Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Bebe Moore Campbell: Writer, Activist, Friend


From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY. Author Bebe Moore Campbell died yesterday here in Los Angeles. Her latest book "72 Hour Hold" was like many of her previous books, a New York Times bestseller.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this remembrance.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: For many of us in the black community, November has been a month of loss. First Ed Bradley, the pioneering CBS newsman, died on the 9th. Then last week former New York Times editor Gerald Boyd, another pioneer, died.

Then in the early hours of yesterday morning we lost Bebe Moore Campbell. She was one of this countries most important black writers.

Like Ed Bradley and Gerald Boyd, she died much too young. But while I knew Ed and Gerald from afar, I knew Bebe from around the corner. She was my neighbor and my friend.

Twenty years ago, Bebe appeared at my door with a bottle of champagne when I moved to Los Angeles a year after she did. She welcomed me to the neighborhood and assured me my homesickness for the East Coast would fade, eventually. She was partially right.

And it was Bebe who would call me to walk up and down the neighborhood hills in the early evening. It was our communal effort to forestall middle age weight gain. She was successful; I was not.

She was successful at most things. People who saw the end result of Bebe's work assumed writing just flowed from her, and in some ways it did. She took great joy in writing. But for Bebe writing was a serious job. She took her time off as seriously she did at writing. Bebe and her husband Ellis Gordon enjoyed Martha's Vineyard with their two tiny granddaughters and their friends.

Author Jill Nelson and Bebe were fellow islanders each summer. Jill interviewed Bebe for her book "Finding Martha's Vineyard" and remembers how much Bebe cherished her time there.

Ms. JILL NELSON (Author): She loved the islands. She loved to relax. She had a great convertible. She played cards; she played Scrabble. And she was so straightforward about that like I - she said I just like when I am in the Vineyard I just want to relax. I love writing, but that is something I do in L.A.

GRIGSBY BATES: In L.A., Bebe was always participating in bettering something. she started a neighborhood beautification drive to make sure the streets were pristine. She always insisted on making things making not just for her but for the people beyond her immediate orbit.

When a family member was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and resisted treatment for it, Bebe helped to start a support group in the 'hood for people with mentally ill loved ones.

Then she wrote a novel partly based on the experience and used her book tour to educate the public. She explained why on NPR's NEWS & NOTES last year.

(Soundbite of previous NPR broadcast)

Ms. BEBE MOORE CAMPBELL (Author): The thing about being in denial and being in the closet and bowing down to stigma is you don't get any information. And after being in that organization with some friends who were also family members of mentally ill people, we decided hey, we need to start this on our side of town.

And so part of my mission for this book tour is to get black people owning up to the fact that yes we have mental illness in our families and to know that recovery is possible.

GRIGSBY BATES: But not from everything. Bebe's deep, deep faith helped her through her fight with a brain cancer that eventually took her life. Despite that grim diagnosis, she maintained her signature droll sense of humor throughout.

When I contracted hepatitis around the time she had been diagnosed, I dragged myself home from the doctors one afternoon to hear Bebe on my message machine.

Hey, Karen, it's Bebe, the message said. I heard you were sick, so I'm praying for you. Then she chuckled. I guess we should be praying for each other, huh? And I have been ever since. Bebe Moore Campbell was 56 years old and she wouldn't mind my adding she looked at least 10 years younger than that.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates
Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.