A Voice That Carries


When we think about voice--an author's voice to be precise--it's beyond the sound that emerges from the mouth, the manner in which he or she might orally shape a story, its rests, its stresses. It is about one's bearing and authority, about claiming emotional territory and doing so with unmitigated confidence.

All this, of late, is what is threading through Bebe Moore Campbell's consciousness. Messages. Modeling. Resonance. All of it in the last few days and moments before her own book tour commences, the one-woman roadshow to promote her new novel, "Singing in the Comeback Choir" (Putnam).

In the waning quiet there's some prep work, centering to tend to. Campbell's just finished reading "Paradise," Toni Morrison's latest, long-awaited message to her masses. And she's sort of lit with it, flush, like one is after a long hard run. ("She gave me permission to be, just her being there," Campbell says as if lifted by a charismatic's lesson.) Consequently, it's the first business to dispense with, as if checking in on the whereabouts of a mutual friend: "Have you read it yet?" she implores, peering through stylishly thick, black-framed oval lenses.

"The thing that I love about Toni is that she doesn't have to stay in one place," continues Campbell, dressed demurely in shades of gunmetal gray, a black cloche set round the tops of her ears. She settles into a corner away from the reggae-splashing speakers tucked throughout Coley's Jamaican Kitchen, a quick coast from her View Park home. "That she refuses to stay in one place. That we have to come along with her. I like her attitude, it's like: I'm going over here now; you people just have to catch up with me."

Campbell's voice--her speaking one--sounds like drizzled honey. Her homes have somehow stuck to it, wound themselves within it: It struts with a bit of Philadelphia, the sway of North Carolina, Atlanta and a sprinkling of Southern California spring laced through.

Her author's voice is equally varied and before lighting on fiction had traveled through the worlds of political commentary, nonfiction and memoir. Consequently, her novels are threaded through with unwieldy sociopolitical preoccupations of the moment--race, class and gender politics, to name a few.

Campbell's concerned about message and point of view as a way to elevate popular fiction. And thus, though lyric in moments, her earlier two novels, "Your Blues Ain't Like Mine" and "Brothers and Sisters" (Putnam, 1992, 1994), are issue-weighty--full of jangled nerves and sharp edges.

Race, and the politics around it, is obviously still something that compels Campbell, but this time, at 48, the married mother of two kids, she's homing in on a way to write about it more metaphorically, letting it burrow itself beneath the story--just as it does within so much of our lives: We know about it when we step on it.

The new book dips in and out of the disparate, suddenly merging priorities of Maxine McCoy, a late-30ish executive producer in L.A. who's dodging her way through a maze of mishaps on the TV talk-show circuit.

As a black woman, Maxine plays corporate hardball in virtual isolation. At the same time, she's wrapped in worry about her teetering marriage, her child on the way--all at the very moment she's suddenly pulled back to her old Philly neighborhood, to the heart of a decaying inner city and to her grandmother who is ill, but more infuriatingly, obstinate.

Set on whittling away what's left of her life with cigarettes and scotch, the once great and now self-silenced singer, Malindy Walker, is left like the rest on Sutherland Street to figure out why everyone has seen fit to desert them.

"Comeback" is a book infused with sweet-scented homilies. The book's strength is its conversation: chattering gossips, know-it-alls, been-through-it-alls. It's full of women who stuff their drawers with buttons and pencils and decorate their coffee tables with years' worth of Jet magazines, arranged like a centerpiece fan. It's a tight clutch of men, women, "grandmothers, bilingual women fluent in English and Leather Belt," telling their stories 'round a kitchen table, cajoling, "Whatcha know good?" arguing about nothing and everything--remarkably familiar voices that scare up history and home.

"I think of our neighborhoods as a beat-up old singer, like Lindy, down-and-out, lost her voice, out of tune," says Campbell, "and we need a vocal coach . . . someone to take us through the paces, up and down the scale."

