Campbell, novelist of black lives, dies at the age of 56
By Margalit Fox
The New York Times
(November 28, 2006) Bebe Moore Campbell, a best-selling novelist
known for her empathetic treatment of the difficult, intertwined
and occasionally surprising relationship between the races, died
yesterday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 56.
The cause was complications of brain cancer, said Linda Wharton-Boyd,
a longtime friend.
Along with writers like Terry McMillan, Ms. 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. 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.
Throughout her work, Ms. Campbell sought to counter prevailing stereotypes
of black people as socially and economically marginal. Though critics
occasionally faulted her characters as two-dimensional, her novels
were known for their crossover appeal, read by blacks and whites
Often called on by the news media to discuss race relations, Ms.
Campbell was for years a familiar presence on television and radio.
With the publication of her most recent novel, “72 Hour Hold”
(Knopf, 2005), she also became a visible spokeswoman on mental-health
issues. The novel, about bipolar disorder, was inspired by the experience
of a family member, Ms. Campbell said.
Originally a schoolteacher and later a journalist, Ms. Campbell
made her mark as a writer of fiction with her first novel, “Your
Blues Ain’t Like Mine” (Putnam), published in 1992. Rooted
in the story of Emmett Till, the book tells of a black Chicago youth
killed by a white man in Mississippi in 1955. After the murderer
is acquitted at trial, the narrative follows his increasing dissolution.
“I wanted to give racism a face,” Ms. Campbell said in
an interview with The New York Times Book Review in 1992. “African-Americans
know about racism, but I don’t think we really know the causes.
I decided it’s first of all a family problem.”
Reviewing the novel in The Book Review, Clyde Edgerton wrote: “By
showing lives lived, and not explaining ideas, Ms. Campbell does
what good storytellers do — she puts in by leaving out.”
Ms. Campbell’s other novels, all published by G. P. Putnam’s
Sons, are “Brothers and Sisters” (1994), written in the
wake of the Los Angeles riots of 1992; “Singing in the Comeback
Choir” (1998), about a black television producer feeling cut
off from her roots; and “What You Owe Me” (2001), about
the friendship between two women, one African-American, the other
a Jewish Holocaust survivor, in the 1940’s.
Elizabeth Bebe Moore was born in Philadelphia on Feb. 18, 1950,
to parents who divorced when she was very young. Bebe spent each
school year in Philadelphia with her mother, grandmother and aunt
— strong, upright women she collectively called “the Bosoms”
— who set her on a course of study, discipline and staunch
She spent summers in North Carolina with her father, who had been
paralyzed in an automobile accident. There, she was enveloped in
a heady world of beer, laughter and cigar smoke. She documented
her contrasting lives in her memoir, “Sweet Summer: Growing
Up With and Without My Dad” (Putnam, 1989).
After earning a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from
the University of Pittsburgh in 1971, Ms. Campbell taught school
in Atlanta for several years before embarking on a career as a freelance
journalist. Her first book was a work of nonfiction, “Successful
Women, Angry Men: Backlash in the Two-Career Marriage” (Random
She also wrote two picture books for children, “Sometimes My
Mommy Gets Angry” (Putnam, 2003; illustrated by E. B. Lewis);
and “Stompin’ at the Savoy” (Philomel, 2006; illustrated
by Richard Yarde).
Ms. Campbell’s first marriage, to Tiko Campbell, ended in divorce.
She is survived by her husband, Ellis Gordon Jr., whom she married
in 1984; her mother, Doris Moore of Los Angeles; a daughter from
her first marriage, Maia Campbell of Los Angeles; a stepson, Ellis
Gordon III of Mitchellville, Md.; and two grandchildren.
Despite the subject matter of her books, Ms. Campbell expressed
hope about the future of American race relations. In an interview
with The New York Times in 1995, she described her motivation for
writing “Brothers and Sisters,” the story of the friendship
between a black banker and her white colleague.
“It was my attempt to bridge a racial gap,” Ms. Campbell
said. “That’s the story that never gets told: how many
of us really like each other, respect each other.”