Just in time for Black History Month comes word that the 30th anniversary edition of David Haynes’ debut novel, “Right By My Side,” will be released Tuesday as a Penguin Classic. This is an honor for Haynes, a former teacher at St. Paul and professor emeritus of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Few living authors are included in the Classics series and Haynes now joins the ranks of writers such as Alice Hoffman and Amy Tan.
“It’s very rare that a book gets a second life, so I’m excited to bring this one to a new generation,” Haynes said by phone from his home in St. Louis. Louis, sounding as genial as when he did a Pioneer Press interview in 1993. “This novel has been out of print for probably 15 years. I have a few copies but they are hard to find. I spoke to a teacher in Minneapolis who said his copy was falling apart.”
Haynes admits he was “just beginning to realize” that it would be published in the classic series, which has the same color bindings. “I was so familiar with those orange spines in libraries and classrooms. When my box of books arrives, that’s the main thing I’m going to look at—that spine—and realize that’s me now.”
Haynes, 67, wrote “Right By My Side” when he was in his mid-30s, living on West Seventh Street in St. Louis. Paul. He loved teaching sixth and seventh graders at various schools — Longfellow, Galtier, Como and Saturn, where he was a member of the leadership team of the experimental Saturn School of Tomorrow. But he had always wanted to be a writer and was willing to try. He got a boost when his short story “Taking Miss Kezee to the Election” won the first annual fiction contest sponsored by City Pages, an alternative newspaper. His years in the classroom gave him the fodder for five middle-grade books in the West Seventh Street series.
“Right By My Side,” set in the 1980s, is an often humorous coming-of-age story about 15-year-old African-American Marshall Field Finney (named after a famous department store) who lives in a housing development outside of St. Louis and attends the predominantly white high school of St. His mother ran away, leaving him with his drunken father who runs the local dump. Marshall doesn’t know where his life is going until he discovers storytelling as a way to relieve his teenage angst and family tensions. Then, as Marshall struggles to find meaning in his life, he receives letters from his mother that remind him of how close they are. The young man’s friends, one white and one black, are his only allies as they manage school and family life together.
“Marshall is a nice combination of the students I knew, the kids I grew up with, and me,” Haynes says with satisfaction. “There’s a lot of me in Marshall.”
But in the late 1980s, New York publishers did not want fiction about middle-class black children and their families. Hayne’s manuscript was rejected again and again because, he says, it did not involve drugs or sex. Those publishers, he believes, thought readers wanted a mainstream story that confirmed their perception of young black men, “but that wasn’t my book.”
“Right By My Side” finally found a home at Minneapolis-based New River Press, founded by the late CW “Bill” Truesdale, after the manuscript won the New Rivers Minnesota Voices project. The book received critical acclaim as soon as it was published and went through three editions, a coup for a small literary press. The American Library Association named it one of the best books of 1994, and two years later Haynes was named one of the 20 best young writers in America by Granta magazine.
Penguin singled out “Right By My Side” for a special edition because the publisher considers it an overlooked classic in our literary canon depicting black middle-class life in the American Midwest in the 1980s.
“As we mark our 30th anniversary in 2023, it’s time to introduce Marshall Field Finney to contemporary readers and students to read alongside other unforgettable young protagonists from beloved classics known for their wit, humor and resilience,” wrote Penguin Classics Vice President and publisher at Pioneer Press.
Haynes received his bachelor’s degree from Macalester College and his master’s degree from Hamline University. He grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, Breckenridge Hills, where African Americans and whites mostly belonged to the same social class. His paternal grandfather was Chinese, and he recalls that the family would drive to Chinese restaurants on Sundays to eat what was considered exotic food in the 1950s.
After “Right by My Side” was published, Haynes and New Rivers stayed together for the publication of his novels “Heathens” and “A Star in the Face of the Sky,” his latest book. He is also affiliated with the literary press Milkweed Editions of Minneapolis, which published his novels “Somebody Else’s Mama,” “All American Dream Dolls” and “Live at Five.” And he served on the board of the Loft Literary Center.
Since Haynes taught his last class at SMU in 2019, he considers himself “sort of” retired as he spends a lot of time working with the Kimbilio Center for Black Fiction, a national organization he co-founded for fiction writers from the African diaspora. It is an ambitious non-profit organization that offers lectures, mentorships, a national fiction award, a reading venue and a program that brings together scholars from across the diaspora. “I’m very proud of what we do,” he says.
Travel is also in Haynes’ plans, including reading the book “There by My Side” to youngsters in the spring. He hopes to make a stop in the Twin Cities, but nothing has been finalized. For now, he says, “On Tuesday, I’ll just quietly celebrate my Penguin Classic book and my joy that it has reached new readers.”