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Blanche Among the Talented Tenth
A Blanche White Mystery
By Barbara Neely
Brash Books, LLCCopyright © 2014 Barbara Neely
All rights reserved.
The size sixteen shorts slipped easily over her hips. Blanche gathered the excess material at her waist and admired the contrast between her deep-black skin and the nearly colorless cloth. She turned and looked over her shoulder at her substantial behind. A comfortable fit. She bought her pants and skirts at least a half size too large to give herself room to move and breathe and eat. She used to buy larger clothes because she thought they made her look slimmer. That was back when she'd believed she needed to be a woman-in-a-boy's-body to be attractive, even though big butts were never out of style in her world. Nowadays, all she wanted was the strongest, most flexible body she could maintain. She was hoping to be using it for at least another forty-two years.
She took off the shorts, folded them, and packed them in the open suitcase on her bed. 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. She'd once asked a black psychologist whose house she'd cleaned on Long Island about black people's attachment to clothes. She'd 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. She hadn't said which reason carried the most weight. In either case, Blanche knew Taifa would be mortally 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.
She checked her list. Everything was packed except her robe, slippers, and sponge bag. She gathered those last items. Outside, the scream of a police siren was quickly followed by the squeal of brakes. As the sound died out, someone drove down her street with their radio pumped up to maximum volume. The bass made her floor vibrate. She sighed and waited for the tiny silence that comes after a loud noise, before the regular, pushed-aside noises move back in. She breathed in the silence and let it ease some of the tension in her neck and shoulders. Was she ever going to get used to the sounds of city life again? She'd lived in Harlem for more than fifteen years; surely it was not as noisy here in Boston as it was there. But between New York and Boston, she'd been spoiled by living back home in North Carolina. It hadn't taken her a full day in Farleigh to grow re-accustomed to the sounds of birds singing and wind moving through the pine trees. Her readjustment to noise was taking longer. She'd been living in Roxbury — as this part of black Boston was called — for over a year. It would be good to be out of town, in the green world, by the sea, even if Amber Cove wasn't a place she'd choose to visit if the choice were hers to make. She folded her robe, packed it, and tucked her slippers in the suitcase. She turned to the phone a millisecond before it rang. She put the receiver to her ear and started speaking before her caller had a chance to say a word.
"You found that Amber Cove article didn't you? It's about time!"
"What kinda way is that to answer the phone, girl! I coulda been one of your customers or a wrong number."
"Ardell, don't I always know when it's you? Now tell me what the article says."
"Why you got so much attitude, girlfriend?"
Blanche felt her face flush. "I'm sorry, Ardell. You know how packing can get on my nerves."
"Hummm," Ardell said. "I think you got more to worry about than how many pairs of drawers to pack."
Blanche sat on the bed next to her suitcase. "Why?"
"Hummm. Well, this article on the place got a picture with some folks sittin' on a terrace by the ocean. I swear, I can smell the money just looking at this picture. And all the people in it could be models for the after pictures in a skin-lightener ad, even the men. Anytime you get this many light-skinned black people together at least half of them are going to be folks who act light-skinned. On top of that, I think the man who built the place made his money ..."
Blanche could hear Ardell flipping magazine pages.
"Wait a minute. Let me find it." Ardell turned more pages.
Blanche knew what Ardell meant. It wasn't natural for a picture of black people in a public place to all be the same complexion, unless somebody wanted it that way. But then, folks in Amber Cove were rich. The women who were mistresses of the few rich black homes where she'd cleaned or cooked didn't look like her, regardless of their husbands' complexions. She assumed there must be some black-black rich women in the country, but she'd never seen one; so she wasn't expecting to find her eggplant-black self mirrored at Amber Cove. But color wasn't the only way she'd be different. She doubted anyone in the Amber Cove picture had, like her, worked four parties to raise the money to spend two nights at the Inn. She could have stayed in the Crowley's cottage — they'd taken their children and hers out on their new boat and wouldn't be back until Sunday. She'd move into their place next week, after they left the children in her care and went off for their ten days alone. When she'd turned forty, she'd promised herself as many little treats in life as she could afford, since the big ones were well beyond her reach.
"I can't find the part I'm looking for." Ardell's voice had that distracted lag that goes with reading and talking at the same time. "About the man who started the place, I mean." Ardell went back to turning pages.
