I had an hour to kill before attending the reception at the Augusta Literary Festival this past Friday. The reception took place in a banquet hall in the main branch of the library. I went upstairs and browsed the fiction section, where I was drawn, inexorably, or just because I didn’t feel like stopping, past the alphabetized stacks from A through U, to the last set of stacks, where I paused before the Y’s. There, on the second shelf from the bottom, my eyes rested on a long shelf of books by a man named Frank Yerby, whom I had heard of, but never bothered to read. Curious, I took one from the shelf and carried it to a nearby and comfortable-looking chair.
The dust wrapper featured a stylized ink drawing of a couple, the man black, the woman white, with a swirling, blood-red background. The novel opens with this disclaimer by the author: “This is a novel about miscegenation — one of the two or three ugliest and most insulting words in the English language……”
I started the first chapter and found it not bad, much better than I’d expected from someone who had written so many books—at least thirty, judging from the length of that shelf. Curious about Yerby, I turned to the back jacket flap to find that he had been born in 1916 in—of all places—Augusta, Georgia. Having made his mark as a novelist he moved to Spain, where he lived for the rest of his life. He died in the early seventies. I read another chapter. Then it was time for the reception.
When I got there the banquet hall was already packed with elegantly-dressed people, most of them authors, I guessed. Of the forty or so people there, about two-thirds of them were dark-skinned. Though I wore a jacket, I had forgotten to bring a tie, and so I entered a bit tentatively, as though I were crashing—or worse, defacing—the party.
My ill-ease was quickly dispelled when, as though he knew me, a strange man rushed up to and shook my hand and welcomed me. I say “a strange man,” though there was something familiar about him. He was short, with a round head, glasses, and a mustache. I’d seen him before somewhere recently, I was sure, but I couldn’t place him. We introduced ourselves.
“I’m Gerald Yerby,” he said.
“That’s funny,” I said. “I was just reading a novel by someone named Yerby.”
“That would be my uncle,” he said proudly.
And then it struck me: yes. That’s who the stranger reminded me of! Only the author’s photo on the back of the novel I’d been reading had been of a white man, or a man with white-looking skin, and this man was decidedly black. We chatted. Indeed, this was the novelist’s nephew. Apparently Yerby had had quite a large extended family, with all kinds of cousins and nephews and so on. Gerald met his uncle only once, during a rare visit by the latter to the states following his move to Madrid, when Frank agreed to deliver the commencement speech at his alma mater, Paine College, in the mid-sixties.
“My uncle didn’t care for America all that much,” Gerald told me. “There were reasons why he moved to Europe, as you can imagine.”
We chatted a bit more—about the States vs. Europe (where Gerald had never been), about his uncle’s wish to be seen not as an African-American author (Frank’s parents were both mulatto, hence his light complexion), but just an author like any other. I forget what else we spoke about. It was a pleasant conversation.
But what delighted me most was speaking at all to this man whose uncle, by the most uncanny of coincidences, had written the novel that, of the hundreds in that library’s stacks, I had plucked off the shelf.