Bebe Moore Campbell Critical Essays


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Bebe Moore Campbell’s fiction is based largely on her own experiences as a female member of a racial minority in a white, male-dominated culture. Her works are sociopolitical, generally dealing with matters of race, class, and gender. They cover such issues as sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace, racism—black to black, white to black, and black to white—and racial solidarity versus gender solidarity. Her last book explores a mental health system that is more attuned to whites than to blacks, that provides minimal care under restrictions that work against the goal of regained health, that in respecting the rights of the individual often causes more suffering. This work, Seventy-two Hour Hold, also exposes the questionable attitudes of many in the African American culture who see mental problems as a sign of weakness, a flaw of character. Campbell always had a purpose in her writing; she aimed to entertain only enough to keep the reader involved.

Campbell’s works have received widespread approval, with only minor criticisms for a tendency to create somewhat one-dimensional characters and, at times, to present slightly unflattering pictures of women. Campbell is considered a serious writer who, while popular, never popularized by resorting to superhuman characters in glamorous sexual situations. Her white characters as well as her black ones ring true. In response to those who questioned how she could enter the minds of people of races different from hers, she explained that she socialized with people of all races and classes and had close white friends who helped her gain the perspective she needed.

Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine

Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine appeared on best-seller lists and was chosen by The New York Times as one of the most notable books of 1992. It is based on the actual 1955 Mississippi murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager who dared to speak to a white woman. Campbell’s fictionalized account has a fifteen-year-old black northern boy, Armstrong Todd, staying with his southern grandmother while his divorced mother attempts to pull her life together in Chicago. Unfamiliar with the deep-seated racism in the South, he teasingly recites some harmless French phrases to a bored, obviously bemused, white woman as she stands in a barroom door waiting for her husband. The woman, despite being ordered to stay in the truck by her abusive partner, had ventured toward the sounds of laughter and gaiety so sadly lacking in her own life. Her husband, Floyd Cox, himself a victim of constant verbal abuse from his father and brother (the favored son), sees retribution against Armstrong as a way of gaining his family’s respect. He hunts down the boy, hoping to please his father. After terrorizing and beating the frightened young man before shooting him to death, father and son sit in their truck, drinking and laughing. Floyd feels accepted but the sense of closeness is fleeting, as his father and brother all but abandon him when he is arrested for Armstrong’s murder.

Southern justice being what it was in the 1950’s, Floyd Cox’s punishment is minimal, and he is soon released from jail. The subsequent ruination of his family is clearly of strong interest to Campbell. She wants to show their suffering as well as the suffering of the victim and his family. Campbell’s point is that racism hurts the racist as well as the victim. She later said that she chose to present both sides of the story because she believed that until people understood the ramifications of racism, they could not begin to deal with it. Through seeing and feeling the pain of others, even of unsympathetic characters, she believed, people could come to recognize that bias is hateful and ultimately harmful to all.

In the novel, Campbell also explores the efforts of the murdered boy’s family to make some sense out of what is left of their lives. The mother determines to have another son, one who will have a chance to experience a full life. However, this boy yields to the lure of the streets and is soon affiliated with a gang; his chances of survival are slim. In Campbell’s depiction, hopelessness and despair have turned black men against one another and each man against himself. The future seems bleak, with only a hint of promise offered in the novel when the son responds slightly to his father’s attempted initiation of friendship.

Brothers and Sisters

Brothers and Sisters takes place in Los Angeles, in the aftermath of the 1992 riots sparked by the not-guilty verdicts in the trial of the police officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King. It is a novel of relationships, most notably one between a black bank manager, Esther Jackson, and Mallory Post, a white loan officer. Mallory holds a position coveted by Esther but denied her because of racism. These two women are cautious friends, neither completely comfortable with people of the other race. One is filled with underlying anger, the other is always fearful of appearing racially insensitive. Esther is the sort of woman who will not date “down”: She runs a kind of financial background check on each of her suitors. Mallory urges Esther to relax her demand for upward mobility and to date the mail-truck driver because he is nice and will treat her well. Campbell later noted that Mallory, as a middle-class white woman, had “the freedom to exercise these choices because she’s not so clutched about trying to get to the next rung on the ladder and thinking she’s got to be with the proper partner to get there.”

Campbell stated that she hoped that the novel would “serve as a kind of blueprint, to help foster racial understanding.” She observed that “our strengths lie in saluting our differences and getting along.” While she was aware that many of the problems in the black community had to do with institutionalized racism, she also felt that “African-Americans need to begin to look really closely and make some movement toward changing the problems” and recognizing that some of them are the result of choices they have made. The response to Brothers and Sisters upon...

(The entire section is 2526 words.)