American writer Bebe Moore Campbell (1950–2006) produced several acclaimed novels before her untimely death in 2006. A journalist who made the successful transition to fiction in the 1990s, "Campbell was part of the first wave of black novelists who made the lives of upwardly mobile black people a routine subject for popular fiction," wrote Margalit Fox in the New York Times . "Straddling the divide between literary and mass-market novels, Ms. Campbell's work explored not only the turbulent dance between blacks and whites but also the equally fraught relationship between men and women."
Born on February 18, 1950, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as Elizabeth Bebe Moore, the future novelist was the only child of Philadelphia native Doris Carter Moore, a social worker, and a college graduate from North Carolina, George Moore. The pair settled in North Carolina, "where my father was the county farm agent," Campbell wrote in an article about her parents that appeared in Essence . "There my father learned that he'd married a woman who couldn't cook and had a penchant for correcting his grammar in public. And my mother discovered that the dark eyes that had wooed her had a tendency to stray, that my father drank too much and drove way too fast." This final trait proved George Moore's undoing: ten months after his daughter was born, he was involved in a car crash that left him a paraplegic.
Campbell's mother, unable to find work in the segregated South that would support them all, returned to Philadelphia with her daughter, found a job, and moved in with her own mother in North Philadelphia. With Campbell's grandmother caring for her while her own mother was at work, she emerged as a diligent, straight-A student at Logan Elementary School and, later, Philadelphia High School for Girls. Summers were spent in North Carolina with her father, whom she idolized, and the less structured, rural Southern way of life marked a distinct contrast to her life back in the city. "I used to write letters to my father and tell him serial stories to keep him writing back quickly," Campbell told one interviewer about her first forays into creative writing, according to the Philadelphia Daily News . "He would write back to get the next installment of the story and he would say the story was really good. So I got a lot of praise for it, and that was very important to me."
Campbell graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in elementary education in 1971, and taught school in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., for the next few years. A marriage to her high school boyfriend ended in divorce not long after the birth of her daughter, Maia, and around this same time she managed to sell a short story to Essence magazine. She was
By 1980 Campbell's byline was appearing regularly in the magazine over articles about single parenthood, travel, and work life, bearing such titles as "Diary of a Corporate Misfit," and she was also writing regularly for Black Enterprise as well. She moved to Los Angeles in 1984, and one of her first articles for a national magazine with a gender-, not race-specific readership came in the May 1985 issue of Savvy and was titled "Backlash in the Bedroom," about the potential problems that women with careers equal or even surpassing their husbands' sometimes faced. The inspiration for the article had been her own first marriage, but by this point she had married a banker, Ellis Gordon, Jr. The article led to an offer to write a book, and Random House published her debut, Successful Women, Angry Men: Backlash in the Two-Career Marriage in late 1986. In an interview with U.S. News & World Report a few months later, Campbell explained that "the backlash is men's angry reaction to the feeling that women care more for their jobs than for them," and cited the various forms the hostility might take, such as adultery.
Another magazine article that Campbell penned, this one about Father's Day, became the basis for her second book. Sweet Summer: Growing Up With and Without My Dad was published in 1989, and in it she wrote about George Moore's sudden death in 1977, when she was a young wife and mother, from another car accident. She wrote of the North Carolina funeral, and of the many uncles and lifelong friends of her father. "My loss was more than his death, much more…. My father took to his grave the short-sleeved, beer-swilling men of summer, big bellies, raucous laughter, pipe smoke and the aroma of cigars," she mourned, in an excerpt that appeared in Essence . "My daddy is really gone and his vacant place is my cold, hard border. As always, my life is framed by his absence."
Campbell finally returned to writing fiction when Putnam, her publisher, accepted her novel Your Blues Ain't Like Mine for publication. She built the story around a real-life event, however—the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago teen whose body was dumped in a river in rural Mississippi after being brutally beaten to death. Till had been visiting family, and reportedly whistled at a white woman whose husband, Roy Bryant, was one of the two men later acquitted of the crime. The crime made national headlines and was said to have influenced public opinion favorably for stronger federal measures needed to combat racism in the South. Campbell's book presented a fictional tale of the two families, the Tills and the Bryants, and what happened to each after the tragedy. A reviewer for Time commended Campbell's fiction debut, asserting she "offers a powerful reminder that racism is a crime for which everyone pays."
