Black Bottom Saints, the latest from The New York Times bestselling novelist, songwriter, and professor Alice Randall ’77, is part fictional memoir, part Saints Day Book, and entirely “Motown music and Black girl magic.” Alice offers 52 biographies of Black brilliance as told through the prolific pen of Joseph “Ziggy” Johnson, the legendary nightclub emcee, educator, and columnist of Motor City. Ziggy’s 52 “Saints” are “artists of life”—the incomparable Maxine Powell, fearless Lynette Dobbins Taylor, flawless Joe Louis, an incendiary Anna Gordy—who inspired and uplifted generations of Black girls at the Ziggy Johnson School of the Theatre in Detroit City. Alice conjures “caramel Camelot'' in a staggeringly beautiful study of “fifty-two paths from trauma to transcendence,” paired with signature cocktail recipes concocted by the author for each saint as “feast day libations.” For those searching for the splendor and not only the struggle in Black history—in American history—Alice’s innovative tour de force is required reading.
Alice is writer-in-residence and professor of African American and diaspora studies at Vanderbilt University, where she teaches courses at the intersections of African American culture, literature, art, music, food, and film. She is the author of four novels—the New York Times best seller The Wind Done Gone (2001), Pushkin and the Queen of Spades (2005), Rebel Yell (2009), Ada's Rules (2012), and Black Bottom Saints (2020)—and coauthor (with her daughter Caroline Randall Williams) of the acclaimed cookbook Soul Food Love (2015) and the young adult novel The Diary of B.B. Bright, Possible Princess (2012). She is also the songwriter of more than 30 country songs, including the #1 hit “XXX’s and OOO’s,” recorded by Trisha Yearwood in 1994, and the screenwriter of Reba McEntire’s “Is There Life Out There?” music video, which won the Academy of Country Music’s Video of the Year in 1991. She and her daughter are the corecipients of the 2016 NAACP Image Award and the Phillis Wheatley Award for Soul Food Love.
Joy in the Work
Mari-Alice, as she was known during her GDS days, holds a deep affection for the school, its origin story, its lived mission, and the enduring relationships she has maintained with her extraordinary teachers.
“GDS prepared me to be a writer,” Alice said. “It made me intellectually and prepared me to ask good questions, to read, and write, and pace myself. GDS was not about answering the questions that were asked of me. I was invited to ask good questions and learn for learning's sake. That practice has been with me all of my life.”
The research for Black Bottom Saints spanned “50 years of living and four years of writing,” Alice explained. She tracked down nearly 1,000 columns written by Ziggy for The Michigan Chronicle—columns she remembers her father reading to her in Detroit when she was a youth dancer in Ziggy‘s real-life School of the Theatre before moving to Washington, DC. She conducted interviews with many in Ziggy’s orbit, a colossal galaxy of artists, activists, athletes, business people, and stars. From her prodigious research, she constructed her narrator: the complex, larger-than-life, queer Black man who writes a Saints Day Book as he is dying, celebrating the influential artists and ancestors of Black Bottom, Detroit. True to life, he opines on everything and knows everyone whom the beating heart of Black Bottom has touched.
“This research is a testament to the academic skills I learned at GDS,” she said. “My ability to research Black Bottom Saints in particular, to chase down [these stories] over the years, independently working without a contract (I did not try to sell this book until it was written) is a testament to what GDS taught me about being content driven. To bring my best self. To ask important questions and to do work that matters, regardless of what I was paid. And to have joy in the doing of it.”
“Black Polished Right”
GDS readers will see their school in Black Bottom Saints, all but explicitly as well as by analogy through the mission-driven work of Ziggy’s School of the Theatre.
“It was the summer between 6th and 7th grades,” Alice writes about a girl named Mari called Colored Girl, whose third-person narratives at the start of each chapter lend an autobiographical arc to the novel. “She had completed three years at Paliprep, a progressive private school, integrated and innovative, that proudly refused to field the football team, grade student work, or ask students to call their teachers by their last name, but rewarded daily reading of the Washington Post and the New York Times.”
Alice’s Ziggy wrote his Saints Day Book on his deathbed, pledging to do the work of his School of the Theatre in its pages: to make the descendants of now-mythic Black neighborhoods like Black Bottom stand tall from hearing the stories of the brightest stars in his orbit. “Nothing shines brighter than Black polished right,” he began. “Too often we are too tired to get out the rag. Our brightest people and places get quickly forgotten and tarnished.” Alice, through Ziggy and Colored Girl in 52 tributes, never tires of polishing.
Charm and Self-Love
Ziggy Johnson’s School of the Theatre and Georgetown Day School were carved from a common vision. Each aspires and strives—against the interference of a racist world—to make students see their own beauty and brilliance. At GDS we talk of nurturing passionate pursuit in our future graduates and “launching lives of purpose.” In the novel, Ziggy writes, “You walked out of my school, if my magic worked, onto a path that connected a dance studio to a courtroom, to a surgical operating theatre, to the Rose Room in the Algonquin Hotel, to someplace where you can change a few things. You walk out toward being a lawyer, a doctor, a writer, a labor leader. But not if you don’t walk in. All kinds of ways and all kinds of folks tried to interfere with me turning a ghetto dancing school into a launchpad that propels young sepian citizens into John Glenn’s sky and into any other place they dream of being.”
In a world that tells Black girls in particular that they are not beautiful or worthy, Ziggy endeavored to “find a way to help my brown and Black audiences love themselves,” Ziggy wrote. His tenth saints instructed wisely, “Find a way to let your audience love you...and you’ll help them find a way to love themselves.”
