- An Interview with Bebe Moore Campbell
Novelist Bebe Moore Campbell combines social and political issues with fast-paced fiction aimed at a wide audience. Born on February 18, 1950, in Philadelphia, Moore Campbell grew up in there and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. She taught public school for five years in Atlanta, afterwards in Washington, D.C. She lives with her husband Ellis Gordon, Jr., in Los Angeles. She has a daughter, Maia Campbell, a television and film actress, who was born during her first marriage, and a son, Ellis Gordon, III. Moore Campbell has been a contributing editor for Essence and a commentator for National Public Radio; she has published nearly one hundred articles in periodicals including Black Enterprise, Ms., Parents, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. Best known for Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine (1992), a lyrical novel based on the murder of Emmett Till, Moore Campbell has also published a memoir entitled Sweet Summer: Growing Up with and without My Dad (1989), and a non-fiction book, Successful Women, Angry Men: Backlash in the Two-Career Marriage (1986). Moore Campbell’s enormously successful novel Brothers and Sisters (1994) explores the aftermath of the civil unrest following the acquittal of the police who brutalized Rodney King in Los Angeles. Her latest novel, Singing in the Comeback Choir (1998), depicts the relationship between a female talk show producer and her grandmother, an aging singer struggling to extricate herself from despair. In both Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine and Brothers and Sisters, Moore Campbell focuses on interracial relations, the sources of racism, and the ways historical events intersect with personal ones. Readers have found her empathetic portrayal of Lily Cox, loosely based on Carolyn Bryant, the wife of Emmett Till’s murderer, both remarkable and unsettling. In Singing in the Comeback Choir, Moore Campbell tackles painful problems within the African-American community, such as urban blight, drugs, and single teenage mothers. In fictionalizing these issues, and insisting on the need for personal accountability, Moore Campbell hopes to inspire dialogue about racism and the wounds it continues to inflict.
This interview was conducted by telephone between Oak Park, Illinois, and Los Angeles, California, on April 12, 1999.
I was wondering if you have a relationship with your name. Since Moore was your maiden name and Campbell was your first husband’s name, do you usually use both names?
I say Bebe Moore Campbell. That’s how I’m known, and that’s what I’ve called myself since the mid-1980s. [End Page 954]
So you always use both names?
No. Not always. Some of the earlier stuff was Bebe Campbell. Probably the early 1980s, when I think about it. Since the early 1980s, I was using Moore Campbell. Of course, I remarried in 1984 to Ellis Gordon, Jr. So in private life, I’m Mrs. Gordon.
So, in terms of referring to you—would you like both names to be used—Moore Campbell rather than Campbell?
You grew up on the East Coast, and you’ve been transplanted to the West Coast. Do you define yourself as an East Coast person, and have there been any feelings about becoming a person on the West Coast? Do you have any sense of identity change?
That’s an interesting question. I have a sense of—as the Brazilians say—saudade, missing the East Coast. I think my sensibilities are East Coast sensibilities. And yet, my books have begun to reflect my life as a Westerner because the backdrop for the last two novels and the one I’m currently working on is Los Angeles. So, I do feel that Los Angeles is my home. But it’s interesting, when I’m away from Los Angeles and I’m on the East Coast, I don’t miss Los Angeles. When I’m in Los Angeles, I often miss the East Coast.
What would you say is the “East Coast sensibility,” and what does that mean to you?
I think it has to do with a certain orientation toward...