“Woman and Child Reading” (1977), by Romare Bearden. Image courtesy of the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park. Photograph by Greg Staley, 2011. © 2020 Romare Bearden Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
You Never Can Tell About A River
By KaToya Ellis Fleming
My search for Frank Yerby and our Augusta, Georgia
hings were not going as planned. I was already a year into my research on the life of Frank Yerby when I walked into the Collins-Callaway Library at Frank’s alma mater, Paine College in Augusta, Georgia. The once best-selling but now obscure Black writer was proving to be just as elusive in death as he had been in life, and I had been running into dead ends at every turn. Alana Lewis, the kind and accommodating archivist with whom I had exchanged many emails, was waiting for me at the circulation desk when I arrived. I followed her up two flights of stairs to the Special Collections department where Frank’s archived material is kept. She unlocked a heavy door, led me to a reading room, and pointed to a faded blue box sitting at the end of a table. I was at once excited and dismayed. This box, small and stuffed with manila folders, was either a treasure chest or a bust.
As I combed through the materials, the young woman charged with supervising me asked if I had visited the Yerby House, which since 2004 has sat on a prominent corner lot on Paine’s campus. I had. But the little yellow house just inside the school’s gates isn’t really Frank’s home at all. The house on 8th Street where he grew up sat abandoned and forgotten until it became an eyesore and was moved from the lot and donated to his alma mater in the name of historical preservation. But the house had become so decrepit that it had to be levelled and rebuilt; only a few bricks and the staircase remained. For their part, Paine did their best to resurrect the body of the house, though its spirit was long gone. Today even the replica is hardly a pampered showpiece. It has an unassuming presence that gave me pause when I saw it. I had to walk all the way around the structure to be sure that it was not just some innocuous little administrative building. A security guard confirmed that it was indeed the place. “But you need to call Institutional Advancement if you want to go inside,” she said. There was something Orwellian about the sound of that.
Among the materials in the solitary blue box were a handful of interesting letters, along with a copy of the yearbook from Frank’s senior year. But other than that, most of what I found was stuff I had already seen—book jacket photos and shots from the rare occasions when he’d granted a magazine or newspaper interview, manuscripts with a few disappointingly mundane margin notes, and an abundance of prosaic information that could be easily obtained, as I had months before, from a methodical marathon of internet searches. But in the file labeled “Folder 13,” a prize. An undated audio recording on a CD, labeled “talking book.” Now alone in the reading room, after much ado about getting the necessary equipment to listen to the thing—which in this case turned out to be an ancient computer—I donned the headphones that the librarian provided and clicked PLAY on Windows Media Player. Then, for the first time, I heard Frank’s voice.
He sounded almost exactly like I had expected him to: affected, pretentious—like someone doing an impression of Sir Sidney Poitier but at a slightly higher pitch. Sidney Poitier on helium. I guessed the recording must’ve been dubbed from a tape since Frank wrote the poems he was reading in the mid-seventies and had attributed them to the lovesick main character in his novel The Voyage Unplanned, published in 1974. Many years ago, when I first began to write . . . , he starts in an introduction to the poems, . . . writing always was, with me, obsessional behavior—a thing I never could have avoided. I looked around to confirm that I was still alone in the reading room. Then I took off the headphones and plucked the plug from the speaker jack, spilling Frank’s voice into the air around me. But unfortunately, pressed by the vulgar and commonplace need to keep body and soul together, I gave up my first and deepest love, the writing of poetry, for the writing of prose. I inched my phone as close as I could to the speaker and pressed RECORD.
A few days later, I was sitting in my modest apartment back in the Atlanta suburbs, at the kitchen table whose cracked beechwood top doubled as a desk, listening to the recording on my phone, when I was startled by an incoming message. Frank was cut off mid-sentence, during a particularly outlandish pronunciation of the word “goes” (it sounded like gy-ohs). The vibration sent the phone scooting across the tabletop like a thing possessed, and I snatched it up just before it took a suicidal dive over the edge. The message was an uncaptioned photo of my then seven-year-old niece, whose usual cuteness was leveled up a notch with her pose—new braids and an adorable smile thrown casually over her right shoulder. I was in the process of replying with my customary heart-eyed emoji when a second message came through. She can finally wear them, her father wrote. I scrunched my face and studied the picture again, this time enlarging it so I could see what I’d missed.
A wistful wave washed over me when my eyes landed on the Roller Derby Fireball roller skates on her feet—blue with a white stripe and bright red wheels. The ones that eight-year-old me had begged for relentlessly until that fateful morning, Christmas 1984, when my mama would, once again, prove her superiority to Santa.
Despite being nearly thirty-five years old, the skates looked like they were still in pretty good condition, considering that, while in my care, they were rarely treated to the pampered glide of a slick skating rink floor. I had preferred the rough rumble of bumpy pavement under my wheels as I zipped around our neighborhood. The one time I tried the skates out at Redwing Rollerway, I’d ended up spending most of the evening sprawled on the floor underneath the fluorescent lights, dodging the wheels of veteran skaters who whizzed by with expert precision as they scrutinized, with varying degrees of amusement and pity, the pathetic little girl in the fancy skates.
