Alice Lovelace is a poet, a teacher, and an organizer. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri and is now living in Atlanta, Georgia.
In Motion Magazine: Could you please talk about some of the groups you have worked with?
Alice Lovelace: I am a member of Alternate ROOTS. I work for American Friends Service Committee. I work with a lot of organizations, but I wouldn’t call myself a member. I worked with Project South on a lot of campaigns for many years, particularly when Jerome Scott was there, someone I greatly admire. I worked with the United States Social Forum and the Social Forum Movement for a number of years. I have worked with Sister Song, Women of Color Reproductive Rights, and the Fund for Southern Communities, which does a lot of funding in this region, grassroots funding. And, of course, there is In Motion Magazine, which is my best affiliation, most fun. I’ve written for the Community Arts Network, which used to be High Performance Magazine. I was a co-editor for a period before the magazine went online to become Community Arts Network.
Also, Alice Lovelace has been recognized by her community. “I was awarded the Mayor’s Fellowship Award here in Atlanta, something I am very proud of. That was a wonderful accomplishment to have Atlanta actually recognize me with the Mayor’s Award. I won the Fund for Southern Communities Torchbearer Award. Project South gave me the Voice of the Movement Award, gave me the title The People’s Poet. I’ve received awards for playwriting from Spellman College and the Douglas Debs Award from the Democratic Socialists of America. In fact, it was the first award they gave, the first year; I was one of the first people they acknowledged. That was wonderful.”
The interview was conducted (and later edited) by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine on June 30, 2011 at the American Friends Service Committee Peace Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
Part 1: Part of the Process / Organized Chaos
Part 2: Education, Poetry, And The Nuance That Is Left Out
(Part 2 will open in a new browser window.)
In Motion Magazine: How did you come to be in Atlanta?
Alice Lovelace: Funny story. So, Jikki and I both were writers and definitely knew we wanted to leave St. Louis. I made my mind up that I was taking my children out of St. Louis and we thought that perhaps we would go to California since we were both interested in film and interested in writing, that California might be a good place to go and get into the film business.
So, we put everything in storage, parceled the children out, packed up, and we were ready to take off for Oakland. And the day before we were to leave, we were watching The Today Show, and Maynard Jackson was on. They were interviewing Maynard Jackson in the Omni Hotel, with the tall escalator. He was talking about the New South,and because he was the first black Mayor of Atlanta there was a new day, that the old South was dying, and he needed people to help him to build this new South. We looked at each other and we said, “We don’t know anyone in Oakland, California. We don’t know anybody in Atlanta, Georgia. "We bought it hook, line, and sinker. We immediately changed and said, “Let’s go to Atlanta.”
So, the next day, when we pulled out, we pulled out and headed for Atlanta.
In Motion Magazine: When was that?
Alice Lovelace: That was in 1976, two days before Easter. We drove into Atlanta, Georgia Easter morning, 1976. It was pretty scary.
In Motion Magazine: Yes?
Alice Lovelace: We drove a 1956 Army Carryall painted camouflage green, and it broke down on us 50 miles out of St. Louis. We finally got it up and running. It took us two days to get to Atlanta because we had to be very gentle with this truck.
My former mother-in-law had a friend living in Atlanta, she gave me his phone number. When we arrived, we called and he let us come to stay at his apartment. We roomed with him for about two weeks, while looking for a place to stay. Jikki would go out and do day-work and I would get in this huge truck and drive around trying to find us a place to live.
I was in Atlanta, driving down Northside Drive and the brakes went out on the truck. I’m struggling with everything I have to get this big truck under control and not lose control of it in the traffic. I finally get it under control and I’m able to bring it to a stop. I park it on the corner of Barnett and Ponce de Leon. It was a very hot day. I just sat there with my head on the steering wheel, crying.
And this guy, in the window I was next to, he opened the window and he looked out and said, “It can’t be that bad.” He said, “Get out the truck. Come inside.” So, I went in the house and he made me some lemonade. I sat down and we started talking and it turned out he was from St. Louis. We got to talking and he said, “I manage this apartment building. Get your things and move in.
