Randall has plenty else to brag about, from her controversial parody of the Reconstruction classic “Gone With The Wind” to a country song that made her the only African-American woman to pen a chart-topper. But even in these creative efforts, she examines motherhood and what it means to be a daughter.
Randall will deliver the Radcliffe Day speech Friday morning in Memorial Church. Friends praise her for her “effervescent” personality, which has made her a leader in her class.
‘I’LL CRY FOR YOURS’
Though Randall was born in Detroit, raised there and in Washington, D.C., and schooled here at Harvard, she’s a Southerner at heart.
Her father’s family is from Alabama, and she moved to Nashville shortly after graduating from the College.
Long before she would revolutionize a Southern literary classic, she says she “rediscovered her Southern roots.”
Randall often says, with a hint of pride, that her father “never wore a pair of shoes until he was 13 years old.” Though her parents sent her to the prestigious Georgetown Day School in D.C. and later to Harvard, her childhood was certainly less than idyllic.
“She’d had a very difficult childhood,” said Megumi “Mimi” Oka ’81, who lived two doors down from Randall in Pennypacker Hall and has been her best friend ever since. “She’d had a difficult relationship with her mother, who was really not a good mother, a terrible mother.”
Her real-world childhood would later influence her fiction, which examines the ambiguous relationships between mothers and daughters. For her English thesis, she examined what she calls the “dark side” of mother-daughter relationships in Jane Austen’s novels.
But Randall discourages comparisons between her writing and her life.
“The character Windsor Armstrong [from Randall’s second novel, “Pushkin and the Queen of Spades”] does attend Harvard University, and she does bear some similarities to aspects of my life,” she says. But, “I am a writer of fiction.”
‘LARGER THAN LIFE’
Starting freshman week, Randall’s mix of charisma and esoteric knowledge attracted instant confidants.
“She was one of those larger-than-life people,” said Alexander C. Bok ’81, a close friend she dated. “She’s very persuasive.”
Bok remembers helping his roommate run for president of the International Relations Council sophomore year. With several candidates on the ballot, the election stalled. But after Randall worked her way through the Dunster House meeting room, Bok—not even a candidate, but Randall’s choice for the job—won 13 to 5.
‘BALLAD OF SALLY ANNE’
As she wrote her essays in the chaos of her North House—now Pforzheimer—room, she would listen to Cambridge’s country radio station.
“I hated country music,” she says. She had been raised with Motown and soul beats, but she discovered listening to country allowed her to concentrate.
The “breakthrough experience,” she said, was when she had to type a 100-page screenplay for a North House seminar. “At first I started listening to it as a joke, and then I fell in love.”
She found connections between the metaphysical poetry she loved and the crooning she hated. In country music, she saw the same mastery of conceit—the unification of dissimilar ideas in an extended metaphor—that attracted her to the English Renaissance poet John Donne. Just as Donne created an elaborate metaphor likening the two feet of a compass to distant lovers, a country music songwriter compared a love affair to a trial and execution.
She would later become the only black woman to write a number one country song, and she would be nominated for a Grammy Award. She examined lynching in “The Ballad of Sally Anne” and the slave and Confederate dead in “I’ll Cry For Yours, Will You Cry For Mine?”
She’s now writing what she calls a “guide to country music in cyberspace.”
‘THE WIND DONE GONE’
But Randall was catapulted into the spotlight for her parody of “Gone With The Wind,” a project she contemplated after learning that Malcolm X once said the movie ruined a whole summer of his.
“As a black person in America, I always knew that a lot of black people hated ‘Gone With The Wind,’ and as a black child, I myself felt injured by the narrative,” Randall said. “My book was the equivalent of Prissy slapping Scarlett.”
Writing the parody was a way for her—and for her readers—to cope with the trauma of reading Margaret Mitchell’s book and watching the movie it spawned. Randall explores the abandonment a black girl feels when her biological mother takes care of a white girl.
“Mammy was my Mama. Even though she let me go, I miss her,” Randall writes in the novel. “Sometimes I comb through my long springy curls and pretend that the hand holding the comb is hers. But I don’t know what that looks like.”
But the hands holding the copyright to “Gone With the Wind”—Mitchell’s heirs—thought Randall’s parody looked too much like the original.
The Mitchell estate sued to block its publication.
Novelists Pat Conroy, Harper Lee, and Toni Morrison, and historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. ’38 signed a petition supporting Randall’s work. Nonetheless, in April 2001, U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell blocked the publication of the novel, writing that it “constitutes unabated piracy of ‘Gone With the Wind.”’
But “The Wind Done Gone” wasn’t gone for long.
Just one month later, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the injunction, saying the order “amounts to an unlawful prior restraint in violation of the First Amendment.”
That year, Randall’s book hit The New York Times’ bestseller list. But the legal fight had left Randall shaken.
“The attempt by the Mitchell estate to use the copyright laws to effect censorship was shocking and chilling, but I did not allow that to stop me,” she says.
David H. Feinberg ’81, a close friend since freshman week, remembers Randall’s fear.
“She was very scared,” he said. “She thought the world was getting it up on her.”
SHE WRITES MOVIES INC.
These days, after her husband leaves in the morning for work, Randall pulls her MacBook onto her bed, types and types, every so often printing pages at the foot of her bed.
While collaborating with Oka on their screenwriting venture called She Writes Movies Inc., Randall juggles four book projects—her nonfiction country music guide, a retelling of “The Tempest” through the lens of gender and race, a book about Abu Ghraib and black conservatives, and an Austen-style novel set in the U.S.
This fall, she’ll teach at Vanderbilt University as a writer in residence.
“She’s a little dynamo,” said Joan T. Bok ’51, former chairman of the Board of Overseers and a mentor to Randall. Bok met Randall more than 25 years ago through her son, Alexander, and since then the family has hosted Randall on vacation.
The woman she considers her daughter, Joan Bok said, is now “softer, wiser.”
“I learn so much from her,” Bok says.
And, Bok adds, “she’s a wonderful mother.”
From Randall’s perspective, there could be no higher praise.
—Staff writer April H.N. Yee can be reached at email@example.com.