Excerpt from What You Owe Me by Bebe Moore Campbell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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What You Owe Me

by Bebe Moore Campbell

What You Owe Me
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2001, 496 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2002, 528 pages

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Matriece will make things right. She’s the steady one. Vonette is hardheaded, always was, always will be. Fifty million hair care products for black women, and she decides not to comb hers at all. Dreadlocks. That’s just to make me turn over in my grave, so to speak. Vonette and I had issues while I was alive, and we still do. But my Matriece . . . She wants what I went to my grave wanting: retribution. And she’s the only one who can get it for me.

She applies her lipstick last, after her hair is right and her clothes are on. Makeup ain’t nothing but a promise: Use me and I’ll get you your man, your romance, your passion, whatever you want. Put me under your eyes, and I’ll take away the circles, all the pain, and everything will be new. The name is more important than the purpose. That’s Red Drama on her mouth.

Me watching Matriece is heaven, but I can’t stop my mind from shifting. I’m not the first one to go to her grave with nothing to leave behind but a fierce yearning. Bits of my life still float by, just like when I was dying. I shine the light on all the faces, all the memories that are with me in my sojourn. This is essential: not to drift or soften, never to forgive or give up. If I find my anger waning I can always renew it just by remembering.


None of the maids at Braddock had ever worked with a white person before. Work for them, now that’s a different story. It was soon after the war, 1948, and the five of us had put Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana behind us. We’d all caught that long gray dog out to Los Angeles looking for better times, plus a man. Kissing frogs and scrubbing floors--that was our lives. We traded fields for toilets, dirt under our nails for ammonia on our hands. Still had to say yessir, yes ma’am. Still had to live all together like lepers on roped-off acres that other people fled from as soon as they saw us coming. Watts--a sprawled-out piece of land with tiny bungalows lined up on the widest streets I’d ever seen--that’s what we claimed. Come Monday, we caught the first bus. Number 86 ran from Central straight up Crenshaw; the 72 came down Wilshire. Cruising past palm trees, I took in those skinny trunks as if they were men coming to court me. My eyes traveled slowly from the ground all the way to the top and then back down again to see if I’d missed any flaws, any beauty.

When Mr. Weinstock left the room nobody said anything for a long time. Hattie, the oldest in the group, rolled her eyes. I knew how she felt. One way or another, straight through or around the bend, most of the hard times in our lives had come from white folks. The other women--Winnie, Opal and Fern--looked at me like I was the one who should decide how we’d treat her.

All right then. I smiled, stuck out my hand, and she shook it. She was a washed-out little thing and real thin. Next to her I felt blown up and lit in neon, not that I was so big. I was average height and weight, not much up top, but I always had some hips on me. Her skin was so white I could see clear to her veins, almost to her heart. My skin was the color of pecans; nothing showed through. Frizzy brown hair touched her shoulders. I had thick rough hair that took a press and curl every two weeks. Gilda looked worn out; I had a baby face. Her teeth were brown, too, as though she hadn’t brushed them in a long time. People used to always tell me I had pretty teeth, because they were big and white, so I guess that’s why I noticed other people’s smiles.

Gilda smelled like roses and didn’t smile, but I managed to see that she needed to get to a dentist. She didn’t speak much English--yes, no, please, say it again--and that caught my attention. The white folks I was used to were homegrown rattlers that damaged as they slithered. The thing that got me, got all of us I guess, was that she didn’t seem to know that it was unusual for her to be working with us. She seemed unconscious with her eyes open, as though she had sleepwalked her way into Our Room. I believe if I’d poured ice-cold water on her she wouldn’t have made a sound.

Reprinted from What You Owe Me by Bebe Moore Campbell by permission of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Copyright © 2001 by Bebe Moore Campbell. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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