In Motion Magazine: Wow!
Alice Lovelace: And you know, the incredible thing is that that was Atlanta for us. Everywhere we went. The reason that I am still here all these years later, people opened themselves, everywhere. I love this city, and I love these people.
Your problem is you are an artist
In Motion Magazine: That is an amazing story. You mentioned Jikki. And Theresa is a poet, and Hasan is poet. You have a family of artists. Do you want to talk about that and how that came to be? How important that is? (Charles Jikki Riley was Alice’s husband. He passed away in 2003. Theresa and Hasan are two of their children.)
Alice Lovelace: For me, it goes back to my oldest brother who was a visual artist, who was a painter, who was brilliant, who was painting these incredible images of Africans with third eyes and pyramids when I was a little child in the very early fifties. He was a beatnik. He played the horn. He lived down in Gaslight Square in St. Louis. When I was a little kid, I used to hang down in Gaslight Square with him in the back of these little smokey rooms. He was a big influence on me.
There was a period when even before I was a teen, I was having a very difficult time adjusting to life because I over-identified with things. You know, you see something on the news and your heart breaks. I over-identified. I had this compassion which was really crippling me. So, I had a really difficult time with life. I had attempted suicide when I was eleven and that night I woke up about 3 or 4 in the morning and my brother had come into the house and he was on his knees beside my bed. I opened my eyes and I looked at him and he put out his hand and he put his hand on my head and he said, “There’s nothing wrong with you, Alice. Your only problem is you are an artist.” He said, “It’s what artists do. It’ll get better.” That was it. And he was gone.
That was the first time it had been named. I began to think, “OK, so what is this, and why would that impact me?” That’s when I began to think of myself as an artist. I began to write. I had been on the stage up until that time. I was a performer and a dancer. And I began to write. I would just write, write, write. Instead of holding all of that stuff that I felt inside of me, I started to let it come out. It was very therapeutic. Very cathartic.
But he named me and from that moment on, that’s the way I began to see the world. That’s how I saw myself.
As a parent, art was always very big in our house. Music. Lots and lots of music. Every kind of music. Every kind of music you can think of. We might be listening to Deodato and then the next moment listening to the opera Carmen, and the next moment listening to Elton John, or listening to Stevie Wonder. Our kids grew up listening to a very eclectic music background.
And the writing. Whenever you had a problem, my solution was you need to go write about it. Everybody was very used to expressing themselves in writing.
Jikki, Theresa, Hasan
In Motion Magazine: And Jikki was a musician?
Alice Lovelace: Jikki was first a photographer and a videographer but music had always been his dream. He actually didn’t start his professional music career until we came to Atlanta when he met up with some other musicians and started a reggae band. When they started the reggae band in ’86, I was their first manager. That was One Drop Plus. One Drop Plus was an incredible band. It went on for three years in a row to be voted the best band in the Southeast by the bar owners in the Southeast region. It was an incredible show-band. He was a great musician, and showman, and great songwriter.
In Motion Magazine: And Theresa is an award-winning poet?
Alice Lovelace: Yes, Theresa came out of the closet interestingly. Theresa had been writing ... You know, when we came to Atlanta, one of the first things that we did, we met up with the people at the Neighborhood Arts Center. The Neighborhood Arts Center came out of the Center for Black Arts, which was founded by A.B. Spellman and Bernice Johnson Reagan, Toni Cade Bambara, a lot of really wonderful artists. It evolved into the Neighborhood Arts Center which took over an elementary school in southwest Atlanta. That was the first place we really became affiliated with and, in 1979, I became the writer-in-residence at the Neighborhood Arts Center.
By then, the kids were totally surrounded with artists. This is where they spent their days. They spent their entire summers there. They took art class. They took dance class. They took drama classes.
Theresa, actually, was more into drama. With Jikki’s help, she made this clown suit and that’s how she earned her money. She would go around to children’s parties as this clown. She always wrote, but we could never get her to perform.
When Jikki passed away, Hasan, my oldest son, and I, we decided that we were going to do a tribute for him with some of his musicians and make a recording dedicated to him. We wanted Theresa to join us. We had to push her into performing because we knew she had the material.
