Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Controversial Frank Yerby: He Stopped Writing About the Race Problem (Video)

I lived in Augusta, Georgia, for nearly a decade and did not know that Frank Yerby, a famous African-American author, was from there. And I was also a fan of swashbuckler movies as a child, but I had no idea a black man, Yerby, wrote the books upon which the movies The Golden Hawk andThe Saracen Blade were based.

frank yerby ebony magazineFrom the New Georgia Encylopedia, Frank Yerby (1916-1991):
Frank Yerby rose to fame as a writer of popular fiction tinged with a distinctive southern flavor. He was the first African American to write a best-selling novel and to have a book purchased by a Hollywood studio for a film adaptation. During his prolific career, Yerby wrote thirty-three novels and sold more than fifty-five million hardback and paperback books worldwide.
According to the first video in this post, Yerby's books at one point outsold all the works of other African-American authors combined, and three of his thirty-three novels were made into movies.

The reason I entitled this post "The Controversial Frank Yerby" is my African-American Literature professor said that during Yerby's era the author tried to conform to the expectations that black authors should write about race and racism, but he eventually abandoned his attempts to tackle "the problem" and wrote mainstream fiction. The pressure talented black writers felt from liberal whites and other black authors to write fiction that dealt solely with race is discussed somewhat in Zora Neale Hurston's letter to Countee Cullen here.

The Georgia Encyclopedia says the following:
Yerby's first literary success came in 1944, when he received the O. Henry Memorial Award for his short story "Health Card," which focuses on the racial inequities faced by an African American soldier and his wife. Prior to this story, Yerby had written a protest novel about racial inequities in the South, but publishers had rejected it. Perhaps in part as a result, he began to write historical novels centering most often on white protagonists. It is from these novels that his literary reputation was built.
Black writers still face that inner struggle, the question of whether to stick to "race writing," which means they may face an uphill battle in getting published and becoming best-selling authors, or to write mainstream white characters instead, or black characters who never discuss race and who are surrounded by characters who don't seem to notice is the main character is not white. However, black writers who want to write complex black characters in stories that do not address race also face publishing obstacles.

The issue becomes particularly complicated for middle-class black writers who want to follow the advice to "write what you know" because if they write what they know and produce black characters with higher education levels, money, and "wholesome" family values, then they are criticized and told "you aren't writing black enough." What does that mean? Is the stereoptype of the urban black family--fatherless and swallowed by crime and drugs--the only kind of black families allowed in books?

I'm one of multiple black writers who have considered that issue. Bernice McFadden, the author of Sugar and Glorious, touched on the topic a while back in a guest editorial at The Washington Post. The writing team Deberry and Grant have also faced challenges at times because they do not craft characters that fit black urban stereotypes, and as said earlier, it's an old concern that lingers. See Zora Neale Hurston's commentary, "What White Publishers Won't Print," which was first published in the Negro Digest in 1950.

Interestingly in the 1966 interview below from Ebony Magazine, Yerby, an African-American of mixed race, is presented as a writer who after 20 successful novels hopes to write a "novel of significance," which is one more example of how writing while black becomes complicated. After great success making a living by writing white characters, it seems he still felt that he missed a calling perhaps to write about the plight of his people. The reporter says Yerby cited American racism as the reason for his "voluntary exile to Europe." He moved there in 1952. Or maybe Yerby was responding subtlely to those critics who in polite terms called him a "sell-out."

In an earlier profile in Jet Magazine, 1953, however, Yerby is touted for writing seven novels in seven years. According to The Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance by Aberjhani and co-author Sandra West, for years many readers did not know Yerby was black because of the kinds of books he wrote.


Anonymous said...

I began reading Yerby in the early '60s--all in pocket book. There was nothing in his novels which would have identified him as an Afro-American. There was no picture of him on the jackets, Once in while, there was a light sketch of him. It was so light you couldn't tell his ancestry. Of course, the brief bio didn't mention his dual race. But I don't blame the publishers. They didn't want to hurt sales.

Unknown said...

It should be noted that when Yerby left the United States, he did not go to a country full of black or brown people. He went to Europe. And the country he chose was under a fascist dictator, where he continued to live for the rest of his life. The point I'm making is that Yerby felt comfortable around European peoples because he was partly (mainly?) white himself. He enjoyed the white man's civilization and found its history very interesting and satisfying. He was obviously well regarded there or he would not have remained. The reason he shied away from topical racial subjects was because he had decided to assimilate among an adopted people whose society and culture he enjoyed. He simply had no interest in revisiting a subject he found distasteful. This does not in any way diminish his standing as a great African-American writer. He had a style and a fan base and he gave them what they wanted and what he enjoyed writing about.