In her controversial debut, The Wind Done Gone, author Alice Randall gave readers a new perspective on the iconic slave character, Mammy. In her fourth novel, Ada's Rules, Randall wants to give that big-bosomed wet nurse from Tara — and black women in general — a whole new body shape.
"Move over Mammy" is part of Randall's battle cry as she wages war on the habits, tradition and exhaustion that have resulted in an obesity epidemic in the U.S., particularly among black women. In fact, Randall says, before World War II the archetype of the Mammy-sized fat black woman was a fictional fantasy. "If you worked in the field, living on a farm diet of peanuts, sweet potatoes and vitamin-rich unprocessed foods, you were fit, not fat," Randall explains.
Post-war food culture and lifestyles — including lack of sleep — have shifted the African-American diet, and consequently the shape of black bodies, until four out of five African-American women are overweight or obese. Randall was on book tour for her third novel, Rebel Yell, when she made a stop in Tuskegee, Ala., and saw a group of young black women, too many of whom were larger than she was. At the time, Randall weighed north of 200 pounds. She looked at the numbers — 80 percent of black women in the U.S. are overweight or obese, and more than 80 percent of people with Type 2 diabetes are overweight — and she knew something had to be done. "I realized I had to help stop this problem and be a role model for these younger women," she said. "Black women in America need to get under 200 pounds. We don't need to get small, we need to get smaller."
The author started with herself and an endearing heroine named Ada, a preacher's wife who needs to wrest control of more than just her weight. Randall began writing rules — 53 in all — that anyone can obey, regardless of finances. No personal trainers required. Spoiler alert: The rules work for both Ada and Randall. Weighing in below the critical 200-pound mark, the author says she's now lighter than her grandmother but heavier than her daughter, which she considers a step in the right direction.
That step is turning into something akin to marching orders. On Sunday, in a widely read New York Times op-ed piece, Randall laid out a kind of manifesto about the national epidemics of obesity and diabetes. She traced the African-American cultural ideal of the overweight black woman back to the deprivations of slavery, where it took on an edge of defiance. But she argues it has unwittingly turned into another kind of oppression: the tyranny of a body image that encourages eating habits as unhealthy as the anorexic aims that trouble white teenage girls.
"I call on every black woman for whom it is appropriate to commit to getting under 200 pounds or to losing the 10 percent of our body weight that often results in a 50-percent reduction in diabetes risk," Randall writes. "I expect obesity will be like alcoholism. People who know the problem intimately find their way out, then lead a few others. The few become millions."
Those words may become prophecy. As Randall's novel strikes a chord with readers, other women are starting to join together under the banner of "Ada's Army," taking up the challenge the author has thrown down. While Randall's gifts keep Ada's Rules from slipping into the glib sermonizing of much self-help writing, the rules that its protagonist uses to seize control of her look, her life and her destiny turn out to include a lot of hard-headed, practically applicable common sense. That starts with Ada's very first rule: Don't Keep Doing What You've Always Been Doing.
We were especially taken, however, with Rule No. 31: Drink Cautiously. With that in mind, the Scene took Randall by the Patterson House to sip a few low-carb Old Fashioneds (made with tequila and agave nectar) and talk about the potential of her book to start a health revolution and redefine the image of black beauty.
You have said that Ada is the character that most resembles you. How do you identify so closely with a woman whose life of working in a day care center, looking after her aging parents and trying to make ends meet is so different from your own?
Her body-image issues are so close to my own. I've got a husband who loves big women. I had a grandmother I adored and admired and thought absolutely beautiful big as three houses. And I'm trying to figure out how to be as fit as I can be — for myself — but also because I want to be a good role model for my daughter. It's not just for me. That may not be ideal, but that's a lot like Ada. And I'm finally claiming my body goals for myself. That's like Ada, too.
Ada has a lot of rules — from eat breakfast to consider surgery. Which ones do you find to be the hardest to live by?
Sleep eight hours. That's the hardest for me. But I'm all about the eight-eight-eight. Sleep eight hours. Drink eight glasses of water. Walk eight miles each week. Unfortunately, my whole life works because I only need to get five hours sleep and love working. But I'm doing my best to work the eight-eight-eight. Too much is at stake for me not to struggle with it. The eight-eight-eight can help us stop spending the over $170 billion a year we spend on diabetes-related illness. And it can cut down on cancer deaths that are arising from obesity. And very importantly, it immediately improves the quality of individual lives while enhancing the vibrancy of our communities. And it makes you feel good. Every day that I get my mile-and-a-little in, my eight glasses of water, and eight hours of sleep is a good day.
