Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Although Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine was Campbell’s first novel, it had been preceded by two nonfiction works, one of them a highly praised memoir in which can be seen many of the themes and attitudes found in the novel. Sweet Summer: Growing Up With and Without My Dad (1989) is an account of the author’s own childhood as the child of divorced parents, focusing especially on the happy summers she spent in North Carolina with her father. In this book, Campbell emphasized such ideas as the richness of rural traditions, the importance of family bonds, and the power of individuals, like her own paraplegic father, to rise above adversity.

When Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine appeared three years later, a few reviewers fixed immediately on the obvious fact that the book was inspired by a real tragedy, the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a black boy from Chicago who died tragically in Mississippi. Taking Campbell’s novel as a fictionalized version of the Till incident, one reviewer criticized both Campbell’s pacing of her story and what was seen as a failure to reveal the true horror of that crime. That such a view reflects a misunderstanding of the author’s intentions is proved by statements in an interview reported in The New York Times Book Review, in which she insists that her novel is about “childhood” rather than “color” and specifically about the way that a deficiency of love during childhood can affect a person’s adult life.

Most critics praised Campbell’s novel, pointing out how skillfully she moved from the point of view of one character to that of another, revealing thoughts and emotions with understanding and compassion, thus creating rounded characters rather than the flat ones so often found in stories of injustice. Her plot, it was noted, was dictated by her characters.

Although some reviewers stressed the moral lesson of the novel, that racism hurts everyone, others suggested that, in ironic contradiction to her title, Campbell wished her readers to see that all human beings are more alike than they are different. In the words of Clyde Edgerton, himself a southern writer of note, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine urges “an understanding of our own hearts, our capabilities for love, fear, hate and, finally, self-respect.”