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“Polar noir”: Reading African-American Detective Fiction

Alice Mills
Claude Julien

III. Women writers — women's sleuths

Easy Rawlins and Blanche White: the Limits of Critical Models

Alice Mills


This paper examines different aspects of Walter Mosley and BarbaraNeely’s writings whose complexity sometimes has difficulty fitting into the mold of literary theories on black detective fiction. It argues that the layer of ambivalence in Mosley and Neely’s novels on issues of blackness, gender and social class may appear negative from an ideological point of view, but that this very ambivalence is what makes the characters true literary figures and not merely one-dimensional ideological vehicles.

Texte intégral

1In recent years, I have made several presentations on Neely’s and Mosley’s work and have sometimes had the feeling that American audiences, and to some extent Indian and German scholars trained in the United States, were puzzled that my analysis did not refer much to the critical theories currently applied to black detective fiction. The reason is that, regardless of how intrinsically interesting such theories may be, I am not convinced they do justice to the literary complexity of Neeiy’s and Mosley’s writing whose most unique qualities are sometimes peripheral to the theories.

  • 1 In “Subverting the Voice: BarbaraNeely’s African American Detective,” Bonnie C. Plummer uses the th (...)

2Two examples will serve to illustrate my contention in a number of ways. The first is an article written by Bonnie C. Plummer1 in which she examines BarbaraNeely’s work in light of the theories of Steven Soitos and Kathleen Gregory Klein. The second is an article on Walter Mosley and BarbaraNeely written by Patricia A. Turner, in which she adopts a feminist point of view.

  • 2 In The Blues Detective, Soitos defines "trope" the same way as does M. H. Abrams, that is: "words o (...)
  • 3 My own analysis of BarbaraNeely’s heroine is primarily based on the novels Blanche on the Lam, Blan (...)

3In 1999, Plummer published an article entitled "Subverting the Voice: BarbaraNeely’s African American Detective". Plummer demonstrates, among other things, how the four tropes2 that Soitos says are shared by African Americans in their writing of detective fiction apply to the work of BarbaraNeely. My argument is that while some aspects of Soitos’s theory illuminate Neely’s work, others are not necessarily relevant to it.3

4The first of Soitos’s four tropes is the "detective persona", which refers to the black detective’s interest in the social and political atmosphere inscribed in racial prejudice. Plummer is justified in applying this first trope to the character of Blanche White. Neely’s detective fits the criterion: she "is aware of her blackness and her perception of the world is definitely through that blackness" (Plummer, 80).

5To substantiate her point, Plummer quotes Blanche: "This is how we’ve survived in this country all the time by knowing when to act like we believe what we have been told and when to act like we know what we know" (Blanche on the Lam, 73).

6We might add that many more of Blanche’s comments, or rather those taken from the third-person narrative that give an even more intimate view of her feelings, could be added to illustrate Soitos’s first trope. For instance, in reference to black workers, Blanche says:

Men like Nate and women like her were the people, the folk, the mud from which the rest were made. It was their hands and blood and sweat that made everything [...]. They ought to have been appreciated for being the wattle that held the walls together. Instead they were expendable, interchangeable, rarely missed, hardly regarded, easily forgotten” (Blanche on the Lam, 149).

7Plummer also justifiably notes Blanche’s denunciation of the issue of skin color, which even affects the way African Americans accept and reject each other. She points out that the “color struck discussion” covers four pages of the novel Blanche Among the Talented Tenth.

  • 4 Blanche White’s conflicting personality and own obsession with skin color starts of course with the (...)

8Yet what seems just as interesting to me as Blanche’s denunciation of the American obsession with the “melanin issue” is the inner contradiction that leads Blanche herself never to fail to mention the color (and its degree) of the people she meets.4 She complains that “everybody in the country got color on their brain [...]. It would be nice just for a week to have our color like tonsils or toenails or something else nobody really gives a damn about” (Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, 9), however, her first comments about people are almost invariably about their color. She describes them as "high yellow", "buttery yellow", “old gold”, "light skinned", "cafe con leche", “milk with a dollop of coffee”, "medium brown", "deep brown", "dark skinned", and "eggplant black". She even mentions whites whose complexions are so dark they could pass for "people of color" (Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, 10, 11, 15, 24, 34, 40, 158).

