Transcript of Bebe Moore Campbell's Live Chat

Bebe Moore Campbell, whose novel, "Brothers and Sisters," is being used by hundreds of people in local discussion groups about race, class, sex and other vexing issues, joined us Tuesday, November 25, 1997 at 1:30 p.m. EST for a live chat moderated by Washington Post staff writer DeNeen L. Brown.

Many washingtonpost.com users submitted questions for Ms. Campbell to answer.

DeNeen L. Brown: Hello, I'm DeNeen L. Brown, a reporter in the Prince George's Bureau of The Washington Post. I'll be talking to Bebe Moore Campbell, author of "Brothers and Sisters."

"Brothers and Sisters," which was published in 1994, is a tale set in Los Angeles after the riots prompted by the Rodney King verdict. The city is still simmering from the fires of the riots and questions about race relations are still burning in the minds of many of the characters.

The protagonist in the novel is Esther Jackson, a bank manager, who is trying to climb up the corporate ladder to become a lender. Her friend, Mallory Post, is a white woman who is a lender at the bank. Together, the women deal with sexual discrimination and failed relationships and contend with the issues of sexual harassment and glass ceilings.

The two struggle to form a friendship despite the fact that they live in two separate -- black and white -- worlds. The book is about affirmative action, the hiring of whites and of blacks. Its themes also touch on envy and greed, welfare reform, black-on-black racism, white-on-black racism, and black-on-white racism and white-collar crime.

Many of these issues are relevant to residents in the Washington area, particulary in Prince George's County, where the majority of residents are black, but whites still account for more than one-third of the population.

Mary Brown, an English professor at Prince George's Community College, came up with an idea for residents in the county to read one book and use it to prompt discussions about diversity in the county.

Welcome, Ms. Campbell.

DeNeen L. Brown: I'm wondering whether you thought in writing the book that the book itself would prompt discussion about race, class, sexism and sexual harassment?

Bebe Moore Campbell : I certainly hoped people would think about the issues of race and I wanted people to realize that subtle discrimination -- a la the waitress who pays no attention to the diner of color -- is as emotionally and psychologically damaging as being restricted to the back of the bus.

DeNeen L. Brown: Did you hope in writing the book that the book would be used to bridge the cultural divide?

Bebe Moore Campbell: Yeah, which is the reason I attempted to write it from a variety of points of view. I wanted people to understand the implications of being black or white or Latino or Asian in a cultural mix like Los Angeles.

DeNeen L. Brown: Are you aware of other communities or campuses that have used the book in the same way?

Bebe Moore Campbell: I know that they have studied it in classes, but the extent -- this is unique, what P.G. County is doing, in terms of having a community book club. I haven't seen that before except on "Oprah."

DeNeen L. Brown: The main characters in the book were so amazingly complex. Esther and her problems with finding a man on her level. Humphrey Boone and his problems with black women. Mallory who appears so syrupy sweet with her thoughts of black people. Tell us how you created these characters. How did you get into their heads?

Bebe Moore Campbell: I've done a lot of free-lance writing, particularly for "Essence" in the earlier years of my career, and I've encountered a lot of people in my work as a free-lancer and in my daily life, and the characters are pieces of those people, pieces of me and a liberal sprinkling of imagination.

DeNeen L. Brown: Talk about how you got into the heads of the white men in the book and what do you want their characters to convey?

Bebe Moore Campbell: I certainly have known white men, I've worked with white men, my husband has white male coworkers and has worked with them, so we are on the same planet. I've encountered and known enough -- some of whom I liked, and some of whom I didn't -- to be able to re-create them as characters. I appreciate the fact that white people are not monolithic, neither are Asians or Latinos, so I try to reflect these differences with the white male characters.

Cody, Preston Sinclair, Kirk -- are all different. Their experiences are different, and so are their belief systems.

DeNeen L. Brown: Question from a person in Washington, D.C.: Do you believe that we will ever live in a colorless society where racism and prejudice are things, issues, of the past? Also, how do you feel about interracial dating? Your book shared light on these topics. Thanks for your response.

Bebe Moore Campbell: I think as long as Africa is at the bottom of the world barrel economically, politically and in every way that you would gauge prosperity, the African diaspora will suffer. I think our fate is very much tied to that of our mother continent.

I think [interracial dating] is completely up to the individuals. Any marriage is easier when the two partners share the same values and backgrounds, but I have seen sometimes where that doesn't mean the same race. Sometimes a person can have more in common with someone of another race, depending on his or her background.

DeNeen L. Brown: You said before that you wanted to explore Rodney King's question: "Can't we all just get along?" Tell us about that process, the journey from that question to your novel. How do you answer that question in the novel?

