Friday, January 8, 2016

Mona Lake Jones. Poet Laureate, Author, Ph.D., Educator

This interview I've left structured as a conversation, as it suits the style of 
the charming, inestimable Mona Lake Jones, who was Poet Laureate for 
both Seattle and King County. She's selflessly served her community in a variety 
of ways, detailed below giving her a unique and thoughtful take on the Central Area both then and now. 

Mona Lake Jones. Photo: Madeline Crowley ©

I can remember when the Central Area was the only place we could live. We were trying to look for an apartment. My friend and I had just graduated from college and
we just wanted an apartment, we didn’t care where it was. We just wanted a spiffy, new apartment. That was not possible.

Every place we went they said it had just been rented; it’s not longer available. So, we went to the city Human Rights Office because we had gotten real used to having to stand on either side of the door because if they saw us then they simply wouldn’t open the door.

What year was this?

I graduated from school in 1961. So it was about ‘62.

Open Housing started in ‘69.

Yes. My friend and I were a part of making that happen because they used us as a test case. They sent two white women out with the same supposed background that we had and in every instance the apartment was available and they could move in, whenever they chose to do so.

We were the folks who were out there being used to help make the Open Housing happen because all of that was documented. Ironically, at the same time my husband had just gotten back from playing in the Rose Bowl and was the big football star. He also was trying to find an apartment and couldn’t; although we weren’t yet knowing each other at that point. So, at the same time they were testing (landlords) using us two women to make open housing happen they were also using Joe. He got a lot more press because of his football reputation at that time.

Wedding Day. Joe & Mona Jone. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

There were newspaper articles headlined with “Football Star Cannot Find Housing in Seattle,” so now we both feel a little bit like we had something to do with housing becoming open in Seattle because we were kind of groundbreakers. As it turned out, we ended up living in the Central Area.

Joe found something out in the Rainier Valley. Even back then was still a bit like, you’re not supposed to go that far! That was stretching a little bit. My friend and I just happened to be fortunate enough to have a friend who had built an apartment house that still stands on 26th and John. He was black. That’s how we got an apartment.

After we realized that people really didn’t want us (to live near them) it was kind of frightening to think that if we demanded to be in a complex that didn’t want us to be there (pause); we would be two single women (living there).

News articles on Joe Jones difficulties in finding a place to rent. 

It was in the Central Area Joe and I first started dating.  I was living in the apartment on 26th and John and he lived just a few blocks away on 25th and Denny.  It worked because we have been married for more than 50 years!  The Central Area was a great place for dating with Black Arts West Theatre, the Check Mate Jazz Club (23rd Ave, just off Union), the Black and Tan (off Jackson Str. ) and soul food restaurants right in the neighborhood.  Now we find ourselves having gone full circle and are members of the Central Area Senior Citizen’s Center.

I think that’s another unacknowledged thing. Is to be first is to be very lonely. To be the only is very lonely. It goes against every human instinct to go into a situation when you’re not wanted.

Absolutely. I’ve been there. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been there. I cannot tell you how many times I have been the only, the first. Coming from Spokane going to school there at Washington State University, WSU, then coming to Seattle. I mean I have been the first (pause) and the lonely (laughs) lots and lots and lots of times.

Well, it’s not really my place to but I do thank you for that, many people you’ll never ever meet have benefited.

Absolutely. I really do realize that.

Still, it’s a burden that other people don’t even realize you’ve had to carry.

Yes. Are we rolling yet?

Yes, we are.

Oh we are. Good. Okay. To be the first meant that you were not just lonely but there was a braveness about you. You had to have an armor that you had to develop being the first and being the only.

I can remember when first realized that people were not going to like me just because of the color of my skin. That was in first grade. I was able to play outside; it was different then. We didn’t lock our doors. A little girl came to my house every day and every day she’d say “Come to my home with me!” She was just down the alley maybe four or five or six houses away and mother would never let me go.

She came so much and for so long that finally Mother relented. She said, ”Well, go ahead. You can go to Karen’s house.” I went down the alley with Karen to her house. She says, “Mommy, I brought Mona home.” Her mom said, “Is this Mona? Is this whose house you’ve been playing at everyday?” And she jerked her through the door and slammed the door.

I went back down the alley and into the backyard and I saw my mother in the kitchen and then I saw tears start to come down her face. She knew she’d let me down. She hadn’t gotten me ready; she’d made the assumption that because that little girl was playing at our house every day that the parents were obviously aware and okay with it. Turns out that they weren’t.

She sat me down right then and said Mona, “There are going to be some people who don’t like you just because of the color of your skin.” That was just this powerful (pause) I can still… I’ve told this story I don’t know how many times. Every time I tell it, I can still feel the pain that my mother was feeling and the dismay and the hurt that I was feeling because I thought, I’ve always been nice. I thought you just had to be a nice, little girl and people (would like you) but – no, not some people. So that lesson I learned very early and had this sense of being the only. There was always this little bit of trust and mistrust.

Grandhoney. Mona's Grandmother. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

When do you trust? I know that everybody has to do some of that (trails off) but…just because of what color you are. There’s nothing you can do about that. Then my parents had the job of pumping me up or supporting and undoing the negative messages that came to my sister and myself very often.

They taught us really early before James Brown said “black and beautiful.” They were telling us that there was a beauty in who we were. They would do all kinds of things to find black dolls that would reflect us. I can remember that being just a monumental thing in the early 1940s when we were playing with dolls. Now that seems so insignificant because you can get any color or kind of doll that you want but not back then. They were trying to help us see ourselves in a positive way. They went through catalogs looking for them. I remember when they’d say, “Oh, we found one in Montgomery Wards!” or whatever the store was. I look back at that now and think, “Boy, they had to work very hard to help us like ourselves.”

And they were willing to…

Then I think about the kids who didn’t have parents who were 100% with them, 100% behind them and next to them when they needed to be. And those kids they… (trails off) they just didn’t do very well. They had a hard time.

Yes. It’s a great tragedy. Children who need the most support and help are the children who never got it. Then they have to somehow find it within themselves without that having been modeled. There are some people strong enough to do that. There are many who can’t.

That’s right. There is what research calls a Resiliency Factor. Whether (or not) it’s innate some are more resilient than others but for the most part you usually can identify a person when you were growing up who impacted you in such a way that instilled just enough of that: “You can. You are. You will!” (laughs) inside you that helps you maneuver.

I’m assuming that your parents came to Spokane with the Great Migration and that your father came to work on the Dam. Was the rest of their family still in Tennessee?

Yes. They were the only ones who came this way. When my father came out here that summer to help build the Grand Coulee Dam he was making money and decided not to go back. (laughs) When he went back for my mother; they were really out here on their own. He was the first Lake (in Spokane). My name is Mona Lake Jones and I was the first Lake that came this way (to Seattle).

Mona's Baby Picture. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

So you all had that core courage.

Absolutely. No question about it, in particular, my father. Mother was kind of going along with the program but Dad was adventuresome. He was feeling this was going to be an opportunity for him to make a living - to raise a family - in an environment that was not as fearful and prejudiced as where he was coming from in Tennessee and Mississippi.

When you moved to Seattle did they stay in Spokane?

Oh, yes. They lived in and died in Spokane. When I was growing up, I would come to Seattle all through my grade school and high school because Washington State was small enough then that the Blacks in Spokane knew Blacks in the Central Area in Seattle.

That was at the time when almost all blacks lived in the Central Area. During all of my visits I’d stay at the Allen’s house on 33rd Ave. My whole reference for Seattle was the Central Area. That was where we came to go to church, and it’s where we came to go to the parties; it’s where we came to do everything. We’d come from Spokane to Seattle in the summertime and vacation times.

My parents were in the Masons and Eastern Stars, that was a Washington group and my parents were in the Baptist Convention. Those were the churches in the Central Area of Seattle and the churches the east side of Spokane. The east side was where most blacks were living in Spokane because they wouldn’t let us live anyplace else.

When you think about the Central Area when you were a teenager how would you describe it? What do you remember from that time?

I always looked forward to coming because there were more blacks living in Seattle in the Central Area than there were in Spokane. So it was like, Oh we get to go meet new kids, also the church was bigger; the churches were bigger. There were more people, there was more to do, there were more parties, more opportunities to have boyfriends, and more opportunities to get together socially with folks who are our same age. So, Spokane to Seattle Central Area was a fun (trip) it was something to look forward to.

