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Barry Beckham

(b. 1944)


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Richard Wright (1908—1960)

Ralph Ellison (1914—1994)

Invisible Man

Ishmael Reed (b. 1938)

 

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(b. 1944), novelist and publisher.

Barry Beckham began his first novel, My Main Mother (1969), while he was a senior at Brown University, completing it while living in New York City. He returned to Brown in 1970 as a visiting lecturer in English and, after being appointed to a professorship, remained there for seventeen years, several as director of the graduate creative writing program. In 1972, his second novel, Runner Mack, was nominated for the National Book Award, and his play Garvey Lives! was produced in Providence. In 1974, he was commissioned to write a biography of New York playground basketball legend Earl Manigault. The book The book was published in 1981 as a “novelized biography,” Double Dunk. In 1987, Beckham moved to Washington, D.C., teaching at Hampton University for two years. Partly because of difficulties with publishers over another of his projects, The Black Student's Guide to Colleges (1982), he has since dedicated himself to “developing a major black-oriented book company,” Beckham House Publishers. At present, Beckham is working on his autobiography, a novel responding to his perceived “need for a description of a passionate black love relationship,” and a collaborative autobiography with Jackie Robinson's daughter Sharon.

My Main Mother has a rural setting based on one of Beckham's childhood homes, Woodbury, New Jersey, where his was the only black family in the area. The novel depicts a distraught and highly fragmented narrator who, while sitting in a junked car awaiting the arrival of the police, tells in one night (Scheherazade-like) how and why he killed his mother, whose vain self-indulgence had led her to abandon him by running away with a man to New York to become a singer. While representations of alienating family life suggest the lineage of Richard Wright, the novel also reflects a gothic tradition that Beckham attributes to the influence of both his writing teacher, novelist John Hawkes, and Franz Kafka.

Runner Mack, Beckham's most accomplished work, is the story of naive Henry Adams, who moves from Mississippi to a northern city dreaming of playing professional baseball, only to be frustrated in his ambitions, first by having to go to work in a factory and later by being drafted into the army. While fighting in the fraudulently conceived “Alaska War,” a veiled satire of Vietnam, Henry meets Black Power advocate Runner Mack (based on a New York acquaintance of Beckham's), becomes a revolutionary himself, and eventually participates in an abortive attempt to bomb the White House. The novel's structure is a pastiche of the classic African American ascent narrative, each event representing an aspect of white exploitation of African Americans from slavery to the present, notably through professional sports, military service, and the migration north to work in industry. The factory scenes suggest the surreal, hallucinatory Liberty Paint episode in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), while the broad characterizations and conscious employment of African American slave narrative and autobiographical traditions prefigure Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada (1976).

Joe Weixlmann, “The Dream Turned ‘Daymare’: Barry Beckham's Runner Mack,” MELUS 8.4 (Winter 1981): 93–103.Wiley Lee Umphlett, “The Black Man as Fictional Athlete: Runner Mack, the Sporting Myth, and the Failure of the American Dream,” Modern Fiction Studies 33.1 (Spring 1987): 73–83.

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Subjects: Literature.


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