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Collecting Delta Jewels: An Interview with Alysia Burton Steele

Collecting Delta Jewels: An Interview with Alysia Burton Steele
When I first picked up Delta Jewels, I was immediately struck by the power behind the stories recorded between its covers. I gained an immense appreciation for the strength of the women who shared their stories and for the legacies they give their family and communities. Through this book, Alysia Burton Steele has ensured that these legacies are recorded and available to those who do not have the privilege of personal contact with these Jewels. I did not even have read half of the book before I knew that Alysia was a person I had to meet. Her personal connection to this kind of work and the love with which she presents these stories invigorates my passion for oral histories, especially the oral histories of family and home. About a year before this interview, Alysia signed my copy of Delta Jewels at a promotional event for the book in my hometown Madison, Mississippi. She left me a message that I urge for you to follow: “Record your family’s stories, they are the legacy.” The next time I saw Alysia in person was this past summer when we met in her home for an interview on her book Delta Jewels.

What do you do at the University of Mississippi?

I'm an assistant professor of journalism and new media at the University of Mississippi. I teach basic writing, photojournalism, advanced photojournalism, layout and design, multimedia, and I'm getting ready to teach a podcasting class. 1


Where did Delta Jewels originate? How did you come up with the title of the book?

I interviewed women mainly in the Delta. There were four in the book who are not from the Delta, but fifty of them are from the Delta. Mound Bayou, Mississippi, is significant because it was the first all-black town in Mississippi: It was started by former slaves. President Roosevelt visited, and he called it “The Jewel of the Delta.” We came up with Delta Jewels because it was about Delta women. We put the significance of Mound Bayou behind it, and there were five women from the book from Mound Bayou. The pastor who was the most significant in helping me was from Mound Bayou, so the title was my homage to the town.

Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother's Wisdom by Alysia Burton Steele. (Cedar Street, 2015)

What made you want to sit down and start writing Delta Jewels?

I moved to Mississippi in 2012. When I moved here, I took some students into the Delta for a school project. I saw images that reminded me of my childhood visiting my grandmother's family in Spartanburg, South Carolina. It was the shotgun homes, the sharecropper homes, the fields. It just had that feel and the look that took me back to my childhood. I wanted to pick up the phone and call my grandmother, but she had passed 20 years ago. I knew she was gone. I was always realistic about that, but, for whatever reason, it made me very regretful that I never really talked to her about her upbringing. And so, when I was driving past the cotton fields, I kept thinking about who picked that cotton. What was the life like? Did my grandmother have to work in a field? I didn't know that much about her. Then, I realized that, with the skillset that I had, I would pay it forward and interview other people's grandmothers. That was the thought, and it was a personal project. I never meant for it to be a book.


How do you feel like the skills you use in your class affected the writing in the book?

No one has ever asked me that question. I never considered myself a writer; my agent corrects me on that. I just use my storytelling skills. And my storytelling skills come from photography. The hardest thing I had to learn and to teach my students is to spend time with their subjects. It is sometimes a little bit easier to interview someone for a text story, but people tense up when you photograph them. I had to learn to put the camera down, go at it from a different angle—interview first and then photograph. I wanted that bond.


With the photographs, you know how to show their personality when you get to know them.

One woman in the book wanted me to photograph her first because she wanted to get out of her Sunday clothes. As soon as I came into the house, Mrs. Alma B. Tucker gave me ten minutes to take the photograph. It was a very dark house, wood paneling, not a lot of light, and I was very uncomfortable. All of that shows in the photograph. You can tell that there's not that connection in the photograph because I didn't know her. The difference is made in spending two hours with Mrs. Deloris M. Gresham, or with Mrs. Mims Floyd whose interview was three-and-a-half hours.

It took me back to being a photojournalist where the reporters had been there, interviewed, and left. Then, the photographer comes, the subject looks at me like, “What do you want me to do?” I don't want you to do anything. I want you to just be there and let me figure it out, but I have to have an answer as soon as I walk in the door. That's the frustrating part of being a photographer. Now, being on the other side and writing a book, I've forced myself to put the camera down, make eye contact, and listen. I'm watching their body language. I'm watching to see what their expressions are like. Only then I know how I want to photograph them. This is a different technique that I'm learning through doing oral history books.

Did you have a form or set of questions that you asked every woman?

I never wrote a question down. Every woman was different, you know? But I think the one question that I asked all the women was "What's that one childhood memory that takes you back?" And asking this taught me how to ask questions. Everybody knows you ask open-ended questions, but the wording is very important. Can I share one story?

