My Blues, Your Blues, We All Got Blues
By Janine Yvette Gardner
The realities of racism effect each individual living in America in a
different way. Whether the person realizes it or not, racism plays a part
in how people view each other, how they treat each other, and how they
live amongst each other.
Although the civil rights era seems a distant memory to those of us
who were born years after it took place, the historical event of the Emmett
Till murder and trial still represents many social issues that continue
to occur within the United States of America. A young black boy
plays a childish game that involves speaking to a white woman and receives
the ultimate punishment for stepping outside of and threaten-ing
an accustomed way of life. The symbolism of this case is reflective
of the role men and women, both black and white, willingly or unwillingly
play on the stage of the American South circa 1955 and hence
present American society as a whole. The boundary lines that distinguish
a black man from a white man, the inability to choose what you
say and to whom you say it, puts unjust limitations on manhood. The
racist attempts to justify and protect white womanhood and simultaneously
remove any identification of black womanhood proved to be a
major factor in the institutionalization of Jim Crow laws, segregation,
and racist theories. At the age of fourteen, Emmett Till decided to
take control of his manhood by refusing to consent to the laws of the
land that prohibited black men from having any interaction with white
women. By taking control of his manhood, Emmett sacrifices his own
life. Although his killers were found not guilty within the court of law,
all of us are guilty of harboring feelings that are influenced by racial
prejudice. Whether we choose to act on those feelings or choose to rectify
them progresses the kind of world we live in. All of us have personal
pain to share. Arguably, some experiences garner more hurt than
others do, but the common thread is that pain is pain. Human beings
have to learn from each other's experiences in order to create an environment
that is fair to live in for everyone. We can at least make strides
in the creation of this kind of society. There is a lot of work involved,
and it is authors like Bebe Moore Campbell that remind us of what
happens when we don't get involved. A critically acclaimed writer,
Campbell's works span several years of social injustice and unrest.
Your Blues Ain't Like Mine comes out of a place that was very significant
to Campbell. Only five years old when the Emmett Till case took
place, Campbell creates a fictionalized account of the murder, trial,
and what happens to all the parties involved after it was all said and
done. The underlying theme of this story is that each character, no
matter how evil or good, has had his share of hurt and is allowed a certain
amount of compassion and love. After all, we all have had our
share of blues.
A Conversation with Bebe Moore Campbell
Janine Yvette Gardner: The tragic fate of Armstrong Todd reads
identical to that of Emmett Till. Was that moment in America's history
the influence for this novel? If so, why?
Bebe Moore Campbell: Absolutely. It was an event that haunted me. I
was five when it happened. It was a historical event that was close to
my own time. It haunted the entire black community. It was really one
of the first publicized lynchings. Usually lynchings were clandestine
affairs, very secretive. No one ever came forward. Here you had the
killers after the trial confess to the murders. The fact that the boy was
so young and the courage of his mother in making sure this wasn't
some anonymous crime that no one ever heard about made it unique
in black history. I think it catapulted us into the Civil Rights Era, because
I don't think that it was a coincidence that, let's see that was in
August, and then by December Rosa Parks was refusing to give up her
seat on the bus.
Q: Lily Cox appears to be a one-dimensional character on the surface;
a white female who is subservient to her husband and is content with
being that. Yet, there is some complexity to her. What message are
you trying to convey to readers about white females in the segregated
South and the role they played (conscious or not) in the institutionalization
of racism in America?
A: Well, usually what happened in the American South is that the subjugation
of white women and harsh activist racism went hand in hand.
White women were the excuse in many instances for the acting out of
racism's harshest punishment to preserve and protect white womanhood.
Black men were lynched, and so many of the times they were
lynched is directly because they were accused of raping white women
or indirectly because they challenged white authority in a way that
would move them closer to being a sexual threat to white men. [For example]
opening up a store that competed with a white man that put
them in a position to earn more, which put them in a position to be
more attractive to white females.
