Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine
At one point in Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, a black character says that white people do not have the blues, which he defines as a sense of hopelessness. Instead, he continues, it is whites who give the blues to blacks. In this sensitive and thought- provoking novel, however, Bebe Moore Campbell shows that no race or sex or class is exempt from despair in a society ruled by racism, sexism, and greed. Black and white, women and men, the poor and the rich are all affected by pervasive injustice.
The tragic event with which the action of this novel begins is the direct result of racism. If Armstrong Todd had been white, he would not have been murdered. In Hopewell, Mississippi, during the 1950’s, the boasting of a fifteen-year-old white boy from Chicago would have been merely a source of amusement; however, when a fifteen-year-old black boy raises his head to brag, he immediately becomes vulnerable. Because he is an outsider, in Hopewell for only a few weeks, Armstrong has not learned how to protect himself, how to weigh his words and actions so as not to risk having them misinterpreted. Certainly the boy does not intend to offend anyone. Armstrong simply enjoys showing off his big-city accomplishments for his country cousins. It is an unfortunate coincidence that a white woman, Lily Cox, happens to walk into a bar frequented by black patrons just as Armstrong happens to be throwing out a few French words. Because she is white and Armstrong is black, Lily’s husband, Floyd Cox, the bar owner, jumps to the conclusion that Armstrong has insulted his wife. From that moment, Armstrong is doomed. Urged on and aided by his equally ignorant father and brother, Floyd “takes care of the matter” by killing Armstrong. Mississippi justice then takes over. Even though no one has any doubt as to who committed the crime, Floyd’s father and his brother are not even arrested, and though tried, Floyd himself is acquitted. The case would seem to be closed. As the succeeding pages of her novel indicate, however, Campbell believes that both the environment that made such an injustice possible and the specific act itself have long-lasting effects in the lives of everyone involved.
Initially, it is Armstrong’s mother who is most nearly broken by her son’s death. Delotha Todd had moved to Chicago in order to better herself. When she sent her son home to Mississippi during the summer to visit his relatives, she had no idea that he would be in any danger. When he is killed so senselessly, she is consumed by grief that is transmuted into anger when his killer is acquitted and when white community leaders, fearful of unfavorable publicity, even attempt to prevent her taking the body back to Chicago. At one point, Delotha actually starts back to Mississippi with the intention of killing Floyd Cox, but, fortunately, she changes her mind and turns back.
It is ironic that Delotha’s salvation comes through Armstrong’s father, Wydell Todd, who had deserted his wife and his son and succumbed to alcoholism. Even in his dreams, Wydell cannot flee from his knowledge of Armstrong’s fate. His pain is compounded by his sense of guilt because he has failed as a father. Wydell admits as much when Delotha is called to the hospital where he has been confined. Brought together by grief, the two parents are reconciled, and eventually they have another family, consisting of two daughters and a son. The murder in Mississippi, however, still casts its shadow over the lives of the survivors. Because she is so haunted by the loss of one son, Delotha spoils the other, neglecting her daughters as well as her husband, who leaves her and returns to the bottle.
Eventually it becomes clear to Delotha that once again she has a son in danger. This time, however, the threat comes not from white racists in Mississippi but from the boy’s black friends in Chicago, who have involved him in gang activities, in violence and in crime. Helpless, Delotha goes to her husband, and Wydell pulls himself together, determined to save this son as he had been unable to save the other. Forcing Wydell, Jr., into a car, he drives him “down home” to Mississippi in order to teach him who his people are, what they have endured, and what they have achieved, thus motivating him to change his ways.
In contrast, the downward slide of the Cox family, which begins immediately after the murder, is irreversible. When Floyd’s black customers refuse to patronize his bar, he loses his business. The white community also is hostile, not because of its high moral standards but because Floyd’s action has brought the town the kind of publicity that will drive away tourists and investors. Because, unlike Wydell, Floyd will never admit that he has done anything wrong, there is no hope of his reforming. His belligerent attitude loses him job after job, until at last, after resorting to theft, he is sent to prison. Meanwhile, his brutality has cost him the love of his wife and his daughter. At the end of the novel, the only common ground he has with anyone is an alliance with Floyd, Jr., a drug addict, based on their mutual racism. Floyd’s final humiliation comes when a black woman, Willow Scott, refers to him as “trash,” reflecting, he knows, an assessment on which both the black and the white citizens of Hopewell would agree.
If it was the racism in his society that caused Armstrong’s death, it was its unquestioned sexism that destroyed Lily Cox. At the beginning of Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, Lily is puzzled by the way her marriage to Floyd has worked out. Although she is intelligent, her husband defines being a good wife as her knowing only what he chooses to tell her; although she is lonely, he insists that her contacts be limited to him and his relatives. Lily’s early pleasure in their physical relationship diminishes when she senses that Floyd has no interest in her feelings, and her joy in having a child turns to fear when she realizes that Floyd resents every moment that Lily does not devote to him. As browbeaten as she is, it is hardly surprising that at the trial Lily lies for Floyd, as she has been told to do. Floyd, however, shows her no gratitude. After the murder, when their fortunes worsen, he uses Lily as a scapegoat, beating her sometimes because he blames her for the murder, sometimes because he believes that she has humiliated him by accepting food from a charity, sometimes just because he is unhappy. Ironically, the only association that might have inspired Lily to...
(The entire section is 2659 words.)