Intimate Conversation with Alysia Burton Steele

03 Oct

Intimate Conversation with Alysia Burton Steele 

Alysia Burton Steele
is a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi and author of Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom. In 2006, she was a picture editor for The Dallas Morning News photo team that won the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for their Hurricane Katrina coverage. She designed the National Urban League’s 100th commemorative poem booklet written by Maya Angelou. Prior to teaching, Steele was a photojournalist, who later became a photo editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Articles about her book have appeared in The New York Times,, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times and Southern Living.

BPM: Tell us about your passion for writing. Where does it stem from?
My passion for writing comes from talking with others and sharing history. I focus on nonfiction, narrative stories. I am a journalist by trade and by passion. I’ve always enjoyed talking with people, so it’s just a natural fit to interview people and write about life experiences. I want more African-American history, as told by our people, to be in books. I want a better collection of oral histories. Our country needs it and I am convinced that if more young people-children read our stories, they’d understand their history that’s not mentioned in classrooms and in school books – and these stories should be included.

BPM: What was your primary quest in publishing Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom?
I did this book, Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom, because I missed my grandmother, Mrs. Althenia Aiken Burton. I moved to Oxford, MS to become a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, MS. I saw scenery in the Mississippi Delta that reminded me of my childhood summer days at Gram’s family home in Spartanburg, SC. I wanted to pick up the phone to call and tell her what I was seeing and feeling, but I couldn’t. She passed away 20 years go. She raised me from the time I was 4 years old and she died when I was 24 years old. I regret never really asking her about her life growing up in SC. And I started thinking about all the time I wasted arguing with her over boys, makeup, school, chores – instead of sitting down to listen and learn more about her. When you age you reflect on life. I missed my grandmother. I missed the smell of her perfume, the way she stood in the doorway to watch her loved ones leave. I thought about the skills I had acquired as a journalist and decided I would pay it forward and interview other people’s grandmothers. I wanted to take beautiful, dignified professional photographs of their grandmothers and record stories. Somehow, by the grace of God, it became a book.

BPM: Who did you write this book for? Why?
Initially, I wrote this book for me. I was on a personal journey to understand my grandmother’s contemporaries. It was never meant to be a book, but a project. I was going to self-publish to give the mothers, who agreed to be interviewed, a copy for their families. I couldn’t talk to my grandmother, but I could talk to the women of her generation. I needed their wisdom in my life. I missed my sweet Gram. After The New York Times wrote about my project, I received several offers to publish a book. So, Delta Jewels was published. I am hoping this book inspires MANY younger women to talk to their female elders, male too, but I want the women to have some glory. We need it. I want more African-Americans to record histories. In my opinion, there isn’t enough published in school books, so let’s publish it ourselves and teach our children.

BPM: Can you share some stories about people you met while researching this book?
I’ve met and have been welcomed into the lives of 54 new grandmothers and you know 19 pastors helped me. Couldn’t have done it with Clarksdale Mayor Bill Luckett, who gave me pastors’ cell phone numbers. I called one and we talked. That’s how it started. Rev. Juan Self was the first pastor, and he also the architect who redesigned the Memphis Civil Rights Museum. I drove 6,000 miles to interview women in 27 Mississippi Delta towns. 

I even got to interview Mrs. Myrlie Evers, widow of slain civil rights leader Mr. Medgar Evers. She even shares what “their song” was and it’s a precious moment for me. I’ve met Mrs. Tennie Self, 88, who was so angry when a car dealership refused to sell her a Cadillac, she drove almost two hours, bought one in Memphis and then drove past the dealership who refused to sell her one, honked the horn and waved at them everyday.
I met Mrs. Leola Dillared, 103, who was thrown off a cotton plantation in Yazoo City, MS because she refused to have her little girls pick cotton. She wanted them to go to school. She was told she would be thrown off the land if she insisted because she would “ruin” the other blacks, who would want to send their children to school. She chose to be thrown off the land. All of her children have masters’ degrees and one has a Ph.D.
I have Mrs. Velma Moore, 78, mother of 15, grandmother of 145 (yes, 145!) who dragged a woman out of church because she was talking about how fine Mrs. Moore’s husband was. She felt disrespected. The woman said she didn’t know he was her husband, but she meant what she said, so Mrs. Moore said she meant was she was fittin’ to do – and she punched the woman in the face. Stories that make you laugh, cry and beam with pride. I love each and every one of these mothers and am blessed to know them. Unfortunately four have passed away since the book came out nationwide on April 7, 2015. And this drives home the point of why we must capture our history.

