J. California Cooper, the prolific playwright and author who was widely known as a chronicler of the African American experience, passed away September 20th at her daughters home in Seattle. The Berkley born Cooper was most known for the short stories she wrote later in her career, but she first gained recognition as a playwright. She was first noticed by critics and the iconic novelist and poet Alice Walker when she won the Black Playwright of the Year Award for Strangers in 1978. In fact, it was Walker who suggested to Cooper that she begin writing short stories instead of plays because they were easier to get paid for. Walker’s Wild Trees Press published Cooper’s first short story collection, A Piece of Mine, in 1984.
Walker’s introduction to the collection of stories summed up the way critics and readers responded to Cooper’s work over the course of her decades long career. Walker stated, “Like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, her style is deceptively simple and direct, and the vale of tears in which some of her characters reside is never so deep that a rich chuckle at a person’s foolishness cannot be heard.” Cooper went on to win an American Book Award for Homemade Love and also won the James Baldwin Writing Award.
Cooper’s stories gave a voice to the African American experience as she never shied away from directly addressing morality and race in her stories. Her gift as a writer is perhaps the way that she approached these sensitive topics in voices that were familiar and even intimate to her readers. In a 2006 NPR interview, Cooper summed up her style stating, “You know, I’m not writing up – and I’m trying to write to people who don’t know. That’s why the language is simple; that’s why the stories are simple – sort of like parables – because these people who are out here struggling. This is no game out here in life. They call it a game, but this is serious. this is survival.”
Imani Perry, professor at Princeton University’s Center for African American Studies aptly summed up Cooper’s impact stating that her, “prose was at once wise and whimsical. Her stories and novels were vivid, conversational, and rife with profound life lessons. It was work that emerged fully from African American oral tradition and yet Cooper had a distinctive and particularly beautiful, writerly voice.”
There will not be a public memorial service for Cooper. Instead her daughter asks that people practice a random act of kindness or donate to their favorite charity.