Spotlight on Alice Randall
Who Owns Black Voices at Tara?
Late in 2000, an announcement went out informing recipients that a book review and group discussion session sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Club of Middle Tennessee would be held at the Blair Boulevard home of a club member there in Nashville. The title of the book to be discussed was to be announced according to the invitation. It turned out that the book discussed at that December 5 meeting was The Wind Done Gone, by Alice Randall. It can be assumed that most of the people in greater Nashville outside of the Harvard-Radcliffe Club of Middle Tennessee did not know who Alice Randall is. Though I hold myself out as a specialist on books published in the last decade of the 20th century by and about black people, I had no idea that Alice Randall was a black woman, that she had written a book, and that she was the president-elect of the local Harvard Club at the time. Of course, I did not know that she was one of the few black award-winning western songwriters in Nashville, the writer of the lyrics to hits like Trisha Yearwood's "XXX's and OOO's: An American Girl," and a screenwriter as well. These gaps in my knowledge were filled by events soon to unfold. Within four months of that meeting, Alice Randall's name became well known among those who follow book publishing.
In the May 2001 issue of this newsletter I opined that the Wind Done Gone flap was the biggest to occur in the first four months of this year with regard to a black book - and that over a book that had not even been published. (Readers are invited to read that article).
Alice Randall is a Detroit-born, Washington, D.C.-raised, 1981 Harvard graduate, and a Nashville resident. Her book, The Wind Done Gone, is a parody of Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. It was scheduled for publication in June 2001 by Houghton Mifflin. On March 23, 2001, the holders of the copyright to Margaret Mitchell's book, Gone with The Wind, went into the Federal District Court in Atlanta, and sought an injunction against the publication of Randall's book, alleging that, as the New York Times reported it, Ms. Randall had engaged in "unabated piracy" for borrowing 15 characters, several famous scenes and even some dialogue from the original.
Houghton Mifflin, Ms. Randall's publisher, filed for an expedited appeal. On March 29, 2001, a hearing was held before Judge Charles Pannell of the northern District of Georgia on the motion made by the Mitchell interests to stop publication of The Wind Done Gone. An injunction was granted by the court on April 20, 2001. On appeal, the injunction was overturned on May 26, 2001, clearing the way for publication of the book on schedule in June.
This reviewer is particularly interested in the question of the extent to which the copyright of Gone with the Wind extends to the conceptualization/characterization of, say the fifteen characters that Randall borrowed from Mitchell's Gone with the Wind.
My question is, Can an author copyright the characterization which he or she has attributed to fictional (or real-life) persons? Or, to carry the argument further, has Alice Randall tarnished the image of these fictional characters by putting different words in their mouths, words which are more likely to be representative of their inner feelings than those which Mitchell had them speak? In a word, to use the analogy of James Carroll of the Boston Globe, does Margaret Mitchell have a copyright-protected right "to convey demeaning myths of slavery as a benign system, of slaves as contented buffoons?" The aforementioned Carroll of the Boston Globe, who incidentally has read an advance copy of The Wind Done Gone, thinks not. He said in his April 3, 2001, column, "Let the Voices of Slaves Be Heard."
I believe with him that the Mitchell interests should be made to stand down and let the descendants of the slaves at Tara give voice to their forebears. To those who see a violation of the Mitchell copyright in what seems to be Randall's deliberate use of words taken from the mouths of characters in Gone with the Wind and in her unmistakable identification of her characters with their counterparts in that novel, I counter that in law truth is an absolute defense. If it can be shown that the preponderance of the evidence is that the Randall characters speak truth as regards the feelings of the blacks in Gone with the Wind, truth trumps copyright violation.
Author's Note: As we were about to put this essay up on the web we learned of a similar case in Paris where the heirs of Victor Hugo have gone to court to bring an action against the publisher Editions Plon for publishing Francois Çérésa's Cosette or the Time of Illusions. Their claim is that this book resurrects characters that their great-great grandfather created in Les Misérables. They are arguing that the fact that their great- great grandfather's book is in the public domain does not grant the right to anyone to do what they will with it. Alan Riding, the New York Times correspondent, reports from Paris that while under French law the copyright to Les Misérables expired a half century ago, French law protects artists' "moral right" over their creative works in perpetuity. A Paris court will hear the arguments on June 27.
Of recent note regarding black books, their authors, their publishers, and those who promote them:
Publishers Weekly noted the passing of Julius Anderson, the first African-American salesman in the trade book industry. Anderson died on May 1, at age 85. His particular interest was in promoting books by African-American writers. He worked for 40 years in the book trade, mostly for Lyle Stuart, its successor, Carol publishing and ultimately for Barricade Books.
The Crisis magazine reported the publication in Spanish of W.E.B. DuBois' Souls of Black Folk (Las Almas del Pueblo Negro). On March 20, intellectuals from around the world gathered in Cuba at the International Press Center for a literary celebration. The book was published by the Fernando Ortiz Foundation at the behest of William Strickland, a political science professor in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and David Du Bois, stepson of Du Bois.
Queenhyte Publishers announced that it will publish Black Nonfiction Books: A History, a Bibliography, and a Memoir. Scheduled for September 2001 publication, this book traces the history of nonfiction books by and about black people in the United States from 1700 to 2000. It includes a 907-book bibliography of such books published in the last decade of the twentieth century.
Copyright © 2001 by Harry B. Dunbar. All rights reserved.
Dunbar on Black Books