So Mrs. Magola Fox lives in Grenada, and I asked her "What was your childhood like?"

And this is what she said almost verbatim, "My mother was a canner. She canned food. We were never hungry. I had shelter. I had loving parents. We weren't poor."

Okay, good starting point, but not what I was looking for. So I rephrased, "What was that one childhood memory that takes you back?" The same question basically, but asked a different way.

This is the answer I got:

"My mother made me a white dress, and it was so pretty. I was so proud that I couldn't wait to wear that dress to church. My family used to ride a horse and carriage to church, but I like to ride my neighbor's horse, Dan. I would say, ‘Get down Dan,’ and Dan would bend down for me to get on to ride to church. I had my dress in a bag, so I put my brother's britches on and rode to church. My grandad was sitting outside the church, and he said, "Girl, how come you come round here with your britches on?"-Women weren't allowed to wear pants.-I said, “Papa, I had to wear britches because I'm riding the horse. I have my dress in the bag.” So I went behind the church and put my white dress on. When I came back, Grandad had grabbed a switch from the tree, and he whipped me. Blood was all over the dress, he had cut my legs and ruined my white dress. I started crying, so a woman from the church went in and got my mother from inside the church.  My mother came out and said, “What happened, Mag?” I said, “Papa hit me because I had my brother's britches on, but I had to ride the horse.” And my mother was getting ready to say something when Papa said, “Don't you start with me. I'll give you some too.” My mother said go home, so I rode the horse home. My daddy wasn't much of a church- goer. He said, “Girl, what are you doing back from church so early?” And I said, “Papa hit me. I had britches on, but I had to…” My daddy got on the horse went to the church. I don't know what my daddy said to my grandpa, but he didn't come to our house for two years.”

I got two totally different answers. 2


You said that your husband Bobby was one of the people that made you realize the importance of the audio process. Was he involved in a lot of the fieldwork process? Did he go on a lot of trips with you?

He's met all but four women. He knows all their personalities. He has nicknames for them. He has several girlfriends. [laughter] When the book got published, I insisted that every woman get a free copy of the book and their photographs printed and framed. We hand delivered all of them, so my husband drove six thousand miles in two months.

Mrs. Lela J. Bearden always has greens or something for me to bring back to Bobby. And Mrs. Myrlie Evers I might add who walks just fine, but when Bobby is around they have to grab his arm and snuggle up on him. [laughter] Mrs. Evers is notorious for grabbing his arm and laying her head on his shoulder. They have private conversations when I'm there. They sneak in a little corner and talk, and I look at them like I have no idea of what he's talking to her about. But she loves Bobby. Mrs. Evers loves Bobby. Some of them are giddy when they see him. So I've just come to terms with the fact that I'm gonna have to share him with his girlfriends.

The author in her Oxford, Mississippi home.  Photo by Kristen Clark, 2016.

Food and family are always together. It seemed like you came over a couple times Sunday right after church during lunch, so, when you interviewed them, did they have family members there with them?

Yes. A lot of the women did have family members. Thank God. Mrs. Velma Moore was one of the most difficult interviews, and if it hadn't been for her grandson asking her if she had told me a certain story I wouldn't have had a story in the book for her. It's the only story that I tell everywhere I speak because it is such a hit. The reaction is crazy.

So I'm interviewing Mrs. Moore in Benoit, Mississippi, in this shotgun house with about fifteen people in it. Somebody has the microwave going, the TV is on, the air conditioner is on, the ceiling fan is on, a police scanner is on, someone's cell phone rang, the kids are running, and I think, “I am so screwed.” I already know this is gonna be a nightmare. The recording is not gonna be clean. There's nothing I can do.

This is a lesson that I tell my students when we're talking about audio for multimedia. I'm at her house for three hours. The first hour I have nothing really substantial. I know there's something there. There's a twinkle in her eye, but I can't get her to talk.

Then, her grandson Cantrell says, “Madea, did you tell her about the woman you pulled outta church and punched?” And I do a double take. [laughter] So it is really thanks to her grandson that I have that story.

I remember her responding with, “Boy, be quiet.” [laughter]

And I said, “Oh no, we're going there.”

But she looks at me and she smacks her lips, “Well if you're sitting in church and two women are sitting behind you talking about how fine your husband is what for you to do? I pulled her out of church so we could talk about this.”

And I said, “Wait. Let's back up. What did you pull her out of the church by? Was it her hair, her arm? What happened?”

And she said, “Well, I pulled her out by her arm, but I would have pulled her out by whateva.”

She answers that question and stops, but I said, “No, no, no. We're gonna keep going with this, so what happened when you pulled her out of church?”