9I would add that despite Blanche’s overt discourse praising the beauty of the members of her community, at times it seems that she is more attracted to the idea of black people than she is to their reality. When she contemplates a crowd of African Americans from a distance, her words echo those of Langston Hughes’s “Poem”:

The night is beautiful
So the faces of my people
The stars are beautiful
So the eyes of my people.

10While she is indeed fascinated with the beauty of a group of anonymous black people:

Every black face was like a picture of the world: one or more of a zillion shades of brown or black; lips from dime thin to bee stung plump; eyes that slanted up or down or were round as flat coins; flat noses, fat ones, long and pointed ones. Black folks had them all. (Blanche Cleans Up, 77)

11Blanche is much less enthusiastic about the black individuals who inhabit her everyday world. Close contact with black neighbors and colleagues seem to inspire more annoyance and sarcasm than poetry. She sees in her colleague Carrie “a plain faced, dark brown skinned woman”. (Blanche Cleans Up, 6) The use of the term "plain faced" itself shows that for all her professed rejection of mainstream American criteria for beauty, Blanche is not above applying them.

  • 5 When it comes to the poor, it also seems that Blanche is more attracted to the needy of her imagina (...)

12Similarly, her professed contempt for and avoidance of the black bourgeoisie, which welcomes only light skinned Blacks, is constantly challenged by the choices she makes. She emphatically longs for a vacation in a typical poor black resort “with erratic plumbing and rickety furniture, greasy but abundant food where evenings ring with shouts and laughter,” (Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, 7); nonetheless she settles for an exclusive black bourgeois resort where she “has to” wear designer clothes. The reason given for her vacationing there – her children have been invited by classmates – is unexpected, given the fact that Blanche’s forte is that she does not let her children get away with what she thinks is wrong. Her sending the children to a school where dark skinned students are ostracized is just as disconcerting. It certainly does not concord with her hope that her daughter will hang out with revolutionary black girls or her claim that she does not want her children to pick any “hincty ideas” or develop any dumb idea about a lawyer or a doctor being a better person than someone who hauls the garbage” (Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, 7).5

13Blanche’s declarations of love for her people are constantly offset against the distance she maintains relative to even her most intimate relations. She seems to feel more affection for her black friends and family when she speaks to them on the telephone than when in their presence. She even seems to prefer speaking to dead black people rather than with live ones on the telephone, and among the deceased she has a particular weakness for those who have been dead a long time. She entertains fond memories of ancestors whom she has never met but who, she believes, have entrusted her with a nurturing mission towards her community. At the same time, she is enraged with her recently deceased sister who has left behind two children to feed. In fact, Blanche needs spatial and temporal distance so much that she even has trouble putting up with her own presence. She loves her black self as long as she can identify it with “Night Girl”, an imaginary personality that is invisible, eternally young and powerful, but she is much less enthusiastic about her real flesh-and-blood self; and cannot stand a “Blanche smelling room” (Blanche Cleans Up, 226).

14The ambivalence of Blanche’s attitude towards blackness is at least as interesting as her consciousness of racism.

15Soitos’s second trope is “double consciousness”, which he connects in detective work with the use of “the trickster qualities of masking”. Applying this trope to Neely’s work also seems justified. There are many instances of disguised or mistaken identity and of acts which Blanche performs to fool others, but while the relevance to Neely’s work of the double consciousness trope work is undeniable, Blanche’s ambiguous attitude regarding the use of the trickster’s ways is perhaps even more interesting.

  • 6 Cf Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry’s « De lieu en lieu, de place en place: le parcours des domestiques afric (...)