Generations of well-loved GDS teachers have endeavored, like Ziggy, to foster joy through inspired, purpose-driven learning. Alice’s experiences bear witness to receiving that attention, finding as much delight in reading Proust with former French teacher Charles Psychos and Call of the Wild in Middle School with former English teacher Walter Ailes as she did in the arts. The teachers she loved—through their care, skillful instruction, and loyal attention—allowed Alice to love herself and reflect self-love onto others.
In a touching tribute to veteran GDS French teacher Debby Butterworth, Alice illustrated the way enchanting, excellent teachers can have this kind of lasting impact on students. She wrote, “Debby Butterworth was in every inch and in every sense a chic and cosmopolitan woman and educator. We first met when I was nine-years-old and walked into what I was told was the fourth-grade French classroom and found myself in Debby’s world of French dialogues, meringues, chocolate mousse, crepes, musical rounds, and wonderful French lullabies—a francophile circus of delights, with Debby in the center as ringmaster and innovator...A decade later I would test out of French at Harvard and think: thank you, Debby. A decade after that I would sing my child to sleep with Debby’s lullabies and think: thank you, Debby. Whenever I was charmed by a perfectly tied scarf, perky optimism, or an unwavering belief that no matter where you started, no matter how small and rude the place, or large and crude the place, you too could become, like Debby, a citizen of the world….whenever I fell under the spell of that particular charm, I thanked Debby, who had taught me the power of being delighted by being delightful.”
Alice recalled the dedicated cultivation of joy and art at GDS as an essential part of that salve for a world that too often stung. “We knew that life was hard but that joy was real,” she said. “We knew that friendship and art were the compensations—songs, paintings, plays...That was the message of Ziggy’s and what was totally congruent between Ziggy’s and GDS. GDS was my weird little outpost of Ziggy’s—except that they didn’t understand the Temptations.”
Radical and Uplifting
The blend of fiction in Black Bottom Saints, Alice said, leverages another “important tool of the anti-racist tool kit.” She layers text within text, like oral histories retold in cookbooks, and engages memory steeped in art to validate, raise consciousness, and burnish tarnished stories. It is something she has done since 4th grade at GDS when she concocted a barley soup for a project on ancient Viking civilization long before foodways was a respected social science discipline. Or when she painstakingly baked cakes representing Gatsby and Nick in 9th grade rather than write a standard essay about The Great Gatsby. She translated her understanding and experience of the texts—like the performance art of her grandmother’s cooking—into taste and visual metaphor.
“What is interesting about GDS is instead of thinking I was shirking, they understood that I was engaging the text of the book with the new text of the cakes,” Alice explained. “They accepted the seriousness of my project, and that validated what my grandmother had done. I found the validation of non-verbal intelligence radical and uplifting. I got to work in an environment that took an interest in what the past tasted like. That was my GDS.”
Alice remembered GDS as a place that shared the best of its diverse community members’ traditions. She continues to be an ardent supporter of the school’s commitment to a progressive, principled education. “GDS gave me an ethical education and a principled world view that we didn’t have to agree,” she said. “I may even change my idea of what right is. [To this day,] I have no trouble voting against my own self-interest because of a sense of common cause. I think those are values I learned at GDS.”
Like Ziggy, she has always gathered people around her, collected their stories, and cultivated joy in creativity and food and friendship. She is fiercely faithful to purpose and principle. In Middle School, Alice broke with the Lutheran Church because she learned that it would not offer salvation to her Jewish friend and classmate Leslie Weisberg ’77. “I did not accept that any heaven that could exclude Leslie would be somewhere I wanted to go.”
Leslie and addiction psychiatry specialist Dr. Marc Fishman ’78 both appear in the book’s acknowledgments among Alice’s “fictive kin” and adopted family.
“Alice—my best and lifelong friend—was always a storyteller, an aggregator of people, a community builder, a leader in the creation of social groups and networks long before there were social networks,” Leslie said. “There was never a question that Alice would be a writer, an intellectual, and a great success on the world stage. She was and is both brilliant and driven...a bright charismatic light, creating magic and infusing every experience with joy and delight.”
A Bright Beacon
Alice manifests the notions of radical joy, lifting and gifting all kinds of beauty through her writing and in every conversation—encounters that will leave one dazed with the sheer scope of topics explored.
Readers and listeners may exclaim, following an Alice Randall monologue, with the same words Ziggy selected for his incomparable 44th saint Dr. Shirley McNeil, PhD: “Sometimes listening to her was like trying to drink water from a fire hydrant. She had so many big ideas and talked so fast.”
Still, there is not a moment to spare. Hers is anti-racist art, bright as a beacon through the smog of racist refrains.
Ziggy Johnson’s School of the Theatre was not a dance school. It was a school of empowered citizenship for Black girls that drew stars like Aretha Franklin and Sammy Davis Jr. to show up in Black Bottom each year for its students. Ziggy’s School and his Saints Day Book—Alice’s book—center Black brilliance in a moveable feast of delicious characters who send their sparkle forward from the traditions of Ziggy’s “Youth Colossals” onto those who emulate their shine today. The school created, as Ziggy writes in the book, “a powerful fun house, a place where all the mirrors are without distortion. A place where Black girls reflect and reflect upon each other.” Alice sees it reflected in the Black women of current day Philadelphia and Atlanta and Detroit, who mobilized great swaths of traditionally disenfranchised voters to the polls. She sees it in the promise of a GDS education, of those discovering a lifelong love of learning and learning to change the world.
“Alice creates family and community everywhere she goes, championing and including those she loves, weaving those family circles into iterative expressions of nuanced creativity through words, food, poetry, and song,” Leslie said. “Like her life, her books are artful, carefully crafted expressions of her family stories. She embodies brilliance, excellence, leadership, goodness, fairness, kindness, compassion, and a desire to do good in the world.”
Alice embodies GDS and Black brilliance, through and through.
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