Author Archives: Kelli Stevens Kane, Poet, Playwright, and Oral Historian

The Chronicle of Alma Speed Fox


Charles “Teenie” Harris, group portrait from left: C. Dolores Tucker, Alma Speed Fox presenting “Daisy Lampkin Award” bowl to Wilhelmina Byrd Brown and Mary Gloster at Women’s Auxiliary of NAACP dinner dance at the Roosevelt Hotel, February 1967. Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund.

When I agreed to write this essay, I knew it had to center around a conversation with Teenie Harris Photographs: Civil Rights Perspectives guest curator Alma Speed Fox. At 91 years old, she’s fought for civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights for over 75 years.

Alma was a friend of my grandmother, Georgetta Holmes Stevens, aka “Big George.” And she’s my uncle Tim Stevens’s “Civil Rights Mother.”

I remember her attending one of my Big George oral history readings. I told a story about my grandmother inspecting my elbows to make sure I was using lotion regularly. Alma shared how back in the day, after making lemonade, black women sat their elbows in the lemon peels to lighten them. It was the only time you were allowed to put your elbows on the table.

But I’d never talked one-on-one with Alma. When she agreed to talk with me, she asked a rhetorical question: “Why, after all this work, haven’t black people come further?” Before I could answer, Alma asked if I’d heard of Derrick Bell.

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Guest Blogger: Kelli Stevens Kane

Part of the Family

Okay, I give up. I’m a poet, playwright, and oral historian who’s protected her personal privacy like a museum guard protects the art on kindergarten-field-trip day. I’ve managed to somehow keep my public life separate from my private life. Yeah, I’m finally on Facebook—but I only talk about stuff related to writing and performance. And when I first created an account, I used an alias so I could participate while still hiding out! The idea of people posting photos of me or my family on the internet freaked me out completely.

Time to get over that! When Cave Canem contacted me to participate in a poetry reading inspired by Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story, they didn’t know what they were asking of me, but I knew I had nowhere to hide. In that spirit, through Teenie’s lens, let me introduce you to…

my dad, Eugene Stevens (pictured on the left, from August 1945, Exhibition No. 301)…


…my uncle, Tim Stevens (pictured on the right, from 1972, Exhibition No. 967)…


…and my aunt, Marlene Stevens McEnheimer (pictured in the doorway, from December 4, 1960, Exhibition No. 816).

The photo above shows the opening of Jones Funeral Home, where my grandmother, aka “Big George,” used to take us to visit the deceased, regardless of whether she knew them or not. This subject was so mesmerizing to me that it inspired me to interview about thirty people who knew her so I could find out more. The result, my oral history manuscript, Big George’s Wylie Avenue, sheds light on the workings of family and community in The Hill during its heyday.

Because these three people remembered Teenie so fondly and repeatedly urged me to contact him, one of the people I interviewed for Big George’s Wylie Avenue was Teenie himself. I didn’t realize at the time that all my subsequent literary work would be in conversation with his work.

So there you have it! Teenie’s work got me out of my comfort zone and gave me a chance to show you who I am and where I come from. Not only do I not regret it, I’m actually feeling pretty good about this! Despite being squeamish about family photos on the internet, there’s no denying that I’m proud to be descended from the people in these pictures, and I’m proud that my voice is descended from their voices.

Teenie also photographed so many friends of my family that, to me, Teenie Harris, Photographer: an American Story actually feels more like an extended family album than an exhibit. And I think it will to you too—even if you’re not directly related. Because Teenie’s work has the potential to make anyone, anywhere, feel like part of the family. His eye shows us the truth—we are related, all of us. If you haven’t seen his work yet, go. And if you’ve already seen it, go again. You won’t regret it.

KELLI STEVENS KANE is a poet, playwright, and oral historian whose grandparents were friends of Teenie Harris. In fact Teenie and her grandfather, Jasper Stevens, both played on the Pittsburgh Crawfords and are pictured together on the cover of Rob Ruck’s Sandlot Seasons. Kane’s literary works—an oral history manuscript, Big George’s Wylie Avenue; a play, I Never Laughed So Much at a Funeral; and a poetry manuscript, Hallelujah Science—represent four generations in her family, all rooted in the world that Teenie documented. Kane is also an August Wilson Center Fellow and the recipient of an Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh Grant. For more information about her upcoming readings and performances, visit

Related Event: Don’t miss your chance to hear Kelli read some of her work, along with poets Terrance Hayes and Yona Harvey, this Thursday, March 29, at the Cave Canem Poetry Reading.