16When Blanche acts like the trickster, her behavior is presented as legitimate, but when other characters put on the same act, she denounces their attitude as servile and unacceptable. In Blanche Cleans Up, she becomes highly indignant at a party when she sees representatives of her community being obsequious to a white politician. Yet she herself is a servant in the same politician’s household. As such she willingly "shows signs of pleasant stupidity and puts on her "Butterfly McQueen" act for her employer’s benefit (Blanche on the Lam, 16, 153). Exactly what makes Blanche a trickster and the other characters “butt sucking maggots” is unclear or, rather, is relative and a matter of personal appreciation. The preacher betraying his community on a grand scale to increase his personal wealth may make Blanche’s grinning and curtseying look harmless by comparison but one can argue that in her small ways Blanche betrays the dignity of her people. Her acting stupid is not motivated by constraint. Having come of age not under slavery but in the 1960s,6 being clever and encouraged by her mother who "had not approved of her decision to continue to do domestic work instead of being a nurse or some other ‘mother-proud professional’" (Blanche on the Lam, 19), Blanche deliberately chose to be a servant because "she does not have to take no mess from nobody" (Blanche Cleans Up, 3), the job does “not have the tyranny of a supervisor out to make promotion” (Blanche on the Lam, 63) and “she was very good at and proud of what she did” (Blanche on the Lam, 65). Such statements are puzzling from someone who “hates waiting on tables and being treated like another utensil” (Blanche on the Lam, 50) and picking up other people’s dirty clothes, someone who works “six days a week and still does not make enough money to take care of herself and her children” (Blanche on the Lam, 84, 4), whose employers, white or black, are “nasty as castor oil” (Blanche on the Lam, 8), “disdain her to death” (Blanche on the Lam, 215), are arrogant and talk to her like she has a “dustpan for a brain” (Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, 46), not to mention that one of them rapes her. Some of her employers are racists, pedophiles, murderers, large-scale polluters of the environment and embezzlers of poor people’s savings. The only decent one is mentally retarded.

  • 7 Blanche’s love life tends to parallel her life as a cook. She prides herself on having powerful wom (...)

17Blanche’s frequent claim that she finds pleasure in being a superb cook, is not substantiated because when she prepares a meal she rarely goes past the first stages of cutting and slicing. At that point she is likely to put everything in the microwave oven or let someone else finish the job.7 In the end, it seems that the only satisfaction Blanche gets from her job lies in the fact that she occasionally “let her finger slip into somebody’s drink, put too much salt or hot pepper in the eggs rancheros or add a couple tablespoons of cat food to the beef bourguignonne (Blanche Cleans Up, 16). She also gets secret pleasure from contravening her employers in using their bathtubs and sitting on their sofas when they are not around. “Putting on a dumb act” (Blanche on the Lam, 16), she spies on them and talks about their weaknesses and silly habits to amuse her friends (Blanche on the Lam, 40). These trickster compensations seem to be small compared to what Blanche gives up for them and one may wonder who, between the servant and her employer, really fools the other, which gives the presence of the second trope a rather unexpected dimension.

18Soitos’s third trope is “black vernacular” defined as including not only black language, but also black music, black dance and black cuisine. Justifying the relevance of this third trope as Plummer does simply because Blanche spends a lot of time cooking is questionable since, all the above considerations set aside, the text does not provide any details about Blanche’s cooking that would make it representative of the uniqueness of African American cuisine. On the contrary Blanche repeatedly makes "lovely cups of tea", which sound more British than African American, and the food she prepares and serves to her employers seems to be fairly traditional all-American fare –platters of cold meats, sliced turkey, roast beef and ham, steamed carrots, green beans, baked potatoes and frozen lunches slipped into a microwave oven.

19At home, she makes meatballs which do not seem particularly African American either and, when ordering food in a restaurant, Blanche might claim that she prefers grits and biscuits to croissants, eggs benedict and lobster. But, in the end, she orders croissants, eggs benedict and lobster. I have been able to find only a few lines mentioning traditional African American food in Neely’s first three novels. One line in Blanche Among the Talented Tenth refers to collards, cornbread, sweet potatoes, fried chicken and grits (58), and two more lines in Blanche Cleans Up (203) mention pigs feet, chitterlings and corn bread. However, in neither case did Blanche prepare the food. Consequently justifying the relevance of the third trope –i. e. black vernacular– on account of Blanche’s cooking, as Plummer does, seems slightly contrived.

