June 7, 2014

The Hincty Talented Tenths

The class structure within Black race is the subject of Among the Talent Tenth, Barbara Neely’s second novel in her Blanche White series. The title is from the W. E. B. Du Bois essay “The Talented Tenth” in which he discusses the education of Negroes who would become leaders of the race.

The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.
                        W. E. B. Dubois “The Talented Tenth”

He does not suggest selecting those would-be leaders based on the color of their skin. However, in the class structure within the race, light skin is one of the traits, along with wealth and having light-skinned ancestors, that defines who is a member of the Black upper class and thus the “Talented Tenth.”

The light-skinned members of the “Talented Tenth” have acquired the habit of looking down their noses at their darker brothers and sisters. Barbara Neely’s amateur detective Blanche White is well aware of this distinction having suffered “past rejections and jeers because of her blackness and the knowledge that in black America, “‘exclusive’ very often related not only to wealth or social position, but also to skin color.”

After she escaped from her hometown of Farleigh, North Carolina in the first novel, Blanche on the Lam, the accidental sleuth ended up in Boston. Using money the Carter family lawyer in Farleigh paid her to keep her mouth shut about what happened to Grace Carter, she enrolled her niece and nephew in a private school. Taifa and Malik make friends with Deirdre and Casey, a sister and brother, whose parents invite Blanche to come with them to Amber Cover to babysit the four children while the parents cruise on their yacht to work on saving their marriage.

Amber Cove is a resort in Maine founded, owned, and operated by wealthy, light-skinned, color conscious Black Americans. Upon arriving at the resort, the dark-skinned, slightly heavy-set, professional maid and amateur sleuth, makes herself at home. On the first day she learns that Faith Brown, one of the residents of the exclusive resort, was electrocuted when a radio fell in the bathtub while she was bathing. Blanche, nosey as ever, naturally suspects foul play because Faith collected dirt on almost all the residents.

Blanche and Mattie, an elderly, retired, feminist writer, attempt to solve the mystery of what they believe was Faith's murder. They narrow the suspects down to two—the husband and wife, Hank and Carol Garrett. The two sleuths search Faith’s cabin and find a box in which are papers detailing embarrassing information about several of the residents. Soon after finding the box, Blanche is twice attacked. The attacks convince her that Faith might have been murdered.

Although the point of view is third person limited, through skillful use of vernacularized prose Neely manages to keep the voice that of Blanche and rarely editorializes. You feel Blanche is telling the story. However, the novel is disappointing. The plot is not very complicated, and the ending is unsatisfactory—a let down after all the discussions of skin color and relations between black men and women, none of which has anything to do with the plot. A murder mystery should slowly build tension as it moves to the revelation that will relieve the tension. Blanche Among the Talented Tenth lacks tension, even when Blanche is twice attacked but not injured. The novel is a good treatise on color consciousness among Black Americans but the theme of murder and blackmail and the subject of class prejudice within the race never coalesce.