Interview with Joyce Burnett

Joyce BurnettJoyce is a native of South Central Los Angeles, the baby of nine children.  At 14, she won a scholarship to attend Phillips Andover Academy in Boston.  She later earned four degrees including a double MA from John Hopkins and a law degree.  She served as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa and as a Fulbright Scholar also in Africa. 

Joyce assisted in writing Adam’s Belle, the autobiography of the late Isabel Washington Powell from her early years as a young “drama queen” with her big sister, Fredi Washington, in early 1900’s Savannah, Georgia; her young adult years as a Cotton Club dancer in Harlem during the 1920’s; her marriage to Adam Clayton Powell in the 1930’s; her divorce following his election to Congress in 1945; and her life after Adam. It was the love and support of her family and especially her sister, Fredi Washington (star of the 1929 film “Black and Tan Fantasy” and the Academy Award nominated 1934 film “Imitation of Life”) that enabled her to survive. Adam's Belle: A Memoir of Love Without Bounds

  • How did you meet and how would you describe Isabel Washington Powell? Did you know of her or Adam Clayton Powell before you met her?

    I met Isabel through one of her close friends.  The friend lived in Maryland and Isabel lived in Harlem.  The friend told me Isabel would have to get along with me if I were going to do this project.  I spoke with Isabel over the phone a few times and then I went to Harlem and met her.  What struck me first is that she was so tiny.  She had a petite frame but was so full of life.  Vivacious is a word I would use to describe her.  Her voice was a bit scratchy.  You could tell that she had smoked at one time in her life. 
    I had no idea who she was until her friend informed me  Of course I had heard of the Cotton Club, the Harlem Renaissance, and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.  I had also seen the movie Imitation of Life.  Her older sister, Fredi Washington, starred in the original version.  I had heard of Fredi who had worked with Josephine Baker and had dated Duke Ellington.  The more I heard about her and from her, the more I wanted to do the book.  Most of her contemporaries have already passed away.  She was a rare jewel, still here, ready, willing and able to share her life story.  I knew this story was bigger than me but it had to be written down for the historic record. 

  • What impressed you about Mrs. Powell?

    There were several things that impressed me about Isabel.  She never came out of her apartment or went downstairs unless she was well dressed and had her make up on.  Please note that she was just about 90 when I met her but she was up and about all the time.  The other thing that came through was her love of live.  This woman loved to laugh.  She had so many stories and she would always let her sense of humor show.  The two other things that impressed me about her were her sense of service to their people and her love for her husband, Adam Clayton Powell.  Whether she was entertaining guests or tutoring special needs kids in the NY public school system, she tried really hard to please other people.  It was evident that she had been raised that service to theirs was an important and vital element of living. Also I was raised to be respectful to older people and I called her Mrs. Powell.  She wouldn’t have it.  She insisted that I call her Isabel so I did and we got along fine.

  • How did you approach your interviews with her and with the people who knew her?

    For the most part I asked her questions about many different aspects of her life.  She had me interview a number of other people too. One of her friends lived to 105 and outlived five husbands.  Maude had a lot to say.  Unfortunately, video taping wasn’t so common while I was doing this so I was pretty much limited to writing things down and an occasional taping of a session.  I spent time in Harlem, on Martha’s Vineyard, Savannah, and a few other spots so I could get a real flavor for the places and experiences Isabel had lived through.  My intent in doing this book was letting someone who wasn’t alive at the time to see and experience Isabel’s life through the words of the book.  The descriptions had to be vivid and real.

    Most of the family members I interviewed were helpful but others just didn’t want to be in the limelight and didn’t want much to do with the book.  Isabel has a younger sister named Rosebud who Isabel thought might want to go into show business.  Rosebud saw how hard her two sisters were working and other than a few plays a school she wanted nothing to do with entertainment.  Isabel also had a son by her first husband, Preston,  Preston Jr, the son was very helpful with some of the details of the book and was thrilled when the project was completed.  This book is part of the legacy Isabel has left and he’s very proud of that.

  • What was your writing experience like? What kind of research did you do?

    My writing experience was extensive regarding practice but very limited regarding publications.  I had written and completed my Peace Corps story and a chapter had been published in Today’s Black Woman.  I had no other articles or books that had been published.  I did have lots of practice writing as I had been a TA in the English Department during undergrad.  I hoped other people express their ideas and find better ways to say what they wanted to say.  It didn’t seem odd to me that I was writing a book.  It seemed kind of natural.  I had to dig harder and deeper because it was someone else’s story and I had not walked a mile in her shoes.

  • How did you get the book published?

    My research included all the interviews I conducted over nearly ten years with a variety of people.  Sometimes I would have to call back with follow up questions.  I read everything I could find on Adam Clayton Powell, the Harlem Renaissance, and Fredi Washington.  There were indeed some things and articles out there but nothing like this story.  The more I researched the more I saw that there was a gap and this book would help fill it.  For example, for our great leaders including people like Adam Clayton Powell, who payed a tremendous role in the early Civil Rights movement, we want to know about their backgrounds and their early days.  There was not a lot of stuff out there about Fredi or Adam in the early days and what they had to go through to get to where they were going.  It makes me better appreciate their sacrifice.

  • What are you doing to market and promote the book?

    To get the book published, I went to a small independent book publisher. I did try some of the larger houses but they weren’t interested. They thought she wouldn’t remember enough. or that there was not enough commercial value. Well, we will see about that. I think they are wring. This is a universal Cinderella love story that will appeal to many people.

    To promote the book, I have a website at  I do book fairs and speak to groups and colleges.  We have some book clubs as well.  The other vehicle for this book is the churches. Because Adam was pastor of the largest and wealthiest black church in the country at the time, a bunch of churches are interested in the book.  In fact, the book was nominated for a book of the year award for the Small Christian Publishers.  People are looking at the book overseas too.  This is definitely an international story with some glamor and star appeal.  The economy has slowed things down, but this too shall pass and Adam’s Belle will be on everyone’s shelf.

  • How does it feel to be a first-time author?

    It feels great to be a first author.  More than anything, I wanted to tell her story  I promised her that before she died.  Someone else had started the book but it hadn’t worked out.  I told her if I had anything to do with it it would be done and it was was.  She saw the final draft before she passed and she was pleased.

  • Any plans for a next project?

    My next book is already written.  I put my Peace Corps book aside to do her book .  Now I can refocus my attention on that one and we can get it out in a year or two.  I am very excited about that next book.  It’s part of me too.

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