“I told her that was my husband, and she said, ‘I didn't know he was your husband, but I meant what I said.’” And she stops.

“Well, Okay. What did you do next?”

“I punched her between the eyes and knocked her out.” [laughter] She stops.

I continued on. I asked, “What happened after that?”

She said, “My momma came out of the church and said now, Velma, you know you're wrong.” She stops.

I repeated, “What happened after that?”

And she told me, “Momma, I wasn't wrong cause I didn't hit her in the church. I pulled her outside the church.”

“What happened after that, Mrs. Moore?”

“Well, I told her to get up because I was gonna hit her again, and she wouldn't get up. So I went back in.” [laughter]

Then, I said, “What did you do when you got back in the church?”

And she said, “I sat quite comfortably.” [laughter]

I tell my students this story because it shows that you have to pay attention, ask follow-up questions, and pursue the story. Those questions opened the door for the rest of the story. I learned they were married for 49 years, and she loved him very deeply. He had passed several years prior, and she misses him. After this, I know that the way to get her to talk is through her husband because I could tell that this story happened in the 1940s, and, even after all that time, she's still pissed that that woman talked about her husband.

And so, I asked her about her husband. And she said, “I loved-ed his style. I loved-ed his style, and he was wild about mine. And I wouldn't say how my style was to him, but I knew I was cute. Everybody would say you was one pretty young lady, but when he told me I knew I was. When he told me I felt really, really good.” And that was just so beautiful to me. That there was nothing that I could write that would be so beautiful and poignant.

That's the bigger picture. Many of the women think that they don't have value in this world, especially in this state. They're often overlooked. They're underrepresented in mainstream media, so, when someone wants to sit down and listen to their stories and appreciate their value, it changes their lives. It changed my life, and it changed my marriage. Her story is a gift that she gave to us, so when people congratulate me for all the things that I did for these women I correct them. It is the things that they gave me.

Mrs. Tucker

Did you notice anything else when you returned to the interviews to transcribe them?

I saw a trend with education when I was transcribing. Education was the common thread for all of the women. Some of the women had an eighth-grade education; some of them had two Master's degrees. It was always about education either because they wanted more for their children or their parents wanted more for them. It’s significant especially in Mississippi where we place last in education over and over again. The thread for these incredible interviews was getting an education and write your own ticket. No one can take that from you anymore.


Have any of the Jewels responded to the book?

Yes. The cover girl, Mrs. Annyee P. Campbell, is 92. She is a diva now. Whenever we have speaking engagements, she's late. She wants to make a grand entrance. I know what she's doing. [laughter] The day that the book came out we had a book release party at Off Square Books. I told her it started promptly at five. She showed up at a quarter till five and refused to get out of the car until 5:30, so she could make a grand entrance. When she came in, everyone stood up and gave her a standing ovation.

Mrs. Ivey B. Anderson in Mound Bayou wrote me an email that apologized for her story. She didn't think her story was as significant as those of the other women, but I find her story to be one of the most powerful. In the book, she compared herself to a dog. She said that the dog had a better life than her while she was picking cotton as a child. That's a very poignant story; it speaks to the value of sharecroppers or blacks picking cotton. I can only speak from the black perspective because that's all I interview for Delta Jewels, but she thought the dog had the better life that's a very powerful claim.

Mrs. Floyd

Is there any question that you wish someone would ask about your book that nobody has?

You just did that. [laughter] I will say this. It's a generational thing. I wish that young people would put their devices down and work on interpersonal skills, pay attention to their surroundings, and interview their elders. When you're young, you don't have the foresight to think about the significance of your family. We take pictures of our food or our pets. We make silly videos, but if you think about all the things that we record while we miss the important things. I am notorious for photographing my food and my cat, but I wish I had turned the phone around to record my grandparents. I would love a movement of younger people interviewing their family so that they're not living with regret like me.

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  1. ^ For information on Alysia Burton Steele’s completed and in progress work, check out her website and buy the book.
  2. ^ Paraphrased by author. A complete transcription of Mrs. Fox’s interview is available in Delta Jewels which can be purchased here.

Kristen Clark

Kristen Clark

Kristen Clark is a graduate student in the Folk Studies program at Western Kentucky University and an editorial assistant at Mississippi Folklife. She has presented academic papers at the MCTC Symposium, the Mississippi Philological Association’s Conference, the WKU Reach Conference, the Mammoth Cave Research Symposium, and the American Folklore Society. Her research interests include folklore and literature, environmental theory, the American South, and medieval manuscripts.