Caroline Randall Williams is an author, poet, academic and Nashville native. At age 29, she is recipient of two NAACP Image Awards for Soul Food Love and The Diary of B. B. Bright, written alongside her mother and muse, famed writer Alice Randall. From children’s literature to poetry and prose, Caroline writes from the perspective that being black is not the problem. Starting with her own family lineage, the third-generation writer celebrates food, cultural and culinary heritage. Through soul food, self love and the sharing of knowledge, she draws a link between the bigger picture and her own experience as an African American woman. Named “One of the 50 People Changing the South” by Southern Living magazine, Caroline feels compelled to talk about things that need to be talked about. The spotlight is used to speak for those who truly need it.
Are you back in Nashville right now? I know you were teaching English at West Virginia University this past summer.
I am home! In a few weeks, I’ll be joining Fisk University as a Writer in Residence and professor of poetry and creative writing.
How do you balance everything in your life?
(Laughs) My initial reaction is to ask, do I? Fortunately I’m not throwing things at a wall anymore. My teaching, poetry and cooking are all in conversation with one another. One really does inspire the other.
Since you fluctuate between so many mediums, describe a typical day-in-the-life.
While that really depends on the time of the year, I am a teacher first and foremost. I wake up, think about the texts I want to teach, read, check my email and social media outlets, since I am a Millennial after all, and then take meetings or test recipes. My days revolve around food, writing and reading. The evenings consistent of cooking a meal and drinking a glass of red wine—or going out for one.
What is it about teaching that is so appealing to you?
My first job after college was in the Mississippi Delta working for Teach for America. In many ways, those two years were the making of me. Working in the school system always felt like the right thing to do. I’ve been raised with huge amounts of privilege—going to dinner parties, traveling and studying at the finest schools in the world. While there’s always the temptation to pursue a job that is all about the money that never quite sat right in my stomach. Kids need to be taught, loved, and looked at. In a world glutted with luxury, it’s wonderful to have a job where the intrinsic value is obvious.
Was it ever nerve-wracking to share your writing? I’m sure there are pros and cons to being a third generation writer. (Side note: Caroline’s great-grandfather Arna Bontemps is the father of African American children’s literature.)
(Laughs) It’s telling that I haven’t written a novel yet, right? The first instinct is intimidation and the second is to be a good steward. I have this insane luxury of coming from a lineage that understands the writing life. I’ve also had the luxury of being in writing classes where people had never heard of my family so I could fail spectacularly— as well as anonymously. My writing is meant to uplift others. If I don’t put it out into the world it can’t do the work. It comes down to bravery and sharing.
What is the secret to co-writing as a mother-daughter team? You and Alice continuously spark something in one another.
My mother is deeply successful in the profession that I want to be a part of. Having the opportunity to apprentice with her is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given. The admiration I feel for her makes it really easy to work together. While we can seamlessly weave between one another’s voices, when we part we’re still able to do our own thing.
How did you develop your voice on the page?
While it is always evolving, I experimented and took a ton of creative writing classes. Seeking out good teachers who were a phone call or classroom away has been the theme of my professional success. Workshopping my writing to see what felt true really helped me as well. Lastly, I’m part of a black poetry collective, which has been invaluable in terms of my art.
When did you become obsessed with African American history with your focus on the feminine half?
I’ve always been invested in telling the truth about the black female experience because I don’t have one that isn’t that. Even as a child I wanted to bear witness, tell stories and be a steward of history. It became clear to me that this was a job I should and could claim while teaching in the Mississippi Delta. The way black women’s bodies are received and perceived in the world is really fraught. I have two female ancestors that were the result of kitchen rape, which is why I am a light-skinned black woman. The stories I heard were too compelling not to think and write about.
Was it ever hard to face the oftentimes grim facts about your family history?
One of my many blessings is that my family doesn’t keep secrets. I grew up feeling empowered that I had access to our history. Owning that I have slaves and Confederate generals pumping through my blood helped me to embrace who I am—rather than see it as a source of discomfort, shame or fear.
Considering the recent tragedies, do you feel a greater responsibility to be a role model for your race?
Those events have certainly made me more resolute to make every minute count more. However, I’ve felt that way for quite some time now. While in Mississippi I taught kids who were dealt a really rough deck of cards. As a privileged private school kid, It was a real wakeup call to think, I don’t know how their hand is going to shake out. My immediate reaction was to live brighter in order to inspire others to escape the dark. It’s not about proving to whites that blacks are deserving but rather showing ourselves that we’re as effective as we say we are. Self-empowerment unites.
I love that. On another note, do you have any advice my fellow creatives can take home?
Find your niche! When I was younger, because of my age and sense of self-importance, I wanted to write about soul food, boarding school, country music, studying abroad and my childhood memories in Nashville. Yet, a professor doesn’t teach a course on everything in one semester—regardless of how deeply knowledgeable he is. Having the discipline to become an expert in one subject really is the key. After you nail it, there will be other stories to tell down the road. I’d also say, find mentors that are in your corner and will help make your art a part of daily life. That is so crucial—especially if you have a million other things going on.