We got her to perform with us. We cut the CD. It is called MoDaSo -- Mother, Daughter, Son -- after that performance she never looked back. From that point she was a performing poet. From that moment on, everywhere you looked Theresa was performing. Today, she is the 2011 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion. She’s with the Atlanta Art Amok slam team, and they have been nationals for the last eight years. Yeah, she’s doing extremely well and is loved around the Southeast region. She’s got a national following. She’s doing great.
But she’s still a school teacher. Twenty-one years.
Toni Cade Bambara: Responsibility and organizing
In Motion Magazine: You often talk about Toni Cade Bambara.
Alice Lovelace: Yes, Toni was my mentor. Toni was not my writing mentor. She was my organizing mentor.
When I went to work with the Neighborhood Arts Center in ’79, I had already been working with Toni for a year. Toni was here doing a residency at Spellman College. But Toni worked a great deal in the community, so she was always at the Neighborhood Arts Center. And, in ’78, she challenged us and said she wanted to start a regional writers’ organization. We organized meetings to develop the Southern Collective of African American Writers (SCAAW). She thought that the first thing we should to do, was to organize a writers’ conference.
We had raised a $125. I was the president of SCAAW and I was going to organize this nine-state conference.
Toni taught me two things. She taught me a lot about responsibility. She talks a lot about the responsibility of being an artist. You are not a star. There is no such thing as a star. All people are stars. Your job is no different than the job of the mail carrier, the guy that is picking up the trash, or the pharmacist. It is just a job. You do your job like everybody else has to do their job. And you have no expectations of anything other than that you are going to do a good job. She really drilled that.
But then Toni also taught me a lot about using art as a mechanism for organizing people. To organize around the arts. When we started organizing for the SCAAW, the first thing she said was, “Alice, I don’t want writers. I want people who write because that is totally different. A person who writes could be the garbage collector, who might never have identified himself as a writer, but he’s a person who is writing and is key to the community. He is an entry point into a larger community. If you get him, by virtue you get the community he brings with him.”
We really started to set out looking for people who wrote.
Everybody has power
Again, it goes back to Atlanta. Atlanta was an incredible place back in ’78. Maynard Jackson was still mayor. He set up the Office of Cultural Affairs, except Maynard had a big dream, Maynard called it the Department of International Cultural Affairs (DICA) -- though Atlanta didn’t have an international thing about it. That’s how big Maynard dreamed. And they (DICA) were very open.
(You see) I came here as a journalist, and I worked with Carl Ware. Carl Ware started the Atlanta Voice. He also started the Mass Communications Department at Clark College. Carl Ware was politically into everything. Every political corner. He was another mentor. Mr. Ware would take me to political meetings and I would sit by the door and take notes. It was very clear to me that I was not to speak but I was just to be there to observe and understand the players and to take notes. So, I knew the political landscape of Atlanta very clearly. Better than people who lived here. People saw me with Mr. Ware and assumed that I had power, like Mr. Ware so, when Toni said to organize this conference and I got a $125, I just used it. I would walk into City Hall and people would say, “Hey, what’s up?” because they saw me with Mr. Ware. They felt they knew me. I would walk into an office and say, “I have to use the phone. And they’d say, ‘Oh, you can use that office over there.’ And I’d make all my long distance phone calls. Or I’d have a stack of mail that I needed to mail. I’d walk into one of the departments and, “Do you think you could mail this for me?” And they’d say, “Drop it in with today’s mail.” This is a lot of how I got the work done.
(Similarly) they had an Office of Volunteer Affairs, I went over there and I said, “I need an office.” And they said, “Oh yes, well, here, here is an office. Here’s a telephone. The copier is over there.” That’s how we were able to do it.
Toni would ask to see my phonebook, she would say, “Everybody in your phone book is a person of power. Everybody has power. Your job is to figure out where that power is. What it is, and how it can be used for the betterment of the community.”
