You’ve heard of a Jack Kerouac, but have you ever heard of a Hettie Jones?

The Beat Literary Movement of the 1950s is coined for its explicit subject matter and bohemian lifestyle. Americans in the 1950’s lived in largely suburban towns and felt threatened by things like communism. Men went to work in suits and women stayed home to cook, clean, and tend to the children.

The rebel, beatnik, group of authors that made up the Beat Generation were iconoclastic. Much of their work explored and influenced American culture and politics in the post-war era. They experimented with form and structure while writing about sex, drugs, and religion. Traditional literary houses rejected them and looked down on them as a group as being defiant, untalented, and unprofessional. 

I think that their being unconventional was the whole point, though.

They were the antithesis of mainstream American life.

They wanted to publish anything that was deemed inappropriate by society. These people were tired of the routine, and frankly, felt beaten down by the conservative lifestyle that they were stuck in. They were highly controversial in that they were the antithesis of mainstream American life and writing. Many of their works of poetry and prose focused on shifts of consciousness and escaping “squareness.” The stereotype around the Beats is that they were not in favor of what they considered to be straight jobs. Instead, they lived together, packed into small and dirty apartments, sold drugs, had sex with each other, and committed crimes. They are also known for exploring homosexuality, which was a highly taboo topic in 1950’s America.

Though they set many precedents together, the Beats still succumbed to the blatant sexism of the time. Most, if not all, of the women involved in the Beat literary movement were overshadowed by their male counterparts for no particular reason other than gender. These women were just as intelligent and qualified to question society as the beatnik men who have become well-known poets and activists.

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One of the most iconic, and downplayed, female poets of that time who deserves righted acknowledgment is Hettie Jones. 

Hettie Jones published 23 books- and yet, we forgot her

Hettie Jones is most known for her marriage to the famous Beat Poet Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones). Few people know that Hettie helped run Totem Press, one of the more important beat publishers, along with her husband. She went on to publish about 23 books, one being a memoir of her time spent with Amiri and the rest of the Beats titled, How I Became Hettie Jones (1990). She has also written for many prestigious journals, lectured writing across America, and began the literary magazine “Yugen.”

Hettie is one of my favorite poets, so I think that her writing deserved to be at the forefront of the Beat movement, right there with the boys who got so much praise for their work. 

Hettie’s writing is rooted in practical idealism. She left her family home in Long Island to go to college and to fully discover herself. When she graduated in 1955, she never turned back, and moved to New York City. She met Amiri while working at The Record Changer, a jazz magazine. He was a young, black poet with just as much intelligence and intensity as Hettie. They quickly fell in love and moved in together. They would go to poetry readings at cafes and bohemian bars, where they met many of the other Beat poets.

Hettie deserved to be at the forefront of the Beat movement.

When the pair founded their own magazine, they published the writings of many of the iconic beat players who could not find a home for their writing in the traditional sphere. Hettie was in charge of editing the works that were to be published in the magazine. It was here that she honed her craft and found power in the refined writing that makes her work stand out from the rest. 

By 1960, Hettie and Amiri had two children, were married, and lived in New York City. Being a biracial family, though, countless bigoted remarks were directed towards them regardless of the Beat scene. Hettie was on the receiving end of most of these cold stares and was able to see the world through the eyes of her husband and children. This affected her incredibly and eventually became a recurring theme in her writing.  

When Amiri became tightly involved with the Black Power movement, he was criticized for having a white wife. They divorced in 1968. Hettie thrived on her own though and made a living with her children while teaching and editing. Her separation from her husband also gave Hettie an outlet to speak up and finally publish works of her own. She has been quoted to say, “Without a him in the house, there was more space/time for her, and I tried to redefine the way a woman might use it.” 

To this day, Hettie’s writing is compassionate. She writes about her own experiences in a compelling manner while weaving in the issues that she cares about. Currently, Hettie lives in New York City, and is a writer and lecturer. In addition, she runs a writing workshop at the New York State Correctional Facility for Women where she recently published a volume of writing by incarcerated women.

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Vanessa Montalbano

By Vanessa Montalbano

News and Social Justice Editor