Get to Know Janis F. Kearney, Six Bridges Featured Author

Tell us briefly about your book.
My book is nonfiction and chronicles the 59-year journey of America’s foremost Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson. It takes the reader from her childhood home of New Orleans’s “N***** Town” to Chicago, Illinois—the city that became home to hundreds of thousands of African Americans who joined the Great Migration from the South in search of a better life. Readers will learn of Mahalia Jackson’s struggles and her successes beyond even her own dreams. It is an American story of hard work and success, with the caveat that this American was female and Black during a time when both were undervalued as human beings. Her struggles were enormous. Mahalia Jackson, readers will learn, was more than her southern smile and her heavenly voice. There was so much more.

What motivated you to write it?
I was “reintroduced” to Mahalia Jackson during my time in Chicago between 2001 and 2007. Former senator Roland Burris and his wife, Berlean, invited my husband and myself to their home for a Sunday dinner. As we admired their home, they began to tell us that the home had been purchased from Mahalia Jackson just months before she passed away. He shared amazing stories of this great American and encouraged me to write her story if I ever found the time. My interest was piqued, and though it took me 15 years to do so, I began writing in earnest during the COVID pandemic and realized hers was a story that should be told, and that young Black Americans, as well as all Americans, should know this woman’s story.

What kind of research went into your book?
It is a book based heavily on research. I visited her native home of New Orleans and talked with numerous people who knew of her, but was very surprised how few people there knew her personally. I did research in their museums and archives and colleges. I also visited her neighborhood and talked with the residents there. I read everything I could get on her life. I was amazed there were not more books written about her life. I reached out to the National Archives and visited the Library of Congress as well. This sounds spooky, but when writing a biography, after I do as much research as I can, I actually wait for the subject’s voice and direction to come to me; to learn what is it about their lives they want the world to know.

What was your favorite part of writing this book?
As with most biographical books I write, I learn so much more about the subject than I went in knowing. For Mahalia Jackson this was even more true. I knew so little about her as I pursued her life story. She was an enigma. Whenever you called her name with people born in the 1930s, ’40s, or ’50s, they smiled, remembering her—but only her singing and that vision of this tall, statuesque Black woman belting out gospels. But that was it. I knew there was more to her, and learning who the real Mahalia was became such a satisfying part of the journey for me. Her personal relationships with the people we view as American leaders, her work for social justice and civil rights, the amount of adulation from foreign countries were all revelations for me.

What does it mean to you to be promoting your book as a local author?
Being a local author means that my work is recognized by people I know and live around. It means that we local authors have a voice in literature, and that organizations such as CALS/Six Bridges Book Festival recognize our voices. I’m a very grateful author. I’ve been blessed to have a small following here at home, as well as throughout the country. When I lived in Chicago, they called me a Chicago author. That was actually where my writing journey took flight.

What is the meaning behind the title?
The meaning behind the title, Only on Sundays: Mahalia Jackson’s Long Journey, is this: Sundays were very, very special to Mahalia—it began when she was a four-year-old child, getting up and getting dressed on Sunday to sing at her mother’s church. Unlike in any other place or time in her young life, she was someone special when she got up in front of the church and sang on Sunday mornings. The joy she received from that experience would always be connected inextricably to Sundays.

What was the most gripping thing you discovered while researching this book?
Her loneliness, in spite of being loved around the world.

What is it you want readers to take away from your book?
I want them to take stock that there are great women like Mahalia Jackson, unsung heroes who paid their dues, did the work, and created their own paths. Her world-wide success was not given to her. She had a hard, harsh life and it could have ended in a number of ways, except for her determination to succeed, her faith, and her values. I want her to be remembered as the great woman she was, and for all she was beyond a great gospel singer.