She Changed Black Literature Forever. Then She Disappeared. – The New York Times

In search of Gayl Jones, whose new novel breaks 22 years of silence.
Credit…Illustration by PS Spencer. Source photograph by Thomas Victor.
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I knew from the beginning that I would not meet Gayl Jones.
Or see a recent photograph of her. Or ask her any questions. What does it feel like, 46 years after the first, to have a new novel coming out? Why did you step out of view? Did it make you a more honest writer? Did it serve your soul? I would not get answers. I would not be able to charm her into laughter. I know she is brilliant, obscure, irascible. I imagine her smile is still wry. But does she still wear her head wrapped in 2021? Is she still adept at putting a nosy questioner in her place?
I can’t know any of this because in 1998 she disappeared from public life. Since then she has refused all interviews and photographs. Over the last 23 years, this author who Toni Morrison said changed Black women’s literature forever has been an invisible woman. Seeking Jones, I started with her birthplace, which I knew was in Lexington, Ky. Census records, cross referenced with maps, got me her childhood address. With my cursor and monitor, I moved through virtual Lexington streets. I reached the block of frame houses in muted sweet colors. First a red herring, a yellow house. Right number, wrong street. Then I realized my error and pivoted the other way to find nothing. It was an empty lot, just lush green grass and trees encroaching from the back where the house, I thought, should be.
Funny, apt, instructive.
There is, however, the new novel, “Palmares.” It is what I might call an ars novellus, an exegesis of the art form itself and an epic story of 17th-century Brazil, that she began at the beginning of her career. She is finally ready for us to read it, offering us a long-awaited book but not her face. And if I can’t tell you who she is now, I can try to reveal the long durée of her work that led to this book. Jones’s novels have, from the beginning, cracked open something new in African American literature. Tasked with explaining how and why, without a glimpse or an interview, I sought an alternative. It was second nature to me. I’m a scholar and a writer. I work in archives. So I dug into Jones’s words, gathered from dozens of scattered sources. And there I found her, in cached papers like those of William Meredith, her mentor and friend at Connecticut College; of her Random House editor, Toni Morrison, at Princeton University. I sought out the poems, stories and essays she published in numerous small Black literary journals, the handful of interviews with cherished interlocutors (and some who raised her ire), as well as works she published abroad or by herself over the years. I also looked for her influence, a soul-searching exercise — because she has shaped me as a writer — as well as an exploratory one with my peers who agree that she is a writer’s writer, and more than that, a Black woman’s writer.
A portrait emerged: Jones is one of the most versatile and transformative writers of the 20th century. She is a woman whose image was distorted by the publishing industry and critics that first lauded her. She nevertheless remained fiercely committed to her craft, irrespective of the tragedies life handed her. Fidelity to her story requires attentiveness to the work she was doing, both in and out of view.
The conventional story about Jones’s life is factual. It is wrong, however, in the way it hews to particular details while neglecting others. This is the conventional story, repeated in article after article: She was born and raised in a house without an indoor toilet in Kentucky (a never-neglected detail, perhaps because it is imagined as quaint or desperate). She was plucked out of Kentucky by gracious benefactors to attend Connecticut College. She matriculated for her doctorate at Brown University, where she was mentored by the celebrated poet Michael Harper. Harper introduced her to Toni Morrison, then an editor at Random House, which published her critically acclaimed novel, “Corregidora,” in 1975, when she was just 25. After this astonishing debut, Jones encountered critical ambivalence about her next few books. She joined the faculty of the University of Michigan, where she fell for a mentally ill man named Bob Higgins. She resigned in 1983 after Higgins had an ugly confrontation with marchers in a Pride rally, and they fled to Europe. Sometime in the late 1980s, after her father died, Jones and Higgins (who by then had adopted “Jones” as his surname as well) secretly returned to the United States. When Jones’s ailing mother died in 1997, she and Higgins blamed poor medical care. Higgins became a police target after he sent escalating threats to the University of Kentucky, and eventually killed himself when officers arrived at his and Jones’s home. Jones, critics said, was living a nightmare suited to her novels. She subsequently disappeared.