The Perry Avenue sidewalk skate champion that I was in real life could not stomach being the reason the DJ played “Another One Bites the Dust” for the hundredth time. I knew when I didn’t belong. I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and skated out into the place where I was most comfortable wearing them—the street.
Back in the eighties, the things that excited kids my age were of little interest to me. The skating rink disaster had only reinforced what I’d already known: I could get no joy from skating around the floor in a circle, hoping to catch the eye of—or at the very least, not look stupid in front of—the boy with the green eyes, the hi-top fade, and the Member’s Only jacket. Contrary to what my remembering him three decades later might suggest (his name may or may not be or definitely is Jesse), the prepubescent social scene just wasn’t my thing. The pressure was too much for my nerdy sensibilities.
Instead, my favorite place to skate was the sidewalk on my street. There I could skirt broken chunks of concrete with the grace of a gazellelephant. Or dramatically traverse the shallow dips of driveway entrances as if they were Olympic-size skate ramps. But mostly, I could coast along beside Uncle Wayne while he walked to the store or to the laundromat or to the bus stop, and listen to him tell me about all the talented and prominent Black folks throughout history who had called Augusta home, believing him when he said that, one day, I could be one of them.
I was in my early twenties when Uncle Wayne and I began recording those names in a notebook, vowing that eventually we would pick one—some unknown Black pioneer from Augusta—and he, the historian, would spearhead the research, and I, the writer, would pen the story. It was an exciting and lofty idea, and when we started, I didn’t know if we could actually pull it off. Back then, in the early 2000s, I was just a young woman with a baby, an incomplete college degree, an old-ass computer, and a dream. Becoming a real writer seemed like a fantasy—possible but not plausible, like winning the lottery or being drafted to the major leagues. It was the kind of fanciful profession that required talent, sure, but favored, over all, connections and luck. Being told I had the former was nullified by my utter lack of the latter two. But Uncle Wayne believed we could do it. Any excuse to spend time with him was good enough for me.
The last time I remember writing a name in the notebook was an evening back around 2010 that hadn’t been unlike any other. The stars peeked through the thick, black sky like a million tiny pinpricks, casting a celestial glow over my mama’s house when I walked Uncle Wayne and Aunt Debra to the car at the end of the night. An unscheduled visit to my mother’s house had turned into impromptu festivity, as was often the way. Mama, Aunt Debra, and Uncle Mike shuffled around the kitchen, talking loudly and tinkling ice in their glasses, and my kid (who was then still an actual kid) flitted around the room, bouncy and excited, enjoying all the perks that came with being the only little one around. Every now and then, laughter would light up the room.
At times like these, I would often catch Uncle Wayne looking around and smiling at no one in particular. He liked this part, when we were all together, our small but close-knit unit, just being. This day, after he took it all in, he gave me a look that was all business.
“I need you to add another name to our list,” he said.
His tone was almost conspiratorial, making our list sound like a hit list. I nodded and started digging in my shoulder bag for the fat fuchsia notebook that I carried around for when inspiration hit me, and also, for when it hit Uncle Wayne.
Among the names on the list was Amanda America Dickson Toomer, born in the late 1800s to an enslaved woman who was raped by a wealthy plantation owner. In an unprecedented move, Toomer had fought the courts for her inheritance after her father’s death—and won—becoming the richest black woman in Georgia. Her mansion still stands on Telfair Street in Augusta, reincarnated as a commercial office space.
The running list covered a whole notebook page, front and back, with only a few blank lines remaining. There was a star by the name *Frank Yerby.
“What’s the name?” I asked.
I laid the notebook on my lap and flipped to the list before rifling through the bag again, this time for a pen.
“The name is J. W. Lines,” Uncle Wayne said, emphasizing the last name.
“Lines?” I asked, to be sure. Uncle Wayne’s raspy drawl could tug a word from both ends until it was honeyed and stretched like half-melted caramel. I clicked the pen but didn’t write anything yet.
“Liiiines,” he repeated, drawing it out even further this time. “L-Y-O-N-S.”
I wrote it down.
“What’d he do?” I asked, even though I knew I didn’t have to.
“Now, he,” Uncle Wayne began, resting his elbow on his knee and pointing at me, “was the first black lawyer in Georgia. The very first one. Ever. Okay? This was in the late 1800s. Got his law degree from Howard University.”
I kept writing with my head down, knowing he would pause for emphasis when he really needed to drive a point home.
“Now, in addition to that, he was also the second—not the first, now, but the second—”
I looked up and nodded my understanding.
“—the second Black man to have his name on money.”
J. W. Lyons was an Augusta native who was the second Black man to ever be elected Register of the Treasury, in 1898. Hence, his signature had appeared on U.S. currency. I double underlined the word second and resisted the urge to ask “Who was the first?” because I didn’t want him to get sidetracked.
Uncle Wayne sat back in his chair then and stroked his beard. I looked at the list. Line after line, name after name.