Every evening after she had finished her work and I had put the kids to bed,we’d get on the phone and we’d go through my phonebook. She’d say, “Give me a name,” and I would tell her who the person was. And she’d say, “OK, what do they do? Who are they? Where do they work? Where do they go to church? What affiliations do they have?” We would talk about them and she’d say, “OK, this is what we can ask for.” Then I would make a list. The key was to ask people for what they are capable of giving. You don’t ask for more. You don’t ask for less.
I asked some people to run off 500 fliers. Someone else would agree to mail a hundred letters, and another person would distribute a press release to promote the conference. This is how we organized that first conference.
It taught me so much about getting things done has nothing to do with money. Resources go way beyond money. Individuals are tremendous resources and sometimes they have more resources than they even know that they possess until someone asks them for it. And they begin to realize, “Oh, this is something that I can do for the community.”
We hosted the conference and about 150 writers attended. With Toni’s contacts the speakers included Hoyt Fuller, who was the editor of First World Magazine, and (Donald) Goins from Black Enterprise. Toni invited some of the top writers and editors from around the country to sit and talk with us and share with us. It was an incredible undertaking and SCAAW was an immediate success.
This egalitarian message about art
In Motion Magazine: What came out of that conference?
Alice Lovelace: It definitely developed a lot of the writers that you see out here today. And young editors came out of SCAAW. Malika Adero, who is an editor with Simon and Schuster, was one of Toni’s cadre and was a member of SCAAW. Nikky Finney, recipient of the National Book Award for her latest book of poetry, was a member of Toni’s writing workshop, and a member of SCAAW. The members lived in small towns across the South. Writers like Felton Eaddy who was in South Carolina and who later moved to Atlanta. A number of young poets and writers and people who went on to teach in arts programs, to carry this egalitarian message about art. We had members that were from Jamaica. I think the greatest thing that Toni did was to open within us this democratic idea of what art could be.
Whenever writers came through Atlanta, no matter how big they were, Toni would make them take the time to come to her house. She’d call me. We’d start a phone tree and - get 30, 40, 50 people to her house that evening. She made sure we had the opportunity to talk to these writers. Share with them. Everybody was invited to share a poem or short story. Then we would eat food and hang out. It was just this camaraderie. A sense that we belonged to a community. That you weren’t out there by yourself. That, as writers, we were connected.
When we organized our final SCAAW event in 1980, the Conference on Black South Literature and Art, we did it at Emory University. It was the first major writers’ conference in the region in over 20 years. We brought together every writer in the African American diaspora. Everybody from James Baldwin to Margaret Walker, Ossie Davis. I mean everybody was here. It was an incredible event. And again, for Toni it was all about breaking down that bridge between academia and the community. Making the people, the writers that came from the community, understand that they were every bit as important as those over in academia. We each had a job to do. It was an incredible experience.
The role of the artist
Toni trained some people as writers. She trained others as organizers. I was definitely one of the ones she trained as an organizer.
In Motion Magazine: From my reading of your master’s thesis, am I correct that your primary point was that the tradition of art, and the now of art, is to resolve conflict?
Alice Lovelace: Even more important is the role of the artist. That the artists in society, when they are willing to take on a responsibility, are given more privileges than ordinary people. So, the ability to enter into a conflict that has been violent and has kept people deeply apart, the artist is able to enter that conflict, talk to both sides, and in and around art bring both sides together. That people will tell artists things that they won’t tell other people.
When I was in Tulsa, doing community workshops around the 1921 race riot, we had some whites that came to the workshops and they would say to me, “I”m going to tell you something that I have never told anyone else.” And then they would start telling me stories about being small children when the riot started. This one woman, she said, “I came in and my parents made me go upstairs to my room. But I could hear them downstairs talking and discussing. I sat there in my window and our house overlooked the river. And the next thing I knew, I saw all these bodies of these Black men just floating down the river.” She said, “And I sat there and I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. But I never asked my parents about it because I was afraid. I never told anybody that I saw those bodies.”
