Meant to Be: A Novel by Rita Coburn WhackMeant to Be: A Novel by Rita Coburn Whack

Meant to Be: A Novel

byRita Coburn Whack

Paperback | March 12, 2002

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In a novel reminiscent of the work of Maya Angelou and Ntozake Shange, Rita Coburn Whack tells the story of how a young woman’s spiritual awakening leads her to maturity and self-fulfillment.

When Meant to Be opens, thirteen-year-old Patience Jan Campbell is called upon to read and interpret her favorite scripture for the church congregation: “I think this scripture means that children know every shut eye ain’t sleep and every head bowed ain’t praying, so grown-ups ain’t fooling us or God. . . . So nobody should hold a child back from God just ’cause they may be having trouble finding Him.”

But a traumatic experience causes Jan to stumble and lose her “voice.” Unable to turn to those around her, she calls for her grandmother Hannah—who died before Jan was born—in prayer. Unbeknownst to Jan, Hannah does come, and through her wise eyes we follow Jan into her early twenties as she moves to the big city, goes to college, and begins a career. A reflective father, a misunderstood mother, a sage aunt, and two pivotal lovers all build emotional bridges that help Jan progress on her journey to womanhood.
Rita Coburn Whack is a writer, television and radio producer, and on-air radio contributor. She is a two-time Emmy winner. Currently a contributor for WBEZ-FM, Chicago’s public radio station, she is married, a mother of two, and a resident of south suburban Chicago. You can e-mail her at

interview with the author

A Conversation with Rita Coburn Whack, Author of Meant to Be

How much of Meant to Be is based on your own life experience?

You will find facets of me in quite a few of the characters-Jan, Hannah, even Don and Phillip. The novel is based on the essence of my life as well as on so many of the lives I observed while growing up in a small all-black town. Like Jan, I had an aunt who sowed seeds of Christianity in my life that matured much later. P.J., who is known as Jan when we see her as an adult, is quite a bit more sure of herself than I was, and yet she is a person searching for some thing, some people, and some place that she perceives to be better than her current experience. As a child, I was intrigued by Chicago and all I thought it had to offer. I think the big city beckons to those who live a small-town life. Charles, Jan, Jessie, and even Ada have all come to the city to better themselves. So the universality of leaving a small town and the revelation that the city is yet another place to be conquered exists. However, in Meant to Be, it is the people themselves who must grow beyond a small-town mentality into a maturity that gives them comfort no matter where they live. For Jan, that goal is realized, in part, by her journey to the big city.

Jessie, Jan’s mother, and Charles, her father, are living out lives that they also would rather trade for something better. Yet Jan is the only one who makes the journey out, and it is a spiritual journey as well. Why is that important?

In 1967, when we meet P.J., the world is quite a different place from what it is today. Fathers, despite the struggle, head black families. The divorce rate is low, and Christianity is the mainstay of life. At that time, the black church was the glue that held many of these all-black towns together. When I grew up there were about six churches in our community, two liquor stores, a convenience store, candy shops, and people who sold freeze cups from the back door of their homes for a nickel. All that is to say, we were poor, proud, and happy to be alive. We were also ignorant of a world that offered much more. We knew about God, our family, and our town, and little else. Then integration and television came along. These two forces showed us that there was more. No longer were there tales of going up North as in the Great Migration, but many viewed a simple move to the city as salvation. It was every young person’s dream, and I wanted to capture that move to the city-which is often a move away from the church-in a fictional character.

The voice of Hannah is very strong in the novel. Why bring a person back from the dead to tell the story?

The need for strata of generations is great in black storytelling. Whenever we pop up in literature without mothers, grandmothers, and the like, I am an unconvinced reader. Hannah served many purposes. As an omniscient voice, she could give the reader a taste of ancestry and that deep-rooted belief in God, mixed with traditional African concepts of existence. In some African cultures, life is lived on three levels: the living, which you and I are; the living dead, a person who is dead but still remembered, such as Christ, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, or, say, a recently deceased relative; and then the dead and gone, a person no one on earth remembers. Hannah is a living dead and as such can see between the worlds, and that insight moves us into the spiritual. I see Christ not only as a living dead from my African heritage, but as a living Spirit in my life. I personally practice Christianity as if we are all spirits housed in bodies and responsible for our souls. With discernment, we don’t see just people, but we can see lust, love, and something as simple as desiring more for our children than we had for ourselves. Hannah is insight, discernment, unconditional love. She doesn’t bring judgment. She hopes for the best. “A grandmother who had not lived long enough to become grand.” She can be present in sex scenes and not condemn-she can detest actions from her flesh remembrance, perhaps, but for her, the overriding hope is that Jan would get her act together and learn to live in the spirit while on earth, and that is more important than anything else.