That would have been in the late 50s when you were a teenager. At that time was the Area still somewhat mixed? Or was it mostly black at that point?

It was mostly black. Once you passed the ridge (34th Avenue and east) there would be some differences. For the most part the blacks were all congregated in that Central Area. Now that’s not to say that some didn’t live other places (in Seattle) and how they got to; 
I’m not sure. To buy a piece of real estate or to buy a home outside the Central Area was very problematic.

Mona and her mother. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

Even after Joe and I were married we tried to find a house to purchase. It was really difficult to find anything outside the parameters of the Central Area. When I would talk to people on the phone you got pretty savvy about how to maneuver the system. You don’t go in person because if you did then you surely weren’t going to get an opportunity to (see the house). We would do a lot of business on the telephone. I remember one day a woman realtor saying to me, “Oh honey, you don’t want to live out there because there are a lot of colored people.” She obviously didn’t realize she was speaking to one. (laughs) Uh huh. That was… wow! It was probably in the late 60s when we were trying to find a place to buy. (laughs) It was still difficult.

So the Central Area has to me has always been restrictive because we were almost confined there. Yet, it was a joyful place to be. We had restaurants, we had the churches and it was comfortable. That’s because there was a culture that was embracing.

You didn’t have to worry about being pretentious or anything other than who you were. Once you moved outside the Central Area, you were posed with the (question) which mask am I going to put on today? How am I going to be? How black will I be? How do I have to speak? All of that stuff then comes into play.

So, the Central Area was… Hey! It was really the place to be. It was vital and comfortable and embracing. What other words can I use… Also, it was in your head that if I want to get out of here, if I want to buy a place way out on the North End, I’m going to have real trouble. So, how do we make that happen? Because I saw a piece of property out there that looked really inviting. Are we going to be able to go get that? Or are we going to have to stay here?

This is kind of a digression but it’s related. The Wing Luke is re-doing Canton Alley One of their informational pieces talks about how at that time they had to live top of each other but they knew each other. Intimately. As much as they wanted out and they wanted to be able to live in houses like anybody else, what they didn’t realize is when people could live wherever they wanted and people dispersed was they were also giving up that intimate community.

Mona's Maternal Great-Grandmother. Collection: Mona Lake Jones
Many of the people I’ve talked to have left (the Central Area). They’ve moved elsewhere. One thing I haven’t asked much about is how do you feel about the fact that with the dispersal the community has to have changed?

It has changed. Absolutely.

Do you feel that the churches are different?

The Central Area now has a whole different feel. You cannot say it’s the place where blacks live and congregate (either out of necessity or out of being forced to do so) or just wanting to be there. It’s not that kind of place anymore.

It doesn’t have the same familiar neighborhood feeling that it offered to African Americans then. We have migrated in all sorts of directions and there is a sadness about it because there is not the sense of neighborhood. There's not the sense of familiarity and support and togetherness and safeness and being in a place where there are a whole lot of folks like yourself. That in itself sometimes is comforting. There’s no place like that now for African Americans like the Central Area (was).

That then means that many of the old places are gone. The churches are still there but not relevant as they were because for instance, the church I go to now is way south in Renton.

So the offerings for African Americans in the Central Area are no longer present. The bank has closed, the restaurants have closed and changed. The oldest church, the African American Methodist Church (the First A.M.E) is being squashed by condos and apartment buildings and there’s hardly space (enough) to park anymore.

Mt. Zion Baptist Church is still standing and being attended. Folks are thriving there but many have left. There is an integration that was not present and now a greater diversity exists. 

Apartment Building 26th & John. Photo: Madeline Crowley

At Mt. Zion?

Mt. Zion still has a blackness about its congregation but there are lots of others in attendance and the richness of the church service is still the same. 

There is nothing anymore in the Central Area that you can say, “Oh, that’s a that’s a black restaurant.” Or that’s a black this or that (business). It just kind of doesn’t exist anymore. Everything, just about everything, is integrated. And there’s not a badness about that.

There really is not a badness about that because that’s what the world is supposed to be like. People should be able to move freely in and out and have relationships with all sorts of people, and embrace all kinds of culture with the multi-ethnicity that we strived so hard for. Still, in striving for that multiethnic “diversity in everything,” there is a loss of (pause) being (pause) enhanced and able to reflect on who you are with people like yourself.  

So if I can restate that slightly, correct me if I’m wrong, that safe place, where you can drop all your masks, that’s the price of integration. It may be integrated but you might not always be emotionally safe.

That’s exactly right. Exactly right. I can’t think of the Central Area in the same way that I thought about it even twenty years ago. It’s happened quickly. It’s happened very fast. It’s the whole notion of gentrification, taking the old and making it new. That’s kind of what the Central Area is now. Every house that goes up is a modern box, tall and skinny. The flavor of the neighborhoods is changing, not just in in color but in housing. So tradition and culture… (trails off) I’m always just a little surprised and a little nostalgic when I go through the Central Area. I think, “Awww, that’s where we used to… Awww, that’s where this store was… That’s where Helen’s used to be… That’s where we used to go to have greens and catfish. Oh, that’s where we used to…” You know, all of those things that used to reflect the black culture. They’re diminishing.

So we find it (the area) different. Different ways. I am such a proponent of embracing difference. Always have been. But I also know that there is such joy in being who you are and having an opportunity to just get immersed in your culture because it gives you strength. It helps you answer the question, “who am I?”

Now, for (those) of our kids (black kids) growing up in the Central Area today, they are in a totally different kind of world in (school, etc.); they’re with everybody. That’s a good thing.

Mona as Majorette. Collection: Mona Lake Jones
I remember when my kids were home from college one summer. They had gone to Garfield and Franklin High schools. I had a Bulldog and a Quaker in the same house at the same time, that was interesting. One time they had a party in the backyard. I looked out the window and there were every, every ethnic group represented in that backyard.

I wish I had taken a photo to say, “look!” This is what it is all about. This is what can happen when you grow up around Garfield and Franklin, the Central Area, in and out and around about, so they had every possible kind of friend. That’s what it should be. Still, I made sure that they knew they were black, that they liked their blackness, and they embraced their culture as well. I think you can do it all.

I’m hoping that the Central Area as it changes can offer that kind of opportunity for that old term, 'the melting pot.' I don’t want everybody to melt, I want you to be tossed around and still enjoy your culture but be able to enjoy other cultures as well.

I always thought when I was growing up… I wrote about it in one of my books, I thought everybody's grandmother baked sweet potato pies and played the blues.

Then I found out through my folks across the street that they go to Scandinavian Night at the Norwegian Center and they dress up in those clothes and they have the best time.” So, hopefully in the Central Area those differences will continue to be a good thing. That it won’t go from a place where black people lived to a place where just white people live. I mean, I hope that’s not what’s going to happen, because that would really, really be hurtful to me to see the dynamic change that drastically.

I spent a lot of time in New York what I loved about it was that it was mixed. In the Central Area every house that sells it’s like … I know that I don’t want to live in a homogenous neighborhood either. It’s not good for people to be…

It’s not.

…isolated in one socioeconomic group with people. That’s not real life.

Mona with her father as a Debutante. Collection: Mona Lake Jones
Absolutely, It’s not. It really isn’t. I know when we bought the house here, I was like, Oh no. We had been living in an apartment in the Central Area and we bought a house in Mt. Baker and it was... wow! The neighbor across the street was white, as was the one on the other, and the right and the left and I thought, Ohhhhhh. And we were trying to raise these two black kids. I’ll never forget the first time a little black kid climbed over our back fence into the backyard and it was like YESSSS! Because I thought I had put them in a pocket of nobody like themselves and I thought, oh, I’m going have to work really hard now.

As it as it turned out it was just a perfect place to raise kids, Garfield & Franklin Highs. Oh, it was just magical. We just… (pause) They can roll with anybody.

Both my children are grown now and have their own families. They work as Senior administrators in Education and Public Health. It's so much fun to see my son now as an administrator in a system that he maneuvered as a kid. They benefited from the neighborhoods and the schools they had in Seattle. It really taught them how to get along with everybody and still like who they are.