20Soitos’s fourth trope is “hoodoo”, which refers to the “indigenous syncretic religions of African Americans in the new world.” In the Blanche series, the use of ancestral rituals is interesting, but it can hardly be read the way Soitos defines this trope, as an element of African culture passed from one generation to the next in order to establish community values.

21There simply does not seem to be much continuity in the way Blanche is initiated into ancestral religious practices, at least in the first three novels. In fact, her manner of worship is very much that of an individualist virtually cut off from her past and present community.

22Blanche’s attitude reminds one of Ishmael Reed who stated, “Julia Jackson said, when asked the origin of the amulets and talismans in her studio, ‘I make my own stuff. It saves money and it’s as good. People who has to buy their stuff ain’t using their heads” (Reed, 298).

  • 8 “She was determined to prove the power of will over blood” (Blanche on the Lam, 182).

23Blanche tends to create her own religious rituals by sheer force of will and is not always “in touch with her inner self”. Her alleged feelings of ease with ancestral rituals is often thrown into doubt by the presence of a semantic field which reveals contradictions between her will for communion with her ancestors, particularly the female ones, and a sort of repulsion when actually faced with the rituals she invents for herself.8 Her spiritual experience at the beach in Blanche Among the Talented Tenth is a case in point. She emphatically describes her need to connect with her first ancestral mother, the ocean, which she calls mother water:

The sea was the place where she found the peace and cleansing her friends said they found in church or the mosque (Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, 61).

This was where she needed to be, always needed to be: in the open, barefoot and totally sure that she, the sand, the water and the wind were one (Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, 22).

24Yet when she actually enters the sea "every muscle of her body clenched from the shock of the cold water. She fought to control the clatter of her teeth. Her wet skirt held her calves captive...” (Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, 62).

  • 9 In fact, she enjoys it to the extent that, despite having been raped by the son of her white boss w (...)

25There is definitely an opposition between her desire for communion with the ocean that is supposed to bring peace, love and intimacy and the unpleasant experience of the actual cold, brutal mass of water. This opposition easily reads as a metaphor for the experience of slaves born near warm African seas who were brutally confronted with cold American shores. The reference to being held captive is never a positive one, and in an African American context the connotation is particularly negative. “The clatter of her teeth” is strangely reminiscent of the clatter of chains. What is interesting in Neely’s subtext (and here, in my opinion, lays the strength of her writing) is that in the end there is no communion between Blanche and the sea, there is just the "frustration of being near the water but unable to communicate with it" (Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, 22). If we accept Blanche’s view of the ocean as her ancestral mother, the beach episode can be interpreted to reveal even further contradictions in Blanche’s life: it shows her imprisoned by and yet disconnected from her origins. Interestingly, the only water Blanche ever feels comfortable with is the hot sort found in modern American bathrooms.9 The USA, for not being home, may still be home.

26The presence of the fourth trope is therefore more interesting in bringing out a sense of conflict with, if not rupture from, the past than that it is as an affirmation of the resilience of African American traditions and a sense of community.

  • 10 The fact that the Blanche series deals with issues concerning not only black women but also with th (...)

27When considered in a more recent sociological and historical context, Blanche’s contradictions and ambiguity constitute a creative reflection of the experience of many black women of the generation born in the late 1940s and early 1950s, women who grew up and were educated in a society that was openly racist and sexist. To what extent the ideology of the civil rights and women’s liberation movements succeeded in erasing the self-denigrating values originally imposed on this generation of women by the white male dominated society of their childhood is one of the many interesting issues posed by the Blanche series. The fact that the heroine has feminist convictions cannot be disputed; however, the character is far from being monodimensional. Along with the feminist rhetoric of Neely’s heroine, beyond even her determination to forge new attitudes and new forms of human interaction,10 a pre 1960s mode of thought seems to linger. It is perhaps best expressed by a statement from Blanche herself, which will conclude the first part of this presentation:

The hole of self hatred she had climbed out of as a young woman was still gaping wide and deep. Just because she was not teetering on the edge any more did not mean she could not be lured back (Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, 100).

