Beckham, Barry 1944–
Barry Beckham 1944–
Author, educator, publisher
Barry Earl Beckham’s reputation as an exceptional novelist relies almost solely on his first two novels, My Main Mother, published in 1969, and Runner Mack, from 1972. Both novels earned critical acclaim for their complex yet smooth-flowing style and their descriptions of the many psychological aspects of being black in America. Using the ironic relationship between comedy and tragedy, Beckham has been able to balance the absurd and the pathetic in a manner that both unsettles and provokes the reader. The author of several subsequent novels, Beckham is also recognized as the editor of several editions of the well-received reference book The Black Student’s Guide to Colleges, first published in 1982. After nearly two decades teaching at the college level, Beckham left the classroom in 1989 to devote his time to the Beckham Publishing Group, Inc., as both its founder and president.
Beckham was born on March 19, 1944, on the west side of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Clarence and Mildred (Williams) Beckham. When he was nine years old, he moved with his mother to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he lived on the segregated north side of the city. There he attended Atlantic City’s integrated public high school. Although 60% of the student population was white, Beckham excelled in the interracial atmosphere and was elected class president during his senior year. He was interested in black literature and culture, but found little encouragement or opportunity to pursue his interests during his high school years. However, the unique social and cultural environment of Atlantic City provided Beckham with a broad exposure to the world of black entertainment.
In 1962 Beckham was one of just eight blacks to enroll as freshmen at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. During his time as a student at Brown, Beckham suffered feelings of isolation and loneliness, which he attributed to the climate of institutional and social racism. He later documented his difficulties in his essay “Being Black at Brown,” published in Esquire magazine in 1969.
If Beckham received little exposure to black literature in high school, he received less at Brown. “I must admit that I learned more about black writers at Atlantic City
At a Glance …
Born on March 19, 1944, in philadelphia, PA; son of Clarence and Mildred (Williams) Beckham; married Betty Louise Hope, February 19, 1966 (divorced 1977); married Geraldine (Jerree) Lynne Palmer, 1979; children: (first marriage) Brian Elliot Bonnie Lorine Education: Brown University, AB, 1966; attended Columbia University Law School. Religion: Episcopalian.
Career: Chase Manhattan Bank, New York, NY, public relations consultant, 1966–67, urban affairs associate, 1969–70; National Council of YMCAs, New York, NY, public relations consultant, 1967–68; Brown University, 1970–72, visiting lecturer, assistant professor, 1972–78, associate professor of English, 1979–87, director of graduate program in creative writing, 1980–87; Hampton University, professor, 1987–89; Beckham Publications Group, Inc., Hampton, VA, president, 1989–.
Memberships: Authors Guild; Authors League of America; PEN; literature panel, Rhode Island Council on the Arts.
Addresses: Office —Beckham Publications Group, Inc., P.O. Box 4066, Silver Springs, MD 20914. Web site— www.beckhamhouse.com.
High School than I did at Brown,” he told Sansford Pinsker in a 1974 interview for Studies in Black Literature. “I can still remember a black teacher coming in and reading a poem by James Weldon Johnson—The Creation.’ But this was from an anthology and there weren’t more than three poems, but that was three more poems than I got at Brown.” Despite his lack of exposure to black writers, Beckham thrived under the tutelage of one of his professors, novelist John Hawkes, who taught him the foundations of good writing. Beckham began working on his first novel, My Main Mother, during his senior year in college.
Following his graduation from Brown in 1966, Beckham accepted a scholarship to Columbia University Law School in New York City, but withdrew after just two months. In need of a job, he landed a position as a public relations writer for Chase Manhattan in New York City. For the next four years Beckham worked in a variety of jobs in New York City related to journalism and public relations. In 1967 he left Chase Manhattan to accept a public relations position with the National Council of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). In 1968 he became a public relations associate for Western Electric Company, and in 1969 he returned to Chase Manhattan as an urban affairs associate.
Beckham published his first novel in 1969. The critically acclaimed My Main Mother is the account of a young black man who is driven to murder his mother. Narrated by the story’s protagonist, Mitchell Mibbs, My Main Mother is a psychological study of the life of a child tormented by his beautiful but alcoholic mother, to the point where he uses poison to commit matricide. Although the culmination of Mitchell’s life comes at the point where he kills his mother, such underlying themes as the destructive power of racism and white social dominance are also effectively woven into the novel. Soon after My Main Mother was published, William Castle, who produced Rosemary’s Baby, purchased the film rights to the book, although no movie was ever made.
