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  • Written by Bebe Moore Campbell
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  • Written by Bebe Moore Campbell
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Your Blues Ain't Like Mine

Written by Bebe Moore CampbellAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Bebe Moore Campbell

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--San Francisco Chronicle
"TRULY ENGAGING...Campbell has a storyteller's ear for dialogue and the visual sense of painting a picture and a place....There's a steam that keeps the story moving as the characters, and later their children, wrestle through racial, personal and cultural crisis."
--Los Angeles Times Book Review
"YOUR BLUES AIN'T LIKE MINE is rich, lush fiction set in rural Mississippi beginning in the mid-'50s. It is also a haunting reality flowing through Anywhere, U.S.A., in the '90s....There's love, rage and hatred, winning and losing, honor, abuse; in other words, humanity....Campbell now deserves recognition as the best of storytellers. Her writing sings."
--The Indianapolis News
--The Seattle Times
"A COMPELLING NARRATIVE...Campbell is a master when it comes to telling a story."
--Entertainment Weekly
YOUR BLUES AIN'T LIKE MINE won the NAACP Image Award for Best Literary Work of Fiction


The music was as much a gift as sunshine, rain, as any blessing ever prayed for.

Lily woke up when the singing began. She lay quiet and still in her bed until her head was full of songs and the strong voices of the fieldworkers from the Pinochet Plantation seemed to be inside her. Part of the song was soft like a hymn; then it would rise to the full force of vibrant gospel and change again to something loud and searing, almost violent. The music was rich, like the alluvial soil that nourished everything and everyone in the Delta. Lily began to feel strong and hopeful, as if she was being healed. Colored people's singing always made her feel so good. Much too quickly, the song was over, without even leaving an echo to keep her company. Years later, she would fight to hum even a scrap of the notes that floated to her from the Pinochet Plantation that day, but by then the song had seeped into the land like spilled blood, and its vanishing echo was just another shadow on her soul.

As Lily lay in bed looking out the window into the wee hours of that Mississippi morning, it seemed as if someone had drawn down a heavy black curtain on the world. She felt lonely and adrift in the sudden quiet. Daylight was at least an hour away, and she couldn't fall back asleep. She groped in the dark toward the still body of her husband, who was lying next to her.

With movements as quick and furtive as a thief's, Lily pressed her breasts into Floyd's bare back; she wanted him to wake up feeling the tips of her nipples against his skin, the slight undulating movement of her groin rotating against his behind. It was like the ticking of a clock, the way her crotch burrowed into him: a small relentless movement. He'd been gone for nearly ten days and had returned earlier that evening. She felt frightened and weak when he was away from her. It was as though she didn't exist when he was absent. As she pressed into him, rubbing his shoulder blades with the tips of her nipples, she thought of how excited he would be when he woke up. She smiled, thinking of how she could make him want her, remembering the times he even begged. Maybe he would plead with her this time. She might yawn a little and act uninterested, which would only make him hotter. She gently stroked his behind with her thigh over and over again. Lily squeezed her small, white body against Floyd's back and rested the side of her face on his shoulder blade. She kissed his spine and thought: If I can get him to give me three dollars, I'll get me another Rio Red lipstick; ain't had a lipstick in going on three months. I might can buy me some Evening in Paris and a scarf too. And maybe some rose-colored nail polish. The thought of the lipstick, the bottle of perfume, the scarf, and the nail polish made her breath come heavy and fast. She calmed herself because the trick was to wake Floyd softly, to let him discover her squeezed against him, to make it seem coincidental that the front of her nightgown was undone, her breasts exposed. Wanting her had to be his idea; he didn't like it the other way around. Floyd said only whores acted that way.

Looking out the window, Lily could see that a soft, drizzling was coming down. It had rained almost the entire time that Floyd had been gone, a hard driving rain that rattled the tin roof and leaked into the pots and pans she placed strategically throughout the house. Not that it made a dent in the September heat spell they'd been seeing in Mississippi, Lily thought. Probably just fatten up the old mosquitoes and breed new ones. She wondered if her husband would ever fix the roof.

