Barry Earl Beckham is an innovative writer whose works capture the frustration of talented African Americans caught up in a world they cannot control. He was born to Clarence and Mildred Beckham, and at the age of nine he moved with his mother to Atlantic City, New Jersey. A successful and popular student, he was elected president of his senior class and entered Brown University in 1962, where he majored in English. In his senior year at Brown, under the direction of the novelist John Hawkes, Beckham began his first novel, My Main Mother, in which he draws upon his exposure to black jazz musicians in Atlantic City, his experiences with racist high school teachers, and his sense of isolation in a college class of 659 students, only eight of whom were black.
My Main Mother, which sold eighty thousand copies in paperback, received mixed reactions. Some reviewers found Mitchell Mibbs to be a very real character, whereas others thought him flat and one-sided. A producer acquired the film rights to My Main Mother, but a film did not result. Most reviewers, however, saw My Main Mother as holding the promise of better works to come.
After graduation and a brief period at Columbia Law School, Beckham gained valuable experience in journalism and public relations at Chase Manhattan Bank and at Western Electric Company in New York City. In 1970, Beckham returned to Brown University to teach, first as a visiting lecturer and then two years later as assistant professor. The promise of My Main Mother was fulfilled in Beckham’s next novel, the imaginative, surrealistic Runner Mack, which several reviewers called one of the best novels by a young black writer in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. The novel was nominated for the 1973 National Book Award.
Beckham continued to teach writing and accepted publishing contracts for a novel based on his experiences at Chase Manhattan Bank and for a biography of Earl “The Goat” Manigault, a living legend of the Harlem outdoor basketball courts. In the mid-1970’s, Beckham was jolted by a marital separation that ended in divorce, an event that shook his confidence and left him unable to write. Other blows followed. Without his permission, his first novel, republished in Great Britain under the new title Blues in the Night, came out with a lurid paperback cover; a series of ten book reviews he wrote upon commission for The New York Times was rejected, as were several grant proposals; and after he had worked for two years on the Manigault biography, his publisher rejected the whole project.
After a sabbatical from teaching and several years of depression, Beckham reaffirmed his dedication to writing in a 1978 convocation address at Brown in which he proclaimed the value of black writers’ contributions and stressed the need for an examination of recent black culture and for writing that portrayed a “healthy, passionate relationship” between black men and women. In 1979, Beckham was promoted to associate professor at Brown University, and in 1980 he became the director of the graduate writing program there. That same year, his revised biography of Earl Manigault was published under the title Double Dunk.
In 1982, Beckham and a group of students produced The Black Student’s Guide to Colleges, which described 114 four-year colleges and evaluated their academic and social climate based on questionnaires distributed to five black students at each college. In 1984, a second edition describing 158 colleges was produced by Beckham House Publishers, a firm Beckham established to produce guidance and college selection materials for black students and to promote works about the black experience. In 1987, Beckham took a leave of absence from Brown University to devote more time to his publishing business and a third edition of The Black Student’s Guide to Colleges.
Beckham’s two novels and his fictionalized biography of Earl Manigault portray talented young black men who experience the kind of internal and external...
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