In 1960s America, my incensed manner and harsh attitude still caused some shocked stares. My English 102 professor at the University of Georgia had just attacked one of my favorite authors, and I had decided to challenge him.
His statement that Frank Yerby was nothing but a pulp fiction writer had brought him my indignant comments and a jab into his chest to make my point. Yerby, to me, was a historical writer whose attention to detail and romantic portrayals appealed to my young, idealistic mind like no other. And I recognized that he was a hallmark in American fiction because he was one of the few successful black historical writers. The fact that he also was a native of my hometown didn't hurt, either.
Now I find myself defending Yerby once again, and against the most unlikely of detractors.
Frank Yerby's life reads as one of the most successful stories for blacks in this century. Born in Augusta as the son of an itinerant hotel doorman, he managed to receive his bachelor of arts degree from Paine College in 1937.
Yerby was the first black American to win the O. Henry Memorial Award for a short story. It is remarkable because at a time when the Southern United States was deeply ingrained in the politics of segregation, the winning short story focused on the racial inequities experienced by a black steel worker.
Other achievements followed: the first black American to publish a best-selling novel, and the first black novelist to have his writing made into a movie by Hollywood. Before his death Yerby had written 33 novels, and sold more than 55 million copies of his works.
There is an adage which expresses the belief that a prophet is not honored in his own country. The same, evidently, is true of successful writers. Frank Yerby, from the beginning, was criticized by other blacks for not being socially conscious enough to write about the plight of black Americans. This, despite the fact that he began and ended his career with a treatment of that very subject with both the short story mentioned, and with his novels.
Two novels, in particular, make the reader come face-to-face with the treachery and horror of slavery. And in A Woman Called Fancy, Yerby had enough social conscience to tackle such topics as class struggle within white society and spousal abuse long before the women's rights movement.
Yerby's self-imposed exile in Spain for most of his career has also been scrutinized and used as a target for ridicule. But Yerby stated that his upbringing in a segregated South caused him to move to Spain. Adversaries who labeled him as unconcerned with segregation failed to see that his was the ultimate statement of protest " he abandoned his native land in order to freely portray the truth through characters of all ethnic backgrounds.
But the criticism of Yerby's life and works while alive are nothing compared to the final insult thrown in his face, after death, by his own hometown and his alma mater, Paine College.
Former Augusta mayor Bob Young once stated that heritage tourism is the fastest-growing tourism segment in the country. We have honored Augusta's paramount native son, James Brown, with both a statue and a street named after him, and justifiably so.
However, the author who brought A Woman Called Fancy into Augusta and made this area known to the entire world has no such honor. In fact, this native Augustan, who in one expert's opinion is only rivaled by that extraordinary genius Alexandre Dumas, had only one remnant of his life left in the city. That remnant was his childhood home which, after being donated to his alma mater last year on a promise of restoration, was destroyed by a bulldozer in June.
This insensitive act of destruction was then explained by a statement that the home would be replaced with a replica that reflects the home's original architectural integrity and design. That is akin to promising your fiance a diamond ring and then buying her a Cubic Zirconia instead. It reveals the preconceived prejudices of the decision-makers against historical fiction that doesn't mesh with their interests.
To purposely destroy Frank Yerby's home is a transgression against the pride of this community and discloses a disrespect for the man, his vast talent and his dedication to what he perceived as his role as a black American and a writer.
(Dennis Jones is a Martinez resident.)
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