Can you tell us a little bit about Ada's Army and why this project is so important to you?
Ada's Army is a group of local women, and it's women across the country. Here in Nashville, we've been working out of the Vanderbilt Center for Integrative Health. We've shared yoga classes and Zumba classes and cucumbers and chat and an amazing photo shoot — wrapped in bed sheets at the Parthenon — all part of celebrating who we are and where we've been as individual women and as black women, while evolving into new experiences of ourselves and new facets of our culture. The women in Ada's Army are all fabulous ladies: Shani Dowell with Teach for America and poet Stephanie Pruitt, among them. You can read about some of the fabulous ladies in Ada's Army on our website, adasarmy.com.
Ada coins the term "blutter" to describe black people's clutter, and she determines to get in control of her family's mountain of possessions. Can you describe your experience of sorting and organizing your own possessions in preparation to donate your papers and archives to your alma mater, Harvard University?
The invitation has come in so recently I haven't had time to organize any papers yet. We've just begun working on the legal documents. But being asked to give my papers to Harvard is a big honor.
Sometimes holding on to things and holding on to chaos is a response to trauma. Holding on to too much stuff, too much fat, and even to financial confusion can be an attempt to insulate yourself from harsh reality, vulnerability and even injustice. The facts of certain lives are so hard that, if you looked at them clearly, few could move forward. Hope is often audacious. And quiet as it is kept, miracles often arise from chaos. In Ada's world, these are the realities that lead to blutter. Ada understands this, even as she strives to become and succeeds in becoming a grown woman who uses seeing things as they are as a way to shift things towards how she would like them to be. She gives up the cocoon of not knowing. That's one of the things I love most about Ada.
Ada's Rules offers an informative and encouraging roadmap for women of all backgrounds who want to jumpstart a healthier life. But like you, Ada lives in Hillsboro Village and makes her physical transformation in Nashville. Can you share your top tips for living healthier in this city?
Yes. Radnor Lake. Shelby Bottoms. 12 South Taproom. Ask for the special quesadilla with no tortilla, no cheese and no beans. Drink your tequila straight, with an ice ball, at Patterson House.
You recently went to Washington, D.C., as a delegate to the TEDMED conference on the future of health and medicine. Can you share details about that experience?
The big news is obesity is overtaking smoking as the No. 1 cause of cancer in America, and chronic disease is overtaking infectious disease abroad. Lack of sleep is having an impact on obesity. The World Health Organization says that shift work and the lack of sleep that results from it is a carcinogen. At TEDMED, everyone was asked to wear a button telling how many hours we slept. Mine said 5.
Ada is a gracious and graceful hostess, and so are you. How do you manage to entertain so generously while still obeying Ada's dietary rules?
Remember it's about the shared time and the sense of joy, not the actual food. I'm starting to call my parties "fitstivities," as opposed to festivities, so I've substituted the side of poached salmon for the ham, and maybe dessert is local goat cheese with just a taste of honey. I save time cooking by slicing perfect tiger tomatoes from Produce Place and slick them up with olive oil and a bit of pink Bolivian salt and a few grinds of cracked pepper — that's a side. And green beans, basil and cucumbers — that's a side. And a lettuce salad. Add some lean protein — salmon or maybe frozen shrimp with onions and feta. And that's a party.
Your course at Vanderbilt, Soul Food in Text as Text, explores cookbooks as literary artifacts of racial identity. How do Ada's new rules concerning food dovetail with the history of African-American foodways?
Soul food — as scholar Ann Bower has said, and I often quote when teaching — is all about preserving and evolving. In my novel, Ada seeks to preserve her willingness to honor black women and historical African-American foodways while evolving into a place where modern and scientific concerns about her own health, the health of her daughters, and the health of her community can be addressed. I share these concerns of Ada's. In writing the novel and in living my life, I harken back to African and African-American foodways traditions, particularly the focus on the sweet potato — or yam — and the peanut as sources of cheap protein, while also focusing on new foods. For example, when I had Ada's Army over for dinner after a yoga class, I whipped up scrambled egg whites with spinach and cipollini onions. For me, that's preserving and evolving: new foods, but eaten in community, celebrating where we have been and where we are going.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org.Read a review of Alice Randall's new novel Ada's Rules here
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