Blanche waited with as much patience as she ever could. She was curious about Amber Cove. She'd never heard of the place until her kids were asked to spend their summer there. Her mind slipped backward a few months:
"You know Miss Christine said she'd love to have us, Mama Blanche!" Taifa's voice was as clear in Blanche's head as it had been when Taifa spoke three months ago, including that touch of wheedling in her tone that Blanche couldn't stand. But it was the little girl's eyes that had held her.
"This is really important to you, isn't it, Sugar Babe?"
Taifa had jerked her head up and down at an alarming rate. She'd been so focused on what she wanted, she hadn't even reacted to Blanche's use of her now-despised nickname.
"And what about you?" Blanche had put her hand on Malik's shoulder.
"Casey's dad's got a new boat and he's going to teach me how to sail! If you let us go."
And, of course, she had agreed. How could she have refused them an opportunity for a summer by the sea, especially since they'd made it clear they didn't want to spend the summer in North Carolina with their grandmother? "Wack," is what they'd called that idea.
Blanche looked at the clock by her bed: It was after ten. Her bus left at quarter to midnight and she hadn't finished dressing. She was about to point this out, when she heard Ardell clear her throat. Blanche shifted the phone to her other ear.
"OK, here it is." Ardell's voice took on a reading-aloud tone:
"'Many people are surprised to learn of a black resort on the coast of Maine. In fact, the Maine coast is rich in black history. Many runaway African slaves passed through Maine on their way to freedom in Nova Scotia. When slavery officially ended, some of them, and/or their children, migrated down into Maine ...' OK, wait, this is about blacks in the state ... Now, wait a minute." Silence again.
"Ardell, please! I got a bus to catch."
"OK, OK. Let me see. All right, listen to this, 'Amber Cove was built in 1898 by Josiah Coghill, a black tycoon who made his fortune on Coghill's Skin Lightening Creme, Coghill's Silky Straight, a lye-based hair straightener for black men, and related products. The Coghill Mansion, now Amber Cove Inn, was built after Coghill was refused admittance to a wealthy white resort on Cape Cod. Coghill built spacious cottages on the Mansion's extensive grounds and sold them to friends and business associates, thereby creating his own exclusive summer resort. The Coghill Mansion became Amber Cove Inn in 1939. In its early days, guests at the Inn had to be related to or recommended by one of the Amber Cove cottage owners. In 1968, Amber Cove dropped this exclusive policy. The Inn continues to be owned by members of the Coghill family. Most of the cottages are also still owned by descendants of the original owners.' See what I mean?" Ardell added.
"I guess there won't be a lot of guests sittin' around talkin' about how beautiful black is." The sarcasm in Blanche's voice was sharpened by memories of past rejections and jeers because of her blackness and the knowledge that in black America, "exclusive" could, even now in 1994, still be about not only wealth or social position, but also skin color.
"Call 'em up and tell 'em you can't come," Ardell said.
Blanche saw herself getting on the phone, making up some lie, listening to Christine Crowley be nice about having to find someone to keep her kids and Blanche's for the ten days Blanche had promised to stay with the children while Christine and David got some time alone on their new boat. "No, it's too late for that. And it's only fair. They'll have Taifa and Malik for practically the whole summer."
"Yeah, but it ain't like you asked them to do it."
Blanche thought about the freedom the Crowleys were giving her. "Even if it was their idea, I gotta do something for 'em besides buy 'em a vase. You know how it is, Ardell."
Blanche slipped her hand in the side pocket of her suitcase and took out a small bundle wrapped in one of her grandmother's handkerchiefs. "And I got something to do there, remember? That's why I'm leaving tonight instead of tomorrow night." She held the phone between cheek and shoulder and untied the handkerchief to make sure she'd tucked Madame Rosa's instructions inside.
"Hummm. That's right. You need to get that dream business figured out. And you don't have to socialize with those people."
Blanche could hear the edge in Ardell's voice and knew what caused it. They were the same in that way — more angry about what hurt their friends than their friends sometimes were, certainly for longer. Blanche still didn't speak to Rose Carter because she once called Ardell a crazy bitch. They still talked to each other on the phone at least three times a week, even though Blanche was in Boston and Ardell down in Farleigh, North Carolina. And distance had no effect on their closeness.
Blanche glanced at the clock again. "Anything else?"
"Yeah. Here's another picture. Of the Inn itself. Like a big old white plantation without pillars. Right on the ocean. Cottages look nice, too. Big, with porches. They only show the outside. Pretty."
