Georgia author’s background found life in stories

Cancer takes novelist, playwright Shay Youngblood
Playwright Shay Youngblood rose from poverty in Columbus to become a prize-winning author. The strong Black women who raised her came to life in her works. Youngblood died from cancer on June 11.

Credit: Horizon Theatre

Credit: Horizon Theatre

Playwright Shay Youngblood rose from poverty in Columbus to become a prize-winning author. The strong Black women who raised her came to life in her works. Youngblood died from cancer on June 11.

Shay Youngblood recalled how the little girl in a housing project in Columbus, Georgia, started her journey to becoming an award-winning writer.

“I still remember the first poem I wrote when I was about 10 years old,” she said in a 2023 YouTube interview conducted by Charis Books and More, the feminist bookstore in Decatur.

“I was on my grandmother’s living room floor and there was a story on the news about the richest man in the world, Howard Hughes. And there were people I knew who wore flip-flops in the wintertime because they couldn’t afford shoes. I looked around and I saw a lot of poverty. So I wrote about it.

“And I felt better. And I thought, Wow, the power of the word.”

Youngblood went on to wield the power of the word as a playwright, novelist and short story writer, winning a Pushcart Prize for fiction, a Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, and several NAACP Theater Awards.

“She could and would do anything that her artistic spirit told her to do. Shave your head? Shave your head! She wanted everyone to be free in the way they lived and the way they loved,” said her friend, author Tayari Jones.

“When we would go out to dinner, she would order everything on the menu because she wanted to taste everything and wanted you to taste it,” said her friend, the writer Kelley Alexander.

Youngblood died June 11, 2024, of ovarian cancer at Alexander’s Peachtree City home, where she lived her final days. She was 64 years old.

Youngblood was born Oct. 16, 1959, in Columbus. Her father was not a part of her life as a child, and her mother died when she was two years old; she had no memories of her mother.

She was raised by a community of Black women that included grandmothers, great grandmothers, great aunts, a pastor’s wife and local shopkeepers.

“I was surrounded by a lot of love by women who were blood related and women who were not,” she told the podcast “All Mom Does” in 2023.

“I prayed every night on my knees for my beautiful mother to come back,” she said on the podcast. “But as I got older, I realized I was so lucky to have so many wonderful mothers. I have always felt blessed by having this circle looking after me.”

Youngblood turned that early circle of caregivers into her first collection of short stories, “The Big Mama Stories,” which she adapted into her first play, “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery,” in 1988. She adapted the source material again in 2022 into the children’s book “Mama’s Home.”

“It wasn’t fiction. It was the truth-telling that fiction can do,” her longtime friend Linda Bryant, co-founder of Charis Books, said of the Big Mama stories.

Youngblood earned a degree in mass communications at Clark Atlanta University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Brown University in 1993.

She became a world traveler. In the 1980s, she moved to Paris and wrote the novel “Black Girl in Paris.” She also served in the Peace Corps and in volunteered in Haiti. After living in Japan, she was appointed as a Commissioner to the Japan-United States Friendship Commission.

Jones met Youngblood at Yaddo, the fabled artists retreat in Saratoga, New York. “I was this little baby writer,” Jones recalled, “and her job was to provide orientation for the new people, like a camp counselor.

“And she gave me such good advice. I wanted to leave the artists colony because we were the only two Black people there and I was experiencing some racism. And she told me, ‘Don’t leave, because you deserve to be at this artists retreat as much as anyone else. If you leave you will just compound the injury.’ "

Youngblood later served on the Yaddo board and taught creative writing at City College in New York. She branched out into being a visual artist and taught herself to paint.

She married the artist Annette Lawrence in Massachusetts soon after that state legalized same-sex marriage. The couple split after about 10 years, according to friends.

Later in life she also had the chance to repay one of the original “Big Mamas” who had cared for her in Columbus. One of them, known as Aunt Lillian, moved to an Atlanta assisted care facility where Youngblood could help care for her, Bryant said.

Youngblood was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer in 2022.

“Between chemo and other treatments, she was really living her life,” said Veta Goler, a retired professor of dance at Spelman College and longtime friend.

“She really wanted to live, and she traveled in this country and internationally to see old friends.”

Toward the end, when she could no longer visit friends, they came to her.

“People from around the world came to be with her in those last days,” said Bryant.

Her literary legacy is captured in her lengthy entry in the New Georgia Encyclopedia. Barbara McCaskill, a University of Georgia English professor and co-author of Youngblood’s entry, reflected on how she will live on:

“Like Alice Walker and Tayari Jones, who write about Black southern communities and share deep Georgia roots, Youngblood created prose fiction and dramatic works that never shied away from confronting topics such as gay and lesbian identity, color consciousness, and class snobbery within Black communities,” she said.

“In her writing and her life, she exemplified a fearlessness and adventurousness and a joy in self-discovery that will be her legacy for generations of new readers to discover,” she added.

Survivors include cousins and a large circle of friends and colleagues. Those friends and colleagues are planning a celebration of life to be held later this summer.

Youngblood chose the celebration’s playlist and put it in her will, songs by Mahalia Jackson, Beyonce, Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples, Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone.

“What she wants is a huge catered party with food and music and dancing,” Alexander said. “She wants people to be happy.”