Janis F. Kearney Biography
Learned to Dream, Experienced School Desegregation, Followed Clinton to the White House, Penned Her Memoir
The 14th of 19 children born into a sharecropping family in the delta region of southeastern Arkansas, Janis F. Kearney and her siblings were taught by their parents to dream and to work toward fulfilling their dreams. Kearney published the historic Arkansas State Press for a number of years before joining President Bill Clinton's administration as his personal diarist. In 2004 she published Cotton Field of Dreams, a memoir of her childhood and her journey to the Oval Office.
Learned to Dream
Janis Faye Kearney was born on September 29, 1953, in Gould, Arkansas, into the largest and poorest family in the county. Her father, James Thomas Kearney, had traveled the world as a menial laborer and hobo before marrying Ethel Virginia Curry and becoming a sharecropper. He had a daughter from a previous marriage and Curry had a son born out-of-wedlock. Together the couple had 17 more children.
Poorly educated themselves, the Kearneys' highest priority was their children's education. The Kearney siblings grew up assuming that they would attend college. James Kearney taught his preschool children reading, writing, and arithmetic. From the age of seven, Faye—as Janis was called by her family—spent her summers chopping cotton. By nine she was caring for the babies and cooking for the family. The children had to pick cotton in the fall; however, James Kearney allowed them to attend the first week of school, after which he taught them at home. They always returned to school in the winter at the top of their classes. All 19 Kearney children attended college and most went on to graduate school, law school, or both. Ethel Kearney herself returned to high school at the age of 51. Only the brilliant and beautiful Jo Ann Kearney, Janis's closest sibling, failed to graduate from college. She developed paranoid schizophrenia and took her own life in 1987.
In her memoir and in her lectures, Kearney spoke often of how her dreams had helped her through an otherwise difficult childhood. In a lecture posted on the Writing Our World Press Web site, "A Journey that Began and Ends with Dreams," Kearney described her parents as teaching their children: "To dream beyond the nights we went to bed hungry. To dream beyond the tattered clothing that brought jeers and laughter from our classmates. To dream beyond the fact that my family's fate had been already written by both blacks and whites of Gould, Arkansas, and it was, indeed, a hopeless fate." In her lecture "A Diverse America is a Better America," Kearney spoke of the role that reading played in her young life: "I grew up yearning, dreaming about books…my parents' love for books, mixed with the fact that I was barred from that one-room brown brick library, helped plant that seed, which grew into an obsession—for books, and reading, and for writing."
Experienced School Desegregation
In 1965, just as Janis and Jo Ann Kearney were entering adolescence, school desegregation reached Gould. In her memoir Kearney wrote about its profound impact on her life. The experience "would leave scars and create questions about what 'quality' education truly meant." She wrote about her segregated elementary school: "black children in towns like Gould were blessed to have teachers and school administrators who believed their mission was to lay a foundation for our future." Those were "memorable years that would stay with me through the best and worst of times." Gould's first step towards school desegregation was an experimental "freedom of choice" program, in which black families could choose to send their children to an all-white middle school. There the Kearney sisters experienced racial discrimination and harassment and their grades fell dramatically. Two years later the school system was fully integrated and more than 90% of the white students moved to newly established private academies. Janis and Jo Ann found themselves back in an essentially all-black school where they again excelled.
In 1971 Janis and Jo Ann Kearney entered the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, having received full financial aid. Although Janis Kearney's goal was to become a journalist, and she worked on the university newspaper during her senior year, for much of her college career her attention lay elsewhere. During her sophomore year Kearney became pregnant and she married Darryl Lunon in 1973, shortly before her son's birth. Despite caring for her son and continuing to work part-time, Kearney managed to earn her journalism degree in 1976.
Over the decade following her graduation, Kearney worked for the Arkansas State Government in Little Rock, first as the manager of an employment-training program, and later as information director at the national headquarters of the Migrant Student Data Bank. Although she wrote freelance articles for local newspapers and took graduate classes at night, Kearney was not fulfilling her dream of becoming a writer. In 1987 she left her secure, well-paying government job to become managing editor of Daisy Bates's award-winning weekly, the Arkansas State Press. Three months later Bates retired and Kearney bought the newspaper. As the publisher of a small but famous black paper, Kearney chased down stories, wrote weekly columns, served as photographer, laid-out and distributed the newspaper, and took out the trash. The long hours of work and stress ended her marriage.
