She changed black literature forever. Then she disappeared.
I had read accounts that Lucille aspired to be a writer, but my research revealed that she was a writer. With Gayl’s support, Lucille Jones published stories and novels late in life, and in Lucille’s writing we can see how much the daughter had to learn from the mother: they each use the vernacular, as well as the southern Gothic tradition, as a raw material for art. They are not pious for the content, but they are committed to finding meaning in the most mundane events. The resonances between their works made me think of how, in black English, we often call our childhood home “my mother’s house”, even though our father also lives there. Mother conventionally builds the space for us to come of age – and Jones still lives in his mother’s house, figuratively and literally. They were peers, and Gayl’s life was a harvest and a tribute to that of Lucille. It does not appear that Lucille Jones was a tragically frustrated artist as the women Alice Walker spoke about in her famous essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” oppressed and silenced black women who turned into witches. by necessity. Lucille Jones looks more like Emily Dickinson with the story of the life of a black woman from the South. Gayl Jones would gain great recognition while directly following in his mother’s footsteps: a quiet inner genius.
According to Kentucky Poet Laureate and Professor Crystal Wilkinson, the Joneses were a private family. She told me that childhood neighbors describe Gayl and his brother as never playing with the other children, although they do occasionally pass each other over the fence between the Jones’ house and theirs. Wilkinson speculates that it may have something to do with their being cautious about Lexington’s urban manners. Or maybe the taciturn was just a family idiosyncrasy. Franklin Sr. was a cook and Lucille was a housewife. They grew up in the cities of Kentucky, Midway and Frankfort. Frankfort was a scholarly community, with one of the highest concentrations of black teachers in the state during Jim Crow. Gayl Jones often visited his grandmother there and benefited from both an educated community and a rich body of family traditions, including stories about a great-grandfather who had founded a colony after the rebuilding bearing its name, Warthumtown. Jones was raised with a strong sense of the importance of having a place of one’s own.
Jones described his years in a separate school as intellectually stimulating. When it came to high school, however, Lucille sent Gayl and his brother among the handful of black students at Henry Clay High School. There, according to an English teacher, Sue Anne Allen, Gayl was a friendless student of exceptional intelligence. His Spanish teacher and mentor, Anna Dodd, alerted established, Lexington-born writer Elizabeth Hardwick about Gayl. Hardwick in turn facilitated Gayl’s admission to Connecticut’s small elite college, where she studied with distinguished poets William Meredith and Robert Hayden.
Meredith became a mentor for Jones. Even as a young college student, he noted, she “knew what she was doing” as a writer. This is what I learned too, as I pored over the search tools of several libraries, looking for Gayl Jones. I found out through the Connecticut College Special Collections that Jones corresponded regularly with Meredith, and found out that he, a gay white scholar from Frost, was part of a black literary community. He and Jones were close, often exchanging letters about crafts and the details of life. Their exchanges reveal his cheerful personality as well as his serious mission. Like many other writers, she tackled the issue of inheritance. Like a few, she was interested in the common thread between blacks across the New World, including the Spanish-speaking and Portuguese-speaking nations. She loved Latin American literature. Separately, however, she focused on non-idyllic love and a skepticism towards motherhood.
In 1970, while Jones was a student at Connecticut College, her work was included in an anthology, “Soulscript,” which was edited by black feminist writer June Jordan, one of William Meredith’s friends. Jones is in the first section, which is dedicated to young writers. Her poem, “Tripart”, gives an idea of what she must have thought of the scene at Connecticut College:
a very nice
white kids discussing politics
and suddenly your nerves have ended
form (half-digested rabies) –
And later in the same poem:
Connecticut has trees
and white has two sides …
Regardless of her ambivalence about college, Jones flourished. She received the Frances Steloff Prize for her short story “The Roundhouse” in 1970, then enrolled at Brown University for a doctorate in creative writing. At Brown, she studied with another poet, Michael Harper, who was known as one of the great chroniclers of black history and culture. He would become her closest mentor.
In 1974, Harper sent a box of Jones’ writings to her friend Toni Morrison, then editor at Random House. Morrison was not thrilled. “Every time I looked at it my heart sank and I wondered who would be insensitive enough to send me ‘all’ of a student’s literary production and expect a reasonable response. … The presence of this box intimidated me and finally it threatened me. One Saturday morning, however, Morrison had a few hours before he took his sons to an afternoon activity. She opened the box, planning to do a quick assessment of what was wrong with the handwriting. Several publishers had already transmitted Jones’ work.
But once Morrison started reading one of the short novels inside, “Corregidora,” she was mesmerized. She described the experience in an essay on Jones written for Mademoiselle magazine: “This girl had changed the terms, the definitions across the company. I was so deeply impressed that I didn’t have time to be offended that she was 24 and was not allowed to know so well. She had written a story that seemed unthinkable: which spoke of the feminine requirement to generate generations as an active, even violent, political act. In a blurb for the book, James Baldwin called it “the most brutally honest and painful revelation of what has happened and is happening in the souls of black men and women.”