“You think we can do them all?” I asked.
“Yeah, we can do it!” he said. “We’ll take ’em one at a time. Let me see what you got there.”
I handed over the notebook and he pored over the list, written half in his own scribbled handwriting and half in mine. Occasionally he tapped his fingertip on a name and punctuated it with an mm-hmm.
“Start with Yerby,” he said finally, handing the book back to me. Uncle Wayne had graduated in 1975 from Paine College, a private historically Black college in Augusta, and my uncle, a history major, was well versed in his school’s notable alumni. He chuckled and shook his head. “That damn Yerby was a trip. He’ll be right up your alley.”
Frank Yerby’s name was written in Uncle Wayne’s handwriting, one of the first additions to the list, but the asterisk beside it was mine. I didn’t remember when or why I’d put it there.
“Write this down,” he said. “You need to read ‘Health Card.’ That’s a short story Yerby wrote. Start with that.”
I wrote it down.
“He wrote a whole lot of stuff,” he added. “But start with that.”
This, of course, was back when we had both imagined that researching a man who had lived less than a mile from my grandmother’s house—the house that we had both grown up in decades apart—would be easier. Back when neither of us knew that Frank preferred to hide in plain sight. Back when it was unfathomable to think that when I finally started writing this story, Uncle Wayne would not be alive to see it.
If he were remembered much at all today, Frank Yerby might be remembered as the most prolific Black writer who has ever lived. He was born in 1916, the same year that, on a windy evening in March, the Great Fire lit the night sky with furious amber and reduced twenty-five square blocks of Augusta’s downtown to ash and soot. In his twenties, he moved north to escape the indignities of the Jim Crow South, a move that proved little other than the fact that one cannot outrun one’s Blackness nowhere in the whole of these United States, Blackness being a thing that tends to stick with a person. In 1946 he published a Southern antebellum romance novel set on a Louisiana plantation. White folks loved it. The book, The Foxes of Harrow, sold a million copies the first year and was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. But perhaps the Kirkus review from February 5, 1946, said it best:
First rate entertainment, in a full bodied, lusty regional novel of New Orleans and the bayou plantation reaches—a two generation story spanning the years from 1825 when the personable red-headed gambler [Stephen Fox] was picked off a river sand bar where he’d been stranded, and gambled his way to success and the hand of a cold and lovely Creole on to the Civil War and their son in whose blood ran the passions of both parents. There’s a good deal of the appeal of such novels as Frances Keyes’ River Road—to which it is comparable in richness of detail of plantation life, in picturing a slave-dominated civilization at its peak and its decadence. Good story telling.
Despite his picture on the dust jacket, there was a good chance some white folks didn’t know Frank was Black. Black folks did, though, and his peers especially were excited but skeptical of his flashbang success. African-American essayist and critic Blyden Jackson’s 1946 review of the book in the Journal of Negro Education starts out well enough—“There is no doubt that Frank Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow is a great moment in American publishing for Negroes.” But it begins to devolve just a few sentences later—“It would be nice, therefore, to be able to report that The Foxes of Harrow represents as genuine a triumph in the world of literature as it does in the marketplace and along the front of racism.” And it’s all downhill from there. Support soon fizzled even more when it became clear that the author wouldn’t use his newfound platform to become a champion of racial justice. The Foxes of Harrow instantly made Frank the richest Black man to ever get rich from writing, and after a year, Foxes was optioned by 20th Century Fox for $150,000—an unprecedented amount in 1947 for a writer of any race—and was made into an Oscar-nominated motion picture that resembled the book in a way that is best described as “somewhat.”
But before all that, Frank lived on the outskirts of a part of our town then known as the Terry, a large, predominantly Black district that became a refuge for newly emancipated people whom the Freedmen’s Bureau relocated to Augusta after the Civil War. The settlement, initially known as Verdery’s Territory, would later be referred to as the Negro Territory. By the time the Yerbys moved in around the turn of the century, the name would be shortened to simply the Terry. From the time of the South’s defeat in the war until the early 1940s, the Terry, which had first been an Irish settlement, grew into a robust and thriving enclave, housing some twenty thousand Black residents and their burgeoning places of business.
One street over from the site of Frank’s home on 8th Street is James Brown Boulevard, named in honor of the Terry’s most famous resident. Until 1993, James Brown Boulevard was known as 9th Street, and it ran through the heart of the Terry and sectioned off a portion of the neighborhood called the Golden Blocks. The Golden Blocks were home to Augusta’s Black business district as well as the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute, where a young Frank Yerby and his siblings would get their elementary and secondary educations.
The Yerbys were about as well off as a Black family could be in early 1900s Georgia, due in large part to the work Frank’s father, Rufus, had found as an itinerant hotel doorman who traveled between Miami and Detroit and, occasionally, home to Augusta. It was honest work though still paradoxical in its way. There was an air of status provided by such a post’s uniformed formality, and along with that came a stable income and, eventually, the benefits of union membership. On the other hand, it was a job that perpetuated the stereotype of black servility and preserved for white patrons the presumed luxury of black servitude, albeit with the bittersweet bestowal of tips—an act of feigned beneficence that made otherwise regular white folks feel aristocratic and ensured that employers wouldn’t have to pay recently freed Black people a fair wage. That tenet of American capitalism still affects service workers today.
