Courtesy of Harper Collins
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.
‘The Rib King’
By Ladee Hubbard
384 pages, $27.99