There are quite a few sex scenes in the book. How do you justify this when there is such a strong Christian underpinning in the book?

In relationships, sex is what gets us in the most trouble and causes the most unanswered questions. It baits us, marries us, or aborts us in relationships. Sexuality is dealt with very consistently in the Bible and in Christianity because it is such a factor in the way we behave. In truly practicing Christianity, not talking about sex is the sin.

From romance, to adultery, to incest and beyond, sex is biblically labeled as a joining of souls, a commingling of spirits. In the late seventies and early eighties, when Jan is in Chicago, sex is part of the singles scene. Birth control prevents fear, AIDS has not yet materialized, and sex is a part of communication. For instance, the word on the street was that black men didn’t offer oral sex; only white men did that. The effect of this myth was that oral sex became a weapon of sorts, and Don, the aging Svengali-type lover, does that for Jan, tames her, turns her out, so to speak. Jan, on the other hand, is no angel. She enjoys it, is mesmerized by the attention. In fact, she is never pictured as the attentive lover, only the taker. And once again the city, with its introduction of new challenges that have to be conquered, proves that “some people and some place” is not the answer. Jan still has to search.

Do you believe the spirit world works the way you have depicted it in Meant to Be? Hannah follows Jan around, and Heaven is depicted, complete with a cast of Moses and other ancestors.

I do not know or claim to know exactly how the heavens work. For years I have studied the Bible, and yet I am a baby in the sense that I have been through the Bible cover to cover only once, and it took me well over a year. I don’t know what Moses is doing, but I realize he appears and speaks in the New Testament as well as the Old. I know that Christ, in a resurrected body, was able to walk through walls, conceal and reveal His appearance, and disappear and reappear. I know that a dead man under the earth could see his brother on earth and asked to come back to warn his brother to change his life and was denied. So I used my imagination. However, I would be the first person to tell a reader, if you are searching for biblical truth, then read the Bible; Meant to Be is not it. Creative spiritual ideas fill its pages, and if that causes people to read the real Book to find out more, I couldn’t be more pleased.

Are you working on another novel? If so, will it be similar in tone to Meant to Be?

I am working on another novel called Ella’s Deliverance. It deals with the concept of deliverance, because that is part of the area of ministry I am called to study. Deliverance is the casting out of demonic spirits, and biblically it is called “the children’s bread,” meaning it is a source of food for believers. I think my fiction will always embrace Christianity and its sense of salvation from whatever ails you right here on earth. I write this way because that is simply the largest part of who I am.
Title:Meant to Be: A NovelFormat:PaperbackPublished:March 12, 2002Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0375758097

