A writer for our time: Bebe Moore Campbell, 1950-2006, is remembered as a finely tuned literary voice for her generation and all generations.
She is remembered by those who know her as a petite dynamo with a body of work that illustrated her courage, determination and commitment to the writing profession--and to humanity. Not satisfied to simply entertain her readers, Campbell wrote stories she hoped would change people. She used her prose to tackle social conditions and issues such as the pain caused by racism and the lack of help for those who are mentally ill.
Adrienne Ingrum, a friend and the editor of one of Campbell's first books, says, "She is one of the great writers of our generation because she wrote so specifically about our generation--those of us born just as Brown replaced Plessy--and because she wrote about the ways black people connect in the social landscape that was just newly created with our generation. Bebe wrote about how black people heal each other and others white, brown or immigrant."
On the day of Campbell's death, best-selling author Terry McMillan, said, tearfully, "I just think she was one of the smartest writers we have. I loved a lot of the sociopolitical aspects of her work.
"I'm glad she was able to write and grateful we were able to be exposed to her literary power and the stories she told, which were inspirational. It is hard to talk about her in the past tense" said McMillan, barely able to speak.
Campbell wrote five novels, two nonfiction books and two children's books. A third book for children, I Get So Hungry, is expected to be published in the spring of 2008. Four of her novels made The New York Times best-sellers list: Brothers and Sisters, Singing in the Comeback Choir, What You Owe Me and 72 Hour Hold, her last novel.
A Friend for Life
She was born Elizabeth Bebe Moore on February 18, 1950, in Philadelphia, the only child of Doris Moore and the late George L.P. Moore. She attended Philadelphia public schools and graduated from Philadelphia High School for Girls. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in elementary education from the University of Pittsburgh in 1971 and was proud to have been appointed an Alumni Trustee of the University in 2005.
Francine Greer, who met Campbell in a big lecture class when the two were students at the University of Pittsburgh, says her friend was always fearless when it came to learning and probing.
"I was lost (in such a big class) and she sat near the front with her head wrapped in a gele. She would raise her hand in the middle of a lecture and ask questions when I couldn't even formulate one. I said, 'I've got to meet that girl.'"
The two met, went to a party that weekend and became lifelong friends, says Greer, who is now an assistant principal at Inman Middle School in Atlanta. The two studied education together, got an apartment and planned to become teachers. Then Campbell and her boyfriend moved to Washington, D.C., where she briefly worked in the corporate world and "hated it," according to Greer.
"She always enjoyed language and was a good storyteller. She was in D.C., and she was writing me little short stories. She would send them out, and she received many, many rejections" Greet recalls. "I remember the first time she got her first story published in Essence. We were dancing around."
More magazines began to accept her work, and for a while Campbell was a journalist, writing nonfiction stories, one of which led to her first book, Successful Women, Angry Men: Backlash in the Two Career Marriage, a book that suggested ways to mend marriages when husbands are envious of their wives' career success. Greer says Campbell wasn't satisfied with the reaction the book received.
Several years later, she wrote another book using her own experiences as a daughter with divorced parents. Sweet Summer: Growing Up With and Without My Dad was published in 1989.
A Novelist Unleashed
Then, Greer recalls, Campbell shifted her literary focus and announced, "I'm gonna write a novel" She traveled to Mississippi to learn about the Emmett Till era, and she wrote Your Blues Ain't Like Mine, which is still my favorite," says Greer.
Campbell had clearly found the proper vehicle for her talent and sensibilities when she turned to the novel. Your Blues Ain't Like Mine captured an NAACP Image Award, it was on the Los Angeles Times best-sellers list and became a notable book on The New York Times fist. The book also won Campbell thousands of new readers, hungry for her next creation.
In a review of her work, author Carolyn See, wrote in The Washington Post Book World: "If this is a fair world, Bebe Moore Campbell will be remembered as the most important African American novelist of this century--except for, maybe, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Her writing is clean and dear, her emotions run hot, but her most important characteristic is uncompromising intelligence coupled with a perfectionist's eye for detail."
As novel after novel climbed The New York Times best-sellers list, Campbell's audiences grew, and she was increasingly in demand as a speaker. She was a very private person who balanced her quiet public personae with that of the faithful friend who loved to laugh, cook gourmet meals and dance to James Brown.
But even friends knew that Campbell was a disciplined person who went to her writing job in front of her computer everyday.
Judi Moore Latta, a friend for more than 25 years, recalls going to Los Angeles to visit Campbell, excited about the fun they would have every day.
"She got up the first morning, took her shower, put on her clothes, dressed to the hilt--even with her makeup; fixed breakfast and had it, washed dishes. She said to me, 'You can do whatever.' Then she walked into the dining room and sat down and worked. She worked till noon. She got up, went to the kitchen, fixed her lunch and ate. Then went back to the dining room, wrote until four and then she said, 'Okay, let's go play.'
"She was focused and very clear about her purpose, what she was to do and how she was to get there," says Latta, who is professor of radio, television and film at Howard University.