Lily's body was soft and slightly damp, like the weather. She could smell the musty odor coming from between her legs and clamped her thighs shut to keep the scent away from Floyd. When they put in a bathroom, she would take baths every night. Bubble baths. Beneath the thin sheet, she could feel her husband's first waking movements. She wrapper her arm around his waist and her husband's neck--which was speckled with dirt he hadn't bothered to wash off--about the $67.58 in his pants pocket, pay for a week of construction work in Louisiana. Then, just seconds before he woke up she fell away from him, so that only her nipples grazed his back. It was easy to let her mouth fall open, to push a soft, sleepy moan from her lips. She thought: I can make him do what I want now.

Lily opened her eyes slowly when he touched her. Fully awake, they admired each other. They were beautiful in similar ways; the people in the town used to mistake them for brother and sister. They both had glossy, dark curls, the same full lips and bright green eyes. They were a pair, all right. Lots of folks told them that they were the best-looking couple in the Delta.

"You are a very pretty thing," Floyd said. He put his hands on Lily's breasts, then wriggled down in the bed and began sucking one of her nipples, gently at first and then with growing force. He pushed her gown up, then grabbed her hips, pulling her into his groin; he put his fingers between her legs and pushed up inside her. Lily felt a sudden fire. She wanted her cry out, "Harder!"--she often wondered what the harm would be--but she said nothing. As Lily closed her eyes, bright colors swirled around her head. She could feel herself opening up in sweet anticipation.

Floyd slid into her too fast, then began rocking and pumping and pressing, his fingers grabbing and kneading all the wrong places. Lily opened her eyes. Disappointment gripped her shoulders like an old friend. She wanted cry out, to tell him to stop, that her power was gone, that she would have to ride out the storm. Go numb.

She had learned to do that years before.

She bit down on her lip and there her around Floyd and held on as tightly as she could until she felt his shudders and hard spasms; then she closed her eyes and let out a practiced moan. When her last sigh faded, she fell away from him with relief.

Floyd smacked her on her behind, then reached for a pack of Winstons that lay on a rickety table next to their bed, and leaned forward, lighting two. He handed her one. "You know what?" Floyd said, blowing out smoke. "You know what? I'm taking you to Memphis."

She turned to Floyd. Words bubbled in her throat but wouldn't come out. Finally she managed, "For true? Memphis! Lordy!" Her disappointment, her pain, was pushed aside. Memphis!

"We gon' go for a week, after I come back from Little Rock. 'Round November or December. Be nice weather then. Cool. Couple of these boys around here owe me some money, and they'll pay up once the cotton's in. We can stay with some of my people. I got first cousins in Memphis. That make you happy?"

She flung her arms around him, grinning. He moved away from her and stretched. Frowning a little, he turned to her and said, "That girlfriend you useta set such store by, what's her name?"

"Corinne," Lily said carefully.

"She gon' take you to Memphis?"

"No, Floyd." Lily hadn't seen Corinne for months. Her old schoolmate no longer came around and neither did anyone else, except Floyd's family.

"And you sure can't take yourself."

"No, Floyd, I sure can't. I need you to take me. I need you for everything."

"He didn't try to hide his pleasure. "I want to go by the pool hall later and check on things," he said, smiling.

Lily measured her words so they sounded casual and spontaneous. "Can I come with you? Keep you company? Maybe on the way back we can run to town and stop at the drugstore. I need me a couple of things."

Floyd gave his wife another quick swat across her behind. "Fix me some cornbread this morning, will you? I got me a taste for cornbread."

After Lily got up, Floyd went back to sleep. She was hoping she could get breakfast cooked before her baby awoke, but just as she got a fire going in the stove, she heard Floydjunior's cries. She cooked with the boy on her hip, holding his bottle. "You hush now, " she hissed in the child's ear as Floyd came in. She scurried to the table while her husband washed his hands and face at the kitchen sink, which had the only running water in the house. By the time he sat down, she had finished putting the food on his plate.

