,Brer Rabbit, and Parting the Waters; set up film and television development companies, Black and White Pictures with J.C. Crowley, and She Writes Movies Inc, with Mimi Oka.
Selected memberships: Harvard-Radcliffe Club; AS-CAP; active in local museums and historical organizations concerned with preserving the history of the enslaved, including the African-American Historical and Genealogical Association, the Metro Historic Commission of Nashville, Andrew Jackson Slave Descendent Project, and the Family Cemetery Project.
Selected awards: ASCAP Number One Club, 1994; Al Neuharth Free Spirit Award, 2001
Addresses: Home —Nashville, TN. Office —Houghton Mifflin, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003.
has insidious private as well as public manifestations. “I learned that quite painfully in my own home,” she said. Her mother, Bettie, was a political scientist, “a glamorous high-yellow beauty and successful career woman” who, like the Mammy character in Gone With the Wind, had “a difficulty in loving that which is their own, particularly those who are dark.”
When Randall was in the third grade, her parents separated and she and her mother moved to Washington D.C. There Randall attended the prestigious, progressive Georgetown Day School and spent her spare time exploring the Smithsonian. She subsequently won a place at Harvard University, where she studied English and American literature, graduating with honors in 1981.
After college Randall returned to Washington D.C., to work for the Wolf Trap Performing Arts Center. But in 1983, she decided to reverse her father’s journey and move south. “I came to realize that the world of the South was my world,” she told Houghton Mifflin. “As disconnected from the South as I was, as afraid of it as I was, grits figured in my family traumas…. 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.”
Her first choice of written expression was songwriting. Many country artists, she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2001, were “tremendously important American poets.” Determined to break into the white-dominated world of country music, Randall arrived in Nashville with only one Music Row connection—Bob Doyle, a director of the music licensing group ASCAP. After hearing musician Steve Earle perform at the Blue Bird Café, Randall decided to call him directly and suggest a songwriting partnership. Earle told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he was “intrigued by the whole idea of a Harvard-educated black woman who wanted to write hillbilly songs, so I called her back.”
As a black woman Randall was a rarity in country music in the 1980s, making her way in a business characterized by a singular lack of black executives or performers. In 1996, The New York Times described country as “the de facto soundtrack of white flight,” and cited MCA Records president Tony Brown’s belief that country music “basically is white music.” Undeterred by the color bar, Randall, one of the few black artists interviewed for the Times article, was already established as one of Nashville’s leading lyricists. With over twenty songs recorded, including two top ten records and her groundbreaking number one hit, “XXX’s and OOO’s: An American Girl,” composed with Matraca Berg. The song, recorded by Trisha Yearwood, spent two weeks at the top of Billboard’s country singles chart in September of 1994. “I’m proud of being the first African-American woman songwriter with a number-one country song,” Randall told Houghton Mifflin in 2001, “but I’ll be glad when I’m not still the only one.”
Randall’s song lyrics reflect both a gift for language and the political sensibilities instilled in her childhood. “The Ballad of Sally Ann,” explored the subject of lynching, “I’ll Cry for Yours, Will You Cry for Mine?” paid tribute to the slave and Confederate dead of the Civil War, and “Went for a Ride” resurrects the forgotten black cowboys of the old West.
Established as a songwriter, Randall decided to fulfil her longtime ambition of writing a novel. Taking up her father’s charge of speaking for those who had no voice, Randall found her imagination drawn to the book she first read at the age of 12, Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 bestseller, Gone With the Wind. “There was something in the book that attracted and repelled me,” Time magazine reported her as saying in 2001. “Where were the mulattos on Tara? Where were the people in my family history?” Inspired by other revisionist novels, particularly Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, the story of the first Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre, Randall embarked on The Wind Done Gone.