As My Main Mother begins, the reader learns from Mitchell that he has killed his mother. He then proceeds to re-tell his life story and the events that led to this one hideous act. In the first half of the novel, the plot flashes back to Mitchell at the age of seven, living with his mother and a kindly uncle in Maine. Already suffering from his mother’s neglect and disdain, Mitchell is a conceited, angry, and belligerent youth. The second half of the novel focuses on Mitchell as a teenager and on the years directly preceding the murder. According to Peter Rowley in the New York Times Book Review, “It is in the second half [of the book] that My Main Mother comes to life. The scenes of Harlem, of how it feels to be an aged black from Maine getting a flat tire on Times Square, of encountering a homosexual in the Village, of street gangs and boarding houses, of the ironies of racism by the oh-so-reasonable Maine High School principal and the disdainful behaviour of a rich white coed at Brown, and finally the poisoning of Pearl, are fantastically vivid and compelling.”
In 1970 Beckham accepted an invitation to return to Brown University as a visiting professor, and in 1972 he joined the faculty as an assistant professor of English. In the same year he published his second novel, Runner Mack. The book was highly praised by the critics, and made the New York Times’ annual list of recommended reading. Unlike My Main Mother, Runner Mack, which creates a tone similar to that achieved in Ralph Ellison’s classic Invisible Man, is more directly critical of the racism inherent in American society. Although the plot is relatively straightforward, Beckham employed a complex style that weaves together daydreams, nightmares, and actual occurrences that the story’s main character, Henry Adams, refers to as “daymares.”
Runner Mack is structured around two sections. The first section begins as Henry is living in Mississippi, where he works for the Home Manufacturing Company. In the search for a better life, he and his wife move to New York and Henry tries out for a minor league baseball team, but his hopes are dashed by a racist manager who sabotages his chances to make it in baseball. The first section closes as Henry, now stuck in a dead-end job and living in the unbearable noise, filth, and racism of the city, receives his draft notice. Continually looking for his rightful place in the world, Henry responds to the notice with enthusiastic hope for a new future, still believing that the American ideology of opportunity and advancement might apply to him.
The second section of the novel follows Henry to Alaska, under the command of Captain Nevins, a white, blood-thirsty leader who, when he finds no enemy to kill, orders his men to slaughter herds of seals and caribou. Shocked by Nevins’ foul behavior and dismayed that yet one more dream has turned to dust, Henry finds solace in his friendship with fellow soldier Runnington Mack. Runner Mack, an honest but radical black crusader, becomes Henry’s mentor. Mack provided Henry with a framework for his disillusionment in the American social system and leads him down a path toward revolution.
Runner Mack enlists Henry in a grandiose plan for the violent overthrow of racist America by bombing the White House. However, when Runner’s grand scheme for a mass rally of revolutionaries results in a gathering of just eight people, the dismayed Runner hangs himself. With his mentor suddenly dead, Henry dashes from the meeting hall directly into the path of an oncoming truck, fulfilling one of his own previous nightmare visions. Through Henry, Beckham relays the message that both black conformists and black revolutionaries travel the same path of chaos and dehumanization. In the void left by Henry’s death at the end of the book, Beckham leaves the reader unsettled and without clear answers to the many questions raised in the story.
Although Beckham showed a propensity for drawing his characters as distinct categories of good and evil—with all whites falling on the evil side—his talent as a novelist emerged in both My Main Mother and Runner Mack as an ability to craft a balance between the comically absurd and the tragically absurd. This complex style enabled his readers to comprehend both the tragic and comic aspects inherent in the racist underpinnings of American culture, and his skill at describing each small scene enabled his audience to participate in the hopes, fears, and emotions of his characters, evoking both empathy and anger.
Following on the success of Runner Mack, Beckham produced his only play in 1972, Garvey Lives!, based on the life of Marcus Garvey, at Brown University. Beckham then began working on a novel based on his experiences at Chase Manhattan. However, in 1974 he interrupted this work when an editor at Quadrangle Books approached him about writing a fictionalized account of Harlem basketball great, Earl “The Goat” Manigault. The book was titled Double Dunk, a description of Manigault’s incredible ability to dunk, catch, and redunk the basketball in the same leap. Although he was a sensational player, Manigault fell into obscurity after becoming addicted to drugs and being jailed on drug-related charges.