The truth of Jones, as a person and as a writer, is this: She is a prolific writer whose work is grounded in Black American language and community, as well as a diligent study of the Americas. The mythology that she “came from nowhere” is both a fairly common diminution of Black Southern cultures and a reminder that the price of a certain sort of recognition is often too high. The lore of being “discovered” is often insulting to those of us who are not white. That’s not an original statement, but it bears repeating. Jones’s journey as a writer has been, in part, about the stakes of writing; about her refusal to let the meanings placed upon her body overdetermine her craft, even as she understands how critical her embodiment is; and about the mountain that stands before a Black woman’s art. “Palmares” gives us an opportunity to reflect on Jones’s storied career, and her efforts to scale that mountain.
Jones grew up in a writing household that valued literary imagination. Her maternal grandmother, Amanda Wilson, wrote plays for churches and schools, including Kentucky State University, a historically Black institution in Frankfort, where her parents were raised. Lucille, her mother, read stories she herself had written to Gayl and Franklin Jr. in their childhood. Gayl started writing around second grade.
I had read accounts that Lucille aspired to be a writer, but my research uncovered that she actually 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 must have learned from the mother: They each use vernacular language, along with the Southern gothic tradition, as the raw stuff of art. They are not pious about content, but they are committed to finding meaning in the most mundane events. The resonances between their work made me think about how, in Black English, we often call our childhood home “my mama’s house,” even if our father lives there, too. The mother conventionally builds the space for us to come of age — and Jones still lives in her mother’s house, figuratively and literally. They were peers, and Gayl’s life has been a harvest of and homage to Lucille’s. It does not seem that Lucille Jones was a tragically frustrated artist like the women Alice Walker wrote about in her famous essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” oppressed and silenced Black women who turned into witches out of necessity. Lucille Jones seems more like Emily Dickinson with a Black Southern woman’s life story. Gayl Jones would achieve great recognition yet follow directly in her mother’s footsteps: a quiet interior genius.
According to the Kentucky poet laureate and professor Crystal Wilkinson, the Joneses were a private family. She told me that childhood neighbors describe Gayl and her brother as never playing with the other kids, though they sometimes passed a ball over the fence between the Jones home and theirs. Wilkinson speculates that this may have had something to do with the fact that they were cautious about Lexington’s urban ways. Or maybe the taciturnity was just a family idiosyncrasy. Franklin Sr. was a cook, and Lucille was a homemaker. They grew up in the Kentucky cities of Midway and Frankfort. Frankfort was a learned community, with one of the highest concentrations of Black teachers in the state during Jim Crow. Gayl Jones visited her grandmother there often and benefited from both a formally educated community and a rich body of family lore, including stories about a great-grandfather who founded a settlement after Reconstruction bearing his name, Warthumtown. Jones was raised with a strong sense of the importance of having a place of one’s own.
Jones described her years in a segregated school as intellectually nurturing. When it came to high school, however, Lucille sent Gayl and her brother to be 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 intellect. Her Spanish teacher and mentor, Anna Dodd, alerted the established writer and Lexington native Elizabeth Hardwick about Gayl. Hardwick in turn facilitated Gayl’s admission to the small, elite Connecticut College, where she studied with the distinguished poets William Meredith and Robert Hayden.
Meredith became a mentor to Jones. Even as a young student, he noted, she “knew what she was doing” as a writer. This is what I came to know, too, as I pored over finding aids of multiple libraries, looking for Gayl Jones. I found through the Connecticut College special collections that Jones corresponded regularly with Meredith, and found that he, a gay white Frost scholar, was a part of a Black literary community. He and Jones were close, often exchanging letters about craft and the minutiae of life. Their exchanges reveal her playful personality as well as her serious mission. Like many other writers, she grappled with the question of inheritances. Like a few, she was interested in the thread of connection between Black people across the New World, including the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations. She loved Latin American literature. Distinctly, however, she focused on nonidyllic love and a skepticism toward motherhood.
In 1970, when Jones was an undergraduate at Connecticut College, her work was included in an anthology, “Soulscript,” which was edited by the Black feminist writer June Jordan, one of William Meredith’s friends. Jones is in the first section, which is dedicated to younger writers. Her poem, “Tripart,” offers a sense of what she must have thought about the scene at Connecticut College:
a very friendly
prison
this is —
white kids discussing politics
and suddenly your nerves have a finished
form (half-digested rage) —
And later in the same poem:
connecticut has trees
and white has two faces …
Whatever her ambivalence was about the college, Jones flourished. She received the Frances Steloff Award for her short story “The Roundhouse” in 1970 and then matriculated 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’s writing to his friend Toni Morrison, who was then an editor at Random House. Morrison wasn’t delighted. “Every time I looked at it, my heart sank, and I wondered who would be so callous as to send me ‘all’ of the literary output of a student 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 taking her sons to some afternoon activity. She opened the box, planning to make a quick assessment of what was wrong with the writing. Several editors had already passed on Jones’s work.