Do you think that these places whether it’s church (even though it seems like church across the nation is less of a center regardless of religion or race) but has these places where people can just be… have they moved South or have they just disappeared entirely?

I think that that they still exist in even in the Central Area. People who are now coming to the churches in the Central Area for that kind of community are driving into Seattle (from outside) rather than walking to the church like they used to. There aren’t very many (living that close by) because so many have left the area.

Mona & Joe Jones and their children. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

The church has always been, for black folks, a place where you can not only exercise your religion, find an understanding of faith and how important it may be in your life, but it has also been a place to try your wings, to get affirmed, to be applauded. While in the broader community you might not get that (approval).

For me, the church was a place where I learned how to stand up before an audience and speak. I’d get affirmed all the time. “Go’on, girl. Alright now.” Even when I made a mistake they said, “that’s alright, honey.” That kind of loving, nurturing happened within the black church. We used the church as a launching ground. We used the black church as a place to not just find refuge but to be discovered, and to be applauded and pushed. And to hear, “you’re okay.”

Because when we went to school (depending on who our teacher was and what the setting was) you might get smacked down or slapped down, not physically but with words or being overlooking and not calling on you. Or saying, “what did you mean by that”? I mean, when I used to write poetry in school, people seemed to wonder, “why are you writing about that? What value does it have to talk about being the mother of a black child that ain’t no easy thing you got to call on Jesus and listen to the angels sing? Whaaat?” Why would you say (that)… So, I didn’t get any affirmation except from my family and at church.

So many of us grew up in the church because it was a place of safeness and support. I think it still does that for our kids because it might be the only place they get that. Hopefully, there are other avenues and outlets for that (affirmation) but we use churches to do that for our children. Because if you if you are not recognized at any point in your life for your talent or your skills or who you are, it’s probable that you’re not going to flourish. To put kids in a setting, in a church, where we know the intent of church is to be loving and to teach how to be kind. (That’s where) our kids get what they need to be strong, to like who they are and to know that they have some talent.

Lake Family Christmas. Spokane. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

From what I’ve read it sounds like you had a program at Mt. Zion in order to provide that very thing to children outside your own family.

Absolutely. Yes.

I know that there were kids who were kind of out there. We had a lot of kids come to the Ethnic School who didn’t live in the Central Area. They came from Bellevue or from wherever they were coming because they were mixed up for some reason or another. They hadn’t received affirmation, and when their parents recognized they needed some role models. They needed to get some information on their history and to see that there were people who have been successful (who look) like themselves. In starting the Ethnic School that was my intent, to put kids in an environment where every week I would have professionals of all kinds come in and talk about who they were, what they did, how they did it and how they got there (to their success). All kids were wide-eyed like, “really? You’re a pilot?” “Whaat?” Oh!” Also, we read literature written by black authors and invited authors come to talk to us. We got a little money and some computers and film equipment and we even let the kids take the laptops home with them for the week so they could get the feel of technology.

We taught classes in assertiveness. How to look people in the eye and to ask questions and how to speak up and (taught them things) they probably weren’t going to get in their (regular) classrooms. I knew, having been a teacher and been in a setting very much like what they found themselves in, that they needed those kinds of skills. We did it every Saturday and it was (pause) it was an opportunity for me, personally, to feel some success and some little bit of input in some others’ lives.

Then, I did a course in black parenting skills. That was rewarding for me because I had 
found there are parents who didn't know how to navigate the system for their kids, to advocate for them and just how to be a decent parent. I had a couple of other people who worked with me and so we would teach parenting skills. I was amazed at what they didn’t know about being a parent!

I would say something like, say something kind to your kids every day before they leave you and when they return to you to negate any negative stuff that may have bombarded them (in the outside world). You got to give them some positive words. And some parents were like, “Like what?” I mean, I just assumed people knew how to say some kind words, so we role-played how to say positive things.

As far as discipline not just to smack or hit and say, ‘boy, sit down and shut up.’ There are all sorts of things you can do; the spectrum is pretty broad. I was amazed all the time at what folks didn’t know about being a parent. I’m convinced everybody needs to take a parenting class no matter what anyway.

Mona Lake Jones. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

Well, you were lucky because it sounds like you were raised by people who knew how to parent.

Yes, just was very fortunate. It was simply a fortunate thing. I had some good models. Really. If you don’t have a model for your behavior you may choose to do and say the wrong kinds of things to your kids.

When I was doing some research for on my doctorate at Seattle U, I interviewed parents on why they were not participating in their children’s education in the school system. There were a myriad of reasons why they were not doing so. One of those reasons I can remember was a school secretary. If the school secretary was curt and short with the parent when she tried to come to the aid of her children, that was a turnoff. If they themselves had not had a good school experience, then it’s hard to go into that big educational system and challenge it on the behalf of your children when you didn’t have a good experience as a child. So, we worked on, how do you do that? How do you go to school and advocate for your children and how do you do it without being aggressive but…

So you are heard.

Yes, all that. That there are skills regarding that... That whole parenting, black parenting, thing was more rewarding for me than I think it was for them because by the end of the twelve week sessions, they were practically teaching the class. We’d sit back and ask, ‘how would you act in this situation? What would you do when…?’ They have it all down.

It was fun to see because the whole parenting thing is just such a giant piece of how our kids turn out, and how the world treats our children, and how our children treat the world.

So I got Seattle Central College to give the parents credits. For some of them, it was the first time they’d ever gotten a college credit. At the time, I was working on the staff at the education program at Seattle Central. It was fun to see them get their first two credits by coming up there learning how to be better parents. All of them weren’t bad parents by any stretch but for all of us parenting is hard. You don’t ever know whether you’re having the right response or saying the right thing. You hope you are.

Broadway Performance Hall, Seattle Central Community College Photo by Joe Mabel

Some people rise to parenting better than others but it is it is clearly unrelenting. It is the only job that is never any freedom from, that every moment of awareness has you thinking about those kids.

Absolutely. I wish, I wish more realized that because some of our kids have kids. They think, it’s so cute. It’s going to be so much fun. I’m going to have this baby…

To play with!

I’m going to have a baby shower and… Whoa, hey! This is forever. This is for life.

There’s no going back.

No. And don’t think that when they turn sixteen or eighteen you’re through. This keeps going.

Parents are always worried. They’re always hoping.

Right. Always! I mean, I have these grown people in their forties then and I know these are grown people and I’m through. I’m not. (mimes holding her tongue). It’s like that. (laughs)

When I was working in at Seattle Central Community College, I had a lot of students from the Central Area. They were coming through my courses in education learning how to be teachers themselves. I used to teach in Bellevue. I was having such success as a teacher, I thought, I need to go into the Central Area and teach. I mean, if I’m as good as they say I should be sharing this with some of those little African American kids in the Central Area.

So I left the Bellevue school district at that time. It was like, “Oh, you got a job in the Bellevue School District coming out of WSU?” That was like a hot thing. So people were asking, why are you leaving Bellevue?” “Why are you going to teach in the Central Area?”

I came to teach at a school called Harrison, later the name was changed to Martin Luther King Elementary. So I came into the Central Area to teach elementary school, third grade. It was the first time I had classes that were filled with black students. Little African American kids and they were so happy to see me, and I was happy to see them.

We just had a wonderfully good time in that classroom all of these little kids who I’d been told were below standard, they can’t read, they can’t… they can’t... I was like “whaatt?’ I was told things like they don’t have a mother and a father in the home. I was like “so?” What does that mean about their ability to learn how to read and do math? I felt wonderful about coming from Bellevue to Seattle to teach in the Central Area because suddenly I had an opportunity to impact the lives of more African American children. That was another of one of my rewarding experiences, teaching in the Central Area.

I think that makes you a little bit unusual. One criticism I’ve heard from some people in the black community, off the record, is that they say some people got theirs and off they went.

I know.

People do what they feel is best for them but it’s nice to spend time with someone who felt driven and rewarded by giving back.

Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary. Photo: Madeline Crowley

I think I got that from my parents too. It was always, “don’t forget where you came from” and “don’t forget to do what you can for your people.” That’s what my mother always used to say. Don’t forget your people. So that was ingrained that in some way somehow, you were going to give back. Don’t forget the people who nurtured you and who may still need you. We could do with those skills that you’ve got now.

The impact that you can have as an educator is huge.

