Rediscovering Frank Yerby, a project I have been working on for a few years, will be out this May from the University Press of Mississippi. Along with this, UPM will release Veronica Watson’s The Short Stories of Frank Yerby around the same time. I am extremely excited for each of these books, not just because I edited one of them. I am excited because ever since I started reading Frank Yerby, I kept seeing the ways he was challenging white supremacy and debunking the social constructions of race. While I saw these aspects, I also saw that he had all but been forgotten.
I initially discovered Yerby at public library book sales while I was a graduate student around 2013. One time, I went into the book sale, a massive expanse of books spread out within a room that looked like a warehouse, and immediately walked over to the small table off to the left of the room. The table housed older, first edition books. On the table, I saw a copy of The Foxes of Harrow, covering falling apart, and another Yerby novel. I bought the two books for less than $5 total.
I went home and placed them on the shelf. I never thought I’d read them. I just thought they’d sit there, serving as decoration, nothing more. I went back to the book sale when it came around again, and I found more Yerby books. I bought these too and placed them beside their siblings, sitting finely on the shelves.
I never read any of Yerby’s works in my classes. I think a professor may have mentioned his name, but apart from that, Yerby never came up in any discussions of American, African American, Southern, or any literature. My lack of knowledge continued as those purchases rested on my shelves, collecting dust.
That all changed when I went to New Orleans for a conference in 2015. Every time I go to the Crescent City, I head for the books shops that dot the the French Quarter. I walked into Beckham’s, and since I had some Yerby books at home, decided to look and see if they had any. There, I discovered Speak Now, Yerby’s 23rd novel and the first to feature and African American protagonist. Immediately, the cover caught my attention, and I started to read.
Speak Now opened my eyes to Yerby, and that novel provided me with a lens to go back and read Yerby’s earlier works, works that many dismissed because they didn’t focus on issues of “race.” They were not “social protest” novels. They were, as Yerby labeled his novels set in the Antebellum South, “costume novels.”
Throughout his work, Yerby worked to deconstruct hierarchies and labels, and this is what keeps drawing me to his work. Part of this deconstruction, I think, stems from his own experiences. As the son of a Black-Seminole fathers and Scots-Irish mother, he could pass, in areas. However, in Augusta, people labeled him as Black. When walking with his sister one day, he was attacked by the men labeled his sister as White and him as Black. Later, in New York, the community that him and his family move in to initially accepted them. However, once they discovered he was Black, their attitudes shifted.
Along with these racist incidents, critics dismissed Yerby because he did not write “social protest” literature. Robert Bone even infamously called Yerby the “prince of pulpsters” and Darwin Turner, who called Yerby the “debunker of myths,” even stated that if academics read Yerby they do so secretly so that others won’t find out about it.
Initially, with the publication of The Foxes of Harrow (1946), some such as Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps praised Yerby because his work freed itself from the strictures of race. However, they also wanted him, with his success, to overtly focus on racism, segregation, and oppression. (I think he did do that in his work, but that is something I’ve written about before.) When Hughes published The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, 1897-1967 (1967), he included Yerby’s O’Henry Award Winning, and I would add social protest, story “Health Card.” Hughes writes that Yerby’s success surpasses that of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Richard Wright:
But none has become really rich, except Frank Yerby who, after ‘Health Card,’ put the race problem on the shelf in favor of more commercial themes. His historical romances have wonderful moviesque titles like The Golden Hawk and The Saracen Blade, but there are no noble black faces among their characters when brought to the screen. Black faces seldom sell in Hollywood.
Hughes saw Yerby as abandoning issues of race, instead focusing on money and fame. An argument can be made that that is what he did, and I would not totally disagree. Yet, we also need to think about his own comments, which were in and of themselves ambivalent at times.
One comment really sticks out to me. During an interview with James Hill in 1977, Yerby pushed back against labels such as Black or African American writer, labels that still affect publishing and academia. One need only look at the ways that book sellers place texts in an African American section. This is something that Lois Beckett talks about with romance writers, of which Yerby was one in his career.
Yerby told Hill that you can’t sit down and tell a writer to solve the race problem. For him, “that is merde alors!” He continued by asking Hill if a Black writer is one who writes about Black themes. If the answer is “yes,” then, as Yerby argued, “the white Frenchman Guy de Maupassant, who wrote stories defending Blacks in France, is a black writer, and brown-skinned, kinky-haired mulatto Alexander Dumas who never wrote a word about Blacks in his life, was a white writer.” These are labels, socially constructed systems to create hierarchies and separate.
Ibram X. Kendi, Bruce Dain, Mia Bay, and countless others show the ways that these racial categories exist, even though no biological or scientific reason exists. The reason they exist is power, greed, and ambition. I pause every time I’m asked about Yerby. I pause because I think about the ways he identified himself. I think about the ways that I, as part of society, identifies him. I parse my words carefully. I move back, at times, into the way society defines him.
When I talk about Yerby, I begin simply enough. “Hew as the son of a Black-Seminole father and a Scots-Irish mother. He was a famous ‘Black’ author who published 33 novels, many being Book of the Month Club selections. He was the first ‘Black’ author to have one of his books optioned off as a film. . . .”
I purposefully use quotation marks around Black because I want to highlight the fact that the racial constructions we have erected are not scientifically real. They are, however, culturally and legally real. We cannot ignore them. Legally and in the eyes of American society, Yerby was Black. This is important. Kendi puts it this way,
Assimilationists believe in the post-racial myth that talking about race constitutes racism, or that if we stop identifying by race, then racism will miraculously go away. They fail to realize that if we stop using racial categories, then we will not be able to identify racial inequity. If we cannot identify racial inequity, then will not be able to identify racist policies. If we cannot identify racist policies, then we cannot challenge racist policies. If we cannot challenge racist policies, then racist power’s final solution will be achieved: a world of inequity none of us can see, let alone resist. Terminating racial categories is potentially the last, not the first, step in antiracist struggle.
Everyone should be able to construct their identity, and that is what Yerby is doing throughout his work and his interview with Hill. However, we cannot deny that racial categories, as false as they inherently are, do not matter. We cannot say, “I don’t see race.” If we do this, then, as Kendi notes, we do not tackle the policies that lead to inequity. We must confront those first if we ever hope to be “post-racial.”
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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