Not easy work. But she, like Maxine, tends to chip away at mountains. She acknowledges this just as she takes her fork and knife to a steaming plate of jerk chicken and rice and peas. At one point in the narrative, Dakota, an African American, hardened-by-the-elements industry grande dame, accuses Maxine of suffering from the "Harriet Tubman Mary McLeod Bethune Lift Every Voice and Sing 'We Shall Overcome' complex." When Campbell is asked whether as a black writer she struggles with shades of the same affliction, her answer is quick and visceral.

"Oh, yeah! And writing books doesn't exonerate yourself from it, your duties. That's not your tithes," she explains. "That's why I was down at Markham Middle School today speaking to students, because at some point you have to be hands-on. I'm not guilt-ridden, though."

She begins to take it apart.

"I think you're guilt-ridden if you think that the situation is hopeless, and I don't. I have a lot of faith in African Americans, and I have a lot of faith in white folks"--she stops to qualify--"the majority of all of them."

All this simply underscores the necessity of doing the work. Like Maxine lighting on Sutherland Street, with hand on hip and major attitude, but more important, breaking out the broom and breaking a sweat.

"I wanted to talk about the work that needs to be done. It has nothing to do with passing laws, or marching, or government assistance. It has to do with stepping up to the plate."

These aren't tasks to be performed in isolation.

"I certainly want white folks to do the mental and emotional work that they need to do, but I want black folks to do the hard work that we've done in the past that we haven't been doing as much in the years following the civil rights movement. Anybody 40 or late 30s coming out of Detroit, Chicago, New York, Newark, Watts, they know where Sutherland Street is and they know how deteriorated it has become," says Campbell, voice leaden. "And it's not the government that's going to get it back together. It's the people on that block. And the people who left it too."

The ghost voices that animate the book come from the corners of Campbell's own vault of memory: "They're the people I'd lived with. Lindy is a piece of my grandmother, but also I was inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar poems I memorized . . . [for church]. One of the poems, 'When Malindy Sings,' is about a slave woman, and what she did with her voice is what our great singers have done for us. She soothed and comforted her fellow slaves just as Mahalia and Billie and Ma Rainey [have] done for us . . . just like I can connect to so many emotional moments to the woman who was singing in the background."

It's emotional topography, girders: "Like when my aunt broke up with a boyfriend, and she broke up a lot, Gloria Lynn went on the box--'Trouble is a man.' If Nana was mad and stomping around the house? Either Dinah Washington or Billie Holiday was coming out of her mouth, real fast because she was trying to calm herself down. Maxine Brown and Baby Washington--these are the people who soothed my soul."

In assembling this attendance list of the obscured or neglected, Campbell wants to stare down a few intimidating things: Our "discards," our "responsibility" and the shame and selfishness that lie in between.

Three decades of urban eruptions--from inner-city flight, gangs, and welfare to drugs and disintegrating work networks--have all worked to make indelible changes on the face of what we once called community, neighborhood.

"What has happened in the black community is like a raided African village where they came and took the best and strongest and left behind the weaker ones, the ones least able to move forward," Campbell says. "One was involuntary, the other one is voluntary. We thought that integration should mean leaving and abandoning our own and wholly embracing what white folks have. It's how we define the good life. And we really need to take a look at that."

Campbell, like her torch singers, hopes her wind is strong enough to sustain that note, ride the changes:

"The books I've done before have been books that are the aftermath of a big explosion of racially incited murder or civil unrest, and this doesn't happen in this book," says Campbell, poised for the risk. She knows that there's an urgent group of soloing black voices out there but believes the publishing world has yet to tap the full range of black life, and its stories.

"It's why I love Toni, because she's not held back. Some critics have said that this [book] isn't even ostensibly about race. . . . But, you know, to me it's very much about race, very much about its nuances. I'm going into nuances here," she says, leaning into improvisation: "So I hope people will come with me."

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