The Will to Work
For months, even as the cancer began to affect her physically, Campbell remained determined to write.
Latta saw her earlier this year in Martha's Vineyard, where Campbell retreated each summer. "She was very, very tired and really struggling and not being able to focus very much, not saying much of anything."
Nevertheless, Latta remembers they were sitting at a table with friends and everyone was making small talk, about the tablecloths and stuff like that, she says. Campbell asked her a serious question about women and whether she knew of women who were facing certain difficulties. "I don't remember exactly, but it was ... this heavy thing. And then she said, 'That's what my next book will be about.' She was still focused.
"She knew she was a writer when other people didn't think she was one," says Latta.
As her novels became more successful, Campbell delved deeper into the human psyche, using her books to elevate awareness of issues such as mental illness. When a relative was diagnosed with a mental illness, Campbell learned firsthand about the stigma and lack of treatment facilities. She wrote 72 Hour Hold, the fictional account of a mother trying to cope with her daughter's bipolar disorder. She also cofounded a Los Angeles organization to help educate, support and get treatment for those who needed it.
"She was my rock through all of this," Nancy Carter, cofounder of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI)-Urban LA, says of Campbell's support as an organizer and as a friend who understood the challenges of living with a mentally ill loved one. "There would be no NAMI Urban LA if Bebe hadn't stood up with me and said, 'Let's do this.' We are here today because of her courage and strength and determination that no matter what, she would move past her own personal experiences and take this to the next level."
Her willingness to jump into the public debate and work surrounding mental illness did not surprise her friends.
"She was a perfectionist," says longtime friend Greer. "She had a strong need to fix things. She always believed there was a way to make things better; we just hadn't discovered it yet. She would never settle. She would go to whatever lengths to accomplish what needed to happen. She wanted to line up the stars."
In late September, more than 150 friends came together in Los Angeles to honor Campbell at an event named "Bebe's Noon Time Jam" because of the author's well-known love for music and dancing. The group included friends in the New York publishing industry and from her work and social life in Los Angeles; college classmates from Pittsburgh and girlfriends from Washington, D.C. Campbell received flowers, accolades and an honorary doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh, her alma mater.
Her longtime friend and publicist Linda Wharton Boyd conceived of the celebration. "The tribute was important for us--the memory we have of her clapping and throwing kisses to everyone in the audience. We were very blessed to come together to do it at that time for her. We were able to shower her with the love that she had showed so many."
In the hours following her death, Boyd received e-mails from students and college professors expressing their grief. "She appealed across generations. Then for her to venture into children's books and do so well ... people from eight to eighty enjoyed her books. They all found something in the reading that was healing or familiar to them. She was a gifted, gifted writer in a very unusual way."
Boyd saw Campbell less than a week before her death. "She looked at me with such passion in her eyes and she said 'Thank you' three times. I say those thank-yous were for her friends and supporters, for her family and for God. The way she whispered those two words was really something."
Bebe Moore Campbell is survived by her husband, Ellis Gordon Jr., whom she married in 1984; her mother, Doris Moore of Los Angeles; a daughter from her first marriage, Maia Campbell of Los Angeles; a stepson, Ellis Gordon III of Mitchellville, Maryland; and two grandchildren.
The family is asking that donations be sent to two of her favorite organizations: National Alliance for the Mentally Ill-Urban LA, 4305 Degman Blvd., Suite 101, Los Angeles, CA 90008, 323-294-7814; and The United Negro College Fund, Inc., c/o Dr. Michael Lomax, 8260 Willow Oaks Corporate Drive, P.O. Box 10444, Fairfax, VA 22031-8004.
Books by Bebe Moore Campbell
Backlash Marriage: The Two Career Family Under Siege Random House Trade, February 1987, ISBN 5-551-63125-7
Successful Women, Angry Men Penguin Putnam, December 2000, ISBN 0-425-17663-0
Sweet Summer: Growing Up With and Without My Dad Putnam Adult, June 1989, ISBN 0-399-13415-8
72 Hour Hold Alfred A. Knopf, July 2005, ISBN 1-400-04074-4
Brothers and Sisters Turtleback Books, October 2000, ISBN 0-606-19295-6
Singing in the Comeback Choir Turtleback Books, January 2001, ISBN 0-606-19302-2
What You Owe Me G. R Putnam's Sons, August 2001, ISBN 0-398-14784-5
Your Blues Ain't Like Mine Putnam Publishing Group, August 1992, ISBN 0-399-13746-7
I Get So Hungry Illustrations by Amy Bates, Penguin Young Readers Group Spring 2008, ISBN 0-399-24311-0
Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry Grosset & Dunlap, September 2003 ISBN 0-398-23972-3 Ages 5 to 10
Stompin' at the Savoy Illustrated by Richard Yarde Philomel Books, September 2006 ISBN 0-399-24197-3 Ages 5 and up
Patrice Gaines is cofounder of The Brown Angel Center, a program for women who have been incarcerated, and author of two biographical books including the memoir Laughing in the Dark (Crown Publishers, 1994).
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|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Article Type:||Cover story|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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