Q: So what role then would we as African American women play
A: Well, we were raped, of course, with impunity throughout slavery
and the post-Emancipation Proclamation Era. Until the Civil Rights
acts of 1964, it was always open season on black women. Our honor
was not taken seriously, which put black men in a position of always
feeling ashamed that they couldn't defend us unless they were
willing to pay with their lives. We were the loose and easy targets of
racialized sexualization, while white women were put on a pedastal,
which made the comparison more stark and made white women more
Q: So many characters make up this beautiful story. Which character
did you enjoy getting to know the most and why?
A: Probably Lily. Lily is the one I expected least to empathize with. I
saw the real life husband and wife. The wife was responsible for accusing
Emmett Till. Her name was Carolyn Bryant. I saw footage of the
trial of J.W. Milam and Mr. Bryant; they were half-brothers and they
were the men who killed Emmett Till. The part I saw was when they
were found innocent, and when the judge made the pronouncement
they (Carolyn and Roy Bryant) kissed. It was an erotic kiss to me.
What I thought was that this was a woman who was proud, saying to
the world "I got a man who will kill for me." I wondered what was beneath
the surface with her. What makes any woman need to say to the
world "I got a man who will kill for me"? So when you go down a little
deeper you see the molestation, a childhood that is deprived of anything
. . . there have been more Miss Americas (or at least that use to
be the case) from the state of Mississippi than any other state. They
have really raised their women to be beautiful ornaments for a very
long time. Here is a woman (Lily) who is damaged at an early age and
then is brought up in this society where women are second-class citizens,
these butterflies in a cage. So that was Lily. Then she runs into
this black woman, Ida, who has a personal sense of independence, personal
sense of soul, and she envies that because she realizes right away
that she doesn't have it.
Q: As an African American female, I often slip into the mindset that
our problems, our blues, are a lot harder than those of white females.
The title Your Blues Ain't Like Mine suggest that someone feels
his or her life is harder than someone else's. Whose "blues" is the title
A: I meant for the title to be ironic because I feel sometimes our blues
are equally as hard as the other person's. I certainly feel that our
blues are intertwined. In other words, Lily's blues of being a subjugated,
molested white baby girl directly feed into Armstrong Todd's
blues of being this murdered black boy which feeds into his mother's
blues which feeds into Clayton Pinochet's blues of being a helpless
white male. So it goes back and forth.
Q: I have noticed that you have used an event in American history
that is the product of racial tension as the backdrop for at least two
of your books (Your Blues Ain't Like Mine, Brothers and Sisters).
What did the writing of this book teach you about yourself
and did it effect or change your perspective on race in America?
A: I think it taught me that my capacity to be generous to characters
on a page is only an introduction to my capacity for healing and forgiveness
in real life. And I still, as a human being, have a lot of work to
do in that area.
Q: At the end of the novel, the younger generation is seeking wisdom
from the older generation. Family has always been important to the
African American community. Despite the chains of slavery and the
institutionalization of racism, we somehow find a way to persevere by
using our sorrow as an inspirational tool to keep moving forward.
Why end the book this way?
A: Well, I wanted to end it with the realization that there is hard work
that still has to be done. The hard work of Wydell going on a twelve-step
program to shake his addiction. The hard work of his son W. T.
moving away from delinquency and becoming a responsible adult.
The responsibility of helping that young man shape his life was
Wydell's; the responsibility of putting the family back together [was
Wydell's]. So there is still a lot of work to be done. A lot of hope that
it could be done, because the tools were in place. W. T. poses the
question to his father, Wydell, "What did you useta sing?" Well if
singing a song was what got you right and got you through then do
that. "That" being symbolical of more than music but of religion,
belief in a greater power, all those things. Do those things that will
make you whole. Attempt to do those things that will make you
Janine Yvette Gardner is an editorial assistant for Black Expressions
Book Club and an associate editor for Black Issues Book Review