It was a shock to wake up this morning and discover that best-selling author Eric Jerome Dickey has passed away at the relatively young age of 59. I read a lot of Dickey in my 20s, and the news really rocked me–he was a Black cultural institution of sorts, and his work had a huge impact on me, personally.
I did my bachelor’s degree at a tiny school in a little town in a county where I was one of perhaps 3 Black women. To say that the experience could be lonely and alienating at times is an understatement, so I spent a lot of time alone, deepening my jazz habit. forging long-distance friendships on Nappturality, writing terrible plays, and doing just about everything else but studying. Occasionally I would get bored and wander across town to the little county library and trawl the stacks, looking for something fun to read in between assignments. As you can imagine, there was a lot of Nora Roberts, Annie Proulx, and every page Mary Higgins Clark had ever breathed in the general direction of. But one day, I stumbled upon a bright yellow book with colorful illustrations of beautiful, stylish Black women on the cover. I was so pleasantly surprised that I checked it out immediately without even scanning the blurb and spent all weekend reading it.
That book was Eric Jerome Dickey’s Sister, Sister. (Weirdly, that library also had Omar Tyree’s Flyy Girl. Not bad for a little country library.) It wasn’t the first book I’d read about romance and regular life set in Black culture, and it wouldn’t be the last. But it was probably the first thing I’d read by a Black man that specifically embraced Black women in a contemporary setting. At the time I was reading a lot of race plays for my studies–lots of Amiri Baraka, George C Wolfe and Ed Bullins–all great thinkers with unsavory takes on Black women. Dickey provided a nice counterbalance, a shot of romance and drama from a Black male perspective that I really needed. Here was a Black man who really seemed to love Black women, and wrote about us lovingly and wryly. Black women in EJD novels had all sorts of jobs, lives, personalities and lovers–but they were women, first and foremost, living their own lives and living them well (or at least, they usually were by the last page of each novel). The books were a balm to mid-twenties me, hungry for representation and trying hard to define myself in a world with ridiculous opinions about who I was supposed to be. They also taught me empathy for women who were like myself and unlike myself. Between Lovers helped me unlearn homophobia. Milk In My Coffee taught me that light-skinned Black women faced color prejudices too. Friends and Lovers helped me understand how friendship could be just as, if not more important than romance. And Cheaters didn’t teach me anything that I recall, but it sure was a lot of fun.
I think the last novel I read by Dickey was The Other Woman, which was released back in 2003, but I remained a devoted fan of his, if not as devoted a reader. For years he was one of my go-to authors for Black joy and love in literature, and his untimely passing makes me sad and sorry. He gave something vital to the world of books, and while we have his work as a legacy, the world will miss whatever he would have come up with next.
Rest in power, Eric Jerome Dickey.
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