Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was a flamboyant individual. Well-educated and devilishly handsome, he was a firebrand minister, a passionate civil rights advocate, and a controversial politician. As the first African-American member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New York, he attracted international attention. The ups and downs of his life and career have been well-chronicled. Less is known or written, however, about the people in his life. Powell blazed like a nova, blinding us to the stars that orbited within his universe.
Author Joyce Burnett has taken a step in completing the record in Adam’s Belle: A Memoir of Love Without Bounds. Her collaboration with Isabel Washington Powell, Powell’s first wife, gives us a more textured picture of this complex man. More importantly, it gives us a first-hand look at a fascinating era in American history – the period from just before World War I through the current day.
The narrative spans the period from Isabel, or Belle’s, childhood in Savannah, Georgia, where her family was one of a very few African-American families living in a predominantly white neighborhood, through the Roaring 20’s and the Harlem Renaissance, to the Depression and World War II, to her death on May 1, 2007. This is more than the story of a beautiful, light-skinned African-American woman who had show business success. It is a chronicle of life in America; warts and all. It paints a picture of race relations during a turbulent and fascinating period; not just relations between black and white, but the stratification that existed within the African-American community based on skin color and hair texture. Belle and her sister Fredi, for a brief time, were stars in the black entertainment industry. They were also activists and fighters for civil rights and dignity. This memoir gives us an up close and personal look at the events and personalities of the era known as the Harlem Renaissance, with some revealing insights into people like Ethel Waters, Paul Robeson, Flo Ziegfield, Duke Ellington, and Josephine Baker.
It also paints a different picture of Adam Clayton Powell than the one based upon the publicity surrounding him until his death. Isabel’s love for her “Bunny Boy” shows through in her every word. Even though he divorced her to marry another show business personality, Hazel Scott, her love for him never flagged. Her account of the devastation of her divorce and how she learned to live alone again is both touching and reaffirming. Her deep faith is also evident, despite the commonly-held view of her day that show business people were all sinful.
Ms. Burnett is to be commended for her role in giving us a word portrait of this remarkable woman and her times. By allowing Belle’s voice to carry the story throughout she has given us an authentic narrative that rings true and clear. The only negative note, which Ms. Burnett herself expressed on the flyleaf, is that Isabel Washington Powell sadly did not live to see the work published. She would have been pleased, I’m certain, to know that her book was awarded the 2009 Christian Small Publisher Book of the Year Award (Biography).
Causes Charles Ray Supports
The Nature Conservancy
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial