“It took twenty years, and some persuasion, before I agreed to write How I Became Hettie Jones, my memoir of that sixties bohemia,” Hettie Jones, the prolific force and self-effacing matriarch of the MusiQology family writes in Love, H, a new book reflecting on her own personal history through letters with her friend Helene Dorn. “I’d been working on children’s books and poetry and stories, as well as editing and teaching, and I couldn’t see the purpose—I thought people just wanted gossip. Until, finally, I began to see that particular story as a way to teach.”
That particular story—of early adulthood at the Beat Generation epicenter in Cooper Square, a marriage to Black Arts Movement cofounder Amiri Baraka, twenty-four books, and the raising of two equally prolific daughters, including scholar, art historian, and MacArthur Foundation “genius” Kellie Jones—is a life long and well-lived, where the personal Hettie Jones story has been daringly public, a political act when her interracial marriage to Baraka was illegal in much of the United States for its first twelve years. Between them, Baraka and Hettie produced a scholarly and political genealogy of teaching, writing, and speaking, a union in the truest sense of the word.
This Thursday, November 30, 2017, at the Penn Book Center at 130 S. 34th Street from 6:00-7:30PM, will feature a special inter-generational book talk as Hettie discusses Love, H, her new collection of letters and Kellie presents South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, her acclaimed history of the 1960s Los Angeles black art community.
For the family, their personal lives were always in the spotlight due to Baraka’s rising profile, which created a unique challenge in raising children. Rather than shirk from that, though, Hettie Jones’s work instead turns willingly into it—How I Became Hettie Jones is a deeply intimate memoir. Almost thirty years later, Love, H is equally willing, revealing personal confessions, hopes and fears shared with her close friend Dorn, a painter and sculptor the wife of poet Ed Dorn.
But that is part of being Hettie Jones. “If you’re a writer, you’re always expressing your personal knowledge, opinion, or standpoint in one way or another even if you’re writing fiction,” she says, shrugging. “What is expressed is my position vis-à-vis the rest of the world. It wasn’t a stretch.”
“I’ve always felt that what I needed to do was bear witness,” she explains, suggesting that her life has always intertwined with her political project and vice versa. “There was a responsibility to bear witness—to bring to the rest of the world some kind of understanding of the history and place that black people had in this country as well as the rest of the world. I have to just rest on those two words because I’m not somebody who could go out and run for a political office. I’m too short!”
Even her personal relationship with Kellie and her sister Lisa became motivation, part of a wider political project. “I wanted to write books that would educate young black people. Since I had two of those, I needed to make sure they were learning!”
And learn they did. Lisa Jones is an accomplished writer and journalist known for her work in the Village Voice, with Spike Lee, and, like her parents, playwriting. Kellie, in addition to being Dr. Guy’s partner, is a pioneering scholar and historian whose curatorial and research work (South of Pico follows an award-winning exhibition, Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles) makes new spaces in the art world and resets orthodox and tired canons. When in the introduction to Love, H, Hettie asks, “How did I remain Hettie Jones?” the answer is fairly self-evident: She had her responsibility to others, sure, but she also had to keep up with her ascendant daughters.
“The lore about Jewish mothers is that they’re always terrible braggarts, but I always just thought my kids were wonderful and terrific,” she says, beaming. “The awards the world accords them are just icing on the cake. But the cake is the fact that they’re wonderful human beings. They’re very good, kind women. Kellie is a remarkably kind and non-judgmental woman. That’s why she’s written such a good book.”
This Thursday’s talk will put the Joneses and their new works in conversation for the first time, though easy questions don’t seem likely to be on the agenda. “I’m very interested in how Kellie, as a New Yorker, came to the particular era and place that South of Pico investigates,” Hettie explains. “I’m interested how a person who writes about history settles on an idea. That takes some learnin,’ huh?”
I ask Hettie what a “hard question” she could ask her daughter might be in a family where their public lives have led to a kind of radical transparency and their pasts and presents coproduce a better future. She laughs, suggesting the one thing that every creative person hates to answer, even if their mother is the one asking. “What are you going to do next?”