But once Morrison began reading one of the short novels inside, “Corregidora,” she was transfixed. She described the experience in an essay about Jones written for Mademoiselle magazine: “This girl had changed the terms, the definitions of the whole enterprise. So deeply impressed was I that I hadn’t time to be offended by the fact that she was 24 and had no right to know so much so well. She had written a story that thought the unthinkable: that talked about the female requirement to make 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 occurred, and is occurring, in the souls of Black men and women.”
My first encounter with Gayl Jones was through “Corregidora.” I read it in a college course titled “Black Women and Their Fictions,” a course first conceived of by Toni Morrison. My professor was Hazel Carby, a British scholar at Yale who was as likely to lecture about the blues as she was about figurative language. And “Corregidora” was, she taught us, a blues novel — a profane, violent and nonlinear book. It tells the story of Ursa, a jazz singer from Kentucky who descends from a line of women who were raped, prostituted and made incest victims by their Portuguese-Brazilian slave master named Corregidora. Ursa lives, generations later, inside the psychic hold that Corregidora imposed on the women in her family. That trauma destroys the potential for sexual intimacy between Ursa and her lover, Mutt.
There is an unforgettable phrase in the novel — “making generations.” The women in Ursa’s family see “making generations” — that is, continuing their family line despite its horror — as a form of defiant survival. Ursa, after a fall (which may have been a push from Mutt), is forced to have a hysterectomy and thus becomes excluded from “making generations.” Jones was borrowing her mother’s language. In a discussion with Lucille that she related to Harper during an interview, Jones described not wanting children. Lucille responded by asking about the “generations.” Jones would later reflect, in conversation with Harper, that her mother’s question revealed that her decision not to be a mother had meaning for all the women who came before. It was a heavy choice, laden with the history of American slavery, and it is the core of “Corregidora.” Through Ursa’s genealogy, the horrific contradiction of Black motherhood in the New World is laid bare: Every Black child born into a slave economy fattened the pockets of enslavers. The love, protection and nurturing of that Black child was dashed into disaster by the cruelty of the social order into which she was born. No matter how beloved the child, trauma was built into the system.
Understandably, then, some 20th-century experiments with the idea of freedom, particularly for Black women, would have to leave the imperative of motherhood behind. Like many other Black women who came of age during both the civil rights and women’s movements, Jones challenged the assumption that motherhood was a required role. Ursa focuses instead on finding her own song, and in that sense “Corregidora” was a novel of its time. Yet its theme — the hard work of a Black woman’s life — would reappear throughout her work over decades.
As a 19-year-old, I was disturbed by “Corregidora.” I didn’t really “like” it in a simple sense. It simultaneously alienated and resonated, uncanny in its marriage of Black vernacular with a complete lack of sentimentality. Love wasn’t always patient and kind. Suffering wasn’t always noble and redemptive. Emotionally, I hated that Ursa’s love story was ugly. I still do. I ache at Ursa’s anguish over her hysterectomy. And like most readers, I wanted a healing to her wounds. But “Corregidora” denies that. At 19, I’d been socialized as a child of the civil rights movement to hope for freedom. Gayl Jones answered back: Hope won’t get us out of the funk of history that we live with today. I learned from her that the terror of now is as important a subject for the Black imagination as a speculatively beautiful tomorrow.
As I researched this article, I sat often on my bedroom floor, surrounded by 1970s and ’80s journals and literary magazines I’d culled from antiquarian bookstores and eBay. Sitting among pages filled with the words of writers I’d spent a lifetime studying, cast back into my role as a student. I read issues from front to back, delving into a diverse community of writers who worked toward a common purpose. How to describe how Jones fit into this milieu? I considered the way Morrison tried to describe Jones’s brilliance when “Corregidora” was published. Morrison called Ursa “a kind of combination Billie Holiday and Fannie Lou Hamer. Poignant, frail and knee buckling. She was every wilted gardenia, and every plate of butterbeans. She was lye cooked in hominy.” Morrison never shied away from brutality, but she was nevertheless far more lyrical than Jones in articulating why her work mattered. While Jones is musical, her blue note always hits harder than any grace note. That is her effort to free the voice.
