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They say you can’t go home again, but Nashville should be glad Caroline Randall Williams plans to make her own rules on the matter. The Nashville native has published three books, including a collection of poems and the cookbook, Soul Food Love, with her mother, Alice Randall. They’ve racked up a slew of rave reviews and awards, and Williams landed on a Southern Living list as one of the “50 People Who Are Changing the South in 2015.”
On coming home: “I always thought I’d have to live away to live somewhere cool or on the national-international map,” Williams says. “And then I sort of turned around, and my hometown was ‘it’ city.” Williams says Nashville also crept up on her as a place people went to experience joy. “I mean, I’ve always been proud to be from here, and having everyone else in on it is wonderful.”
A winding road: After graduating from Harvard, she moved to the Mississippi Delta as an instructor with Teach for America. She earned a master’s in creative writing and then taught at West Virginia University before returning to teach at Fisk University. It’s a good place to come home to, as Williams has deep roots around the school that celebrates its own homecoming this year with a 150th anniversary.
Foundations at Fisk: Williams’ grandmother attended Fisk, as did her stepfather’s mother. Her great-grandfather, Harlem renaissance poet Arna Bontemps, served there as librarian and writer in residence. Her grandfather, Avon Williams, a civil rights attorney, lived down the block from the school where her father also grew up.
“There are some people who feel uncomfortable going into a family business per se. But I’m really proud of the businesses and hard work my family has done. I’m excited to carry it on, and evolve it, and contribute in some way.”
The art of teaching: Labeling a renaissance woman isn’t easy, but for now Williams likes to say she’s a writer, a teacher, and a home cook. Maya Angelou is a career woman she admires. “She [is] a poet,” Williams says. “She had a cookbook. She had a finger in all of the arts because she felt and embodied that they are sort of inextricably bound.”
Williams believes that teaching—whether helping children learn to read or understand iambic pentameter—offers an authentic way to help others. “When you’re teaching more rarified classes, like poetry, there’s an argument to be made that it's not necessary. Although, I think we need art to better experience and take pleasure in our life,” she says.