Review: Uplift or minstrelsy? A novel asks hard questions about early Black entrepreneurs
On the Shelf
The Rib King
By Ladee Hubbard
Amistad: 384 pages, $28
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After Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and Progressive Era marked a period of dramatic change for African Americans, particularly those migrating north in search of jobs and other opportunities. Advances in the social, economic and political arenas continued to be stymied, however, by racism.
In her engrossing second novel, “The Rib King,” Ladee Hubbard zeroes in on a group of Black servants in a well-to-do home in Washington, D.C.; then she pans out to the city streets, illustrating how an intricate network of competing interests vied for the chance to take advantage of the growing population’s labor and creative prowess.
The year is 1914. The groundskeeper, Mr. Sitwell, has reached a notable level of respect after nearly two decades of service for the Barclays — who “weren’t as rich and important as they once were, but it was still a good house.” The secret of their harmony, according to Mr. Sitwell, lies in recognizing that “[e]very household is its own complex organism. To maintain it requires certain talents.” Indeed, his knack for peacekeeping and problem-solving eventually gets him promoted to butler, which makes him privy to the machinations of Mr. Barclay as well as his guests.
The hierarchical master-servant structure collapses as the boundary between them is crossed repeatedly. Mr. Barclay confides more and more in his butler, allowing him “a degree of independence not at all appropriate to [his] station.” His capitalist visitors, meanwhile, take a vested interest in Mr. Sitwell’s unusual talent (he can list the ingredients in any food or perfume just by smelling it) and also in Miss Mamie’s delectable concoctions in the kitchen. When an emergency necessitates the spur-of-the-moment creation of a meat sauce, the result is a marketable product. The Rib King is born, and so is its iconic label: Mr. Sitwell’s face, “the epitome of the loyal servant.”
The indisputably racist brand, and its bewildering longevity, speaks to the power of marketing in reinforcing offensive stereotypes.
A dispute over ownership of the sauce (even Mr. Barclay stakes a claim since it was crafted in his house) angers Miss Mamie, who resigns immediately, blaming Mr. Sitwell for the loss of their product. The already unsettled Mr. Sitwell is pushed over the edge when he discovers that his traumatic past has been twisted by a white author into a narrative of white heroism. A series of unfortunate events follows, forcing the other servants—the maid, the driver and three orphan boys — in disparate directions.
Act 2 begins 10 years later with a sudden shift — to maid Jennie’s point of view. Now a successful shopkeeper, “inventor and entrepreneur,” Jennie is determined to mass produce and distribute her own product, Mamie’s Brand Gold, a healing salve, without getting swindled or exploited by self-serving investors the way Mr. Sitwell was.
What reads as a different novel altogether is actually a clever complement to the Sitwell section. Through Jennie’s encounters with groups religious, political and even artistic — not to mention loan sharks — every surviving member of the Barclay staff resurfaces, each one bringing her one step closer to the infamous Rib King, who is now seen as a minstrel, an embarrassing remnant of a romanticized past.
Jennie, on the other hand, represents a dynamic historical moment for African Americans, attuned to obstacles yet strong-willed and resourceful. One character says it best when she explains to Jennie the state of affairs for those wishing to secure their futures: “We know how closely we are watched, how cruelly we are often judged. We didn’t make this world, but in order to survive it we have come to understand the need to be strategic.”
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey always wrote of public pain and private struggle. Her memoir, “Memorial Drive,” lets her mother speak.
As part of the complex organism of the city itself, Jennie strives less for harmony than agency, which will be hard-won, especially for a woman: “It seemed as if every time she turned around there was some man trying to make a fool of her.” Indeed, these reminders that something will always be in the way have been present throughout the novel. Each time Black characters hop on a bus, the driver rudely reminds them to take the back seats by yelling “Push back!” But Jennie understands that progress can be achieved without surrendering to racist power structures. That energy of resistance is all around her as she comes across activists organizing to empower the Black community.
Jennie, however, is still sympathetic to Mr. Sitwell. “The man is just doing what he’s got to, to survive. Just like everyone else out here,” she reasons. Despite their divergent narratives (his journey is interior and somber; hers, mapped out across the city, is at times comic), Mr. Sitwell’s story is eventually redeemed when yet another layer of his motivations comes to light — a startling revelation that unsettles even the unflappable Jennie Williams. By offering these contrasting tones, Hubbard is illuminating the transition from a time that was still shaking off the shadows of slavery to one that was forward-thinking, fueled by dreams that were suddenly achievable in the economic boom of the 1920s.
Unfortunately, the second half of the novel cannot unfold without Hubbard’s leaning hard on convenient coincidences that drag the reader through a winding road of plot twists, sometimes at break-neck speed. This comes across as too neatly engineered in service to tying up an array of loose ends, but it’s difficult to find fault with an author who has written such magnificent and compelling characters as Jennie and Mr. Sitwell.
Toward the end, it’s also revealed that two of the orphans who worked for Barclay adopted the last name Ribkin. Jennie believes it’s a variation of Rib King; it is certainly a wink to Hubbard’s previous novel “The Talented Ribkins,” about a family endowed with superhuman abilities. “The Rib King” is just as delightful and surprising. Hubbard’s own superpower is her gift for building extraordinary worlds that examine troubled periods of America’s past while shedding light on the unquestionable innovation and determination of African Americans who, perhaps improbably, thrived within them.
“The Prophets,” by Robert Jones Jr., depicts an intense bond between Isaiah and Samuel on a plantation in unbearable and untenable circumstances.
González is distinguished professor of English and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers-Newark, the state university of New Jersey.
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