Rufus’s job meant that he was away from his family often, but his wages ensured a decent life back home for his wife, Willie (Wilhelmina), and their four children, Ellena, Frank, Paul, and Alonzo. The Yerby children were raised by their mother, with help from her sisters, Aunts Emily, Fannie, and Louise. All four women were schoolteachers, a fact that no doubt aided in the future success of each of the children. One became a teacher, one a pharmacist. One, Alonzo, became the head of Harvard University’s Department of Public Health and the assistant U.S. Surgeon General under President Jimmy Carter. One became Frank.
A 1951 interview with Harvey Breit finds Frank, in his contradictory way, perfecting the art of the humble brag. “I was a fairly dreadful kind of student,” he said. “Nonathletic, very studious, took scholastic honors . . . ” I didn’t do much, but what little I did do was amazing.
Frank’s interest in storytelling developed early. Dr. James Hill, who has done some of the most personal and insightful work on Frank, recounts a few prognostic stories from the author’s youth. As a child, Frank was known to hoard the lunch money he was given until he had saved up enough to purchase his next great read. And it is said that he preferred staying inside with a book to playing with other children, often having to be shooed outside at recess by his teachers. Eventually he began weaving tall tales of his own, which he would tell at home to entertain his aunts. On one such occasion, when his Aunt Emily interrupted one of his elaborate stories, chastising him for making things up, his Aunt Fannie intervened. “Oh, let him alone,” she’d told her sister. “He might be a writer someday.”
Frank did grow up to be a writer, but not the kind he thought he would be. He had dreamed of being a poet, writing some of his earliest pieces when he was still a high school student at Haines. By the time he entered Paine College, which my Uncle Wayne would attend nearly forty years later, he had begun publishing a few poems in small magazines. In 1933, when his older sister Ellena shared a few pages of his work with James Weldon Johnson, her professor at Fisk, the feedback he received was direct but not discouraging. The verdict was that Frank could write, but the type of poetry he was attempting—the atavist ancestral odes that had been made popular by the reigning giants of the Harlem Renaissance—was not his strong suit. He was no Countee Cullen and anyway, by then, the poetry of the twenties was increasingly seen as primitive and outdated. He needed to switch gears and find his niche if he was going to make a name for himself in the literary world.
The day I committed to finding Frank was unremarkable as days go, save for the fact that Uncle Wayne was still in the hospital following a routine medical procedure that changed my life forever and claimed his, long before his physical body left this earth. Hours at his bedside stretched into days, the days into months, until being there had become our family’s new normal. Silence, never having been a thing that occupied the air between us, became a suffocating fog, thick and unbearable, cruelly punctuated by the constant hum and hiss of machinery and the occasional terrifying alarm. Sometimes I talked to him. Sometimes I prayed. But mostly I just held his hand and reeled with anger and cried until my mind and body ached with bone-deep grief. And then the tears dried up and a vast emptiness set in.
After a few months I had settled into a sunken-eyed zombie state that would eventually worry my mama enough to cause her to gently banish me from the hospital to recharge until I could functionally deal with my best friend being both there and gone. It was during my expulsion from the hospital that I found the notebook in which, for years, Uncle Wayne and I had been keeping notes. Places we would go, books we would read. Books we would write. I could think of no better outlet, no better way to connect to him than to throw myself into the work. It was then that I made the promise that I would finish what we started.
When I started researching Frank five years ago, I discovered, to my dismay, that there were few critical studies about his work and almost no biographical materials to draw from. Every single internet search, library quest, and archive dive turned up the same handful of pictures, articles, and papers, and a few oft-regurgitated tidbits of information. Enough for a C+ book report but not enough for a substantive biography. He has no family left in Augusta, most of his friends are dead, and it became increasingly apparent that Frank himself was an intensely private and complicated person. This I would learn later from his own words. And if the lack of information wasn’t enough of a roadblock, my first introduction to his work was his first and most famous novel, The Foxes of Harrow. While I was reading the book, I had to fish it out of the trash twice. Once after an eye-roll-inducing bit of dialogue in which an enslaved woman tells the main character, Stephen Fox, “We own each other,” and again near the end when Fox’s heroic transformation forced me into an existential crisis in which I wondered if I had ever known my uncle at all. I have never had the pleasure of keeping company with anyone Blacker than Uncle Wayne. If Beyoncé’s “7/11” is my personal anthem (which it is, because that’s my birthday), I imagine that Uncle Wayne’s must have been James Brown’s “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.” No one fought the power harder than he did. I couldn’t believe that he would have read even one page of such flowery Gone with the Wind bullshit. Especially if a brother wrote it. How did he even get past the cover, with Fox parading in the foreground of a sprawling plantation to the swooning approval of genteel white ladies wearing blue and red Scarlett O’Hara knockoffs? It was all too much. Foxes almost turned me off of Frank’s work altogether. But it didn’t turn me off of Frank. Instead of throwing me off course, my distaste for Foxes left me needing even more answers. I could almost see why he wasn’t taken seriously. What did Uncle Wayne see in him?
