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Frank Yerby was an African American writer who gave the world a body of literature that has inspired and thrilled millions of readers. he was a brilliant storyteller, a novelist, a short story writer, a poet, and an accomplished intellectual as well. He was the first African American to write a best-selling novel and to have a book purchased by a Hollywood studio for a film adaptation.
Frank Garvin Yerby was born in Augusta on September 5, 1916, to Wilhemenia and Rufus Yerby. His mother was Scots-Irish and his father African American. He graduated from Haines Institute (1933) and Paine College (1937), both located in Augusta. Yerby continued his education at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he received an M.A. degree in 1938, and at the University of Chicago, where he began studies toward a doctorate in 1939. For a brief period, Yerby worked as an instructor of English at Florida A&M College (later University) and at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He later migrated north, first to Dearborn, Michigan, where he worked as a technician at Ford Motor Company, and soon thereafter to Jamaica, New York, where he was employed as an inspector at Ranger Aircraft.
Frank Yerby worked on his doctorate at the University of Chicago at the time when Leo Strauss was making his greatest impact on students of political philosophy. One element of Leo Strauss’ political philosophy was a “… recognition that the greatest thinkers often wrote with both exoteric and esoteric teachings, either out of fear of persecution or a general desire to present their most important teachings to those most receptive to them. This leads to an attempt to discern the esoteric teachings of the great philosophers from the clues they left in their writings for careful readers to find.”
Leo Strauss writes in Persecution and the Art of Writing: In a considerable number of countries which, for about a hundred years, have enjoyed a practically complete freedom of public discussion, that freedom is now suppressed and replaced by a compulsion to coordinate speech with such views as the government believes to be expedient, or holds in all seriousness. It may be worth our while to consider briefly the effect of that compulsion, or persecution, on thoughts as well as actions.
In 1953, Carl Milton Hughes wrote: “Frank Yerby, indirect contrast, made an initial appearance as a popular novelist delineating white characters. In he works to his credit, however, there emerges slowly his development from a merely competent writer of historical narrative to a serious student of labor issues involved during the nineties as appears in his treatment of strikes in Pride’s Castle. His lectures on slavery and his Negro characterizations in Floodtide show an acute interest in presenting a favorable attitude toward Negroes. Alain Locke, a [Yerby’s] critic, observes: ‘Yerby has the talent to write of serious matters if and when he chooses.’” See: Hughes, Carl Milton, The Negro Novelist, Citadel Press, NY, 1953, p.285.
Frank Yerby left the United States in 1955 in protest against racial discrimination, moving to Madrid, Spain, where he lived in a state of self-imposed exile until he died in November 29, 1991.
Frank Yerby was a tireless researcher spending hours in books, libraries and on location researching the facts for each of his novels. Harvey Breit quotes Yerby saying that: “… I do a lot of research. I read, read, read for my preliminary work. I’ve been spending as much as six hours a day in the library on background material for my new novel…. My notes for a novel always outweigh in bulk the novel itself. Sometimes it’s three times over
Yerby tells of noble souls, pure of heart, filled with zeal for justice and freedom. He also describes villainous knaves so perverse and debauched in their evil deeds that they can be said to belong to a satanic society whose aim is to see piled high the bleached white skull and bones of innocent victims. And, of course, Yerby marks those poor creatures caught in