After breakfast, Floyd and Lily walked down a dirt road that ran in front of their house. The air was scented with jasmine as they walked to his brother's home, passing houses that resembled their own: shotgun clapboards set up on cinder blocks, where the gardens in the back were haphazard affairs and the chickens and guineas were likely to wander into the front yard and even into the road. The string of homes owned by the poor whites in the area faced a long stretch of hedges. Behind the hedges was a dump and, in back of that, the Quarters, a compound of rented two-room tar-paper shacks where the filed hands and sharecroppers who worked the nearby plantations lived, surrounded by yards full of Johnson-grass and buttercups and an occasional net clapboard that some enterprising Negro had managed to erect.

They borrowed Floyd's brother's truck and left Floydjunior behind, heading for town, driving across land that was perfectly flat, punctuated only by acres and acres of Pinochet cotton, occasional splotches of rice, soybeans, and milo. They reached the city limits of Hopewell and were about to park where they could see the banks of the Yabalusha, which washed up along the east side of the delta town near the railroad tracks, when Lily said, "Floyd please drive through the Confederacy." She held her breath until the truck turned down a wide street, shaded by huge oaks and stately magnolias.

Even better than looking in the store windows, she like driving through the Confederacy, an area composed of General Lee Boulevard, General Jackson Road, and General Longstreet Avenue. On these streets, half hidden behind a bank of towering magnolias, were large brick two-story homes with screened-in front porches and meticulous lawns where the shiny black faces of sculpted lawn jockeys in red jackets and white pants were frozen in perpetual grins while inside, their living counterparts were equally accommodating. Lily often daydreamed about how it would be to live in one of these houses, the finest she'd ever seen. Of course, the sprawling plantation mansions of the Settleses and Pinochets, reminiscent of the antebellum splendor that was part of the region's mythology, were grander. But who could even begin to imagine living in one of those?

Lily didn't come into town very often, and the sight of the paved streets and the stores made her eyes open wide with expectation, even though the city was small, its business district no more than three or four blocks sandwiched between the two gins--both owned by the Pinochets--that made up the north and south boundaries. As they drove down Jefferson Davis Boulevard, the main downtown thoroughfare, she craned her neck in hopes of glimpsing the Chinaman and his family who ran the town's laundry and Chinese restaurant. Or maybe the Jew who owned the small department store would pass by. She yearned for something wild to touch, see, or feel. Some excitement.
Bebe Moore Campbell|Author Q&A

About Bebe Moore Campbell

Bebe Moore Campbell - Your Blues Ain't Like Mine

Photo © Barbara DuMetz

Bebe Moore Campbell was the author of several New York Times bestsellers: Brothers and Sisters, Singing in the Comeback Choir, What You Owe Me, which was also a Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2001, and 72 Hour Hold. Her other works include the novel Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and the winner of the NAACP Image Award for literature. Bebe Moore Campbell died in 2006.

Author Q&A

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.
<i>Your Blues Ain't Like Mine</i> 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
in that?

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
referring to?

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

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Armstrong Todd is the perfect scapegoat. Why?

2. Lily Cox is partly responsible for Armstrong Todd's murder. Yet, in
what ways is she also a victim?

3. Floyd Cox and Clayton Pinochet appear to be two different men
from two different walks of life. Examine the ways in which their
relationships with their fathers are similar and in which ways
Floyd's and Clayton's responses to their fathers are different.

4. Ida and Sweetbabe, Lily and Floyd junior--two mothers and two
sons. How are Ida's and Lily's circumstances similar? How is Ida's
character different from that of Lily's?

5. Discuss the character of Jake. Is he an enemy to his own race, an
enemy, or just selfish?

6. The Illinois Central train runs through the town of Hopewell.
What does this train mean to Armstrong, Lily, Ida, and Clayton?

7. What is Clayton and Marguerite's relationship like initially? How
does this relationship change? Why does it change?

8. Wydell poses the question to Delotha, "What kind of mother would
send her own kid to that hellhole?" Was Delotha a bad mother and
responsible for Armstrong's fate?

9. Does Wydell ever become a real man? Why or why not?

10. What is the significance of the singing of black slaves to all the different
characters, black and white, throughout the novel?

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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