28My reservations about the systematic application of any particular theory, be it as interesting as Soitos’s, also concern the broad feminist approaches often applied to Neely or for that matter to Walter Mosley. I find that there is a tendency among scholars and critics to assume that Neely’s depictions of women are positive, while Mosley’s are negative. Such readings seem reductive to me and at best debatable.

  • 11 Walter Mosley had published Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death, White Butterfly, A Little Yellow Do (...)

29In 1998, Patricia A. Turner wrote an essay entitled "From Talma Gordon to Theresa Galloway: Images of African American Women in Mysteries". In it, Turner examines both Mosley’s11 and Neely’s heroes. She argues that Mosley’s "Easy Rawlins [...] is a decidedly sexist black man" (Turner, 24). To substantiate her point, she quotes the following two passages:

She could knock a man into Tuesday or she could hold you so tight you felt like a child again in your mother’s loving embrace (A Red Death, 27).

Black women, lots of them cooking in the industrial size kitchen and talking loud, laughing and telling stories. But all I really saw was their hands. Working hands. Laying out plates, peeling yams, folding sheets and table cloths into perfect squares, washing drying, stacking and pushing from here to there. Women who lived by working. Brushing the hair of some neighborhood child whose parents were gone either for the night or for good. Cooking yes but there was lots more work for a negro woman. Dressing wounds of men they started being proud of. Punishing children, white and black, and working for god in his house and at home (A Red death, 107).

  • 12 My presentation was first delivered in French on April 1997 at the conference “Du dire à l’être, te (...)

30At the time that Turner published this article I was unaware of it and I myself used precisely these two passages to support the idea that Mosley depicted black women in a positive way.12 The incident brings all out the point I am trying to make about how the complexity of literary texts lets them escape the molds of literary criticism.

31Of course, Turner also has a point. It can be argued from these two passages that Mosley likes women to fit the mother stereotype and to be less educated than his male hero. These are obviously depictions of poor women employed in menial jobs. However, what struck me in Mosley’s five Easy Rawlins novels was that the recurring words associated with female characters are "warmth", "tenderness", "generosity", "strength", "power", "pleasure", "work" and "food". One is free to interpret such elements in negative ways but their positive side can also be defended.

32Concerning black women in particular, the combination of the words "black", "sweet" and "beautiful" is virtually a constant of Mosley’s writing. Mosley’s hero has sexist moments reflecting the ideology of his time, but he generally speaks a language of love and admiration for women and, in particular, very black women. The only woman he ever marries, Regina, is exceptionally black, as is EttaMae, the love of his life. When Easy evokes white women – a relatively rare occurrence – they are associated with uneasiness.

33I would even argue that Easy’s descriptions of his sexual encounters should not automatically be labeled as chauvinistic. There is tenderness even in his casual encounters, for example with the prostitute Juanita in A Red Death or with Carmela Bonita and Betty in Black Betty. “Betty in my arms. For years after that kiss I dreamed of it, yearned for it (...). I could run my hands from her head to her feet; not a lover’s stroke but a mother’s (230).

34When referring to his moment of sexual passion with Daphne Monnet in Devil in a Blue Dress, Easy says:

When I look back on that night I feel confused. If she wanted me to bleed, I would have been happy to open a vein. Daphne was like a door that had been closed all my life; a door that all of a sudden flung open and let me in. My heart and chest opened wide as the sky for that woman (187).

35Upon finding out that Daphne is a black woman, Easy uses the following terms when asking her to stay with him, "We’re both just people, Daphne, that’s what we are" (Devil in a Blue Dress, 208). This recognition by Easy of the fact that women are both sexual beings and individuals, that he and they are on the same level when confronted with joy and sorrow, with basic existential issues, is also a constant of Mosley’s writing.

  • 13 See Tambourines to Glory, Little Ham and Simply Heavenly.