Randall’s novel is told from the point of view of Cynara, the beautiful mulatto daughter of the plantation owner and his black slave, Mammy. Half-sister to Mitchell’s heroine, Scarlett O’Hara (the “daylight version of me”), Cynara becomes the mistress of R, Gone With the Wind’s Rhett Butler. The novel charts her life, recounted in diary form: “childhood on a cotton farm; a time of shawl-fetch slavery away in Charleston; a bare-breasted hour on an auction block; drudge slavery as a maid in Beauty’s Atlanta brothel…; a season of candle-flame concubinage in the attic of that house; a watery Grand Tour of Europe; and, finally, concubinage in my own white clapboard home….” Drawing on the plot and characters of Gone With the Wind, Randall’s novel offers a compelling parallel drama of miscegenation, murder, social hypocrisy and familial rejection.
Transforming Mitchell’s beloved novel—a Pulitzer Prize-winner, made into a blockbuster movie starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, in 1939—into a story about miscegenation and hypocrisy was both audacious and subversive. As publisher Houghton Mifflin readied The Wind Done Gone for publication in June of 2001, trustees of Margaret Mitchell’s estate moved to block publication. In March that year they filed a lawsuit, denouncing Randall’s novel as “a blatant and wholesale theft,” an unauthorized sequel of Gone With the Wind, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Randall was accused of borrowing more than a dozen characters, several famous scenes and even some dialogue from the original. Houghton Mifflin’s lawyers countered with the claim that Randall’s novel was a parody, protected legally under fair use practices.
The lawsuit made headline news across the country, launching highly charged arguments about the nature of copyright law, freedom of speech, censorship and the definition of parody. High-profile supporters of Randall’s right to publish included authors Toni Morrison, Harper Lee, Pat Conroy, John Berendt, Jay Mclnerney, and Ishmael Reed, historians Shelby Foote and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., and music producer Quincy Jones.
The case became more than a confrontation between First Amendment rights and copyright law: it embraced a larger national debate about interpreting American history and redressing historical wrongs. Randall, said her husband, David Ewing, was “the little lady that wrote the book that caused the big war,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. By using President Lincoln’s famous statement about Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ewing pointed to the case’s racial and historical significance as well as the novel’s political aims. “I wanted to write a parody that would heal America,” she told the newspaper, “and be good for the South.”
Randall submitted 15 pages of “demeaning” quotes about blacks in Gone With the Wind to the court. The book “hurt me when I first saw it and read it,” she was reported as saying by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; her 13-year-old daughter had found it too “painful to read.” Randall later told the Augusta Chronicle that her own novel was “an act of love to my daughter, so that she would not have to live her life with that text unanswered, so that she wouldn’t have to do the work of answering it.”
In April of 2001 U.S. District Judge Charles A. Pannell Jr. halted publication of The Wind Done Gone, ruling that the novel was not a parody, but piracy. An appeal followed in Atlanta’s federal appeals court in May. Six media companies, including CNN and the New York Times Co., filed court briefs in support of The Wind Done Gone, contending the ban asserted property rights over rights of free speech. A three-judge panel reversed the earlier ruling and, within weeks, The Wind Done Gone was in stores, its initial print run more than doubled as a response to the court case publicity.
Reviews of the book were mixed: the Washington Post called it “closer to earnest allegory” than parody or satire, and the Boston Globe suggested that “its purely reactive vendetta … undermines its punch.” However, The Wind Done Gone —cited by People magazine as one “of the most talked-about books of the year”—spent six weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, peaking at number nine, and was a winner of the 2001 Al Neuharth Free Spirit Award. In May of 2002, the Mitchell Trust agreed to a confidential out-of-court settlement, allowing Houghton Mifflin to continue publishing The Wind Done Gone with the addition of an “unauthorized parody” label. In return, the publisher agreed to make a financial donation to Morehouse College, a black Atlanta school long supported by the Mitchell estate.
