A Loss to the Literary World

It’s natural to be touched by death in life. I myself have lost my father, two brothers, and a sister-in-law, all of them except my father to early deaths. It’s also natural to feel touched by the deaths of prominent people whom we’ve never met.

I’m not talking about President John F. Kennedy – I’m probably one of the few first-graders of the time who have absolutely no memory of that day in Dallas (and as an adult, I personally believe he has been overrated, practically canonized, not because he was so wonderful [whatever did he do for black folks during the turbulent civil rights period of the early 1960s?], but because of what happened to him.) But that’s a column for another day. Actually, I’m not talking about any politicians or activists, but rather people in the arts, people like the immensely talented musicians Curtis Mayfield and Barry White, both of whom left this earth too soon. This morning I heard about another.

Bebe Moore Campbell was one of the first names in the New Renaissance of African-American fiction that began during the 1990s. A journalist who was at one time on the staff of Essence magazine, Ms. Campbell broke into the world of literature with her novel Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, a fictionalized account of the lynching of Emmitt Till in Mississippi over fifty years ago.

Although at the time I write this I have had eleven novels published, with numbers twelve and thirteen completed; when I read Ms. Campbell’s first novel I was still an aspiring author. It remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. I had heard of the Emmitt Till murder, of course. It happened before my birth, but I’d seen the articles in Ebony and Jet and seen it featured on the excellent PBS documentary, Eyes on the Prize. But Ms. Campbell’s book actually brought me to that dusty town in the Mississippi Delta in the mid 1950s, the shotgun shacks with their outhouses in the back and the tin washtubs lying near laundry lines, with beds made of straw and perhaps, if the owners could afford it, a faucet with running water in the kitchen sink only. I actually saw the people huddling around the TVs in the windows of the hardware store downtown, the old-fashioned, curvy Coca-Cola bottles. I saw the black people make the best of what little they had. I’d seen the white people, just as hopelessly poor as the blacks after generations, but smug in their imagined superiority, heard them speaking in hushed tones of the black women with their private parts that were “different” from those of proper white women like themselves. I saw the irony in the declaration of the matriarch of the white family speaking out against integration, “They’re trying to make them [blacks] as good as us.” I pictured her face, so aptly described by Ms. Campbell as “expressionless as a piece of biscuit dough.”

That book, with its beautifully phrased metaphors and gorgeous visual characterizations, blew me away. This, I told myself, was real writing, literary, yet not requiring me to have a dictionary to decipher. Every word seemed carefully chosen. I vowed on the spot not to take the easy way out, not to pepper my writing with tired clichés because they were there.

I’ve always wanted to attempt a historical novel. Not set in the Dark Ages, or even in the years following the Civil War. I want to do a novel spanning the World War II years through the present day. I have a story (or at least part of it.) I have my mother, uncle, and aunt, ranging in age from 85 to 90, to share their memories with me. And I have Bebe Moore Campbell’s masterpiece to show me how it should be done.

I think I’ll read it again.

May she rest in peace.


Roslyn said...

What a beautiful thought, having her inspire you like that. I read about her death in the papers, but I've never read her books. Listening to you, I think I will, now.