While in the process of writing Double Dunk, Beckham’s own life became increasingly unsettled. In 1975 he separated from his wife, and was divorced two years later. Emotionally distraught, Beckham stopped writing and resigned his faculty position at Brown. He was persuaded to retain his professorship when Brown offered him a sabbatical leave to pursue his writing. Still struggling to regain his focus, Beckham managed to finish the manuscript for Double Dunk. However, he was taken by surprise when he learned that the editor that had commissioned Double Dunk had left Quadrangle Books, and the publishing company was now refusing to consider his manuscript for publication. Professionally and personally bitter, Beckham continued to teeter on the edge of abandoning his profession.
By the end of the 1970s, however, Beckham’s life began to take a turn for the better. In 1979 he married Geraldine (Jerree) Lynne Palmer. That same year Beckham was promoted to associate professor at Brown, and the following year he was named director of the school’s graduate writing program. And Double Dunk was finally published in February of 1981. While searching for a publisher for Double Dunk, Beckham altered the fictionalized biography from third-person narration to second-person narration, which gave the final version of the story a unique perspective, as well as an added depth and texture.
In 1982 Beckham compiled and edited the first edition of A Black Student’s Guide to Colleges. Aimed at high school students, the book covered numerous aspects of nearly 200 colleges across the nation, including primarily black institutions and high-ranking predominately white institutions. Each entry provided statistics on tuition, the number of black students and faculty, and average financial aid figures for each school. Beckham also solicited opinions from five black students on each campus, regarding the overall racial atmosphere at the particular school. Beckham went on to edit numerous subsequent editions of the college guide, and also published two additional titles, The College Selection Workbook and The Black Student’s Guide to Scholarships.
In 1987 Beckham resigned from Brown University and spent the next two years teaching at Hampton University. In 1989 he retired from teaching to found Beckham Publishing Group, Inc., where he has continued to serve as the company’s president. Beckham Publishing has specialized in joint venture publishing, in which the author pays Beckham Publishing to edit, design, print, and market a book. The company has provided its services to a wide array of new authors, as well as to those authors writing for niche markets who are overlooked by the major publishing houses.
Beckham has also worked as a consultant and speaker on issues such as Internet publishing and black student college preparation. In 1998 he became the first author to serialize an entire novel via the Internet. You Have a Friend: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Chase Manhattan Bank, the manuscript he had begun in the early 1970s, was offered on the Internet in e-mail installments to be sent out every three weeks, at a price of $9.95 for the entire novel. Despite having his own publishing company at his disposal, Beckham chose to push the envelope of for-profit publishing by serializing his book on-line. Although he hoped that the e-mailed version would drum up enough interest to bring a call from a major publishing house, the novel has yet to be published in book form. Following his completion of the novel, Beckham has continued to head up the Beckham Publishing Group and is continuing to pursue a career in writing.
My Main Mother (novel), Walker, 1969; published in England as Blues in the Night, Tandem, 1974.
Runner Mack (novel), Morrow, 1972.
Garvey Lives! (play), produced in Providence, RI, 1972.
Double Dunk (novel), Holloway House, 1981; reprinted by Beckham House, 1993.
(Editor and contributor) The Black Student’s Guide to Colleges, Dutton, 1982; revised edition, Beckham House, 1984; 4th edition, Madison House, 1997.
The College Selection Workbook, 2nd edition, Beckham House, 1987.
You Have a Friend: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Chase Manhattan Bank (fiction), serialized on the Internet, 1998.
(Editor) The Black Student’s Guide to Scholarships, 5th edition, Madison House, 1999.
Beckham’s papers and manuscripts are held in permanent collection at Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University.
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James, 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, Gale, 1984.
Who’s Who Among African Americans, 16th Edition, Gale, 2003.
Black Issues Book Review, September/October 2000, p. 67.
Booklist, March 15, 1997, p. 1254.
Chicago Citizen, November 14, 1996, p. 31.
New York Times Book Review, November 30, 1969, p. 64; October 10, 1982, p. 72.
Publishers Weekly, March 23, 1998, p. 38.
Studies in Black Literature, 1974, pp. 17–20.
“Barry Beckham,” Contemporary Authors Online, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (July 7, 2003.
“Biography of Barry Beckham,” Beckham Publications Group, www.beckhamhouse.com/barry_beckham.html (August 5, 2003).
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