Ursa says about the stories passed on to her, “Great-grandmama told my grandmama the part she lived through that my grandmama didn’t live through and my grandmama told my mama what they both lived through and my mama told me what they all lived through and we were suppose to pass it down like that from generation to generation so we’d never forget.” Ursa’s foremothers had burned the “slavery papers,” the documentation of having been owned by a cruel master, and told the history themselves. Hers is a tradition of Black women’s storytelling, a word that Jones has described as more capacious than novel writing. Stories are neither fact nor fiction. They’re greater than that — they are allegories, philosophical treatises and fables that hold the potential to entertain, reveal and instruct.
Though Jones was in community with other Black writers, she was recognized as extremely reserved. It wasn’t a barrier to her entry into the Black literary world, but it made her a problem in the mainstream. When her play “Chile Woman” was selected as the best Northeast regional production in the American College Theater Festival, a reviewer wrote disparagingly: “The author, not present, is 26 and reportedly shy and soft-spoken. Has anyone ever told her … that an audience also is part of a living play? Brecht’s theory of alienation is so often misinterpreted. He didn’t mean to make an active enemy of the audience. … Considering black plays as a whole, this is uninventive, strangely old hat.” Gayl Jones was not just shy, but her shyness made her difficult in his eyes.
But such self-protectiveness, as Sarah Broom described to me when I asked her about Jones, can be essential to a writer who is committed most of all to “doing the work that is to be done.” In an 1979 interview with Claudia Tate, Jones said: “The writers whom I would most like to be like are those whose works have a certain kind of reputation, but the person, the writer, is more or less out of it. I would want to maintain some kind of anonymity. I think of J. D. Salinger. … I guess that’s the kind of reputation that I’d like. It’s the kind where you can go on with what you’re doing, but you have a sense that what you do is appreciated.”
But a Salinger-like posture is deemed indulgent when it comes from a Black woman, perhaps because we are expected to be obsequiously grateful to be deemed “great.” The responsibility of visually representing our group always looms large. I’ve considered the possibility that her evasion of the public has provided a way to avoid the curiosity about how she didn’t “look the part.” An early reviewer commented that “it would be pretty difficult to get a bad shot of her.” Small, birdlike and pretty, she refused the curious intrusion into how she got to be that way.
Crystal Wilkinson told me: “You know some of these critics think that every terrible thing we write about is autobiographical. As though nothing is art.” And yet, Jones does write truthfully if not autobiographically. As Tarana Burke, the founder of #MeToo and author of the newly released memoir “UnBound,” said, “Like Ntozake Shange and Maya Angelou, Gayl Jones makes you sit in the reality of sexual violence in the lives of Black women, not just the moment but the conflicting emotions, the guilt, the shame, and even the attachment survivors can feel to those who have harmed them.” Rather than private exposure, Jones is a master of rendering how trauma resonates through time.
When I was a 20-something critic, I characterized Black women’s literature of the ’70s and ’80s as a recuperative project. They were telling the stories of foremothers that hadn’t been told, I said. Now, in my late 40s, I understand much more. If this essay is itself is a recuperative project of sorts, it requires an attestation that Jones is both singular and part of a tradition. I want to celebrate that tradition, but not with rose-colored glasses. The work of a tradition is not just community — it is also conflict.
Though “Corregidora” made Jones a prominent figure in the Black literary communities of the ’70s and ’80s, she would soon run into turbulence. Her second novel, “Eva’s Man,” published just a year later, in 1976, was not as well received. It was seen by some critics as a dangerous book, in part because of its brutality, and inartful by others. Eva, the protagonist, is imprisoned in an asylum after poisoning her lover and biting off his penis. Eva is silent before police officers and a psychiatrist but offers the reader her testimony in Jones’s classic elliptical prose. She is unrepentant. June Jordan reviewed “Eva’s Man” for The New York Times and took it to be dangerous work. She highlighted what was, in her view, the “very real, upsetting accomplishment of Gayl Jones in this, her second novel: sinister misinformation about women — about women, in general, about black women in particular, and especially about young black girls forced to deal with the sexual, molesting violations of their minds and bodies by their fathers, their mothers’ boyfriends, their cousins and uncles.” She went on, “What will it mean to that great crowd of the everlastingly curious who wonder about black women, our consciousness, capacities and want?”