Randall lives near Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Her first husband was lawyer Avon Williams III, son of Tennessee’s first black state senator and grandson of Harlem Renaissance poet Arna Bontemps. During her first marriage, Randall lived in the Philippines, Martinique and New York with Williams; they divorced when their daughter, Caroline Randall Ewing, was three. In 1997 Randall married another lawyer, David Ewing, a ninth-generation Nashville resident and direct descendant of Prince Albert Ewing, the first African American to practice law in Tennessee.
In Nashville, Randall volunteers as a teacher at several private schools, is a member of the board of Belle Meade Plantation, and has served as president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Club of Middle Tennessee. She wrote a television movie for CBS based on her song “XXX’s and OOO’s: An American Girl” in 1994, and contributed to screenplay adaptations of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Brer Rabbit, and Parting the Waters. In the 1990s, she and fellow songwriter J. C. Crowley set up a film and television development company called Black and White Pictures. Randall and friend Mimi Oka now run a film and television development company in Nashville called She Writes Movies Inc.
“She Can’t Break My Heart” (with Steve Earle).
“Someone’s Got to Do It” (with Steve Earle).
“You Tear Me Up” (with Steve Earle).
“Across Town When You Cry” (with Robert Lee Jetton).
“The Ballad of Sally Anne” (with Mark O’Connor and Harry Edward Stinson).
“Café du Monde” (with Raymond Kennedy).
“Get the Hell out of Dodge” (with Walter Hyatt).
“Girls Ride Horses Too” (with Mark Sanders).
“Hundred Years of Solitude” (with Michael Woody)
“Many Mansions” (with Mark Sanders and Carol Ann Etheridge).
“My Hometown Boy” (with Lisa Silver and Carol Ann Etheridge).
“Quality of Mercy” (with Tim Krekel).
“Reckless Night” (with Mark Sanders).
“Resurrection” (with Matraca Berg).
“Small Towns (Are Smaller for Girls)” (with Mark Sanders and Verlon Thompson).
“Thing Called Love Cues” (with John Soles).
“Thing Called Love Cues” (with Ralph Murphy).
“Went for a Ride” (with Radney Foster).
“XXX’s and OOO’s: An American Girl” (with Matraca Berg).
The Wind Done Gone, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.
XXX’s and OOO’s (television movie), CBS, 1994 (with John Wilder).
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 30, 2001, p.El; April 8, 2001, p. Fl; April 13, 2001, p. A14; April 19, 2001, p. Kl; April 21, 2001, p. Al; April 24, 2001, p. CI; April 26, 2001, p. Dl; May 13, 2001, p. B2; May 16, 2001, p. B5; May 26, 2001, p. Al; May 27, 2001, p. Al; May 30, 2001, p. F2; July 12, 2001, pp. Dl and D8; July 13, 2001, p. Bl; July 14, 2001, p. C2; October 11, 2001, p. D3; October 12, 2001, p. E3.
Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2001.
The New York Times, October 20, 1996; July 1, 2001.
Washington Post, June 24, 2001, p. BW03.
The Advocate, http://www.advocate.com/html/books/846_randall.asp
The American Society of Composers, http://www.ascap.org/ace/
AT&T Worldnet Celebrity Chat, http://communityport.att.net/chat/transcript_randall.html
The Augusta Chronicle, http://www.augustachronicle.com/stories/062401/fea_211-4724.000.shtml
Digital Library Projects at the University of Pennsylvania, http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/sto we/StoweHB.html
97 Brooks, http://www.97brooks.com/bios.asp?show=jc
The Poetry Center, http://www.poetrycenter.org/randallarticle.htm
Radney Foster, The Official Site, http://www.purespunk.com/rad10.html
Time Magazine Online, http://www.time.com/time/sampler/article/0,8599,100851,00.html
Vanderbilt University Law School, http://law.vanderbilt.edu/alumni/lawyer/feature2.html
Weekly Wire, http://weeklywire.com/ww/09-02-97/nash_cover.html
Additional information obtained for this profile was provided through a Houghton Mifflin press kit.
—Paula J.K. Morris