Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben may be the two you recognize, but they’re certainly not the only racist imagery used to market goods in America’s tortured post-civil war through today era. Black iconography has long been something that has fascinated Americans, and black caricatures and stereotypes were used to sell, sell, sell – largely to white consumers. These racist and stereotypical images proved a lucrative marketing strategy, but not for the black population; white businessmen continued to profit while the face of the brand and often the inventor of the product took the crumbs he or she was given while being expected to perform and be grateful for the opportunity. This time in American history provides us the setting for Ladee Hubbard’s The Rib King (HarperCollins, 2021).
The novel opens in 1914 and quickly introduces the reader to August Sitwell, groundskeeper for the (formerly) affluent Barclays. He’s been there for fifteen years and is part of the Barclays all-black staff. (The Barclays do not believe in “race mixing” among their domestic employees.) Every year, the Barclays bring in 3 black children from the orphanage – it’s cheap labor and it allows themselves to pat themselves on their back about giving back to the community. As one of those orphans who stayed, Mr. Sitwell pays special attention to these children, especially the three from 1914. When he encounters them reading a novel, The Life and Times of Cherokee Red, Wild Man of the Reconstruction, he takes the book from them, doubting they’re telling the truth when they say one of the guests had given it to them, and goes immediately to his employer. Mr. Barclay dismisses him, saying one of the guests from Florida had been handing them out and claiming some relation to one of the characters.
This novel is the catalyst for all that is to come. Unable to read, Mr. Sitwell pays his landlord to read the book and tell him what happens. Even though retold with misstated facts and a cast devoid of black people, he recognizes the story of the thriving all black community he’d been raised in, a community that was decimated when he was a child. Anger begins to bubble up.
When one of the orphans finds himself in a spot of trouble, Mr. Sitwell does what he thinks has to be done – he sells the sauce he’d crafted using his mother’s recipe and Mamie’s talents, signs his likeness over to the company, and betrays the household.
The Rib King jumps forward a decade after Mr. Sitwell signs the contract. Jennie, a domestic from the Barclay household who’d been friends with Mr. Sitwell until he’d destroyed everything, is the proud owner of a beauty salon. She’d been forced to get married in order to make the purchase, but that was just another hoop to jump through. She’s developed a salve, Mamie’s Brand Gold, and is trying to sell it to a big company – she wants to see it on shelves across the country. The deal hinges on her relationship with the Rib King, and on her getting Mr. Sitwell to step down and away from the product. She hasn’t spoken to him in years, but he is still destroying everything. Armed with her wit and own ambitions, Jennie quickly realizes people aren’t what they seem, everyone has their own agenda, and revenge is a dish best served cold – with a little bit of sauce.
Read this book.