Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Blanche Among the Talented Tenth by Barbara Neely


published 1994


Blanche Talented 3


[Blanche is packing for a stay in an exclusive resort]

Clothes would be important at Amber Cove. Black people, even well-off black people, seemed to believe in looking good. She’d cleaned and cooked for plenty of rich white people who dressed like they got a kick out of being mistaken for a homeless person. No black people she’d ever known or worked for played that stuff…. A black psychologist [had] told Blanche it probably was partly due to African peoples’ belief in body adornment in a spiritual way, and partly because, consciously or unconsciously, black people in America hoped clothes would make them acceptable to people who hated them no matter what they wore…



Blanche Talented 2


In either case, Blanche knew Taifa would be mortallyBlanche Talented 1 embarrassed if Mama Blanche didn’t look just so. It wasn’t an attitude the child got from her, but Blanche had made sure that the sand-beige, washable silk skirt and shirt, the off-white linen dress and slacks with matching jacket and Bermuda shorts, the pastel floral print sundress and the dressy, pale-blue halter dress with its bolero jacket from the Cosmopolitan Consignments shop, all had designer tags and were all so conventional, and, originally, so expensive, they would undoubtedly meet with Taifa’s approval.


observations: I wrote in an earlier entry about how revolutionary the Blanche detective stories were in the 1990s, and how they are being republished as ebooks by Brash Books.

The title of this one comes from a quote by W.E.B DuBois:
The Talented Tenth of the Negro race must be made leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people… The Negro race, like all other races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.
Blanche (because of the events related in Blanche on the Lam) is able to send her adopted children to a very upmarket school, while herself still working as a cleaner and housekeeper. She and the children are invited to join another family at a very upscale resort on the Maine Coast: one used by Black families, and very wealthy ones at that: it is exclusive. But Blanche knows that ‘in black America, exclusive could, even now in 1994, still be about not only wealth and social position, but also skin color.’

This is a very important part of the book: Blanche and Barbara Neely look hard at the choices and decisions of Black people. Blanche was bullied as a child because she is so dark, and she knows that many other Black people look down on her because of her colour. She is worried that her children are taking on these attitudes, preferring light skin and straightened hair.
She could picture herself a hundred shades lighter with her facial features sharpened; but she couldn’t make the leap to wanting to step out of the talk, walk, music, food, and feeling of being black that the white world often imitated but never really understood. She realized how small a part her complexion played in what it meant to her to be black.
I knew a little of this milieu from the novels of Stephen Carter, otherwise the world was completely unfamiliar to me, and I found it to be absolutely fascinating. Neely unpacks the issues at length, and convincingly, and I thought this worked well within the framework of the murder story. It works somewhat better as a novel in fact – the murder plot was of the Murder She Wrote kind. An unpopular woman has died, and it turns out that every single person in the vicinity had an equal motive to knock her off – though the motives are quite extreme and unusual. I’m not completely sure I really understood everything that had happened by the end, though Neely produced a couple of good surprises. I did feel considerably better-informed about the issues dealt with in the book.

In a recent entry on a Laurie R King Mary Russell book I complained about authors giving too much detail of the characters’ meals. In Blanche on the Lam I quite enjoyed the cooking the heroine did – it was part of her life, there was more justification – but in this one Neely let herself down by actually telling us which menu items Blanche and a friend didn’t choose:
They both decided to skip the shrimp toast or pate appetizers, as well as the vichyssoise or curried cream of pea soup. They both had the broiled monkfish as opposed to the fettucine alfredo, or the grilled chicken breast in honey-mustard sauce.
She has a slight point to make – that this is white people’s food – but it is still a bit much…

The pictures are from a Maryland resort called Carr’s Beach: not an exclusive upscale resort as in the Blanche book, but a segregated beach from the 1950s and early 60s.








8 comments:

  1. Oh, that's a really important issue she raises here, Moira. I remember years ago, I was teaching in a school in Philadelphia where there were a lot of Black students. And that was one of the issues they faced, too. I'm very glad this series is getting a re-birth.

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    1. Thanks Margot - and interesting to hear about your experiences. It is something I wish I knew more about.

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  2. I checked and don't think I have anything from her. Interesting issues in the book, but I'm unsure if I will take the plunge.
    Is the point you made about not selecting a certain dish, a kind of reverse racism from the author, or her character....or is that a leap too far?

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    1. Interesting point Col - the books have lots of details, that's part of the reason I like them, but usually they are to the point, and they are not long books. I'll have to think about what the reader can take from this bit!

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  3. I read this book and all of the books in the Blanche series by Barbara Neely. My only complaint is that she stopped writing them.

    I don't mind the food entries at all. After all, I love the Salvo Montalbano books where the commissario is always thinking of a past meal, eating a current meal or contemplating a future dinner. And, too, in Donna Leon's series, the lucious lunches and dinners made by Paola Falier always make me want to rush out of here to the nearest trattoria.

    I think Blanche just wanted the food that was most familiar to her and was rejecting the food she associated with wealth and privilege.

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    1. Interesting take on her food-choices Kathy, you're probably right. I still have a couple of Blanche books to read, and am looking forward to them.

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  4. These do sound well worth reading. Interesting that you mentioned Stephen L. Carter. I did read his first mystery, The Emperor of Ocean Park, and have the next two but have not read them. Did you read those and like them?

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    1. I have read three of Carter's books. I absolutely loved all of them - when I was reading them I was lost in another world, and didn't mind that they were long books. I don't know if has written more: I don't rush to see if he has a new one, but I would definitely read more by him. They are all quite similar, but I just love the way he writes, and the milieu he writes about.

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