How I Became Hettie Jones

How I Became Hettie Jones
by Hettie Jones
   “I won’t say I didn’t cry. I cried a lot, and that, of course, is therapeutic,” Hettie Jones has said when asked about the process of writing her memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones. The story of her years as a young woman in New York City’s avant-garde, the memoir presents the revolutionary interracial world that Jones entered when she became involved with and then married the African-American poet LeRoi Jones (amiri baraka) in 1958. Unlike the traditional memoir of the spouse of a famous person, however, Jones’s memoir takes it cue from secondwave feminism, focusing on her emerging development as a writer and her efforts to defy institutional and cultural apartheid. In a finely crafted narrative, Jones constructs a female self that heals the wounds caused by her parents’ racism (they virtually disowned her after the marriage) and her husband’s decision to divorce her (he could no longer live with a white woman), leaving her a single mother with two children to raise.
   Wanting the memoir to be a woman’s book, Jones used the trope of “home” to structure the narrative, although she manipulated the term so that it escapes clichéd domesticity. Home in How I Became Hettie Jones is her parents’ home in Laurelton, New York—the one which she knew from an early age that she had to leave. It is the jazz and literary scenes of the Village and the Lower East Side where she has lived for almost 50 years, and it is all those places where what Jones calls “things in terms of race” came together. It is also the four apartments in which she and her family lived during those years. Morton Street, 20th Street, 14th Street, and Cooper Square materialize in the memoir as personally charged place names titling the four major sections of the book. Home is ultimately the memoir itself, a “sobersided alternative,” as Susan Brownmiller called it, to LeRoi Jones’s autoBioGrapHy. In addition to her struggles to first live independently, first as the wife of a black revolutionary poet and then as a single mother of mixed-race children, How I Became Hettie Jones chronicles her experiences with reproductive rights, harsh socioeconomic and social justice systems, jazz at the Five Spot, the production of the literary journal Yugen, the loss of her Jewish heritage, and the many friendships, male and female, that sustained her. Shifting past- and present-tense perspectives, Jones presents a congenial, forgiving, yet assertive voice sprinkled with her characteristic black vernacular, weaving together memories, short fantasies, and self-reflexive passages. Interspersed throughout are poems by LeRoi and other writers she knew at the time, such as Ron Loewinsohn, robert creeley, and philip whalen. She inserts her own writing as well—snippets of letters to her friend Helene Dorn, four poems, and a short narrative about the poet charles olson that she had written in secret while married. With these texts, Jones uses the memoir as a generator of selfknowledge, probing questions about whether she truly is a writer and why she did not write more.
   The embedded texts serve as bridges that are essential for both author and reader to move back and forth through time and to understand how tricky memory is and ultimately how difficult it is to ever know one’s past. In Jones’s hand, these disparate artifacts of material culture function like pieces of this mosaic, creating a unique and long unseen vision of Beat literary and cultural history.
   As a women’s book, How I Became Hettie Jones makes careful note of other women like Jones who have been elided from Beat history. The list is massive and includes the poet Sarah Blackburn; playwright Aishah Rahman; poet Bonnie Bremser (brenda frazer); diane di prima; poet Rochelle Owens, who was featured in Four Young Lady Poets published in 1962 by Totem and Corinth presses; Rena (Oppenheimer) Rosequist; Elaine Jones (later Kimako Baraka, LeRoi’s nowdeceased sister); and writer joyce johnson, one of Jones’s closest friends at the time and remaining so today. Interracial couples are also raised from obscurity: Ia and Marzette Watts, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor and Bob Grosvenor, and Garth and Archie Shepp feature prominently. By writing these individuals back into Beat history, Jones illustrates how important that history has been to the disruption of gender and racial binaries in post–cold war U.S. culture.
   Despite the heartbreaks that led to the many tears that Jones shed while writing the memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones is not a sad or spiteful book. As reviewer Alix Kates Shulman noted, “arely a hint of rancor or bitterness remains in this judicious, fairminded book.” Instead, Jones’s story proclaims the need for pleasure, joy, and even euphoria, all found in her children, her marriage, her work, her apartments, and her friends. With good humor and relentless self-exploration, she claims outright the fact that time left her husband “like any man of any race, exactly as he was, augmented,” while she, “like few other women at that time, would first lose my past to share his, and then, with that eventually lost too, would become the person who speaks to you now.” In recovering and creating through writing that becoming, Jones validates the strength of human beings to live full lives under difficult circumstances. The memoir makes trenchantly clear that something essential remains in each human being, even while one’s name may change, as did hers—from Hettie Cohen, her birth name; to Hettie Jones, her married name; to LeRoi Jones’s white wife, her name according to many literary histories; to H. Cohen-Jones, as LeRoi placed it on the Yugen masthead. Through language and memory, all those selves can achieve authenticity, and one may even find that a single name, such as Hettie, centers them all.
■ Brownmiller, Susan. “The Bride of LeRoi Jones.” The New York Times Book Review. 11 March 1990, 12.
■ Grace, Nancy M., and Ronna C. Johnson. Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Beat Women Writers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
■ Johnson, Ronna C., and Nancy M. Grace. Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
■ Shulman, Alix Kates. “Keeping Up With Jones.” The Nation, 16 March 1990, 425–427.
■ Watten, Barrett. “What I See in How I Became Hettie Jones.” In Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation, edited by Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace, 96–118. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
   Nancy M. Grace

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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