And so the question became, “Well, why, of never telling your parents, of never talking to anyone in your family, why, after all these years did you decide to tell me?” She said, “Well, maybe you can do something about it. Whether it is to write a poem about it, or whether it is to take that information and merge it into something that makes it, helps it, connect things.” People give tremendous power to artists. They surrender things to artists because they believe that art can make things better. I think in their hearts people really believe that, and so, therefore, they transfer that ability to bring resolution to the artist.
The thesis speaks to artists, saying, we need to be better trained to be able to accept the responsibilities. We need to be more willing to step into these hard places and deal with what seems to be entrenched conflict amongst groups that have historically been opposed. There is something there that allows us to be able to bridge a gap and bring some closure, some resolution for people.
Ancient tradition / Part of the process
In Motion Magazine: Is that thousands-years-old tradition?
Alice Lovelace: Yes, I think it is, in another culture, in another time. When I open up, I talk about this community song. There was a time when the community gathered. It didn’t matter whether you had a conflict. It didn’t matter what had gone on all day long. When it was time for the community to come together, they came together. And they usually came together around song, story, and dance. Everybody sat in that circle and it didn’t matter who had a conflict with whom, or how long a feud had gone on. At that time, you belonged to each other and there was a sense of being connected. It was song, story and dance that made then feel that way, that made them feel that they were still connected as one, despite the other things, the conflicts that were in their lives.
There is within all of us still this idea that when we witness art, the same thing happens. But it’s not this art they are used to in this country, which is why community-based artists strive so hard to stay outside. It’s this ancient tradition that we try to bring into the modern world because the modern would has created this tradition where you sit in the audience and the artists stands on the stage. The people are totally removed from the art. They have no role to play. They have no lines. They have no connection to the story that is being told. It is only for them to observe and then to applaud, which, for me, is a false form of art.
In Motion Magazine: In the best sense of the word, is that a spontaneous thing? It seems that if you tried to institutionalize it, it might not work out. Or does it work out both ways?
Alice Lovelace: If you tried to institutionalize it, it wouldn’t work out. I think art is spontaneous. That is the art. I believe in organized chaos. I don’t think just because something is spontaneous doesn’t mean that it is not organized. Spontaneity is simply the ability to make something feel immediate and intense so that you can’t help but break forth. I think that you can organize that. I think it takes a great deal of skill and thought. It also takes a great deal of surrendering.
I believe the hardest thing to teach an artist is how to get out of the way, that art is a process, but that you are not in control of the process. You are a part of the process but you are not the controller of the process. So, when you see yourself as a part of the process, you can allow that process to operate in ways that sweep around you. Other people at times become the flashpoint. I think so much in this society artists are taught to think that they are the owners of the process, and the possessors, and the initiators of the process. I don’t think that is true.
Where people open themselves
I’m teaching a sixth grade class, at Hamrick Elementary School, which is in north Atlanta, this is ’86. I’m there doing a long-term residency and I get to pick kids that I want to come and work with me every day, my core group of students that I work with. I had a mixed group of kids, 4th, 5th, and 6th graders, you know.
What I tried to learn from Toni, and what I’ve tried to learn as a community artist, is how to construct a process where people open themselves. It’s not my job to open you. That’s intrusive. That’s not my job. I create a process. If you feel moved by the process, then you open. You decide where you want to go.
But one of the things, no matter who I am teaching, I always start with a discussion of the world. That is the very first thing. What is going on in the world. What do you know about the world. So, even with these young kids, that’s our first discussion. Their assignment is, in the morning, to read the newspaper, or watch the news, and to come to class with something they think is significant -- that’s worthy of a conversation.
We opened with our conversation and then I started into the method. I told them I wanted to read “The Raven.” We started talking about the themes in The Raven. Talking about death. I started reading the poem, which is one that I love. And I’m half way through the poem and half the room is breaking down sobbing with tears. I mean wracking, body-sobbing tears to the point where I have to stop the class.
I asked the students to tend to the crying students and help get them calmed down. We get them calmed down. We go get water for them. We sit saying nothing for about twenty minutes, and after they calmed down I sat back and said, “OK, tell me about it.” And they started talking.
