Monday, December 15, 2014

How Blanche Sees It

"Blanche White, a forty-year-old black domestic with big thighs, a wry sense of humor, and a jaundiced view of the rich, is a most unlikely and reluctant sleuth.  When someone is killed in the wealthy household where she is working–and hiding out from the Sheriff–Blanche would just as soon mind her own business, given that she's already got her own troubles with the law.  But since she is the most likely suspect unless she uncovers the real killer, Blanche puts her considerable wit and intelligence to work.  With the help of the remarkably efficient old-girl network among domestic workers, Blanche attacks the tangled web surrounding the murder to try and nail the true killer in time.  In the process, Blanche provides a running commentary from a black, working-class, feminist perspective that is new to the mystery genre and rare in any fiction."
~ Blanch on the Lam

Blanche on the Lam is book one in Barbara Neely’s Blanche White mystery series. As noted in the synopsis [see above], the series is unique in how it follows the misadventures of an African American domestic housekeeper who inadvertently finds herself solving murder mysteries. It's a type of character and hook damn near unheard of inside the mystery literary form (African American author Nora DeLoach comes close), and just as scarce inside literary fiction.  Wait, I take that back because black authors have been writing about domestic workers long before The Help.  (There was a little shade there.)  

Nancy Green, the face of Aunt Jemima
Nonetheless, Blanche is the type of character unlikely to find herself perceived as anything other than a stereotype. An Aunt Jemima trope probably springs to mind first, or something else in line with the mammy caricature shaped back in the antebellum days.  However, Blanche is amusing, smart and intuitive; she isn't so Aunt Jemima.  And while she's also compassionate toward the "right" people, her image and character is nowhere near syrupy and sweet like the pancake mixing maven imaged after black activist, Nancy Green. Oh no. Miss Blanche White is highly aware, extremely real and confrontational (albeit furtive) in her dealings with law enforcement, employers and murderers.  Basically those willing to flex their position and privilege over her.  I should also mention she's not afraid to be physical when need be.

I decided that instead of sketching on the mystery, race, class, and societal statements decorating Blanche on the LamI would share some of the best passages that umbrellas fragments of each topic.  (Which were all wonderfully done except for a few typos and spelling errors.)  It’s sort of what I came into this series hoping for, those little nuggets of wisdom and insight provided by someone of Blanche’s status and position. And there were plenty. Some I understood and identified with immediately.  Especially because I, myself, am black living with unspoken generational “codes” regarding manners and attitudes when faced with contempt.

So let’s get started. I hope you enjoy these enough to check out the book yourself…

Blanche on Black Folk Superstition

"The way her hand had itched and throbbed at the same time as she'd stood in her kitchen reading the court summons; the way the glass she was drinking from just before she left the house for court had suddenly developed a crack while she held it to her lips.  She'd ignored both events despite her claim that reading people and signs, and sizing up situations, were as much a part of her work as scrubbing floors and making beds."

Blanche on Code

"She heard a noise on the other side of the swinging door and quickly slipped on the bright-eyed but vacant expression behind which she'd hid from the woman so far.  Blanche had learned long ago that signs of pleasant stupidity in household help made some employers feel more comfortable, as though their wallets, their car keys, and their ideas about themselves were all safe.  Putting on a dumb act was something many black people considered unacceptable, but she sometimes found it a useful place to hide.  She also got a lot of secret pleasure from fooling people who assumed they were smarter than she was by virtue of the way she looked and made her living."

Blanche on Sympa

"This was the second or third time this boy had been on her wavelength.  This thing with him was beyond her Approaching Employer Warning Sense, which alerted her to the slightest rustling or clinking of a nearing employer....  So what the hell does it mean? she wanted to know.  Sympa.  It was a term her Haitian friend Marie Claire used to explain relationships between people who, on the surface, had no business being friends.  Still, an unknown white boy?"

Blanche on Darkies' Disease

"Blanche had never suffered from what she called Darkies' Disease.  There was a woman among the regular riders on the bus she often rode home from work who had a serious does of the disease.  Blanche actually cringed when the woman began talking in her bus-inclusive voice about old Mr. Stanley, who said she was more like a daughter to him than his own child, and how little Edna often slipped and called her Mama....  What she [Blanche] didn't understand was how you convinced yourself that you were actually loved by people who paid you the lowest possible wages; who never offered you the use of one of their cars, their cottage by the lake, or even their swimming pool; who gave you handkerchiefs and sachets for holiday gifts and gave their children stocks and bonds."

Blanche on Night Girl

"'Them kids is just as jealous of you as they can be!  That's why they tease you,' Cousin Murphy had told her.  'They jealous 'cause you got the night in you.  Some people got night in 'em, some got morning, others, like me and your mama, got dusk.  But it's only them that's got night can become invisible.  People who got night in 'em can step into the dark and poof–disappear!  Go any old where they want.  Do anything.  Ride them stars up there, like as not.  Shoot, girl, no wonder them kids teasing you.  I'm a grown woman and I'm jealous, too!'"

Blanche on Confrontation

"There it was again.  Blanche checked his eyes for malice but found only laughter of the teasing variety.

'You ain't mocking me, are you, sir?'

His eyes widened slightly.  'Sensitive, aren't we?'

'Isn't that what you hoped... sir?'

She braced herself for his pulling rank and putting her in her so-called place.  Instead, a hint of red crept up from his neck.  He brushed back his already perfect hair and managed a contrite smile.  He didn't apologize, of course.  That was far too much to expect from a pretty boy who'd probably been admonished only twice in his life, and never by the likes of her."

Blanche on Couth

"She didn't consider picking up people's funky drawers from the floor a normal part of her work.  She expected her employers to put their soiled underwear in a hamper and their soiled tissues in the wastebasket.  She considered his behavior as a sign of what her mother called 'couth,' and a good indicator of whether or not she could expect any respect from a customer–and whether she'd be with that customer for very long."

Blanche on Storytelling

"Their rhythm, the silences between their words, and their intonation were as important to the telling of the tale as the words they spoke.  The story might sound like common gossip when told by another person, but in the mouth of a storyteller, gossip was art."

Blanche on Race Memory

"For many years, Blanche worried that it was fear which sometimes made her reluctant to meet white people's eyes, particularly on days when she had the lonelies or the unspecified blues.  She'd come to understand that her desire was to avoid pain, and pain so old, so deep, its memory was carried not in her mind, but in her bones.  Some days she simply didn't want to look into the eyes of people likely raised to hate, disdain, or fear anyone who looked like her.  It was not always useful to be in touch with race memory.  The thought of her losses sometimes sucked the joy from her life for days at a time."

Blanche on Privilege

"He was a rich white male.  Being in possession of that particular set of characteristics meant a person could do pretty much anything he wanted to do, to pretty much anybody he chose–like an untrained dog chewing and shitting all over the place.  Blanche was sure having all that power made many men crazy.

Blanche on De-Jackassing

"While he might have defended blacks in court, it didn't mean he considered her his equal, any more than her employers did generally.  Usually it took three to five cleaning sessions for a new employer of the racist jackass variety to stop speaking to her in loud, simple sentences.  It took an additional fifteen to fifty substantive contracts before she was acknowledged as a bona fide member of the human race.  Now here was Archibald already past the testing-your-intelligence phase, being mindful and grateful that she'd been smart enough and quick enough to help him out of a difficult situation with Mumsfield, one he clearly hadn't been prepared to handle.  It gave Blanche and idea."

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