Bebe Moore Campbell: I thought about the question, and I decided to explore it through a workplace and a friendship that was rooted in that workplace -- the friendship of the characters Mallory and Esther. And I wanted to really give the friendship the challenge of race -- of overcoming race, and to show how it would crop up again and again. That's was race does in this society, it comes up again and again. You never finish dealing with race in this society, so I wanted that friendship to deal with race, to reflect that. I wanted to show how difficult it was for two people who had a lot in common to overcome race.

DeNeen L. Brown: From Dallas, Texas: Ms. Campbell, I am a 27-year-old African-American male. In your book, you discuss the Rodney King situation. I found it interesting, in a macabre sort of way, that the indignance and ire that exemplified most blacks' attitude, due to the Rodney King verdict, seemed to manifest itself with the O.J. verdict and whites. What is your opinion?

Bebe Moore Campbell : Is he trying to ask me if white rage about the O.J. verdict was the same as black rage about the Rodney King verdict? If so, I believe some comparison is in order. In both cases, there was a tendency for racial alignment, even though there were black people who felt Rodney King got what he deserved and white people who were outraged at the beating, and there were black people who thought O.J. was guilty and white people who thought he was innocent. But we didn't hear those voices as loudly as we heard the ones we expected to hear. I think for a long time to come, America is a country where often, racial loyalty, or what pretends to be racial loyalty, is where most people come from. I wonder if there would have been as much interest in the cases had Rodney King been white and Nicole Brown been black.

Forest Park, Ill.: Are the characters in your novel, "Brothers and Sisters," and their life experiences based on your own experiences and/or those of family, friends and acquaintances or on generalizations representative of race relations in today's society?

Bebe Moore Campbell : They're both, actually. It's a mixture. I certainly can relate to Esther's rage. I've sat in a restaurant and been ignored. But I relate to Preston Sinclair's high-mindedness as well.

Richmond, Va.: How do we separate subtle racism from the situations all races face every day? As an example, an African American ignored at a restaurant can suspect racism, but a white person ignored can only chalk it up to poor service . . .

Bebe Moore Campbell : I think in order to -- What I've done, in order to preserve my sanity, is give the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. It is better for me personally -- it is better for me emotionally to think that fewer things occur to me because of my race, even if that's the reason, than that everything occurs to me because of my race. I think the latter would make me crazy, hateful and enraged, and I don't want to be there.

Alexandria, Va.: The book was well written. Our book club loved it. Except, why did it seem that you rushed at the end? It rapped up very quickly considering you took plenty of time in the early 200 or so pages.

Bebe Moore Campbell : I disagree. The ending was crafted to be realistic. I wanted to show that the struggles for the individual characters had no quick solutions, but would continue.

DeNeen L. Brown: We are in the last five minutes of our interview with author Bebe Moore Campbell. Do [readers] have any really pressing questions? This is your last chance!

Washington, D.C.: I first want to say hello. Since we met in Kansas City a few years back (can't remember what date, but you came in to NPR and Rebecca Presson introduced us) I haven't kept in touch, but boy am I glad your book "Brothers and Sisters" is receiving the attention it deserves. And I am proud of your beautiful daughter on "In The House."

My question is when can I pick a copy of your latest and greatest novel? And when can I hear your commentaries on NPR? Or are those unscheduled?

Take care of yourself and your family and God bless you during this holiday season.

Bebe Moore Campbell : The new novel is called, "Singing in the Comeback Choir." It will be out Feb. 16 and I will be going on a 25-city tour from the middle of February until the first week of April. My NPR commentaries come on irregularly, so just tune in to "Morning Edition."

DeNeen L. Brown: Please tell us more about "Singing in the Comeback Choir." Who are the characters? What do they want out of life? And is there a burning lesson you really want readers to get out of this new novel?

Bebe Moore Campbell : Well, first of all, the excerpts for "Singing in the Comeback Choir" will be in the January issue of "Essence" magazine. Also, this weekend, I have an essay in the USA Today Weekend magazine, in the "Family Spirit" issue. There's a picture of my family and I did an essay on family.

"Singing in the Comeback Choir" is a book about second chances for people. It centers around Maxine, who lives in Los Angeles and is an executive producer for a talk show that is sliding in the ratings, and at the same time she is trying to recover from her husband Satchel's infidelity. At the same time, her grandmother -- the grandmother who raised her after her mother and father died -- is a 76-year-old former singing star living in Philadelphia where Maxine was raised, and she has had a stroke, is drinking and smoking too much. And the neighborhood she's in has become a ghetto. The book shows how the television show, Maxine's marriage, Lindy and the old Philadelphia neighborhood all get a second chance. And the lesson is that it's never too late to try again.

DeNeen L. Brown: Thank you so much for all your grand insight on race relations. I think all of us could see ourselves in one or more of the characters in "Brothers and Sisters." You put into words what many of us can barely articulate. Thanks for that. And thank you for taking the time today to let us delve into your thoughts. I am sure readers really appreciate being able to have a conversation with you as an author.

Bebe Moore Campbell : Thank you. Thank you very much. Have a good day and have a wonderful Thanksgiving!