Nearly two years later, after Uncle Wayne’s death and the circumstances surrounding it, I was consumed with guilt over not having done the one thing he had specifically asked me to do. Read “Health Card.” Perhaps if the story, an O. Henry Award–winning piece of protest literature, had been assigned reading in one of my classes in undergrad, I may have gotten around to it. But even in my African-American Lit classes (perhaps especially in my African-American Lit classes), Frank Yerby just didn’t make the cut.
What I know for sure is that even though I didn’t read it when Uncle Wayne told me to, I read “Health Card” when I needed to. I read it at a time when I could relate to the desperation and the lingering, lonely hope that Frank must have felt while being Black in Augusta, Georgia, trying to cling to America’s prejudiced promise of life, liberty, and equality.
“Health Card,” which was published before Foxes or any of the Eurocentric “costume novels” Frank would become famous for writing, is about a Black soldier who confronts a pair of white military police officers who accost his wife and insult her by demanding to see her health card—a practice that was common on military bases if officers suspected that a woman was a prostitute. The story grapples with the sexualization of Black women and the assault on Black womanhood, the policing of Black bodies, and Black male emasculation. After reading the story, a Black U.S. Army private named John S. Cousins, who was stationed at Fort Gordon in Augusta, wrote to Frank expressing his and his fellow soldiers’ concerns about the main characters’ portrayals. The characters, Johnny and Lily Green, spoke in the kind of dialect that suggested they were uneducated. Frank wrote the soldier back, saying:
I wrote a novel in which the chief character is a Negro Ph.D. The publishers suggested that I have him quit school in his early high school days and become a prize fighter! . . . “Health Card” was written with the high purpose of pure education propaganda to help make things better racially. As such it had to be published, and if I had insisted as I dearly wanted to—upon making college graduates out of Johnny Green and Lily I can assure your friends that Harper’s or no other white magazine would have touched it. Is it or isn’t it better to make a small point or no point at all?
It was a fair question. It’s also a prime example of the way Frank communicated with people who challenged him. It’s the way he communicates with me, too. In my quest to find him I’ve discovered more questions than answers, and most of those questions come from Frank himself.
My preconceived ideas about Frank’s work after reading The Foxes of Harrow made me question what could make a Black man who came of age in Augusta, Georgia, in the 1920s write stories in which Black people were disparaged, or irredeemably victimized, or absent altogether. But in this reverse chronology that I had accidentally undertaken to explore his work—along with what I was learning about him from his letters, his recorded interviews, and his remaining friends and family—I found myself more willing to take a closer look at what his absence from the historical literary conversation really signifies.
On some levels, I get it. My own fascination with Yerby began with my intrigue with the man. His work, not so much. But on closer examination of his canon you find a chronology of complexity, a timeline both evolving and devolving as it snakes through his beginnings, his beliefs, his concessions, and his subversions. As a young writer he had hobnobbed with the greats of the Harlem and Chicago Renaissances, a few of whom he rivaled in talent and all of whom he surpassed in monetary success. That had to count for something, even if his primary audience was made up of blue-haired Book-of-the-Month Club biddies. Eventually I would read The Foxes of Harrow again. I still didn’t like it. But by then I knew that I wasn’t the intended audience. What Frank’s books lacked for me in terms of subject matter, they more than made up for with some radical hidden truths about the man and his motives. One only needed to look closely.
I lived (existed is a better word, for I dwelt spiritually an alien and a stranger, in a totally foreign land) in Augusta from 1916 to 1936, Frank wrote in a letter to his acquaintance and literary scholar James Hill in 1973. Ever dramatic in his rhetoric, Frank’s point is nonetheless well understood. He never quite felt at home or welcome in Augusta, a town in which he was harassed and threatened by the police for walking his sister, who was even more fair-skinned than he, home from school down Broad Street. Although he had been fortunate to escape some of the more egregiously brutal punishments that came along with being Black under Jim Crow, for the twenty years that Frank lived there, ours was still a town that was under the rule of the Cracker Party, a corrupt faction of the Democratic Party that took control of every facet of local government and maintained a staunch and uncontested commitment to the disenfranchisement and oppression of Black folks.
After graduating from Paine in 1937 and then earning a master’s in dramatic arts from Fisk in 1938, Frank migrated north to Chicago with the hope of escaping the South for good. There he would pursue a PhD in English at the University of Chicago and join the Federal Writers’ Project, the Depression-era jobs organization, where he was an integral figure, although fellow alum Arna Bontemps would later describe him as a “wraith-like” presence in the program. During his time at the FWP, Frank worked with Katherine Dunham on an anthropological study that sent him undercover to write about “black cults.” When Dunham left Chicago and headed to New York to nurture her skyrocketing career as a dancer, Frank began working with Jack Conroy, who published Frank’s short story “Thunder of God” in the Spring 1939 issue of his literary magazine The New Anvil.