ISBN - 13:9780375758096


Read from the Book

Beginnings“Jesus!”Turning around, I was just in time to see old Mother Brock hike her long white skirt above her knees and climb onto the pew.“He ain’t nothing but a honey!” A white handkerchief held high in one hand waved surrender toward heaven and the joyous shout signaled all of us in the old woman’s path to clear the way. Scooting sideways, I watched her legs, stockings knotted just above the knee, rise above one pew and thump down on the next. The Spirit had “gotten a holt” to Mother Brock and she was pew-stepping, bench-hopping happy, going at it from row to row.“Walk that bench, Ma Brock,” Essie Tolbert encouraged. “Walk it now!”Elder Yancy stood. Tall enough to reach the ceiling fans and as dark as the sin he rocked back and forth against, he closed his eyes. His arms, reaching out, trembled over the heads beneath them as he moved in the rhythm of his tambourine.With a “Hallelujah! Praise His name!” Sister Hattie Jones sailed from the choir stand. Her robe flared, then billowed like a large puff of cotton. Descending, it settled close to her waist, held tight by two balled fists. She swished the robe around her body and headed for the side aisle.Combing each aisle like a lost traveler, Sister Jones asked folks for directions most Sundays. Eyeballing whomever she felt called, she’d stick her pointed face in theirs: “Will you praise Him? Can you rebuke the Devil? Won’t you give all glory to God?”I rubbed the piece of paper in my Bible as if it would help me. My aunt Ada always said the church was “the best ground for spiritual warfare,” but I hadn’t prepared to deliver my speech during one of its battles. I’d written my words while Sarah Vaughan’s voice rang clear above the bass, saxophone, and piano on my record player. Then I’d called Mama Ada, who I’d never witnessed saying more than a quiet amen in the middle of a church service. We went over what I was to say. It had all been calm. Well, that was then, and this was now.Reverend Tyler stood and the pianist, Mr. Fulton, tried to strike a few solemn chords. But unlike Reverend Tyler, Mr. Fulton was still enchanted. His feet pumped the pedals as his hands played another chorus of “When I Get to Heaven Gonna Shout.” On the risers behind him, choir members cried and swayed; some held each other or fanned those seated.Reverend Tyler cleared his throat. I swallowed hard against the lump in mine and made my way across the pew, saying “excuse me, ma’am” and “pardon me, sir” as proper as I could in the middle of a holy war. At the back of the church, I was careful to cross over the center aisle since, unlike Mother Brock, I didn’t have a big position in the church and lacked permission to walk down the scarlet carpet that led to the altar.Behind the glass window of the nursery, a mother seemed not to notice that the diaper covering her breast had fallen. The infant on her hip, a trickle of milk sliding from the corner of his mouth toward his chin, looked at me from the biggest tit I’d ever seen. The breast, so swollen it stretched the black dots around the nipple until I thought of buttons, pointed at me. I looked away.Ahead, Hester Cochren, as if sin could seep right through his toothy mouth, eyed the dresses in front of him from the waist down. I thought of the “Jelly, jelly, jelly” song. The pianist hit a few slow chords and seemed like he was praying for calm.Reverend Tyler, not one to join in these celebrations, held up both hands and said, “All glory be to God.”As I made my way to the front of the church I met the half smile on Sheila Flowers’ face and thought it was a good thing I wasn’t God. In the middle of all the hoopla I could have made the neighborhood bully disappear, and I knew for sure the entire eighth grade would have less worry and misery.At the altar, Mother Brock was whispering to herself and taking the privileged center aisle back to her seat. Reverend Tyler’s voice continued to quiet the storm inside the Second Baptist Church of Moleen. I stepped forward and waited for his acknowledgment.“Let’s welcome Miss Patience Jan Campbell.” The sound of my full name was an embarrassment. “P.J.” would have been just fine. I could just hear Sheila calling me “Patience” in front of a crowd. Reverend Tyler kept going. “Miss Campbell just turned thirteen, and as is our custom, she’s going to come forth and share her favorite verse, with a self-interpretation.”“Out of the mouths of babes,” exclaimed Elder Yancy’s wife.“Mercy, mercy,” I heard a woman say as I walked up the side steps and over to the podium. I wished my mama had stopped preparing Sunday’s dinner long enough to come. Placing my Bible on the podium, I opened it and read from Ephesians: “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Then I looked into the congregation and spoke.After my first words, “I think this scripture means that children know every shut eye ain’t sleep and every head bowed ain’t praying, so grown-ups ain’t fooling us or God,” it seemed like a pall fell over the church. Satisfied I had everybody’s attention, I kept going and don’t rightly know what I said, but I finished up with “So nobody should hold a child back from God just ’cause they may be having trouble finding Him.” The air changed again, hot around my face, dry and even more still. It stayed that way, and later when I left the church, I didn’t have to weave around pools of chitchatters. My path was more than cleared. A group of women gathered in the parking lot, shifting hips, straining necks, rolling their eyes to meet the brims of wax flower-burdened hats. One snipped, “You know what the Good Book says, ‘Pride comes before a fall.’ ”A chorus of “uh-huhs” rose until another soloist stuck her neck down toward me. “Well, somebody better get ready to catch that one ’cause she’s bound to tumble, as big as that chip is on her shoulder.” I forced my head up and was careful not to go any faster than I needed, thinking they should have each taken a hand fan-with perfect family portraits of gussied-up mother, father, sister, and brother on one side and the name of the nearest funeral home on the other-and cooled themselves off. Especially since I knew what they did not. If they craned their necks down a little lower or accidentally touched me, taking that “every child that’s a child of God is my child” idea far enough to lay a hand on me that wasn’t trying to put the blessing of the holies in my bones, Charlie Guss Campbell would walk the streets of old and new Moleen until he found them. Then he’d put his “size 13 triple E’s so far up where the sun don’t shine” they would truly be pleading the blood of Jesus. Humph! I strutted past them biddies looking as high up as they were looking down.Children of DiscontentBy the time I turned the corner, my daddy was done doing what he did most Sunday mornings, fixing on dilapidated old cars that sounded like motorcycles and would be headed to the junkyard by the year’s end anyway. He was sitting in his favorite spot on the porch, so I sat next to him and rubbed my face, fighting the urge to scratch the acne that almost covered it.“Hot as Mississippi,” he greeted me and I watched him caress the sky with homesick eyes.“Yep.” It did seem like heat was pouring down from the sky in waves. But I was only agreeing to the heat; I’d never been anywhere near Mississippi and probably wouldn’t choose a South filled with the stories I’d heard. “North Mississippi,” which is what grown folks called Chicago since so many people from Mississippi had settled there, was just fine with me. In fact, Chicago and not the West Side, but as close to downtown as I could get, was my next stop. After reading books and watching TV I’d decided Chicago was close enough not to be confused with a fairy tale you couldn’t get to, and the best place for a girl like myself.“Well, Sister P.J., how was church?” my daddy asked, teasing and looking at my Bible and fancy dress. It was down past my knees, lemon yellow with a big bow in the back. I stuck my Vaseline-shined legs out and crossed them at the ankle, making sure the ruffles touched and leaning them to the side like Ada taught me, even if I was just sitting on the porch. I knew my daddy thought of Ada when he saw me going to and coming from church. I wondered if he knew she called herself “my brother’s keeper” when she took care of me. They always talked about each other as if they were sad and happy at the same time. I hugged my shoulders to keep from scratching my face and told the truth.“The kids were okay, I guess, didn’t pay them no mind. The sermon was good, I got to speak. Ma Brock walked the bench and it all got out of control. Them old church biddies know how to dress better than they know how to act and it went on too long.” I started to say I was glad I’d had some gum and an extra Nut Chew to tide me over, but remembered I wasn’t supposed to go to the corner store, so I swallowed my bubble gum and looked at my daddy to see if he could tell I’d been to the store.“I reckon you ’bout summed it up. Hot as Mississippi,” he repeated.“Tell me about a hot day, Daddy, the hottest day you can remember in M-i-s, s-i-s, s-i-p-p-i.” I spelled the letters out like we did when we played double Dutch and asked for the story to make up for my stopping by the corner store.“Well, let’s see.”My mama always said my daddy enjoyed telling a story. So I knew any stalling he was doing was just trying to figure out which one he hadn’t told in a long time or seeing if he could conjure up a new one, but he began each one the same.“We didn’t have enough money to buy a gnat a wrestling jacket, a pot to piss in, or a nearby window to throw it out.” Now he was ready to begin. “So every day was hot. Heat is what po’ folks got to deal with every day, all manner of heat.”This time, I watched his hair and it looked like dried grass, higher than any other grown man I’d seen wear their hair, and darker. It was the pitch black of dreams when they cannot be reached, darker than night and hard to remember. His skin was not much lighter than his hair, and his eyes, a dimming white with coal black pupils, looked out onto the street.I imagine my daddy had always been large, never very tall, but more than sturdy. This was the summer of 1967, he was forty-eight, and what my mama referred to as a “sturdy build” was called fat by most people.“We had an ol’ red plank house, roof was tattered till air coming in could’ve been air conditioning. But it was hot too, and my mama was always standing in the yard.” I imagined Hannah, my grandmother, her long thick black hair in waves down her back, shining without oil. She was a Black Indian, mixed Cherokee, and my daddy always said the redness of her skin was only the beginning of that color in her. I never knew her, she died before my daddy was grown, but her spirit still visited Ada and both my daddy and Ada talked about Hannah enough for me to see her when they did.“Before I was old enough to go to school, my mama stood me up on a high table in the kitchen, hugged me, then sat on the floor. ‘Jump!’ she shouted, stretching her arms out. ‘I’ll catch you.’“I’d put on a hesitation at first, knowing I shouldn’t be standing on the table, but it was my mama who’d turned the place of meals into a space to play.

Bookclub Guide

Reading Group Guide
The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Rita Coburn Whack’s Meant to Be. We hope they will provide new insights and ways of looking at this spiritual coming-of-age tale.


Editorial Reviews

“Okay, it’s true that Rita Whack is my friend, but it’s also true that she can write. Buy two—’cause this is one to read and talk about with a good friend.” —Bertice Berry, Ph.D., author of The Haunting of Hip Hop

“Meant to Be is a lovely debut full of wit, wisdom, and spiritual food for the journey.” —Dawn Turner Trice, author of An Eighth of August