Beat Generation writer Hettie Jones continues to influence lives

If you walk past Hettie Jones on the street, you might think to yourself she is probably a sweet grandma. And she is. But Hettie is so much more.

She even has a plaque dedicated to her on the apartment building where she lives in New York. The honor is from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Why?

"An ordinary life that I was born into and destined for turned into something more," she said.

Hettie was born in Brooklyn in the 1930s. A spunky and driven Jewish girl, she ventured off to Mary Washington College in Virginia in the early 1950s to become a writer.

"I had never been farther south than my uncle's chicken farm in New Jersey," Hettie said.

In college, she experienced anti-Semitism.

"The roommates didn't want to live with me because I was a Jew," she said. "I grew up fast there but I made the best of the situation."

But this straight-A student never let anyone hold her back. After graduating, she met and married poet and fellow writer LeRoi Jones of Newark, New Jersey. Marrying a black man in the 1950s made her an outcast of her Jewish family.

"I never went back to my home again," she said, explaining that she was not welcome.

But Hettie said her mother-in-law welcomed her with love.

"His family embraced me," she said. "And that, of course, made everything possible."

Eventually, her parents visited her and her two daughters.

She and her husband raised their children on the Lower East Side, historically a more eclectic, racially mixed area filled with artists like themselves. But once they ventured outside their neighborhood, things were different. She said she remembers some people shouting insults at them.

"When someone shouts at me or insults me, I'm ready to fight but LeRoi said, 'Just keep walking,'" Hettie said. "Then, of course, it occurred to me they weren't going to beat me up, they were going to beat him up. So I had to learn to be measured and just ignore the catcalls."

While traveling during segregation in the 1960s, Hettie and her young daughters stopped at a restaurant in North Carolina.

"The people in the restaurant looked and they sent one black waitress and one white waitress to the table because they were unsure how to serve us," Hettie said.

As writers, Hettie and LeRoi went on to become two of the prominent figures of the Beat scene in the 1950s and 1960s. Later, the couple divorced.

But in the early years, the couple created a literary magazine called Yugen publishing the poetry and writings of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and others. The two pioneers of the Beat Generation became their friends.

"It seems to have advanced into the culture as, 'Oh, the Beats, all they wanted to do is sit and smoke reefer and opine or something like that," Hettie said. "But that's not at all what it was like. People had serious discussions about politics and injustice."

Hettie has written 26 books, including poetry, children's books, and her memoir How I Became Hettie Jones.

Hettie also co-wrote a memoir with Rita Marley, the widow of reggae legend Bob Marley. It's called No Woman, No Cry.

"When Rita found that my children were black, she just relaxed," Hettie said. "She knew that I didn't carry with me all those prejudices and she could trust me."

And like most women, they also bonded over female things like their fingernails.

"'I never can grow my fingernails' and she just put hers, beautifully polished and very long, she said, 'I paid for these, honey,'" Hettie said with a laugh.

Hettie has always acted on her desire to give back. She has taught writing classes to prisoners in Westchester County at Sing Sing and Bedford Hills women's prison. She said their stories need to be told.

"Nobody knows their stories. They're just put away," she said. "And their stories, therefore, have no relevance to youth who might read it and not make the same mistakes."

Teaching has taken her to Penn State, SUNY Purchase, the University of Wyoming, and currently at The New School in Greenwich Village.

Some of the mothers and daughters at the Lower Eastside Girls Club feel more connected to one another after learning how to write their own life stories, thanks to Hettie.

At 84, Hettie is still teaching and walking up and down four flights of stairs at least five times a day. She is busier than many people decades younger.

"I just feel that I'm still on the planet for a reason. I don't feel old," she said. "If you want to keep going, you just keep on pushing. Keep climbing the stairs."