“Thunder of God” was Frank’s first published work outside of the few poems and short stories that he had previously placed in small magazines and college papers as a fledgling writer. “You never can tell about a river,” the story begins. A softly rendered warning. A cautionary assertion that even a thing of beauty, calm and serene, can turn so fierce that nothing can tame it.
Set in Augusta in 1929, it’s the story of a group of Black students at Haines Institute who, during a terrible storm, are wrested from their beds in the middle of the night by white police officers and forced at gunpoint to repair the city’s levee as the Savannah River rises to a dangerous level. One man in particular, the section boss, brutalizes the young men and threatens to kill them if they stop working, even though it’s cold and raining in sheets and the ominous thunder warns of increasingly perilous weather. When lightning strikes the levee, killing three of them and sending the cruel section boss tumbling over the side, the remaining young men watch as he clings there, begging for their help until the river sweeps him away. Water is rushing into the “colored” part of town, the levee protecting it having been dynamited in order to lessen the pressure on this one—the one that they have been forced to man. Knowing that the levee will breach if they abandon the work, leaving the white part of town vulnerable to flooding and destruction, the young men walk away.
This was hardly a story that could be considered pacifist. It was so revolutionary, in fact, that it was reprinted in 1973, during the height of the Black Power Movement, in an anthology called Writers in Revolt. After reading it, I began to see that Frank’s critics’ claims that he was an apolitical race traitor might be somewhat misguided, and I started to wonder if there was something that I was missing—some nuance, some subversion—in the broader canon of his work.
Although his time in Chicago was brief (financial difficulties would send him back South after just nine months), the work he produced while in residence there placed him solidly in the camp of significant Chicago Renaissance writers, establishing him as a literary force—and one who had not always shied away from writing about the race problem. But perhaps in the end, that fact was a double-edged sword. Surely he would have fared no better among his peers as a Black writer who had never taken up the mantle of protest than he did as one who had toted the mantle but seemed to lose it along the way.
After leaving Chicago in 1939, Frank became a professor of English, teaching at Florida A&M University and then Southern University in Louisiana, during which time he would meet and marry his first wife, Flora. Shortly after their wedding in 1941, the two moved to New York, and then Detroit, and then back to New York in 1944 with their three small children, Jacques, Nikki, and Faune. A fourth, Jan Keith, would come along later. Frank gave up teaching and began working first as a technician at Ford and then as an inspector at Ranger Aircraft, a division of Fairchild that manufactured the engines for the planes flown by American pilots in WWII. In the meantime, he continued to publish a few short stories here and there and completed a protest novel—it was about a Black steel mill worker who experienced racial discrimination in the North—which he submitted to a Redbook writing contest. Redbook editor Muriel Fuller wrote back: “This is a lousy novel, but you sure can write. Send me something else.” Frank submitted “Health Card,” which wasn’t a good fit for Redbook, Fuller said. She sent it to Harper’s instead. Harper’s published the story in 1944 and it went on to win the O. Henry Memorial Prize for best short story, a nationally recognized award that put Frank on the map. And that is when everything began to change.
Sometimes when you lose someone, someone you’re not sure you can live without, you do what you can to keep them present in your world. To make them feel real again. Sometimes you even go about the terrible business of trying to reconcile the past with people who are dead. You can’t, of course. But anyway, you try. Because the promises of the dead die along with them, but the promises you make to them—they never, ever expire. “We who still live do what we must,” author Jesmyn Ward states at a pivotal point of revelation in her memoir, Men We Reaped. Sometimes that survival is heroic. Sometimes it is only just survival.
After Uncle Wayne died I threw myself into the work that we’d agreed to do together, enrolling the next year in an MFA program for narrative nonfiction in the journalism school at the University of Georgia. I knew how to write, but I needed to learn how to think like a journalist. By then, I’d discovered that I was on the hunt for a story that didn’t want to be found and I needed to learn how to find it. I convinced myself that more schooling was the answer. “I’m writing a biography of Frank Yerby,” I had declared to my professors. An unintentional lie. What I had intended as Frank’s definitive biography was slowly falling apart. Much of what I learned early on about Frank’s personal life, you now know too, having read this far. A paltry biography indeed.
In my second year of grad school, after the “one box” treasure hunt at the Paine College library, I secured funding to go to Boston University to visit Frank’s official collection in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. It was a trip I had been hoping to take since finding a dichotomously rude and charming letter at Paine a year earlier in which Frank had explained to the college’s then president, Dr. Julius Scott, his decision to house his archives at BU. If my papers (or Abraham Lincoln’s which also repose in that magnificently scientific repository) were brought back to Paine, they would crumble into yellow dust inside of twenty years, he states in the letter. In short, Julius, beyond the simple fact that I gave my word and my word means something, they can preserve papers. You can’t. I scheduled the trip for spring break. That week, a nor’easter blew through thirteen states, dumping buckets of snow from Virginia to Maine, blanketing Massachusetts and making travel impossible. A whole damn blizzard. In March.