36Many of Easy’s evocations of black women read as love poems of the Langston Hughes type: Easy appreciates the women whom Langston Hughes describes in his plays as "huge but shapely”.13 In fact, this is the precise image Easy uses to describe Etta Mae whose physical appearance, "big and strong but still womanly, very womanly" (Black Betty, 61), is not really very different from another Hughesian, very dark-skinned heroine, Blanche White who wears queen-size panties and is also employed at menial jobs.

  • 14 Examples abound: “[Blanche] thought about what women have always been and done for each other since (...)

37The discourse on women held by BarbaraNeely’s Blanche White is certainly an open celebration of the strength and beauty of womanhood. Blanche vehemently and repeatedly affirms the necessity for all women and, in particular, for very dark-skinned black women,14 to support and help each other. However, such bonding has its limits. When it comes to repressing her lust for another black woman’s husband, Blanche White is no different from Easy Rawlins who fools around with women whose mates are asleep next door. In Blanche Cleans Up, when one of Blanche’s old married friends comes to visit, "Blanche knew she was going to have him even if he said Luella [his wife] was standing just outside the door" (Blanche Cleans Up, 215).

  • 15 Houses are often explicitly described as having personalities and powers comparable to those of peo (...)

38A Jungian analysis of Neely’s work reveals an underlying discourse on feminity, which is different from the overt discourse in the sense that entities semantically related to the function of container and shelter, which by extension are symbols of the womb and all that is female, are often negative. There are many descriptions of houses, apartments, rooms, closets, sheds and shelters in the Blanche series.15 These descriptions revolve around the following words: "trapped", "unpleasant", "broken", "damp", "mean", "edgy", "sad", "sagging", "anxious", "forlorn", "nervous", "jumpy", "uneasy", "tension" and "gloom". Even the safest places are bleak. The bomb shelter under the house of Blanche’s old friend Miz Baker has "shattered glass laying at the door” (Blanche Cleans Up, 170). The door is scratched and “bears the mark of a long spidery stain". The light inside is dim; everything is "broken, creepy, dusty, spooky" and the air is "old, fetid, chilly" (Blanche Cleans Up, 179). Blanche’s one desire is to get out. Enclosures that are traditionally protective, nurturing and warm are depicted as cold, uncomfortable and both threatened and threatening. The womb symbols in the Blanche series are places that are either desolate or harmful, if not both. The strength and beauty of womanhood, so present in the overt discourse, are not at all obvious at the subliminal level. Once again we find a sort of double talk and ambiguity.

39Turning to the issue of sexism, it is difficult to see how Neely’s heroine is less "decidedly sexist" than is Mosley’s hero. For instance, the narrative describes her thoughts upon meeting a tennis instructor: “She looked him up and down. Ummm, soccer thighs. She did not know zip about the game, but she watched it on TV occasionally for the stud muffins, particularly for those long muscular, almost girlish legs and tight butts” (Blanche Cleans Up, 9). There follows a graphic description of what she imagines the man looks like naked.

40The article by Bonnie C. Plummer I referred to earlier is partly based on the assumption that Blanche fits the theory that Kathleen Gregory Klein expounds in The Woman Detective Gender and Genre. In the tenth chapter of her book, Klein specifies that "feminism rejects the objectification of sex", but the entire scene of sexual intercourse with Leo in Blanche Cleans Up is described from Blanche’s point of view and could easily be read as a lesson in how to dominate and "objectify" one’s partner. "She fed him lightly not wanting to waste his energy on digestion. She rode him like he was the last train away from certain disaster and lay panting and sweaty next to him [...], her floor littered with Leo’s condoms supply" (Blanche Cleans Up, 216).

41In that scene, Leo remains totally passive, confused and embarrassed. Blanche takes the initiative in everything. After having had the physical satisfaction she wanted from him, she refuses to let him talk – thus silencing him twice since he already stutters – and "shooed him into a cab which gave him exactly forty-five minutes to make his bus” (Blanche Cleans Up, 217).