BPM: Walk us through your journey to success. How did you get to this point? 
I started Delta Jewels in summer 2013, so it’s been two years. I didn’t know anyone, didn’t have a grant or sponsors. I saved up $50 here, $100 there – literally, for nine months, for gas money to go interview the women. They all lived two – four hours away from me, and I was teaching three classes at the time, but I drove on days I wasn’t teaching or went on weekends. Thank goodness for my husband who was, and continues to be, supportive. He held it down. He was there every step of the way. He’s a blessing and a man of God. I couldn’t have done it without him. It was tiring, but exhilarating. I had my own private history lesson for nine months – a time I treasure. If I could do this full-time for the rest of my life, I’d do it. I’d just go and collect stories and archive them. I love it. It’s my passion.

Anyway, I reached out to one pastor, who agreed to meet me, hear what I wanted to do and liked my spirit and idea. He connected me to one mother, who connected me with another. In the end I had 19 pastors helping me, initially talking to the mothers for me, who would then talk to me. It was a domino effect. By chance I had a breakfast meeting with my assistant dean, several colleagues and a columnist for the NYT, who was intrigued by my project. Sam Freedman, the columnist, flew down, rode in the Delta with me and wrote about my project. The day it published in the NYT, I had a publisher writing to me. When God gives you a blessing, when you have a destiny, you follow it. I did what I was supposed to do. The women often thank me, but it was me they saved, so I thank them. I think I understand my Gram now.
I’m filing my IRS paperwork to start the nonprofit called Delta Jewels Support Foundation. I am hoping to receive grants, donations to offer college scholarships to children who live in the Mississippi Delta, who attend or graduated from county and city schools only. I am also hoping to give the mothers honorariums and then I want to travel to teach oral history workshops to churches, school, universities, any organization that wants to learn how to do it. Again, I want a movement.

BPM: What has been your greatest challenge and how did you overcome it?
My greatest challenge was fear of the unknown. You have to listen to God and follow your destiny. You have to get out of your own way and do what you’re supposed to do. You’ll know it if you listen. I didn’t have the money, had no idea what I was doing, wasn’t knowledgeable about the Delta, but I did it and am so proud of myself. More importantly, I’m proud of the women for talking to a stranger, opening their hearts and homes – and memories to share. They shared so others could learn. What a blessing! The women thank me for what I’m doing for them, but I thank them. They saved ME from 20-year grief. It never goes away you know, but you just have to step out on faith. It sounds cliche, but it’s true. Step out and do what you’re supposed to do. Everything will work out the way it’s supposed to. Don’t let fear or the unknown deter you. God has you.

BPM: Do you feel as if your writing is making a positive impact on readers, women, or the world?
I’m receiving emails from people in Geneva, Rome, New Zealand, Australia, England – it’s wonderful. There’s so much appreciation from women all over the world who LOVE reading these stories. There are Caucasian men writing to me saying they learned so much and are having their teenage sons read the book. Imagine that! Just today, I promise you, I received this email – a woman told me she reads one story a night to her 6-year-old son. How precious is that?

This books is cutting across race, gender and age and what a blessing – especially considering all the racial tension the media shows. The reality for many in our country is bleak with violence. Young adults are saying this book inspired them to find out more about their parents. It’s uplifting to know that my personal project, the one I did because I miss my sweet Gram, is helping and touching lives. That’s nothing but God.

BPM: What legacy do you think this book offers future readers? 
My writing offers the following legacy to future readers….the importance of oral history. I want to start a movement of recording more oral history from our elders. They say when an elderly person dies, a library burns down. I don’t want anymore libraries to burn down. We must interview our mothers, fathers, grandfathers, grandmothers. We must talk to each other more often and understand the importance of our contribution in American history, and we do that by recording more and saying thank you to our elders. I’m about to start my new book about cotton in a few weeks. More much needed oral history. I’m going to keep going.



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