Followed Clinton to the White House
During his 12 years as governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton had placed three of the Kearney siblings in high-level jobs and he took an interest in Janis Kearney's writings for the Arkansas State Press. In 1992 she left the newspaper and joined the Clinton-Gore presidential campaign as director of Minority Media Outreach. Following the 1993 election Kearney moved to Washington, D.C. as part of Clinton's transition team. She worked first as a White House media affairs officer and then at the Small Business Administration. In 1995 Kearney returned to the White House as the first-ever presidential personal diarist.
In "A Journey that Began and Ends with Dreams," Kearney described herself "as a fly on the White House wall." She accompanied the president daily, attending meetings, events, and press conferences, creating a historical document for the presidential archives. Her position left Kearney vulnerable to the political maneuverings and scandals that plagued the Clinton administration. She became embroiled in the controversy surrounding the 1997 probe of Clinton's campaign-fundraising activities. In 1998 Kearney was forced to testify before Kenneth Starr's grand jury that was investigating the Clinton sex scandal.
Kearney was not without family in Washington. Her brother Jude served as a Deputy Assistant Commerce Secretary and Kearney's new husband, long-time Clinton political operative Bob Nash, was director of presidential personnel. One of the Kearney family reunions convened on the South Lawn of the White House with President Clinton in attendance. With the change of administration in 2001 Kearney and Nash moved to Chicago, where Nash was named vice-chairman of the Shorebank Corporation. Kearney was appointed Chancellor's Lecturer for Chicago City Colleges, a position in which she spoke to groups of students, many of them black, at various schools within the city college system.
Penned Her Memoir
Kearney first began Cotton Field of Dreams in 1973, intending to relate the story of her father's colorful life. In the early 1990s editors advised her to shift the book's focus to her father's role in her own life. Kearney spent the next decade revising and refocusing the work. Eventually she decided to publish it herself. Kearney told Contemporary Black Biography: "Having my own publishing company had always been in the back of my mind. Although I had initially hoped to sell my memoir to a mainstream publisher, the book had not yet been sold when my husband and I decided it was time to start our own company." They founded Writing Our World Press and published Cotton Field of Dreams in 2004. In his Forward to the book, Clinton wrote: "This author's memories of growing up black and impoverished in the South are the very memories Americans need to know and learn from."
As of 2005 Kearney was finishing her oral biography of Clinton, entitled Conversations: William Jefferson Clinton… From Hope to Harlem, featuring interviews with more than 100 black Americans. Kearney also was working on a sequel to her memoir, focusing on her years as presidential diarist. Her bi-monthly column "Politics is Life" appeared in newspapers across the country. In addition Kearney served as principal of Kearney Communications, a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, literary and media services, and historiography, with operations in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Little Rock. Kearney continued to lecture frequently on issues of racial and cultural diversity and black history.
As for her dreams for the future, Kearney told CBB: "One of my greatest passions is to somehow or other be a part of the world becoming one, in terms of cultures and ethnicities, and bringing people together from other cultures to get to know each other and recognize our differences, understand those differences, and recognize that we are all so alike. We want and need the same things as human beings."
Cotton Field of Dreams, Writing Our World Press, 2004.
"Speech and Lecture Series: A Diverse America is a Better America," Writing Our World Press, www.writingourworldpress.com/lectures/diverseamerica.html (July 29, 2005).
"Speech and Lecture Series: A Journey that Began and Ends with Dreams," Writing Our World Press, www.writingourworldpress.com/lectures/journey.html (July 29, 2005).
Writing Our World Press, www.writingourworldpress.com (July 29, 2005).
Black Issues Book Review, May/June 2005, p. 46.
Interview, The Tavis Smiley Show, www.pbs.org/kcet/tavissmiley/archive/200503/20050308_transcript.html (July 30, 2005).
"Janis Kearney Biography," The History Makers, www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/biography.asp?bioindex=671&category=civicMakers (July 30, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Janis F. Kearney on August 2, 2005.