Oh, I know. I see kids to this very day who I had maybe 40 years ago in elementary school. I  was trying to get this flight at the airport, I was running and suddenly this person was running next to me and says, “Hey! Miss Jones! I’m so-and-so. You were my third grade teacher!” We were running through the airport. And I said, “Oh, hey!” They said, “You just have no idea what you did for me,” as we’re running through the SeaTac airport (laughs). He was running with me and I said, “Oh, thank you for telling me that.” I get that all the time.

When you’re teaching you don’t even think about that you’re impacting folks in special and particular ways. You really don’t. You’re just doing your job because you like it and because it needed to be done.

I teach now. I do think about it because I didn’t have children so it’s the only way I can give back.


With students that are really not gifted and not that focused, I pour as much energy into it as I can; I just keep trying to reel them in. I hear from students seven years later, “I wanted you to know I got married and we just had our first child.”

Oh, don't you just love that?

I do.

I just love it.

Family Portrait. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

I do believe that I might have taken, as we all do, a lot from this planet. Still, I did try to give back what I was able to give back.

Oh, and what if everybody had that kind of sense? Wouldn’t it just be this wonderful place?

Sounds like your kids have that!

Oh, they do. They do. I think we modeled it for them. And my parents modeled it for us. So we’re fortunate in that we had opportunities and avenues made for us. We’ve then been able to do the same for our kids. I know my grandchildren are going to be the same way because I hear the words being said to them. These are the same words that my parents said to me and I said to my kids. Now, I hear those words being said to their kids.

When I think back to the Central Area and having taught in the Central Area for so long and then having my kids go to school there. I remember my son was a class at Harrison School when Louise McKinney was the Principal.

They changed the name from Harrison Elementary, who had no significance to our community at the time in Central Area, to Martin Luther King Jr. School. My son was one of the little kids who went before the school board to testify, to say, this is why we want to change our name to Martin Luther King.

So, just goes on. The cycle just keeps going around and it’s fun to watch. It really is.

My hope for the Central Area is that it will not lose its ability to be welcoming to a diverse community. (Diversity) allows folks to understand, to get along (with) and to experience different cultures and for there to be still a sense of neighborhood. All that allows families to look out for each other, to care about one another. All of that used to go on in the Central Area.

Wedding Day. Bridesmaids. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

One of the things I’ve been told that was really heartbreaking about the (pause) crack years was that people no longer sat out on their porches. People were barring and locking their doors.


People became suspicious of other people’s kids when it was their own kids reaching into the pocketbook (stealing from them).

That is true. That’s one of the things that was just the scariest part of that whole era. The drug thing suddenly came creeping in and changed people. (It changed) their mindset; their whole notion of safety and comfort.

Drugs did awful things to people and those they loved. Oh, I just...  I saw it very close up in in and personal.

I remember one young man who had contributed in so many ways to so many people. 
We were praying that the Judge wouldn't give him one more strike because we knew, 
he’d just (long pause). It just... (long pause). That wasn’t the only person but that was the most personal.

I saw drugs come into community, our community, and take so many. Oh, so many of our people. Our young people and just turn them into these awful things because they need the drugs and so they do anything. Literally anything. I watched it happen in the Central Area. 

I saw it everyday. Oh, it’s took part of a generation of kids into a whole other direction. Boy, that’s sad.

It’s like blight on a crop. Even the fruit that makes it, is not the same.

That is so sad. Isn’t it? Many didn't reach their full (potential).

Mona Lake and Joe Jones. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

I took many of the kids coming to me at that time (as elementary students in school) in the Central Area years ago who were thought not to be able (academically). And I was like what? Wait one minute.

I remember when it was time for math I would play rhythm and blues. It’s math time. The jazz, and the rhythm and blues would come on in my classroom. Just any little something to help them understand that you can (learn) and that (learning math) is okay and that you’re okay. So, why not learn math? Why not learn how to read? Because, look, if you can read -look at all what we could read! Just look at all of this stuff that we read about.

That’s one thing when you get kids young enough you can say you only have your one life and your two eyes but if you read, you get to look through the eyes of anyone in the world if you take the time to open their book. You can know a bit about what it’s like to grow up through the eyes of a little kid in China if you open that book.

When there is a desire to express something then there is an opening there for some teaching to happen.

You have to have some expectation! I mean you have to set the bar up there! If you (as instructor) don’t (set that standard) then nobody’s going up; I mean nobody’s (challenged).

Mona Lake Jones. Photo: Madeline Crowley

(Digressive paragraph cut about people we know who are likely familiar with each other)

So he probably knows my son’s friend, he lives in Harlem, too. They probably are knowing each other. Sometimes the world gets really small especially when you talk about African Americans who are in the such and such business or the African American Middle Class. It’s like when I go out and speak and it’s like we already know people there who know people we know. It’s all the time, all the time. That’s why I told my daughter that is why you must always act like a lady. I said because you don’t just know who knows each other. Just girlfriend, you do not know. We always laugh about that because the world gets so small.

I wish that more people had the experience of being the sole white person in a situation.

Oh, I do too. I do too.

I was honored to be invited to attend an Alpha Kappa Alpha tea. They are just elevated women doing wonderful things for this community. And when I’ve been the sole white person, I’ve rarely not been welcomed. I wish people would all have the feeling of once being the only and knowing how much it means to be welcomed.

Okay. I can see that, I really can. The notion that everybody ought to know what it feels like to be the only one, that would be grand because I think that there is no empathy or understanding or curiosity about what somebody’s feelings might be as they try to exist in a society that they’re the only one and that they’re not welcomed. There’s a line in one of my books where I said: “sometimes it’s difficult to stay seated at an unwelcoming table but you must learn to stay seated until you’ve gotten what you’ve come for.

So not only do you have to stay at an unwelcoming table or environment or whatever but you also have to put up with, or endure, or and still stay long enough, be wise enough, be educated enough to get what you attempted to get (whatever the reason was) why you came there. I mean, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been there and no one wanted me there but I’m going to get education anyway.

I’m going to stay there and endure this. I had a (pause)… oh, sometimes my experiences are so unbelievable that people won’t even (believe it). When I was in a college, I was down at WSU. For one entire semester, I was the only black woman on the entire campus.

That must have been very lonely.

And not just that, I had classes where the teachers really didn’t want me to be there. I remember taking a very safe music class. It was an Intro to Music. I thought, I could get an A in this and that might balance out whatever other grades I’m going to get this first quarter. I already had taken music, I could sing, I had already taken piano and another Intro to Music (somewhere else). Then, I got my first test back and it had a big red F on the paper. I thought “what?’ He looked at me and said, I saw you cheating. I said, “cheating?” He says, yes and if you don’t like what I’m saying you can take it up with the Department Chair. I thought, well, (sighs) so I went to the Department Chair and said my name is Mona. He said, I know who you are and I understand that you cheated on a test.

I mean it was like, what? He failed me. Then I had another teacher who (was similar).

Mona with her daughter-in-law, granddaughter and son. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

I was in another class and I could tell the way the teacher looked past me and around me, and looked at me with this kind of scowl that he was wishing I wasn’t there. When he came around to hand out the test, he put each test on your desk as he came by. Usually they just  passed out the exams. He came to my desk, put the test down and gave me this smirk like here you go, like see what you can do with this. I finished the test and I was finished earlier than the rest of the class. I looked around and thought, Wow, I really know this stuff. I really got this down. I went through it again. Then I took the test up and put it on his desk. When I
got the test back it was a big F on it. There was a whole other page of maybe 30 True and False questions that weren’t there when he first gave the test to me. You could see the staples in it. He had taken that sheet out, then put it back in and said, you didn’t do the last page.

Oh, I was like... I mean... Another time it was a course in psychology. I can remember I took   the test, it was always problematic when it was an essay (question) because I they could always interpret it (how they wanted) or say you should have expanded on this. This test was all multiple choice, True False questions. I got an A on all the exams but when I got my final grade it was a C. I went to see him. He said, you failed the final. I asked him, I failed the final exam? I ask if I can see it? He said, they’ve already been destroyed. I mean, I just I could go on.

That was me being in an environment where some people didn’t either want me to be there, didn’t like me being there and were going to make sure that I didn’t stay there for very long. I know I could I sit with my friends we could all tell you just war story after war story. People don’t even understand, no, people who haven’t lived it can’t even get their minds wrapped around that.

