Book review: ‘The Rib King’ skewers white theft of Black images

Author Ladee Hubbard
Author Ladee Hubbard

Ladee Hubbard’s new novel, “The Rib King,” tells the story of Black servants in an unnamed city in the early 1900s who attempt to run a disorderly household belonging to a nearly broke white family. The patriarch, Mr. Barclay, wines and dines his far richer guests to keep up with appearances while entering into one bad business deal after another. His wife Mrs. Barclay busies herself with ladies’ luncheons and takes in Black teenagers from the local orphanage to serve as “kitchen boys.”

August Sitwell was once a former kitchen boy at the receiving end of the Barclays’ charity. Years later, he’s now the groundskeeper charged with making repairs and ensuring that the yard is presentable. But Mr. Sitwell and the head cook, Mamie Price, spend most of their time trying to put out fires they didn’t start. There is never enough money to purchase food for the elaborate dinner parties Mr. Barclay hosts to facilitate business negotiations. Mamie and Mr. Sitwell must fend off disgruntled former employees who threaten to ruin their employer’s already fragile reputation. They must also care for the three boys who the Barclays foster: Frederick, Bart and Mac. Mr. Sitwell “liked these boys, cared about them, wanted them to do well.” Despite their impeccable behavior and good intentions, the boys find themselves embroiled in dangerous situations that Mr. Sitwell must extract them from.

Twenty-five years earlier, long before Mr. Sitwell found himself in the care of the Barclays, he and his mother lived in a swamp village founded by three runaway slaves in Seminole County, Florida. When Mr. Sitwell was 8 years old, raiders burnt it to the ground. One of the only survivors, he barely escaped.

For years, Mr. Sitwell tucked away the trauma from this tragedy in the back of his mind. But it is suddenly unearthed when Frederick, Bart and Mac come across a novel, “The Life and Times of Cherokee Red, Wild Man of the Reconstruction.” Initially the book, which seems to be based on the story of Mr. Sitwell’s home village, fills him with a longing for the place he once called home.

“Sounds from his past … and hearing them again only reminded him of how alone he now was, how far from anything that resembled home. They reminded him of a time when he’d been part of a world he hadn’t paid much attention to because he’d never imagined himself being outside of it. Reminded him that his real home would always be a small village in the swamps of Florida.”

Courtesy of Harper Collins
Courtesy of Harper Collins

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Yet the more Mr. Sitwell learns about the contents of the book, particularly, who the author deems are the heroes and villains, the more enraged Mr. Sitwell becomes. His nostalgia evaporates. He concludes that the “The Life and Times of Cherokee Red” is an offensive retelling, a grossly fictionalized version of the truth. “Everything it said was a lie.”

It is here where “The Rib King” takes an unexpected turn. Quiet, formidable Mr. Sitwell, who has treated the white people in his universe with the utmost respect, sets off on a rampage to avenge the injustices that befell his Florida village all those years ago.

The novel goes far beyond a story of revenge. It is an engrossing account of Black genius and entrepreneurship in the early 20th century. Mr. Sitwell, Mamie and Jennie Williams, the Barclays’ chambermaid, possess the creativity, business acumen and ambition that their incompetent employer has always lacked. Mamie is a remarkable chef, who can assemble succulent meals for dozens of guests with only a few leftovers. Mr. Sitwell’s keen olfactory sense lends him the ability to identify all of the ingredients in a dish. And Jennie has the instinct and marketing savvy to invent a beauty product that Black women really need.

White businessmen relentlessly pursue the talents of Mr. Sitwell and Jennie, in order to profit off of them as “The Rib King” becomes a searing critique of the white theft of Black images, and the seedy dealings that underlie racist branding.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Mr. Sitwell allows an image of his smiling face to be used on a label for a sauce that he and Miss Mamie made in the Barclays’ kitchen. They are not naïve. They know that despite their community’s impressive contributions to society, white corporate America will only ever see them as pawns for sales and minstrel acts to entice white consumption.

In this vein, “The Rib King” is a timely and artful study of how racist branding dehumanizes the Black community. Non-Black people continue to steal, distort, and monetize Black images and inventions. The purely fictional Mr. Sitwell exists today in myriad forms. Only after a string of police killings of Black people last year, including that of George Floyd in Minneapolis, did some companies begin to reckon with the immense harm that comes from racist logos. Quaker Oats stripped the profile of Aunt Jemima from its products, and Mars Foods dispensed with Uncle Ben. This, hopefully, is just the beginning.

After years of being paraded around for a white audience, it comes as no surprise when Mr. Sitwell’s calm countenance devolves into a sadistic manhunt that takes down almost everyone once affiliated with the Barclay residence. Only his former friend Jennie, the chambermaid turned successful business owner, is brave enough to confront him with his crimes. Though truthfully, most readers will cheer him on.

FICTION

‘The Rib King’

By Ladee Hubbard

Amistad

384 pages, $27.99

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