Ashley Jones: Spreading the Magic City Gospel of life for a black woman in Birmingham

By Ariel Worthy

The Birmingham Times

Ashley Jones (Provided photo)
Ashley Jones (Provided photo)

At age 26, Ashley Jones already has an impressive résumé.

She is a poet, teacher at Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA) and University of Alabama at Birmingham and an editor for literary magazine, Pank.

She is also one of the 2015 winners of the Rona Jaffe Writing Award which is a national award given to six women every year for creative writing. The winners also receive $30,000.

“Winning that award solidified my desire to keep being a writer because sometimes the world is telling you that being an artist is useless and doesn’t make you any money because people aren’t listening anyway,” Jones said. “Winning an award like that made me feel like my voice matters in this nation.”

Poetry

Jones, who is from Birmingham and attended ASFA, said she first started writing when she was 8 years old after seeing the movie Harriet the Spy.

“I kept what I called a spy journal,” Jones said. “I recently found the notebook, and I have poems in there as well; I have no recollection of those poems, but apparently I was writing poems back then.”

As she got older, she began writing more because it was the easiest way for her to get her point across, she said. Much of her poetry deals with race, gender and her personal life. Her poetry is what she calls “accessible.”

“Growing up when we had to read poetry at school, I never really liked poems that I had to fight with to get any meaning out of,” Jones said. “Even though poems being difficult can be a good challenge, I don’t want to alienate readers in any way.”

Her poems have messages that leave an impression.

“Telling someone that I’m a black woman and it can be hard is not as powerful as writing a poem about it,” Jones said.

Jones is also an author and recently had her master’s thesis published: Magic City Gospel. It is an exploration of Jones’ life and “the life of Birmingham.”

“I explore the Civil Rights Movement, pre-discovery Alabama, before Desoto came and colonized Alabama, and I talk about my life,” Jones said. “It spreads the gospel about what it’s like to be a black woman in this world, this state, this city.”

Magic City Gospel comes out in January, but people will have the opportunity to purchase it on Dec. 2 at her Birmingham Release Party at ASFA.

Creative Writing

Jones has a passion for helping students tap into their creative as well. At ASFA she is a creative writing instructor. “Often students tell me how much I impact them, which can be scary,” Jones said.

Jones also tries to introduce students to more diverse writers “both alive and dead because often we only teach on the dead people and we don’t realize that you can be alive and still be great,” Jones explained.

Jones also developed a class that she is teaching as an elective: Literature and Film: The African Diaspora. “We focus on the diaspora to America right now,” she said.

Having the class makes her feel as if she is bringing an African American studies class to high school, she said.

“I’m not a scholar; I’m just learning, and spreading the knowledge that I’ve gained,” she said. “But I feel like it’s opening the students up to the history of black people in America: what we’ve done, and how we’re portrayed. So when they go out into the world they’re not so blind to what black people go through, and continue to go through; and what they have contributed to this country.”

At UAB, Jones teaches the honors seminar, From Shakespeare to Spike Lee: The Black Male Other in Literature and Film.

“We’re starting with Othello and we’re tracing the representation of the black male throughout time in literature and film, and ending with Do the Right Thing,” she said.

Community work

When she is not in the classroom, Jones enjoys one of the many organizations she is a member of including Sister City Connections, and the Nitty Gritty Magic City Reading Series, which is a monthly literary performance show at the Desert Island Supply Company.

“We try to bring in a diverse group of readers every month,” she said.

Recently Jones wrapped up an event called 100,000 Poets for Change in Birmingham. During the event they raised money for the Dynamite Hill Smithfield Community Land Trust.

“It’s working to purchase Angela Davis’ childhood home and create an education center,” Jones said. “They’re also working against gentrification so the residents of Smithfield can keep their homes and still improve the area.”

Everything she writes about is rooted in reality, said Jones, daughter of Donald L. Jones, assistant fire chief for the Birmingham Fire Department and sister of Monique Jones, who is a digital operations manager for The Birmingham Times Media Group.

“I like to move people or give a voice to someone who feels they don’t have one,” Ashley Jones said. “Writing about being a black girl from the South is giving voice to a lot of other black girls from the South who feel that no one is listening to them, or have to go to school and get made fun of for their afro puffs. That kind of stuff is important and means something to someone.”