Veronica T. Watson, editor: The Short Stories of Frank Yerby (University Press of Mississippi, 2020)

Between 1946 and 1985, Frank Yerby (1916-1991) published no less than thirty-three novels. Translated into some thirty different languages, selling more than sixty million copies worldwide, they made Yerby the best selling black novelist of the 20th century. But only three! of his novels, published late in his career, had African Americans – or Africans – as its main characters.

Yet Frank Yerby, before becoming a best-selling author with the historical romance, Foxes of Harrow (1946), the first of his ‘costume novels’, many set in the Antebellum South, had published a handful of short stories protesting white supremacy, discrimination and racial violence.

Health Card, published in Harper’s magazine 1944, reprinted in Langston Hughes’ The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers. An anthology from 1899 to the present (Little, Brown and Company, 1967), won a special O. Henry Memorial Award, making Yerby only the second African American, after Richard Wright, to win this prestigious short story prize.

The Homecoming (1946) is reprinted in the John Henrik Clarke anthology American Negro Short Stories (Hill and Wang, 1966), and a third story from the same year, My Brother Went to College, can be found in Yerby scholar Darwin T. Turner’s compendium Black American Literature: Essays, Poetry, Fiction, Drama (Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, 1970).

AND NOW Veronica T. Watson, with The Short Stories of Frank Yerby, has collected five of the only nine stories, all from the 1930s and 1940s, that Yerby published in his long life as a writer (including two of those mentioned above), together with eleven previously unpublished stories held at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, Massachusetts.

Growing up in the segregated town of Augusta, Georgia (home since 1934 of the historic Augusta Masters golf tournament), according to Veronica T. Watson Frank Yerby “had enough experience with Jim Crow living, discrimination, and racial terrorism to fuel his writing for a lifetime.”

In one of several episodes, the light-skinned Yerby, walking in town with a ‘white’ girl (his sister Eleanor), was harassed by an Augusta police officer, threatened with arrest and beaten so badly that afterwards he needed medical attention. A black man’s inability to protect a sister, wife or girlfriend from harassment – “I ain’t no man!” – a theme for stories like Health Card, MPs treating the soldier Johnny’s wife Lily, coming down South to visit her husband, as a prostitute.

The Homecoming follows Sargent Willie Jackson, a veteran returning to his childhood home in the South after serving in World War II, unable now to live within the Jim Crow rules of the South.

Declining an offer by his benefactor, the Colonel, to return to the job he had before the war, the Colonel responds: “Somebody’s been talking to you – teaching you the wrong things.” Adding: “Down here a good boy like you always got a white man to look after him” – exactly what Jackson is trying to get away from with his decision to go North.

In the end of the story the Colonel saves Willie Jackson from a lynching by the townspeople, using the following as an argument: “This man is a combat fatique case – not responsible for his actions,” but in so doing – in words Yerby has used elsewhere – ‘unmanning’ and ‘deballing’ him. 

My Brother Went to College is a story of two brothers, the one, Matt, who went to college to become a successful medical doctor, and the other, Mark, returning after living for years like a hobo for what was meant to be just a visit, getting ‘trapped’ into his brother’s bourgeois lifestyle.

It contains one of the most wickedly funny situations in Yerby’s short fiction, Mark finding his brother Matt, the doctor, shaving with a tiny gold plated safty razor: “I hate these damn little things … You, you can do it! … Go down town today and buy me an old fashioned straight razor … I’ve been wanting a straight razor for five years … I can’t always wait to go to the barber shop.” Mark: “Five years … why didn’t you just go and buy one?” Matt: “You know I couldn’t do that.” Mark: “Why not?” Matt: “You know what they’d think I wanted it for.”

THE ELEVEN previously unpublished – and undated – stories have been chosen by Watson for their diversity in subject matter and style: historical fiction, romance, crime and gritty noir (The Quality of Courage), ghost stories, stories about superstition, social protest fiction, etc.

In her essay in Rediscovering Frank Yerby*, Veronica Watson pays special attention to Supper for Louie, on intra-racial color prejudice, and The Schoolhouse of Compere Antoine, set in Louisiana during the Civil War and Reconstruction, a time of a more democratic government in the South.

While Frank Yerby often complained that while he loaded his fiction with history, “ninety-nine and ninety-nine one-hundredths of said history lands on the Dial Press cutting-room floor,” the results of his historical research remain intact in this – unpublished! – story.

Old man Compere Antoine is a mixed-race New Orleans Creole, a business owner, father to five sons, and “a simple man.” His life – and his perception of himself – change, when seeing white ruffians harass a white lady, a teacher come South to teach former slaves, the freedmen, he offers her a job: “Maybe you come down to our parish and teach us. We ain’t got no school, us; but we build you one. And we build nice house where you kin stay, yes.”

Some years later, though, White Leaguers set his schoolhouse afire, chase the Yankee schoolmarm away, and horsewhip Compere Antoine – symbolizing the end of Reconstruction.

IN THE LAST part of her introduction to the short stories, A Writer’s Legacy, Watson writes that “it has taken (Yerby’s heirs) six years to become comfortable enough in their role as custodians of a small piece of his legacy (the short stories) to allow this publication to proceed.” Not allowing, presumably, Frank Yerby’s best known story, Health Card, to be included in this collection.

UFI// 14 May 2020

*This is the first of two articles on Frank Yerby. See also Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (University Press of Mississippi, 2020), edited by Matthew Teutsch.