Photo: Washington State University.©

Most people are pretty limited to imagining what they’ve already seen. They don’t imagine…

That anybody would do that. C’mon Mona. Really? What? No!

I guess if you have that belief so you don’t want that person to be successful because then you have to change that belief. And the institution has to change that belief. So, if you’re not failing they make sure they do - to protect the institution. If it’s so superior then why do you have to create situations where people fail?

When you said you wished people could experience being the only one; oh, I wish they would; I really wish. I remember telling my coworkers my son was driving across country. He had all of his worldly belongings in his red truck. I said, I’m just I’m really worried about him on this drive. I’m even worried about the policemen. They said, the policemen? And I said, I’m worried about the police pulling him over to ask, what are you doing with all this stuff in the car? Put your hands up and all that. They were like Mona, no! I said, I’m also worried about him going through those little towns as he gets further south. (They were like) what?

I think I think this year has opened some people’s eyes. I hope so.

I think so too. Oh boy, I hope so.

Mona and Joe Dancing. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

It seems like that it’s finally being realized not just the people that are affected who’ve known this for centuries but for the broader community. They’re realizing, wait a minute this kid carried candy

And you’re dead?

And you’re dead?

And you’re dead?

I’m hoping the corner has been turned (in terms of general awareness).

That would be wonderful.

There are some children in my neighborhood and I pray that they don’t have any of these bad experiences or that their character is ever blighted in any way. I pray that they never have an experience where their life is at risk for simply being there.

I know, I really do. When we went to see Selma (the movie) afterwards we were talking about our grandkids. Are they ready for that yet? Should they see it or not? When should they see it? What should be said to them afterwards because we don’t want them to think that all white people are just people who beat you, and dislike you, and crush you. We don’t want that. On the other hand, they need to know that history. They need to know what sacrifices have been (made) for them to be where they are and who they are. And it’s just so…

It’s a tough balance.


I went to KUOW’s Black in Seattle at Washington Hall. It was wonderful; I learned a ton just sitting there listening and loved it. One young man got up to comment and said, ‘this is so great. It’s so nice to hear positive stories. I had black history in school and it was one bad story after another.’

Mona and her daughter. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

I know. That’s (the reason for) my books. (hits the table) I mean, that’s why I was writing about blackness in all of these poems and short story narratives is to celebrate… I mean, there’s one in there about life is sweet

1:39 It’s like a dish of warm berry pie with fresh cream melting on the top tasting so good you have to tell yourself to stop. Whoo! Life is so sweet. Sometimes you have to pause for a cool drink of water because the sweetness is almost more than you can stand.

There’s just one (poem) after the another in the books that try to help you as much as (possible). I’m thinking about our interview here and how much I’ve talked about what the non-joyful things are but that’s a reality. Those are realities. Still, there’s also a joy about being who you are there’s a joy, about your blackness. There’s a joy about life.

1:40 There’s a joy about (our) culture.

One day I heard somebody say that blacks were culturally deprived. I wrote about that and I wondered how they arrived at that conclusion. I was confused by what they said and I just keep rumbling through my head but it only took a while before I began to smile. You see they simply didn’t know black folks got sure enough culture from our head down to our toes. It’s the music that we sing, the style in which we talk, it’s our preachin’ and our praying and the way some even walk. And it goes on…

Still, I know there’s been awful stuff that’s happened to us. And I understand…

That has to be part of the story…

It has to be but we also have to find joy in this whole thing. There are plenty of opportunities for joyfulness. I think that’s why I was driven to write and share poetry about blackness in a in a joyful way. I put the history in there but there is a positiveness about our living, and about our being here and our contributions. It’s about who were are right now at this very moment. There is a hopefulness that we need to keep up. If you just pondered on Selma, and the horrible things, the awful things that happened; you could just get dragged down and be madder than hell all the time.

If (when) I went to college and just focused on the crap that happened to me with those 
four or five professors that just didn’t want me there I’d I wouldn’t graduated. (See) what 
I’m saying?

And they would have won.

And they would have won.

So, on the subject of the Central Area again, I think that that sense of culture and neighborhood and family and all of that was a beautiful thing in nurturing that positiveness about life.
Mona at an event with her published books. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

True, what we have left unspoken in the Central Area is how much joy there was. I used to walk my dog past a certain house because I knew that Sunday about 6 o’clock I would hear them singing as a family. One week I came by, the piano was gone and there were boxes and boxes and then they were gone. And that joy, the joy emanated from that house. I haven’t been to a church during services but I hear the choir at St. Therese and there’s a lot of joy.

Yeah, there’s a whole bunch of joy up in there.

It does seem there was a division between the people who went to church and the people who were out late at night but there was a lot of joy in those places too. Not all of it without consequences but…

Yes, that’s true.

That was that was one of the reasons we went to church because you knew you could get a little joy. If you hadn’t had any joy all week long you could sure enough get some on Sunday morning when Miss Smith got up there and sang Amazing Grace. How sweet the sound. It’s like, Woo! Joy!

I think that the Central Area and all that it had to offer us in terms of culture and churches was really an opportunity to focus on some joy.

I bet in the sweet potato pies and the catfish dinners, there was a lot of joy in all of those places. It isn’t (just) the places that people mourn… it’s the joy that those places..

That’s right. That those places brought…

What people often say, as shorthand for how different it is now, people say it’s so quiet now.


It’s so quiet. I don’t think they’re talking about the absence of sound. I think they’re talking more about the absence of voices in play, and in song and in community.

Yes. Exactly. Exactly. I remember a little girl would come to our house in the morning because her mom had an early job, she was a little, little white girl. She’d come to our house, this is when our kids were here going to school. She’d drop her off. In our house when we’d get up in the morning, it was joyful. We’d get up playing music and singing, you might do a dance or two while the stuff was cooking in the kitchen waiting for breakfast to get on the table, you’d practice some dance steps. It was just being black. That the little girl when she first came (over) she’d just sit at the bottom of the steps after her mother dropped her off. She’d look at people running up and down the steps, she’d listen to the music, she’d listen to my kids saying all kinds of funny stuff and she just was kind of in awe. Just like, Oh. What! These people! I know she was thinking these people! One day I looked at her, she was down at the bottom of the steps and she was just dancing. (laughs) And, oh, she’s got it now! She just got acclimated and it just became a part of her morning just like ours. I thought that is beautiful.

One of two Rose Bowl games while Joe was on the UW team.

She wasn’t frightened about it; she just got with it. She got with the way we were moving, and the way we were talking, and the way we were dancing, and that music that we played in the morning. (and she was watching, thinking) What? We were just the typical kind of black household, I think. I don’t think there was anything different about us but she came from a very quiet, reserved family. I don’t know what they did in the morning or how they  operated but it wasn’t like us.

So I watched this transformation in her. I know that she took that away with her as a young woman. As she grew she had to focus on that and know that life can be a little different from yours, but it can sure be fun and it’s okay to embrace another little piece of culture, you know, a little difference.

I think that’s true; joy is a strong part of the culture.

Well, I know that when the National Brotherhood of Skiers, it’s when all the black skiers come together. We choose a mountain and we ski for a week together. So, we impact a mountain with maybe three or four thousand black folks. All the help, everybody to the nine they say, ‘oh we love it when you guys come. You have so much fun. We look forward to it.’ I just can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that when it’s been a group of black people impacting a resort or a hotel and the people (there) all say, oh you guys have so much fun. There’s such a joyfulness about  being around you.

I think that permeates the culture too that whether it’s football players or…

Who brought joy and then musicians, and dancers, and singers, and then teachers, and people like Reverend Doctor King. No matter what, there was this undercurrent of joy and love. Joy and love.

Joe Skiing. Collection: Mona & Jone Jones

I think it’s funny you mentioned the culturally deprived thing. I’ve taught foreign students English for a while and (often) what they value about America is: black music; black classical music (jazz); hip hop; and the Civil Rights Movement. When the rest of the world looks at America, what they value often comes from black culture that has effected the world.