It was a serious charge, placing Jones alongside Richard Wright, who had become persona non grata among the Black literati for creating Bigger, a Black man without the capacity of love or redemption. Others turned on Jones, though she certainly wasn’t the only Black writer who wrote about cruelty and disaster. What was different about “Eva’s Man” was that there were no redeeming characters to offset Eva, because Eva told the story herself.
In a letter to her old mentor William Meredith, Jones bristled at the idea that creative and intellectual inquiry should be circumscribed. “Someone asked if I’d written to June. I said I hadn’t because I wouldn’t know what to say. Her review disturbed me. (It also did not.) It disturbed me because I momentarily felt I should not write anything — if one cannot trust one’s imagination, one’s own processes of storytelling, why write.” Jones herself saw “Eva’s Man” as more akin to Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” in the sense of depicting a horror show. Should a Black writer ignore such characters, refuse to enter “such territory,” because of the “negative image” and because such characters can be misused politically by others? Or should one try to reclaim such complex, contradictory characters, as well as try to reclaim the idea of the “heroic image”?
Henry Louis Gates denounced as sexism the particular backlash against supposedly lurid work that many Black female writers faced. But Jones also faced backlash from some of her fellow Black female writers in part because she didn’t spare queer relationships or women from her accounts of cruelty and violence. Audre Lorde described “Eva’s Man” as “an inhuman little book, however well written,” and one of the authors of the now-iconic Black feminist Combahee River Collective Statement, Barbara Smith, asserted that Jones “had not been associated with or seemingly influenced by the feminist movement.” It may in fact, however, have been Jones’s commitment to sustaining a Black frame of reference that most made her vulnerable to such critiques. Of “Corregidora,” she wrote in a private note, “the powerful assertion of the story, one that I’m afraid will not sit well with feminist militants, is that love makes its own terms for equality.” Love, quite simply, could be very close to hate. This is an uncomfortable truth, especially with respect to Black intimacy — a much caricatured space in American history.
Gayl Jones met her partner, Bob Higgins, when she was an assistant professor at the University of Michigan in the late 1970s. He studied philosophy at Michigan and was reportedly a volatile activist. He took over as Jones’s literary agent, and his behavior was such that Toni Morrison ceased serving as Jones’s editor by 1982. Already extremely shy, Jones retreated further from the Michigan community. By that time, her epic poem “Song for Anninho” had been published as a book in 1981, and her body of writing was substantial and impressive enough for Jones, the only Black woman on the English faculty, to be granted tenure. Higgins upended that success when he was arrested on charges of violently threatening a Pride parade. Soon he and Jones fled the country. Despite Higgins’s volatility, Jones was devoted to him: She wrote an angry letter of resignation, and they moved to Europe.
It is unclear exactly when Jones and Higgins returned to the United States. But they moved into her mother’s house after Gayl’s father died. In the years after Franklin’s death in 1983, Lucille grew increasingly infirm and rarely left home. Bob and Gayl cared for her. Gayl continued to write but made virtually no public appearances. Her next two novels, “The Healing” and “Mosquito,” were released in 1998 and 1999. The idiosyncratic Black protagonist in “The Healing” is an itinerant faith healer named Harlan. As with other Jones heroines, she is an organic intellectual who opines: “A woman should be true to who she believes herself to be. Or who she wants herself to be. Or who she imagines herself to be. I don’t know what I mean, or whether I’m true myself to any of that. I don’t think there are many of us who are true to our possibilities.”
Harlan’s words are pointed. Gayl wrote them as Lucille was dying of throat cancer. Bob reportedly served as the man of the house and shared in her care. He and Gayl were outraged that a local hospital claimed medical guardianship over Lucille. Attuned to the history of medical racism, Gayl and Bob held the hospital responsible when Lucille died on March 20, 1997, believing that Lucille had been neglected. Bob, who already had a warrant out for his arrest, dashed off letters condemning the hospital, one of which allegedly included a bomb threat. Tipped off to his presence, the police arrived at the Jones home, and Bob committed suicide rather than face arrest. Gayl was taken into custody for several days. Insensitive journalists wrote that the disasters of Jones’s literature had come to life. Disregarding her penchant for privacy, the writer Peter Manso made her life into a spectacle. His 1998 article for this magazine, “Chronicle of a Tragedy Foretold,” graphically described Higgins’s death, explained his suicide as a symptom of mere paranoia and suggested that his death alone caused her retreat from public view.