Detoured but undeterred, I moved home to Augusta later that year, hoping that the proximity to both our origin stories would be serendipitous. It was. A little. But now, I’m chasing ghosts. And much like the real Frank, Frank’s ghost is bitter and delights in being petty. Instead of haunting me, he’s hiding, leaving behind enough sulfur to make his presence known but not enough light to find him.
I don’t deny that I’ve come a bit unglued trying to fulfill the promise I made. When Uncle Wayne died, I refused to accept the finality of his life—a big, beautiful journey that, at its conclusion, was still a series of unknowable truths and dreams that would never be realized. He’s not the only one I’ve lost. But he’s the one who, since as early as I can remember, shined a light for me on a path paved with goodness and knowledge and pride. He’s the one who taught me about the rich Black history of our city and the strength, the resolve, and the intelligence of our predecessors and their remarkable accomplishments in the face of unimaginable obstacles. We were here because generations of people before us had persevered. And their voices, like mine, deserved to be heard. Frank, especially, needed to have the record set straight.
Back home in Augusta, I started to take note of the city’s ironies in a way I hadn’t before. I was becoming (and continue to be) worried that my son, a teenager at that time, was susceptible to racism anywhere in the country, not just in Georgia. It’s a worry that I didn’t have for myself growing up in Augusta in the eighties. But even though there was no pervading sense of imminent danger back then, there were those inequities that were just “the way it was.” For one, there was the rule at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the prestigious Masters Tournament, that all the caddies had to be Black. That one lasted until 1983. Then there’s the expressway named in 1966, as a middle finger to civil rights–era integration efforts, in honor of John C. Calhoun, a known segregationist and defender of slavery. Last I checked, that one was still a hot topic at city council meetings. And, of course, there’s the elaborate eighty-foot-tall Italian marble Confederate monument that smugly decorates a grassy plaza on the 700 block of Broad Street. Standing in the shadow of it feels some kind of way. Its very presence, an affront—even in spite of the gleaming golden statue of the Godfather of Soul that stands grinning and ever-funky just a block away.
Once I had a foothold in our hometown, a few doors began to open, while others slammed in my face. This is partly my own fault since I started on the path of least resistance, interviewing my own family first. In 1975, my father was a junior at Haines, which by then had been renamed Lucy Craft Laney High School. He was there when Frank addressed the student body during an assembly in March of that year.
“I met him,” my father told me. “He was light-skinned. Wore glasses. Dressed sharp. Does that help?”
It did not.
My mother didn’t remember him coming to the school at all. When I told her the date, March 10, she was sure that the reason she didn’t remember was because that day was her seventeenth birthday.
“I probably wasn’t even there,” she told me, as if I’m a person who never knew my grandmother. Of course she was there, birthday or no. Granny would’ve seen to that.
Mama then called a member of our church who had been an administrator at the time of Frank’s visit to the school.
“Do you remember the writer Frank Yerby ever coming to Laney?” I heard her ask him. “Around the time that I was still there?”
When she hung up the phone, she told me that the man, a former principal, said no, Frank never came to Laney and, in fact, he had been long dead by 1975. Which, unless his ghost went on to write six more books, is just not true.
Their responses are no surprise. This forgetting of Frank seems to be the norm even among the folks who knew him well. Those few who are able to speak about him at all do so as if they are talking about a phantom. Thankfully, Dr. James Hill remembers him well, and after a four-hour drive to Albany, a pleasant lunch meeting with him yielded some helpful information. In a 1968 paper, Dr. Hill’s own mentor, Dr. Darwin Turner, himself a Yerby scholar and a friend of Frank’s, had expressed the theory that Frank used his historical romances to “debunk” American myths and to inflict pain on his white protagonists; not in homage to Shakespeare (who was one of his literary heroes), nor in an attempt to satiate the appetites of a sadistic American readership. He did it, Dr. Turner said, to avenge himself vicariously through their punishment.
For all of Dr. Hill’s fascinating anecdotes and his reassuring enthusiasm for my project, I still left our meeting with more questions than answers. There were confirmed suspicions—the mean exterior was an act. A challenge—Frank was a very private person; finding biographical material will be hard. And a charge—there is much more work to be done. I was energized and determined to be the one to do it.
After the enormous success of Foxes, both the book and the movie, Frank retreated abroad, becoming elusive and even more complex in his literary style, abandoning overt protest literature and devoting himself entirely to historical fiction. Eventually his meticulously researched stories ventured beyond the American South, as he himself had, but with very few exceptions his protagonists remained white. Was Dr. Turner right about the reason why?
Listen, do you want me to tell you a true story about that book?
Frank asked me the question, as he often does, from the pages of an interview, this time a poorly translated one from a Spanish newspaper in 1984. It’s hard to say whether the translation is jacked up because of my subpar Spanish or Frank’s, although he does admit during the interview that his second wife, Blanca, a native Spaniard, called him a media lengua. Half-tongue.