There was a group of us skiing together. We were a class of maybe ten and our instructor was white. We were on a mountain and she was saying the same thing that we hear all the time, oh man, you guys have so much fun. You’re just so creative. So, one of our guys says, we can sing too. She says, really? And he says, hit it! He sings, Doop doo wah. And we sang, doo doo wah. doo doo wah. Oh, just all together, automatically. Nobody practicing. She just goes, oh my gosh! She had her hands up in the air like are you kidding me? [laughter] It was spontaneous because how many times have we heard, doo doo wah. Everybody knew what came next…

That’s what I’m saying. That’s what I’ve been writing about, celebrating blackness. I’ve found there’s this one piece and it says:

1:51   Ah, it was Saturday morning around about ten and I was passing the barbershop. I just happened to look in and my heart skipped a beat when I saw through the door. I moved in closer so I could hear a little more. And this shop had culture just bursting at the seam and when I tell you what I saw, you’ll know what I mean. There were brothers of all ages sitting waiting in line and each one of them I would describe as fine. And I don’t mean fine cause they were short, tall or thin these were just genuinely handsome black men. They had love and strength that showed in their eyes and you knew for some just years of living had made them wise. They were grandpas and daddies and uncles and young men just laughing and talking and having great fun. Now, an example of the love that they shared was when they showed the one small son how they cared. For the first time this little fella was sitting in the chair and the barber was fixing to cut his hair. And even with his father standing close by when the clippers were turned on he started to cry. And then it goes on about these brothers helping this little guy through his

1:52 his first haircut and so forth and so on. It ends as this wonderful story by saying there simply are no others who can take the place of our fine black brothers. 1:53

So I’ve done that piece (at different events) and the brothers, I mean the black men, have just hugged me and cheered and cried. Like they... So, I thought about that because I get that same kind of response every time I’ve done it. And they said, nobody ever says positive things about us. We’re in the newspaper when we catch a football, we’re in the newspaper when we got to prison... But nobody just applauds us as black men for the kinds of things that we do and give. And I thought, wow, hadn’t thought about that really.

I was just writing it from a perspective of what I have observed about black men. Then I come to find out they needed that so badly. Every time I do it, I mean it’s like, oh okay… okay. It’s this embracing thing for some folks to just say positive things about them for just no special reason except that they’re black men and that they’re okay. They just find joy in somebody saying some simple stuff like that.

Black men just deal with the perception that they’re just bad, awful people. (They just need a bit of) the whole validation of just being a man.

Family snapshot. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

To be seen as another human being and not as a threat.

Yes, yes, and yes.

I think about what it would be like to always carry that (into every situation).

I mean they are (seen to be) such a threat in so many ways. I had trouble trying to understand why they were so happy about (that poem) when they heard it. The first time it was like shocking, it was like, Hey!

Maybe it was the joy in being seen. They were seen in their natural environment, caring for this boy when people don’t see that part of them. So they don’t get that reflected back to them - that’s why it meant so much to them.

Yeah, and it was just a natural thing for them. Nobody was pretentious or putting on, they were just going to take care of this little guy. He’s getting his first haircut.

I do stuff about women all the time and they appreciate it but there’s something about the black male that when I do work about them, it just gets a whole ‘nother ‘Thank You’ response; thank you for validating us and talking about us.

I would sit and listen to the stories of my son and his and my husband about their stuff, my experiences pale compared to some of what they’ve been through. It’s just like the assumption that they’re criminal awful people is all the time, everywhere.

Mt Zion Baptist Church. Photo: Madeline Crowley

 I’m sure. And since your husband was a football player, he’s probably a big guy so he has to carry that fear people have of big men.

So, it’s just being a black male is tough. It’s tough. I look at (U.S. President) Obama, and I just, oh man! It’s just. Oh, I don’t know how he...

It’s like Jackie Robinson right?


You see the physical effect of carrying that. You see the physical effect (the aging, the weight of the job).

Oh, my gosh. Just to hold his own and not strike out and cuss everybody out everywhere - that’s got to be (laughs). That takes…

On top of that I think he’d always gotten ahead by finding common cause before the Presidency. He hadn’t had the experience of really fighting it out to get what you want. Also, I think that when you’re really physically attractive you don’t have learn to fight to get your way.

Uh huh. He didn’t. He didn’t understand. He didn’t, he really didn’t. I’m just sure of that. And he had faith that people were going to be good people. They would negotiate and make things happen.

I think this State of the Union was the first time he ever said, I did this and this and that and that and that and that. How come it took so long for him to get up and talk about it like that?

Joe Jones Star Football Player. University of WA. Collection: Joe Jones

Perhaps because before in his life people always praised him, so he didn’t have to state his accomplishments himself.

Exactly. So it’s like, dang, took you a long time to get on that. Now, it’s we only have a little bit. We only have a minute or two (before the end of his second term). My heart has ached for him so many times. I was walking one day and there were two black women in front of me and they were walking very slowly and I said, “Hey sisters, you going to have to pick it up a little bit cause I’m thinking you’re not getting any exercise the way you’re going. They said, “Girl, we’re just walking in prayer, praying for Obama.” (laughs) I was like okay. Let me just leave you in prayer. That’s what they were doing. They were walking along the lake having a prayer for Obama.

I was so scared for him (re: security).

Oh, I still am. I still am. 

The Secret Service has been called on the carpet so he’s probably now safer than he’s ever been. I hope so.

I hope so, because his unsafeness has just been paramount in my mind. When you could see a guy standing on the hill (open carry activist) with his gun strapped on and at the President is up there speaking, it’s like really? Really? Oh, I… Anyway.., That could carry us into a whole another thing. A whole Obama thing. The Obama era.

We had a party over here on election night (2007). I tell you we had grown men, black men in here. Judges and lawyers and bup-te-to and bup-te-do and they were in tears. It was just the most incredible (moment). We all thought, never in our lifetime would we see a black man become the President of the United States.

It was just it was remarkable. I just can’t even tell you the feeling in this room when he became the President. Of course, we were all taken but the men were just (sighs). Oh, it was... I get chills thinking about it - every time.

It was one of the most incredible experiences. I tell you, it was, I can’t… It was just incredible. As everybody was coming in through the garage, coming to the party that night,  We put a sign up in the in the garage and it said, please sign here if you’re able to help Bush move his shit out of the White House.


So everybody was signing in and coming in but we didn’t know he was really going to get it. Then when it happened it was… Boy, it was incredible. It was… I’ll never forget it, ever, ever, ever. Then the second party was fun too. But the first one was just was so unbelievable. That we would ever have a black man be President of the United States. In our age they’ve been in sit-ins and walk-ins and marches and everybody’s been in (activism) something or other at some point in time.

Do you mind if I ask, how old are you?

Mona's mother and her Grandmas. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

So you’re older than the (Black) Panthers were.


The Panthers were in action though when… I lived through the Panthers when they were in the Central Area and they were doing the breakfast programs and all that.

I think the Panthers here were really different than the Panthers elsewhere.

They were very different.

And you still see that in the community (galvanizing the Head Start program, providing the roots of Country Doc Health Clinic and the Cannon House Assisted Living facility).

It’s interesting because it really depends on who you talk to, some people that didn’t know them personally were very afraid of the whole thing. People who knew them personally weren’t afraid of them, whether they were white or Japanese or whatever.


From conversations I’ve had during this project and many understood their anger but felt what they were doing was counterproductive. And so I sense there were schisms and divisions in the neighborhood.

Exactly. We were we were in that (moment), Wow. Wait a minute you guys, is all that (pause) necessary? Because we’ve been telling everybody to turn the other cheek and be peaceful and all. But also, you had this great respect for their braveness and their putting themselves out there. Besides we were feeling it wasn’t working with this peaceful thing.

Mona & Joe Apartment Building from back in the day as it appears now. Photo: Madeline Crowley

So, we were willing to give these guys this opportunity to be a little on the violent side and shake everybody up. We were we were okay with that. We weren’t going to join in with you cause we’re too old already. We’re still with the Martin Luther King thing but we’re appreciating you. So, go ahead. If you need us to help in some ways we’ll do it in the background or we’ll write you a check. But, no, no. We ain’t coming down with you to be in that (laughter) that’s not where we are.

One of the earlier interviews I did was with Aaron (Dixon) in 2012.

Good. So, where is he in life?

This minute now (May 2015), he’s at Oxford University in England.

You’re kidding.

He was invited to speak with Ray Kelly (NYPD)

(gasps) My, my...

And Ray Kelly backed out.

Oh, really.

