Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, 1992
Brothers and Sisters, 1994
Singing in the Comeback Choir, 1998
What You Owe Me, 2001
Successful Women, Angry Men: Backlash in the Two-Career Marriage, 1986, revised 2000
Sweet Summer: Growing Up with and Without My Dad, 1989
Bebe Moore Campbell is a much-admired African American writer. When she was ten months old her father, George Linwood Peter Moore, became a paraplegic as the result of an automobile accident. Shortly thereafter, her parents were divorced. As she explains in her autobiographical book Sweet Summer: Growing Up with and Without My Dad, Campbell then lived in two very different worlds. The school year was spent in Philadelphia in a household dominated by three women–her mother, her grandmother, and her aunt–where she was exposed to culture and taught moral values, good manners, and standard grammar. During the summer Campbell stayed with her father and his mother in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where life was easy-going, filled with the cigar smoke and the laughter of a horde of males, who provided another kind of nurture for George’s little girl. Thus, though a child of divorce, Campbell grew up feeling that she was a person of great value.
Bebe Moore Campbell.
Campbell went to the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in elementary education. After graduating summa cum laude, she taught for five years, first in Atlanta, then in Washington. Marrying a childhood sweetheart, she had a child, Maia. Three years later, the marriage ended in divorce.
Having left teaching to care for her baby, Campbell decided to make her living as a freelance writer, and soon her articles and her short stories were appearing in national magazines. Many of them concerned family relationships, a subject which had always interested her but which took on new meaning when she had to deal with the sudden death of her father in 1977, with the breakup of her marriage, and with Maia’s reactions to the divorce.
In 1983 Campbell moved to Los Angeles, and thereafter her life took a turn for the better. She met and married Ellis Gordon, Jr., a banker, and acquired a stepson, Ellis Gordon III. In 1986 Campbell’s first book appeared, Successful Women, Angry Men: Backlash in the Two-Career Marriage, which had been expanded from one of her articles. Her second book, Sweet Summer: Growing Up with and Without My Dad, also developed out of an article, in this case one she had published seven years before as a Father’s Day feature in The Washington Post. Campbell had a specific purpose in writing her memoir. By using her own experience as an example, she hoped to emphasize the crucial importance of a father’s love and to argue that even men who no longer live with the mothers of their offspring can take an active part in their children’s lives. The book was applauded as a long-overdue positive description of African American men. Some critics also pointed to another departure: While many writers stressed the unhappy effects of racism on black children growing up in the South, Campbell told of happy days in a rural environment, where there was always time for good talk, good food, and good fun, whatever might be happening in the outside world.
In Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine Campbell dealt with the uglier side of life in the South. She had never forgotten the day more than three decades earlier when, as a child of five, she sat in church and heard about the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. When she came to write her fictional version of the story, Campbell rejected stereotypes and sought understanding instead. The actions of the bigot Floyd Cox are reprehensible, but to some degree he is a pitiable character. Floyd kills the black boy and abuses his own wife for the same reason: to gain the respect and the love of a father who despises him. Some critics felt that in her novel Campbell paid too little attention to the victim; however, it can be argued that her subject is not racism but the importance of the family.
Brothers and Sisters was Campbell’s response to the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles. Again, however, her focus is on relationships. The setting is the workplace, and the story is about how race complicates such already touchy matters as authority, advancement, and sexual harassment. In this atmosphere a black woman and a white woman work at establishing a friendship. Reviews of the novel were mixed. Some critics felt that it had the slickness and the superficiality of a mass market best-seller, while others saw it as another proof of the author’s skill in characterization.
Campbell’s focus on the importance of family relationships continued in Singing in the Comeback Choir, in which a woman gives up a successful career as a pop singer in order to raise a granddaughter. As an adult, the granddaughter, in turn, takes a leave from her job as a television producer at a critical time in the season in order to organize her grandmother’s life, in the process rediscovering the value of community even in a run-down urban environment. What You Owe Me begins in the 1940’s, when two hotel maids, Hosanna, who is black, and Gilda, a Holocaust survivor, begin a cosmetics business, only for Gilda to disappear with the fledgling company’s assets. Years later, Hosanna’s daughter attempts to reclaim what the now-successful Gilda owes her family.
Campbell continued to live and work in Los Angeles with her second husband and her family until her death in November of 2006. Campbell died at the age of 56 after being diagnosed with brain cancer.
No one can argue that Campbell has not brought a fresh perspective to the issues with which she deals. While she recognizes that there are real barriers between the genders and the races, she does not take refuge in stereotypes or easy defeatism. Her thoughtful works have caused some to call her one of the most important African American writers of her time.