Blanche didn't try to visualize the place. She could tell it would be different from the black resorts where she'd stayed before — places with erratic plumbing, rickety furniture, and greasy but abundant food. In those spots the evenings rang with shouts and laughter from bid whist and tonk tables while B.B. King's voice slid from the sound system to float on the barbecue-scented air. She had no such high hopes for a place where a couple of doctors had a summer cottage.
"Well, I better get moving if I'm going to make this bus."
"Hummm. There ain't a place in the world I'd ride ten hours on a bus to reach. I hope it's worth it," Ardell told her.
"Me, too." She put her sponge bag in the suitcase and closed it. "If nothing else, I get to the sea, get some of my stuff worked out, maybe."
"Well, kiss Taifa and Malik for me, and tell them Aunt Ardell said not to give you no mess."
"Yeah." There was a heaviness in Blanche's tone.
"They're good kids, Blanche."
Both women were silent. Given how Blanche had gotten the money to send them to Wilford Academy, it would have been better all around if she hadn't had the wherewithal. But as soon as she'd realized those white folks in North Carolina were going to pay her for not putting their nasty business in the street, she'd known she'd use the money to buy Taifa and Malik the best education she could. She wanted them to have every opportunity and advantage a first-rate education could provide. But whatever they parlayed their educations into, she didn't want them to develop any dumb ideas about a lawyer or a doctor being a better person than someone who hauls garbage.
Blanche wondered if Ardell was thinking of the heated disagreements they'd been having recently about the children and how they were changing. Blanche was considering taking them out of Wilford Academy, where she thought they were picking up hinky ideas. Ardell was positive the move wasn't necessary. Blanche hoped Ardell was right, that she was making a boil out of a pimple, but she kept remembering the look Taifa had taken to giving homeless people; and the way Malik laughed at how some people in the neighborhood talked. They were eleven and nine now. What would they be like at sixteen and fourteen? She'd been regularly asking the ancestors to please not let Taifa and Malik be up in Maine acting in ways that would make her ashamed. A recent phone call in which Taifa suggested Blanche should get her hair straightened before she came to Amber Cove had confirmed her concern. Taifa had whispered over the phone so as not to be overheard by Christine Crowley and her daughter, Deirdre, neither of whose hair required straightening in order to be kink-free. Blanche hadn't straightened her hair since she was nineteen and had yet to agree to allow Taifa to straighten hers. And the word, "extensions," wasn't even in Blanche's vocabulary. She remembered hanging up the phone and railing against her dead sister for getting cancer, for dying of it, for insisting Blanche take her children — for putting her in a position where she now loved them too much to even complain about having to put up with their bullshit, even if they could be a pain in the ass and a worry to boot.
"Blanche," Ardell's voice was firm. "You raised 'em decent. They'll be fine."
"Yeah, I know. Thanks, Ardell. And listen, I'm sorry about snapping you up earlier."
"If you didn't snap me up, how would I know it was you? Now you listen. It's gonna be OK. You been black long enough to handle whatever them fools at Amber Cove got to hand out."
"I ain't worried about handling it. I'm just damned sick of having to. For just once in my life, I'd like to get through a whole week without having to deal with some fool, white or black, who's got an attitude about the way I look."
"Hummm. Well, in this world, in this time, you got as much chance of that happening as you do of having a limousine come up through your toilet."
"Don't I know it. Everybody in the country got color on the brain — white folks trying to brown themselves up and looking down on everything that ain't white at the same time; black folks puttin' each other down for being too black; brown folks trying to make sure nobody mistakes them for black; yellow folks trying to convince themselves they're white."
"Hummm. It's a mess girl, but it's all the mess we got. No gettin' away from it."
Blanche sighed. "Yeah, I know. But it would be nice just for a week to have our color be like tonsils, or toenails, or something else nobody really gives a damn about. We don't even know what it would feel like, do we?" It may be twenty-two years since Amber Cove changed its expulsive thing, but twenty-two years is a minute in color-time.
They were silent for a few moments, trying to imagine a life as foreign to them as life in a monastery.
Ardell spoke first, in a cheery voice. "Well, hell, just 'cause this picture is full of light-bright folk, don't mean the place is color struck."
Before Blanche could comment, Ardell went on: "And who knows, maybe they'll be givin' away money up there and they'll give you a couple million to pass on to me."
Excerpted from Blanche Among the Talented Tenth by Barbara Neely. Copyright © 2014 Barbara Neely. Excerpted by permission of Brash Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
it's a must-read if you like a smart mystery novel with independent, feisty, normal-looking female characters! I loved it!
Some very good prose but a boring story.