  • 16 Blanche’s most legitimate reasons for treating Leo the way she does apparently are that “maybe that (...)

42Some would argue that the scene is understandable in the larger context of the story. Still, I wonder how women readers would react if the roles were reversed in this particular scene, that is, if Leo were riding a stuttering desire stricken Blanche and shooed her into a cab after having silenced her for reasons that from his point of view appeared legitimate.16

  • 17 One can argue that forms of reverse sexism and double standards are sometimes expressed in the Blan (...)

43Perhaps, too, Blanche’s attitude "signifies" on traditionally male-oriented literature, but the existence of reverse sexism,17 even if it must not be taken at face value, should at least be acknowledged.

  • 18 Neely and Mosley started publishing their novels in the early nineteen nineties but that is not all (...)

44The conclusion to this analysis is that the dynamic that stands out in both Easy and Blanche is definitely one of ambiguity and contradiction.18 One of the most obvious and interesting discrepancies lies in their sense of community and class. In this respect, the itinerary followed by the two heroes is similar except for the fact that they take the same road starting from opposite directions. Mosley’s hero repeatedly claims that he wants to get away from the poor black community, but for one reason or another he repeatedly returns to it. Conversely, BarbaraNeely’s heroine professes preference for the poor black community and openly scorns both the rich white world and the rich black one, but somehow she always finds reasons to be in the presence of the rich, be they white, or nearly white.

45My analysis of the paradoxes exemplified by Easy Rawlins (published in Warring Ideals in Dark Bodies) also applies to Blanche White. Contradictions and ambiguities can be read as signifiers of social and psychological fracture for African Americans but they should not be interpreted solely as weaknesses. Tensions between black culture and white society, between male ideology and female experience find powerful creative expression in Easy and Blanche. As Henry Louis Gates shows in The Signifying Monkey, the coexistence of opposites, when seen as part of African tradition, is a powerful tool for survival, wisdom and joy. In the ambiguity and bi-polarity which carry them from one type of pronouncement to another type of behavior, we find a clue to what is perhaps these heroes’basic cultural loyalty to the African-American community. I would add that their ambivalence about blackness and gender may appear negative from an ideological, politically-correct point of view, but that very ambivalence, these very contradictions, are what make the characters true literary figures and not merely one-dimensional ideological vehicles. One of the most interesting aspects of the writing of both authors is that it sheds light on the interpenetration of conflicting ideologies through the moments of confusion and incoherence that their characters experience. This complexity that thwarts literary theories is a testimony to the creative talents of Walter Mosley and BarbaraNeely.



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Reed, Ishmael. 1997. “Neo Hoodoo Manifesto”. In Gates Henry Louis, Jr., McKay Nellie, Eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: Norton.

Soitos, Stephen F. 1996. The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction. Amherst, Univ. of Massachusetts Press.

Turner, Patricia A. 1998. “From Talma Gordon to Theresa Galloway: Images of African American Women in Mysteries”. In The Black Scholar (Spring issue).

Wallace, Michele. 1979. Black Macho and the Myth of the Super Woman. New York: Dial.


1 In “Subverting the Voice: BarbaraNeely’s African American Detective,” Bonnie C. Plummer uses the theories of Kathleen Klein, Glenwood Irons and Stephen Soitos to demonstrate that Neeiy’s detective subverts the white male, hardboiled detective formula. We could add that Blanche White also subverts the Black maid stereotype for some of the same reasons; she expresses herself forcefully as both a black person and as a woman. Her open discourse is very much that of black women intellectuals of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Examples of this discourse can be found in works edited by Toni Cade (The Black Woman, An Anthology), Gerda Lerner (Black Women in White America, A Documentary History), Michele Wallace (Black Macho and the Myth of the Super Woman), Gloria Τ Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith (All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men but Some of Us Are Brave), Paula Giddins (Where and When I Enter, The Impact of Black Women On Race and Sex in America), Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Reading Black Reading Feminist, A Critical Anthology), Stanley M. James and Abena P. A. Busia (Theorizing Black Feminisms, The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women) and Charlotte Pierce Baker (Surviving the Silence, Black Women’s Stories of Rape)

2 In The Blues Detective, Soitos defines "trope" the same way as does M. H. Abrams, that is: "words or phrases (...) used in a way that affects a conspicuous change in what we take to be their standard meaning" (4).

