Alice Randall, '81
Alice Randall is the author of The Wind Done Gone, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, Rebel Yell, and Ada's Rules. On her way to The Wind Done Gone she became the first black woman in history to write a number one country song; wrote a video of the year; worked on multiple Johnny Cash videos and wrote and produced the pilot for a prime time drama about ex-wives of country stars that aired on CBS. Four novels later, the award winning songwriter with over twenty recorded songs to her credit is Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University. She teaches courses on Country Lyric in American Culture, Soul Food as text and in text, and African-American Children’s Literature. After twenty-five years hard at it Randall has come to the conclusion motherhood is the most creative calling of all and health disparity is the dominant civil rights issue of the first quarter of the 21st century.
Who’d a thunk when I was sitting in a classroom learning about Pamela and Shamela or more significantly tucked in bed at North House (now Phoho) reading Pamela and Shamela, I would one day braid what I learned about parody in a course on the early British novel with what I learned about coded African-American parody from Nathan Huggins (in a course on the Harlem Renaissance) and use it all to dissect, dismantle, and (by identifying Ms. Mitchell as a deft political propagandist) redeem Gone With The Wind?
I did not come to Harvard to become a country songwriter. I did not imagine when I enrolled in Harry Levin’s fabled course on Shakespeare’s histories and comedies I would one day use the skills of scansion and meter deconstruction to help me, who does not read or perform music, write country song lyrics that work. Or that in studying Puritan poetry and American metaphysical poetry with Alan Heimert that I would find the literary strategies I would one day use to write country songs that investigate and reflect how women in the 20th century balanced work and family. When studying Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons with Vlada Petric, how could I anticipate I would use what he taught me about kinetic storytelling to write a country music video of the year that inspired a sizable number of working class women to continue their education that has now been watched over 1,744,046 times on YouTube?
Did I imagine when I arrived at Harvard I would one day focus on the uses of art to help people, particularly women of color to achieve health and fitness goals? No. Did I think when I left Harvard that I would ever weigh over two hundred pounds? No. It was wonderful to discover when I came to realize that I had gotten to over two hundred pounds that my liberal arts education had given me not only the skills to find solutions to my very real problem, but the skills to share those solutions with others in ways many found useful and engaging. I hadn’t always understood what my House Master Woody Hasting meant when he talked about bioluminescence and convergent evolution. But I lost my fear of numbers listening to him talk. Me and my English-concentrating-self figured out I needed to focus not on an ideal weight but on losing the ten percent of my body weight associated with a fifty percent reduction in diabetes risk.
Some of my best days at Harvard were spent in her libraries. I particularly loved the Emily Dickinson reading room in Houghton, the cookbook collections at the Schlesinger library, and the African-American reading room (which no longer exists) at Lamont. Sitting alone with the questions: What is known? What is known and ignored? What numbers matter? What is a good question? How to be lost but not overwhelmed? How to be rigorous and creative? How to identify my own bias? How to embrace with wisdom the vast and contradictory nature of human experience? I became ready to write and to live. Boldly.
It is the invisible benefit and education in the humanities bestows that which is perhaps most significant. The bit more grace we bring to our children and our spouses and our friends and our colleagues emboldened by and humbled by knowledge of centuries of human folly and success.