In fact, her final retreat was in response to the greatest possible betrayal of her desires as a writer. She never wanted to be public. Now her personal grief and suffering had been made into a sensationalistic spectacle. So she turned, once again, to her own interests and artistic intentions. She remained in hermitage when Harper died in 2016, when her brother died on March 5, 2019, and when Toni Morrison died on Aug. 5, 2019. Now she is an elder orphan, a literary mother, though not a mother. And those who were once astonished by her, who ushered her into the limelight, are gone. She is the only one remaining in her mother’s house. And her peers are distant. Her influence, however, remains.
My hands shook when I received my advance copy of “Palmares,” which I had procured in order to provide a blurb. I was thrilled and also felt a bit of disbelief at having become someone who would be asked to pronounce on a new Gayl Jones book. It was 500 pages thick, with a jewel-toned cover. We are in the middle of things, from its very beginning. I’m surprised by the narrative voice: a small and literate enslaved Black girl. She is our Virgil, walking us through 17th-century Brazil with second sight and the protective charms of her grandmother. I devoured the book. Literary hunger is a distinct yearning. We await that author’s idiosyncrasies and marvels, things we know made new. “Palmares” has been four decades in the making, and we, Jones’s readers, ravenously consumed the self-published excerpts she released on Amazon over the years. Now Jones’s magnum opus has arrived in full.
The world of the story is that of a community of “maroons,” or fugitives from slavery, in the 17th-century Portuguese colony of Brazil. To this day, such fugitivity is not just a historic fact: It is understood as a Black relation to a world that continues to constrain and dominate. No surprise that a woman who has evaded the literary establishment has written an epic novel that takes place in the eponymous maroon state, which survived for nearly 100 years in the Northeast region of Brazil, with a population that is estimated to have ranged from 10,000 to 40,000 people. In the field of Black studies, Palmares has been treated romantically because of this resilience. More recently, the romance that surrounds Palmares has given way to a more nuanced account of its history. It wasn’t completely free — those who had run there from their masters became free, but those who were prisoners of war often remained enslaved. It was a monarchy with a brutal system of judgment. The unpleasant truth is that the nation state, as a structure, always makes freedom a vexing matter. The price of sovereignty rests on the backs of those who dissent.
In Jones’s novel, this complexity is rendered through the protagonist, Almeyda, who arrives in Palmares as an adolescent. Anninho, a respected warrior, chooses Almeyda as his wife, guaranteeing her status in the fledgling nation. Readers of Jones’s “Song for Anninho” will recognize this pairing. But in “Palmares,” the fires of eroticism and passion are muted. The wearying effect of emotional attachment and longing set against constant war and dispersal are sharper. And isn’t that something we need in these less sanguine times: a bald confrontation with the false idols of love, nation and victory?
“Palmares” puts one in the mind of Gabriel García Márquez’s magnum opus “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” It is brilliantly digressive. As Jones depicts it, colonial Brazil is simultaneously ghastly and lush. Through Almeyda’s eyes, the utopian vision of maroon community is discarded in favor of a philosophical contemplation regarding the elusiveness of freedom in a brutal land. Jones tears down the castles built by those of us yearning to tell a romantic and triumphant history of Black life in the Americas. What remains is a tender, blues-soaked story of people seeking truth, love and freedom in the detritus of the West.
Over the course of my search for Jones, I spoke to a host of distinguished writers — Simone White, Crystal Wilkinson, Honoreé Jeffers, Sarah Broom, John Edgar Wideman — all of whom see themselves as indebted to Jones for guiding them through this detritus. She is a model for the creation of one’s own literary voice out of Black vernacular experience and cadence, and unflinching reckoning with history’s violence. Her imprint is on my own work, and this is why I had to seek her out.
I know some things now that I didn’t know when I started my search. Jones still lives in her mother’s last house. Black female scholars and writers in Lexington respect her boundaries but try to keep track of her, at the ready if anyone tries to interfere with her living. They understand that, as Simone White put it, “it is unsafe for us to be subjects of public scrutiny because we cannot deliver the image of the Black woman that is the object of [others’] desire.” We have our own work to do, from our own perspectives.
So I am growing to accept her distance. The difficulty is my eagerness to figure out how she and other remarkable women who are thinkers and artists live through aging: bridges burned, disaster and disappointments met, life continued. How the fire of creativity in youth cools into commitment. No less passionate but more reliable. Skill settles. Is it visible in the grooves under her eyelids? Rings around her neck, perhaps? I am looking for myself in her, and Jones has the good sense to avoid my demand. She’s given enough, having made space for the generations.

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