Bebe Moore Campbell; Writer Explored Race, Mental Health Themes

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Bebe Moore Campbell, 56, a best-selling author who wrote and spoke about racial and social inequalities and mental illness with keen insight into the human condition, died Nov. 27 of complications of brain cancer at her home in Los Angeles.

Ms. Campbell was diagnosed with a neurological condition in late February, said her publicist, Linda Wharton-Boyd. She continued to write as long she could, publishing a children's book, "Stompin' at the Savoy," in September. Another children's book, "I'm Hungry Now," is scheduled for a later release.

After the 2003 release of "Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry," a children's book about a little girl coping with a mentally ill mother, and a 2005 novel, "72 Hour Hold," about a mother struggling to help her 18-year-old daughter who suffers from a bipolar disorder, Ms. Campbell began advocating eliminating the stigma of mental illness.

Like much of her writing, her works on mental illness were rooted in the personal. Ms. Campbell began to write about the subject after learning of a family member who struggled with mental illness.

Ms. Campbell's perceptive writing led to a career as a regular commentator for National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" and frequent guest appearances on ABC's "Nightline," CNN programs and other radio and television talk shows.

Her first two books were nonfiction and dealt with themes of racism and divorce -- "Successful Women, Angry Men: Backlash in the Two-Career Marriage" (1986), and Sweet Summer: Growing Up With and Without My Dad (1989).

A Publisher's Weekly review of "Sweet Summer" lauded her approach. "The book breaks the mold on two subjects often connected with the downtrodden -- the disintegration of the black family and the children of divorce. Shunning the more common literary conventions of triumphing over obstacles or writing from a victim's viewpoint, Campbell has crafted 'Sweet Summer' from the perspective of having an American childhood and a special childhood."

In her first work of fiction, "Your Blues Ain't Like Mine" (1992), Ms. Campbell said she wanted "to give racism a face" when she told the story of a young Chicago-born teenager who was murdered in the South after saying the wrong thing to a white woman. Her book explores what happens in the families of the murdered man and the man acquitted of his murder.

"African Americans know about racism," Campbell said, "but I don't think we really know the causes. I decided it's first of all a family problem."

Ms. Campbell wrote books of critical acclaim that reached a crossover market, filled with, as she once said, "flawed people trying to get their healing." Her other books include bestsellers "Brothers and Sisters" (1994), "Singing in the Comeback Choir" (1998) and "What You Owe Me" (2001).

She also wrote a play, "Even With the Madness," which debuted in 2003.

"If this is a fair world, Bebe Moore Campbell will be remembered as the most important African-American novelist of this century -- except for maybe, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Her writing is clean and clear; her emotions run hot, but her most important characteristic is uncompromising intelligence coupled with a perfectionist's eye for detail," The Washington Post Book World said in 1989.

Born Feb. 18, 1950, in Philadelphia, Elizabeth Bebe Moore grew up an only child loving to read and write. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pittsburgh and taught in elementary schools in Atlanta in the early 1970s, never considering that she could make a living as a writer.

Soon after college, she began sending out short stories and poetry to magazines and for five years received a series of rejection letters. She continued to hone her skills in writing workshops, where she found support. "Writing for me is constant revision," she once said.

She began freelancing and soon established herself as a writer who specialized in social issues, appearing in The Washington Post, the New York Times, Essence, Ebony and Black Enterprise.

During an online chat for the African American Literature Book Club, Ms. Campbell said that teaching influenced her writing.

"I consider my books a continuation of that profession in that I try to impart a message. In 'Your Blues Ain't Like Mine,' I attempted to teach how bad racism is, how it wounds both blacks and whites. In 'Brothers and Sisters,' I tried to teach people how to get along with those who are different from them. In 'Singing in the Comeback Choir,' the lesson is that anyone who is willing to work hard deserves a second chance. That lesson is an old one -- try, try again -- but it's still valid."

Her marriage to Tiko Campbell ended in divorce.

Survivors include her husband of 22 years, Ellis Gordon Jr. of Los Angeles; a daughter from her first marriage, Maia Campbell of Los Angeles; a stepson, Ellis Gordon II of Mitchellville; her mother, Doris Moore of Los Angeles; and two granddaughters.

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