At that time I lived in Detroit. I had just won the O. Henry Memorial award for “Health Card” and immediately it rained offers to publish a novel. I remember telling my first wife: When the war is over, the Ford factory will close and we will go hungrier than the Chinese. Do you know what we could do? Follow [H. L.] Mencken’s advice, that no one has been ruined by underestimating the taste of the American reader.
Right now I am going to start writing the most detestable novel in the literary history of the world, so stinky that I will have to cover my nose with cotton so as not to endure the smell of what I write. That novel was The Foxes of Harrow.
This account, although surely enhanced for dramatic effect, would have been after he had tried and failed to sell his protest novel. The bitterness of that rejection perhaps caused him to revolt in the form of Foxes. He had failed—and also, succeeded—spectacularly.
The book sold like crazy, and before long, 20th Century Fox optioned the film rights. That stroke of luck came not a moment too soon. Once the neighbors in their affluent Valley Stream, New York, neighborhood had discovered that the ambiguously ethnic Yerbys weren’t just tanned—they were tanned permanently—the family had begun receiving the same threats and harassment that Frank thought he was escaping by fleeing north. But the $150,000 advance that he deposited at a local bank took his family instantly from personae non gratae to the most favored residents in the Long Island neighborhood. Meanwhile, his proud family back home in Augusta were still made to sit in the “colored” section of the theater where the movie premiered to wide acclaim. His New York neighbors’ turnabout would be too little, too late. Frank had had enough.
I’m a chronically dissatisfied person. I mean, nothing I ever do ever really pleases me fully.
I stared at Frank’s words on the page and understood them more than I would have liked to. Shortly after his career’s greatest success, Frank quietly relocated his family to France. And then eventually, with a new wife, a final move, to Spain. He lost touch with the peers with whom he would never quite be friends. He admired Richard Wright but likely never told him so. Amiri Baraka admired him though Frank dismissed him and would only refer to him as “LeRoi Jones.” He wrote over thirty more books that were nearly all best-sellers. He wrote another protest novel that would never be published. He was never again harassed walking down the street with his wife. He was rich beyond belief. He was never truly happy.
In Imani Perry’s Looking for Lorraine, Perry explains her choice to refer to the book’s subject, Lorraine Hansberry, by her first name. “I call her Lorraine rather than Hansberry because she is just one of a number of Hansberrys whose names you ought to know,” she says in the book’s introduction. I call my subject by his first name too, but for a much different reason. I call Frank “Frank” because over the past several years we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well and, while we are more nemeses than friends, I believe that when a person burrows into you, disrupts your spirit, and inhabits your mind, you earn the right to be on a first-name basis. His having been dead thirty years is no hindrance to our twisted kinship. His being dead just makes him the same as the rest of my ghosts. The many gone loves with whom my soul longs to speak.
In 1977, the year I was born, Frank was hard at work on his thirtieth novel, A Darkness at Ingraham’s Crest, at his home in Madrid. It was only his third published novel to feature a Black protagonist. Clipped to the folder in which he placed each finished, typewritten sheet of the work-in-progress was a two-page list of questions, double-spaced and in all caps.
IS THIS RELEVANT?
DOES THIS ITEM ADVANCE THE PLOT?
IS THIS DESCRIPTION OF THIS CHARACTER DESIGNED TO REVEAL THE CHARACTER AS A MAN, AS A PERSON, AS A WOMAN? OR IS IT DESIGNED TO SHOW OFF HOW MUCH YOU KNOW ABOUT SOMETHING . . . TO GET OFF ONE OF YOUR PET PEEVES, TO ILLUSTRATE ONE OF YOUR CRACKPOT THEORIES?
The last question leaps off the paper and slaps me across the face:
ARE YOU ALLOWING THIS STORY TO HAPPEN, OR ARE YOU TRYING TO TELL IT . . .
It was an accusation, I decided, directed at me, personally. It was a fair assessment, too, and therefore wildly offensive. It was Frank ridiculing the blinking cursor of shame that taunts me as I write the story of his life. Or more accurately, as I attempt—and fail—to write it. I’m ready, the cursor says with every steady, impatient wink. I’m ready, but are you? Are you allowing this story to happen, or are you trying to tell it?
I have discovered too late that there is no use trying to tell the story you want to tell. The story that wants to be told always finds its way to the page one way or another. On this journey, the story is the road, my grief flowing alongside it like a river. Sometimes clear and calm. Sometimes threatening to drown me. But always, always there. From time to time, like now for instance, I will be so deep into this work, doing this thing that I love, that I forget. I will have learned some new thing about Frank and I get so excited that I momentarily feel something akin to happiness. Almost immediately that joy turns sour, curdling, destroying itself like a thing not meant to be mine. Those are the times when I remember that when this work is done, Uncle Wayne won’t be here to see it. The river is ever running, but the road stands still. If this story isn’t meant to be a biography, perhaps it will be a redemption song. It remains to be seen whether it will be Frank’s or mine.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.