Campbell's second novel, Brothers and Sisters , appeared two years later and made it onto the bestseller list. Set in contemporary Los Angeles, the story centers around a group of bank employees around the time of the riots that devastated the city in the spring of 1992. The novel is anchored by Esther Johnson, a successful black executive, and the various work-related dramas that played out just before the city erupted in violence and flames after the acquittal of several black police officers charged with beating Rodney King, a black motorist. Campbell herself recalled being outraged at the King verdict in May of 1992. She told Klein, "I was just quaking with anger. I could have thrown a brick."
Another high-earning, ambitious African-American female was the focus of Campbell's next work of fiction, Singing in the Comeback Choir , which also spent time on the New York Times bestseller list after it appeared in 1998. Los Angeles television producer Maxine McCoy is struggling to save her marriage, but is also worrying about her grandmother, a strong-willed sort who refuses to leave her home even though the neighborhood has fallen into considerable decline. Maxine flies east to visit her, recalling the streets of her childhood, which had always given off an "air of hardscrabble prosperity, as men and women who'd come up from rural Virginia and the Carolinas set off for factories in the morning. The children were left in the care of stern southern grandmothers…. As Maxine looked around her now, the same question she'd been asking herself for years rose in her mind: How could we have fallen so far?"
What You Owe Me , Campbell's fourth novel, was published in 2001. Once again, she built a story around race relations and generational passages, this time in the tale of two vastly different women who become unlikely friends in late 1940s Los Angeles. Gilda is a refugee from war-torn Europe and a Holocaust survivor, while Hosanna has also had her share of misfortune. They eventually start a business that grows into a successful cosmetics empire, but Gilda betrays Hosanna, and the anger infects a second generation. "Buried below the story's rhythm and colorful characters are messages from which everyone, at some point in life, should be able to draw lessons," wrote Althia Gamble in Black Issues Book Review .
Campbell's next work seemed an abrupt shift from her previous efforts. The illustrated children's story Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry provided soothing words for young readers with a family member suffering from bipolar disorder. The story is told through the voice of a young girl, who has a loving grandparent to explain difficult ideas to her and suggest coping strategies. Campbell confessed in some media interviews that bipolar disorder had been an issue in her own family, an admission repeated, albeit in anonymous form, in similar publicity interviews for her next book, 72 Hour Hold , the story of a mother struggling to help her 18-year-old daughter, a victim of bipolar disorder. The novel won praise from Ariel Swartley in Los Angeles Magazine , who commended the author for her "ability to blend ingredients that literature has long considered to be hopelessly at odds: practical information and poetry, stump speech and darn good yarn."
Campbell's second children's book, Stompin' at the Savoy , appeared in 2006. Sadly, that work would be the last to appear in her lifetime; diagnosed with brain cancer in early 2006, she died at the age of 56 on November 27, 2006, in Los Angeles. In one of the last interviews she gave, she discussed her family's experiences with mental illness, and the solace she found in support groups. "We don't want to talk about it," she explained to Kenneth Meeks of Black Enterprise , of her involvement in the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, whose Inglewood, California, chapter she co-founded. "I didn't want to talk about it, either. I went into denial. I was ashamed. I was very stigmatized by this illness that had no business in my family."
Singing in the Comeback Choir , Putnam, 1998.
Sweet Summer: Growing Up With and Without My Dad , Putnam, 1989.
Black Enterprise , April 2006.
Black Issues Book Review , July 2001.
Booklist , December 15, 1997.
Essence , June 1989; January 1998; June 2001.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, September 14, 1994.
Los Angeles Magazine , August 2005.
Newsweek , April 29, 1996.
New York Times , November 28, 2006.
Philadelphia Daily News , November 28, 2006.
Time , November 9, 1992; October 17, 1994.
U.S. News & World Report , February 23, 1987.