Then they tried to arrange Al Sharpton. And Al Sharpton backed out so he’s still invited but he has no idea who he’s debating.


He left yesterday.

Is that right?

He has a number of speaking engagements that were also arranged there.

He is still out there. I know he’s about five years or six behind years us (in age). He was one of those young radicals that were (pause). It was different from where we were but we were respectful of them. Especially when they were doing the breakfast programs, so how could you not be respectful? And our Black Panthers weren’t really (pause) they weren’t carrying any guns and shooting up and all that kind of stuff. So, we weren’t afraid of our Black Panthers in Seattle.

Some people were.

Were they?

Some Asian people said they were as did some white people were. But no matter what their ethnicity if they knew them personally, they weren’t.

My Joe knew a lot of the guys who were in the Black Panthers so we never were frightened by them at all.

I wonder if it’s because in a way this black community was so small that the founding black families had an outsize impact on the families that came later. There was this community with pretty good values across the board and that permeated. Whereas in places like Chicago and Los Angeles when the Panthers opened their arms to anybody you got some people in there who didn’t do the organization any favors.


Here the pool of people that were available had those community values.

Family snapshot. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

Yes. Exactly.

One thing I worry about is that with the dispersing of so many people from the Central Area (pause) and the influx of people who have very demanding jobs. They go to work, they come home late, get their laundry done, and they go back to work. How do you sustain those values when there’s not a sense of community?

This project came about, in part, because I know a little bit of the history of this neighborhood because I’ve been interested.

I want other people to know.

When I see these misunderstandings it’s in part because people don’t know.

Exactly. You’re exactly right.

Except for that tiny percentage of people that are not compassionate at all, for everyone else the heart opens to human stories. The heart opens to narration, It opens to words, I believe.

Oh, I know that to be a fact. Yes, I know that to be a fact.

That’s why I wanted to talk to you. You embody that. You’ve lived that.

That is who I am. That is what I do best. I am so blessed to have had impact on so many people with my voice and my words. I am so grateful. I will never not use my creativity to do anything other than to uplift and inform.

You do it with such joy.

I’m just happy as I can be to just represent. I know it’s wrong for people to make assumptions that because I am who I am that everybody else is the same way, but when I’m up there before an audience as a black woman, I know I have a responsibility to act in a particular way, to tell a truthful story, to bring some joy. I understand that that is a gift that I have and so I’m grateful for it. And it makes me happy to be able to do it.

When I talk to a group of people and I say 2:20

Is there’s love in the kitchen? I say, it’s not the greens simmering on the stove or the smell of canned strawberry jam or the pies cooling on the countertop. It isn’t even the gravy being stirred to pour over the mashed potatoes. It’s love that fills our kitchen. The kitchen was so full of love you could taste it when you licked the mixing spoon. You could feel it through the hot pads when you took the bread from the oven. You could see it on the faces sitting around the kitchen table. It was the food being blessed and the sound of laughter when somebody told even a halfway funny story. Now, folks didn’t just cook in the kitchen, they hugged and cried there. Broken hearts and cut fingers were mended right in the kitchen. It was a place to show off over the kitchen sink while you were washing dishes if you thought you could sing. (sings) This light of mine. I’m goin’ let it shine .

Mona Lake Jones. Photo: Madeline Crowley
And then I go on from there. Everybody can relate to this black woman up there talking about her kitchen: I have a kitchen... We had… We did… We felt.. We are... So, there is an opportunity for me to say, hey this is who black people are but it’s what you are, too. We have the same kinds of needs and values. Mm,mm,mm: There’s love all up in the kitchen.  What I’m saying? So that we we can, we can feel it together. Oh, I feel really blessed to be able to do that. I’ve talked to audiences giant and small and in between…

You’ve met some amazing people. You’ve met Oprah Winfrey and Shirley Chisholm.

I certainly have. It’s just been just from my little books. (laughs) And I did a poem that one goes, a room full of sisters like Jewels in a Crown, all vanilla, cinnamon and dark chocolate brown… That one was in Essence Magazine and then I did some more (for them). Every time there was a piece in Essence, the public and the editor would say, people want to know where this came from so you should write a book.

I thought, well, I got enough stuff to write a book. Then, that’s kind of how I started putting my thoughts down but until I left Spokane the only people who were affirming me were my parents, and my church, and my black community. They were who thought what I was saying was worth anything, was worthwhile, was worthy of interest or worth writing about. Then (after being published in Essence) to find out that there were more people out there who liked and enjoyed what I had to say, that was nice. I thought it was great.

When you read at the at the (Douglass Truth) library celebration, it was just like the skies opened and the sun came out. I was just sitting in that warmth. You write so specifically and with such care. It’s done so beautifully that it feels just like you’re just talking. I teach writing so I know how hard it is to get the right words and to sound effortless. How much work and how much talent it takes to make things sound effortless.

Uh huh. People say that all the time. They don’t know when I’m talking and when I’m 
reciting my poems because…

Because it just comes straight out of your heart.

Yeah. I just let it flow.

I mean, I’ve opened for conferences on technology. Now, how are you going to open a conference on technology? You don’t write about technology. I take the perspective of the softer side of technology, the people who run the tech, the people who hack and the interactions of those folks. Then I just weave in and out of this stuff that makes people feel good about being a technical person, about being in an environment in which technology can bring us together and open us up.

It is a type of creativity. It’s creative in a way that I can’t fathom because it’s so linear and logical. They are writing new languages.


So, it makes sense you’re there because what you do is creative and you’re also using language. In your case, to express your heart in a way that anyone can listen to and hear and be changed by. While they are changing the world. (laughs) And in that they’re like artists [? 2:25:41]

Collection: Mona Lake Jones

So you belong there.

(laughs) I make them think I do anyway.

You do! And they need to know that what they do and what you do shares the gift of creativity because sometimes they’re such linear, logical people that sometimes they’re a little too narrow. They need to know they can give to the world in other ways too.

That’s true. Uh huh. [laughter]

All the while I’m there, I’m being a black woman. I mean it it’s like, wow! That’s what I’m portraying for many. I remember a woman saying to me, “you are one of the sweetest radicals I have ever heard.” Because I can tell you some things about yourself and how you’re acting and soften it as I say it, or couch it, or present it in a creative way. I will have told you off by the time I’m through, especially when you want me to talk about history and where we were and where we are now - and the kinds of things that have happened (to us). I think I can do that very well. (laughs) I work hard at being able to say some very difficult things without being abrasive and ugly about it.

Well, again you have that natural talent with language so as you’re thinking about what you’re going to say your brain is choosing the words that get heard. Because if you choose your words poorly and you’re abrasive, people don’t have to hear what you say.

They shut you out, yeah.

They don’t have to hear.


Even when you’re absolutely right and they need to hear it. You have that facility with language that allows you to get through because you have a thousand words to choose from every time you open your mouth.

Exactly, exactly, exactly. So, I feel I feel very fortunate and very blessed to have a talent that I can use to make people learn a little something and appreciate life a little bit.

Conversely, what does your writing give to you?

Somebody once asked me what do I like? I think if I have my choice it would be to be happy in a moment. It would be to combine solitude with the opportunity to write. I mean, to have some quietness, and a pad and pencil, or a laptop that gives me a chance to put my thoughts out there. That’s joyful to me. That makes me happy.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

When you’re writing a poem do you get a line or two and then you build from there?

I think that’s generally the way it comes. I’m an observer and so I will sit in a situation and I love people watching. I really love nature. All the while when I’m looking, I’m thinking. Everybody knows in my house knows not to throw away a piece of paper because I may have jotted down just a few lines. Then I will take that when I have a quiet moment and just  go to town on it.

(laughs) Sometimes it starts with an observation and a little thought or a word or two. Sometimes I’ll just hear a word and I’ll say, “Oh, I like that word.” Somebody said, tintinnabulation

2:30 And I thought, it means the pulse beating and I said, listen to the tintinnabulation of your heart. Sometimes it’s a word and sometimes it’s a thought or an observation.

2:30 and that one I wrote about a morning I watched the sun as it lay on the horizon, peeking up trying to decide what to put on. First she seemed not to move but then slowly stood and her decision was obvious against her glowing copper skin. She was wearing her orange silk dress with her gold sequined jacket and so forth and so on. I was just looking out the window. I saw the sun coming up and I thought, oh that’s a sister waking up trying to figure out what she’s going to put on today.