One student told me, “Miss Lovelace, two years ago, I was went out for a walk after school and I had my brother and my cousin, both of them two years old. I had them by the hand and we were going for a walk.” He said, “Miss Lovelace, we got to the corner and I let go of my little cousin’s hand to push the button for the light to change and when I reached back down for his hand he was gone.” He said, “Miss Lovelace, we haven’t seen my little cousin since then.” And I said, “Oh, that’s a lot of pain.” He said, “Yes, but that’s not the pain. The pain is nobody will talk to me about it.” “Everybody in my family acts as if it never happened. No-one has ever talked to me about it. Nobody has ever asked me how I feel about it. They engage me as if it never happened.” He said, “That’s what hurts.”
Another boy said, “Miss Lovelace, I got off from school, about a month ago.” He said, “My Mom picked me up and when I got in the car she said, ‘We are going to McDonald’s.’ ” He said, “We don’t ever go to McDonald’s. I was like ‘Wow, we are going to McDonald’s.” Then he said, “My mother got out of the car and looked back over her shoulder at me and said, ‘Oh, by the way, your uncle died three weeks ago.’ ”
He told me, “That was my favorite uncle. My favorite uncle in the world.” He said, “Miss Lovelace, she never said another word about him. Never said anything else.”
So, all these kids started talking about these encounters with missing and death and loss. This is where people turn their own pages.
When we finished talking, I said, “OK, now what do we do?” And everybody said, “We write.” I said, “We do. We write because now you understand where you are writing from.” I could have sat there and talked about death all day, but the stories from those children did things to help all of us understand all that comes with death. The loneliness, the loss, not having people that you can communicate this deep loss with. Being looked at as if nothing is wrong when you know something is wrong. The deepness of it, this heavy weight of it. How could I communicate that to them in words? But you open people and it’s amazing what people are willing to do and how far deep down they can go to helping themselves.
But you know that happens so much. That is what I built my career on. People say, “You can get anybody to write.” I say, I can get anybody to think, because writing is not so much the art of writing, it’s the willingness to think about those things that are meaningful in your life. That is what people aren’t willing to do a lot of times, is think. Writing isn’t the mechanics of grammar and penmanship. Writing is the depth of your thinking. What moves you. What hurts you.
Art is about listening
In Motion Magazine: That’s a very personal understanding of that. How does that, or does it, become part of people’s movements?
Alice Lovelace: The thing about movements, even political people, is that you are able to lie to yourself. I mean, human beings, we are very good at deceiving ourselves. One of the things that Toni taught me ... actually, I have to take this back to what Nayo would say.
In Motion Magazine: Nayo?
Alice Lovelace: Nayo Barbara Watkins, one of the best organizers ever, out of Mississippi. Nayo used to say, “Organizers often have in their heads that they think they know what people want. They don’t know how to listen to people. They don’t know how to talk to people.” When you listen to people and you talk to them, people tell you what they really want. Really need.
She talked about organizers going into a town and saying to the people, “You need to organize for political action. We need to get you to vote.” Nayo would sit around and she would listen to people and she would ask them to tell her stories. Like the little kids would tell me their stories, people would start telling her stories about their life. Then, she would go back to the organizers and say, “We can’t ask these people to go out to vote. We can’t ask them to go out to vote until we help them to get the street light for this corner down here because four kids have been killed on this corner. There is pain in this community and until we help them and relieve their pain, they can’t hear us. What they are hearing us say is we want them to do something for us, but we’ve done nothing for them.”
Nayo, she would make the organizers work on the campaign with the people to get the street light up. And, when the street light got up and the community had come together, then the community would come and say, “What do y’all need. What do you want? What do you need us to do?” Then everything else could happen.
Art is about listening. Art has one purpose, to communicate. You listen. We are so used to art being this high brow something, or this “Oh, you are special, you are an artist.” And that is just not what it is. It is just this ability to listen deeply. To hear not is what is being said, but what the heart is longing for. Or that the life is longing for. And then figuring out a way that you can use art to meet that need.
Sometimes that need is in movement. Sometimes it can be expressed in words. But then most often, it has got to be in an action. Art that does not end up in an action is not art. The end purpose of art, the end purpose of all communications, is action. The purpose of movement is action.