Jones, Hettie

Jones, Hettie
(1934– )
   Hettie Jones, née Cohen, remains convinced that she was not destined to spend her life in the Laurelton, New York, of her birth. Even as a small child living with her Jewish, middle-class parents and an older sister, Hettie sensed that a different world awaited her. When little, she dreamed of becoming a cantor, but that vocation was closed to women at the time. So she listened to the counsel of her mother. Born Lottie Lewis, she volunteered for the Red Cross, Girl Scouts, and Zionist causes, showed her daughter how to sew and iron, and cautioned her to “marry someone who loves you more.” Her father, Oscar Cohen, taught both his daughters how to fly-fish, catch, and throw, taking Hettie to Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field, and the racetracks, all the while reminding her that life is not found in books. The roles she was to play in the Beat movement and the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s were still unimagined, but she knew that something greater awaited her—Hettie “had to become.” To break the circle of home, she eschewed attending Vassar and elected instead to matriculate in 1951 at Virginia’s Mary Washington College. At the small, all-girls school, she was introduced to the theater, participating in set and costume design as well as acting. The Spanish poet and dramatist Frederico García Lorca became one of her favorite writers. She also published prose nonfiction in the college’s literary journal. More importantly, segregation and discrimination based on color made itself known to her for the first time. She was the only Jewish student, often mistaken as Puerto Rican, and her years in the South brought her face to face with the deep inequities of invidious social divisions between blacks and whites.
   In 1955, after graduating with a degree in drama, she briefly attended Columbia University before moving in 1957 to Greenwich Village, where she found a job as subscription manager for the Record Changer, a magazine for record collectors. It was at the Changer that she met a young African-American man, a graduate of Howard University as well as a writer and jazz enthusiast: LeRoi Jones (amiri baraka). He had been raised in a middleclass home in New Jersey and shared Hettie’s interest in Franz Kafka; the two soon moved in together; they married on October 13, 1958. Their lives as a mixed-race couple in mid–20th-century United States, even in the liberal enclave of the Village, were not easy, often requiring painful personal sacrifices. They sometimes encountered hostility from strangers on the street, and even from close relatives, such as Oscar and Lottie Cohen, could not accept the fact that their daughter had married a black man; this created a long-standing rift between Jones and her parents. LeRoi’s family, however, welcomed her unconditionally. This mixture of public and private responses to their union left Jones in virtually unchartered territory—there were no self-help books for those, like Jones, who had crossed the color line.
   Despite the difficulties, Jones proudly recalls the era as one of personal liberation, a time in which she learned to be self-supporting, to acknowledge herself as a sexual being, and to wear the kind of clothes she liked despite the fashion trends. Living in the center of the New York art world at the height of the Beat movement affirmed her desire to self-express, bringing her into contact with a pantheon of art personalities. Her husband was making a name for himself as a poet, jazz historian, and radical playwright, and their apartment quickly became a gathering place for painters, musicians and writers, including Franz Kline, Fielding Dawson, jack kerouac, allen ginsberg, and diane di prima.
   Jones herself was writing poetry in secret, and although her husband encouraged her to write critical texts, she balked at that idea, electing instead to support the endeavors of others. A job as a copy editor at the Partisan Review allowed her to bring home a regular paycheck so that LeRoi could devote his time to writing and other political activities. When he founded Totem Press and Yugen, one of the most influential small-press literary journals to emerge after World War II, it was Hettie who provided the physical labor, typing and laying out other people’s poetry. She was also the primary caregiver for their two daughters, Kellie and Lisa, born in 1959 and 1961, respectively. Jones, however, blames no one for holding her back as an artist; nothing, she says, “but my own voice held me hostage.”
   The early 1960s saw the rise of the blacknationalist and black arts movements, and as LeRoi become more involved in both, he distanced himself from the Beat movement—and from his wife, as well. By middecade, Jones found herself abandoned by a husband who believed that her skin color compromised his political status. LeRoi’s numerous infidelities, including an affair with di Prima, who had been Hettie’s friend, also took its toll on the marriage. They divorced in 1965. Jones retained custody of the two children and stayed on in the Lower East Side, making a life for herself and her family through freelance editing and teaching. In 1990, Jones published How i Became Hettie jones, a memoir of her early years in the avant-garde, but like other second-wave feminist memoirists, Jones chose not to subordinate her story to that of her more famous husband. Instead, she recovered her history and that of many other young women, including joyce johnson, Helene Dorn, and Aishah Rahman, who fought against racial prejudice and stereotypes that constrained sexuality, intellect, and economic independence. The memoir features some of her own poetry, written in secret, evidence that early on she had mapped out a literary life for herself.
   It was only after the divorce, however, that she dared assert her own voice as a writer, encouraged by the young male poets who had studied with Joel Oppenheimer as part of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. Jones began to read publicly, and by the mid-1970s she was writing short fiction and a great deal of poetry. The wages that she earned writing adolescent literature also enabled her to spend more time at home with the children. She published her first poetry chapbook, Having Been Her, in 1981. Drive, her first full-length book of poems, came out in 1998 and won the Norma Farber Award for a first collection of poetry. A second collection, All Told, followed in 2003.
   Influenced by LeRoi’s poetry and the avantgarde literature she read as an editor for Grove Press, Jones describes her poetry as musical expressions of her state of mind, constructs that adhere to charles olson’s theory of projective verse and open field composition. Her short stories and adolescent fiction, tending toward morality tales, focus more explicitly on the intersection of gender and race, especially motherhood and mixed-race individuals. A strong belief in art as a vehicle to promote social justice compels Jones to use her talents in the service of others. In 1988 poet janine pommy vega invited her to teach a prose workshop at Sing-Sing, which she agreed to do. Since then Jones has taught at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women, editing collections of prison writing, such as Aliens at the Border in 1997. In 2004 she helped Rita Marley write her own memoir, No Woman No Cry: My Life with Bob Marley (Hyperion).
   Jones continues to write, teach, and advocate for those less fortunate. Her dedication to a life that seamlessly blends the aesthetic with the political and domestic testifies to the importance of Beat and other mid–20th-century avant-garde philosophies in American culture.
■ 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.
■ Jones, Hettie, ed. Aliens at the Border: The Writing Workshop, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. New York: Segue Books, 1997.
■ ———. All Told. New York: Hanging Loose Press, 2003.
■ ———. Big Star Fallin’ Mamma: Five Women in Black Music. New York: Viking, 1995.
■ ———. Drive: Poems. New York: Hanging Loose Press, 1998.
■ ———. How I Became Hettie Jones. New York: Dutton, 1990.
■ ———. “This Time It Was Different at the Airport.” Art Against Apartheid; Works for Freedom. Ikon Second Series 5/6 (Winter/Summer 1986): 150–153.
   Nancy M. Grace

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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