So, it’s an opportunity to be then quiet for a few minutes and think about something and put it on paper. I guess my writing style is such that if you give me a quiet enough time and enough space, I’m going to write something down about what I saw what I heard and then see if I can’t make it work.

Banner of books by Mona Lake Jones. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

Do you do you work on poems and then you set it aside to come back to it six months later? Do you work on a piece over time?

It doesn’t usually doesn’t take me a six month period. Very seldom does it take that long of a time. Once it’s kind of in my heart and in my thinking, I have the need to come back to it and finish it. The only reason I might not have come back to it is if I’m traveling or I’m engaged in something and it hasn’t allowed me the time to come back but rarely ever does it take me a six month period of time to come up with a thoughtful piece. I have a new book that I’m working on right now and it’s called “Nectar” and it’s because they call me Grandhoney. It’s food for thought from Grandhoney.

I have all these little one liners that have not been acted upon as a poem but just like 2:33 sweet honey warm from the summer sun, stick to your convictions.  (So far) it’s just little, little one liners that I think are provocative and thoughtful. I’m putting that book together right now.

I’ve had a really supportive family both my mother and father who were together for sixty-something years. My father was a writer. He would give me books of poetry for my birthday and for Christmas. Without my parent’s appreciation for the beauty that surrounds me, I might not have noticed it, or if so, maybe not have been with the passion I have now. My parents were responsible for teaching me appreciation; sunsets were pointed out, rainbows celebrated and even the patterns of the snowflakes melting on the window glass were attended to. I can still describe a mountain view long after the initial sighting. If I were an artist, I could paint magnificent canvases of landscapes and portraits. That I got that from my parents, they were always, “Look! Ooooh! How beautiful is that!”

And then my dad had words. Oh, he had words. He was a prolific reader. And so that kind of it came through. My grandmother, the one we called Grandhoney because she was so sweet; she could write.

Mona's Grandmother, Grandhoney. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

I still have some letters from her that she would write me when I was in college she’d say these wonderful things at age 80 or whatever she was then. She didn’t have much. She hadn’t gone to much school but she was bright as could be. She could write too so it you it kind of comes (on to us too). My son wrote me something the other day, he’s so clever with words and so creative I sent him a text back and I said, “maybe you should be a writer” question mark, question mark. He wrote me back to say, with Poppa (who is my dad) and Grandhoney,” and maybe even our ancestors in Ghana were writers who knows.”

His wife, for his birthday gave him one of those DNA ancestry tests that told what tribe and what part of Africa we come from. And my daughter can write too. My Joe! Joe was the first black to graduate in the School of Journalism from the University of Washington. So, it is kind of natural to write because of my father mostly. He was such a good writer and so involved in literature that it made us that way.

What did your father do for work?

He was the first foreman in heavy construction in the city of Spokane. And for that to happen (at a time when Blacks were kept from that type of position in construction generally in the United States) that was amazing.
He would have gone to school and finished but they didn’t have money to go to college. He’d finished two years of college. During the summer he read in the newspaper that workers were needed for the Grand Coulee Dam in the State of Washington and he hopped on a freight car. Then, he never went back to finish.

Still, he laid the groundwork for you and your son to become who you are. I bet both of your children will end up writing at some point.

I honestly think they’re both such good writers. I’m almost convinced that they will be. My daughter is just an extraordinary writer. In fact, she’s already started writing. I really think they’ll both end up doing some writing. I just am sure of it because they’re so good at it. 

I have some children's books that I want to try to do something with before I leave here. 

Lake Washington. Photo: Madeline Crowley

Before you leave here? Where are you…

This world.

Oh! (laughs) Okay. I see what you mean.

They’re so good. I’ve taken them into classrooms and tried them out with kids and they just (react with), Ahh! Everybody asks when are you going to (publish). I say, I am. I will. I’m skilled at writing and communicating but then the other end of that is the marketing and all that. I have not marketed myself, or my material well. And I should have and maybe still will or will have somebody else. The work I’ve gotten out there my husband has published.
I mean it’s been him, not me, otherwise it wouldn’t be out there. (laughs). Without him, there wouldn’t be anything out there. It’s a tough landscape that whole marketing thing.

You’re such a good speaker.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on a program and people have asked if they were going on after me.

(laughs) I’ll bet. I’ll bet.

(laughs) I’ve helped them change programs so that the person could go ahead of me because I don’t care. If you want to move me down the program that’s fine. (laughter)

You would be a hard act to follow.

It’s funny. When I was in Miami and Oprah was on the program, I say I was the Side Salad and Oprah was the Entrée. That was for the big Urban League Convention.

Lake Washington. Photo: Madeline Crowley

I asked Oprah if she would stay until I got finished. And she said, oh okay. I sure will. And she did. She spoke. She was Oprah and it was wonderful. I spoke and I was doing poetry with music. I wore this orange flowing thing with gold. I got up and I really did it. I really did it and the whole place stood up. People were like clapping and Oprah and Stedman waited for me. They came up to me at the bottom of the stairs and they were really nice too.

I spoke to the (Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority) AKAs who are a wonderful group of women. I went in to do their national conference and there were 25,000 women there. I opened it and closed it and it was just extraordinary women.

I don’t know how to… well, I don’t think it’s possible to address this cause it’s culture wide but you have these incredible people but to the larger mainstream culture they’re invisible.

I know.

And they’re so incredible!

I know.

So incredible and doing incredible things. 

Do you know Michelle Purnell Hepburn?

I know her sister, her mother and father were my mother and father’s friends. The world gets really small. Even though my parents were in Spokane and their mother and father were in Seattle they were good friends enough so that Carolyn would come to Spokane and I would come to Seattle. We’d visit each other’s homes and so forth. They were in the Eastern Stars and the Masons and all that stuff.

So, Michelle was the little sister?

She was younger, way younger (than us). But her sister Carolyn and I were debutantes together. At that time, Carolyn was the queen of the debutantes. We were all princesses or whatever they called us then at that event. Now when I look back, I think what a big event it was.

Mona & her father at the Debutante Ball. Collection: Mona Lake Jones

Michelle came much after us and so I don’t really know her very well because she is younger. I know of her. I know all of her accomplishments and all that.

There are so many phenomenal women (in Seattle). Literally.

In one sense, it’s a project that’s doomed to failure because I can’t talk to every important or fascinating person from the Central Area, there’s no way. It’s a very tiny swath of people from the area. Some of the women I wanted to talk to have passed before I had the opportunity.

When I was working on my dissertation and doing interviews, it (the transcribing and editing) was terrible. I honor your ability to listen to gibberish for so long and then to pull some meaningful stuff out of it; that’s a skill in itself. We’ve sat here and talked for hours, and I know half of this stuff that I’m saying may or may not be worth diddly-squat.

It’s worth being in the historical record; you have a perspective that’s absolutely unique because you’re thoughtful and intelligent. You’re an educator and you’re a poet. You have this very unusual distinctive perspective. The whole thing will eventually go into the public library.

Have you talked to Reverend McKinney before he leaves this world?

He’s had to weather a lot of storms.


I’m not a trained journalist. I’m not a journalist at all. I don’t actually know how to interview and I just follow my heart. He’s such a public figure even though he’s retired now.

I think I actually think he would (agree to be interviewed). You contact him and tell him I gave you his contact information.

Anything you want me to do, I’m happy to do. Thank you so much, Mona!

Transcribed by the lovely, smart and indispensable Andrea Lai, to whom we owe a great debt of thanks. 

 ©  Madeline Crowley People of the Central Area 2015   All material is covered by copyright. Express written permission must be given for any copyrighted material on this page. Email to request permission to copy or paste materials.
This project was supported in part by 
4Culture's Heritage Projects program

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About Me

Seattle, WA, United States
I am not a professional photographer nor a trained journalist. At community meetings, it became clear that many of us don’t know each other. We haven’t heard each other’s stories and don't know each other’s circumstances. This is my attempt to give a few people the chance to tell their story, to talk about our community, to say their piece in peace. As such, comments have been disabled. The views and opinions expressed here are those of each narrator and do not necessarily reflect the position of views of the CentralAreaComm.blogspot blog site itself. The is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by narrators of this project. All interviews have been edited and in places condensed.

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