3 My own analysis of BarbaraNeely’s heroine is primarily based on the novels Blanche on the Lam, Blanche Among the Talented Tenth and Blanche Cleans Up. A fourth novel, Blanche Passes Go, was published in 2000 but I would not apply to it the conclusions reached for the first three novels. Blanche Passes Go, in my opinion, deserves a study of its own.

4 Blanche White’s conflicting personality and own obsession with skin color starts of course with the very “name that made her so defensive” (Blanche on the Lam, 30). This name is not only at odds with her very black self, it also originates in two countries, France and England, which in addition to having captured and sold her ancestors have always been rivals. The potential for self destruction given by this conflicting name finds expression in the use of the adjective white which often qualifies the people, elements or objects that threaten the heroine. For instance the phrase “the knife blade shone white” (Blanche on the Lam, 198) describing a situation where Blanche is being attacked by the owner of the knife, seems to imply at the subliminal level that Blanche White is part of the attack against herself.

5 When it comes to the poor, it also seems that Blanche is more attracted to the needy of her imagination than to those experiencing the reality of poverty. Her attitude towards the material possessions of the rich is decidedly ambiguous. They are at one and the same time the object of her scorn and of her admiration: "Lord if that stuck up Helen Robinson could see me now. Blanche grinned to herself and pressed her feet a little deeper into the plush carpeting. She ran her hand across the glove leather seat. Money she thought” (Blanche on the Lam, 33). “A sauna! Imagine having a sauna in your own bathroom” (Blanche Cleans Up, 89).

6 Cf Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry’s « De lieu en lieu, de place en place: le parcours des domestiques africaines-américaines ».

7 Blanche’s love life tends to parallel her life as a cook. She prides herself on having powerful womanly needs but most of the time does not seem to care once the preliminary stage of a relationship has been reached. A study of symbols applied to gender relationships confirms and accentuates the politics of distance and separation at work in her life. In Blanche Passes Go (37), her bedroom has a lock on the door and nails hammered into the window frames so that they cannot be raised enough for a man to crawl inside. There is a “hunting knife under her pillow, a foot long pipe beside her bed and another just inside the door in case she needed to bash somebody’s brains out”.

8 “She was determined to prove the power of will over blood” (Blanche on the Lam, 182).

9 In fact, she enjoys it to the extent that, despite having been raped by the son of her white boss who finds her in his bathtub, she does not renounce taking baths at her employers’places. Her attitude towards situations related to water is ambiguous in other ways, in Blanche on the Lam she pictures her affection for her mother and children as a lake in the middle of which they are floating (125). The positive side of this image is, however, counterbalanced by the fact that one of the female murderers uses a lake as the place in which to drown children.

10 The fact that the Blanche series deals with issues concerning not only black women but also with those affecting the poor, the handicapped, abused children, homosexuals and even victims of lead poisoning is in accordance with the dominant contemporary discourse of black women intellectuals. The first Blanche novel was published in 1992, one year after the Second Black Feminism Seminar at Spelman College where participants repeatedly described black feminism as a “multiple level engagement which dises the liberation from sexual and racial oppression with the liberation from other forms of oppression”. The academic work I have read and most of the reviews and comments from readers I have found on the Internet describe Blanche as “strong, principled, resolute”. They refer to her as “an independent woman”, “a feminist”, “a feminocentric type”, “a real woman”, “a force to be reckoned with”, “a woman of stature”.

11 Walter Mosley had published Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death, White Butterfly, A Little Yellow Dog and Gone Fishin. The latter is not a detective novel but features the same characters as the detective series.

12 My presentation was first delivered in French on April 1997 at the conference “Du dire à l’être, tensions identitaires dans la littérature nord-américaine”, organized by the Equipe de recherches en littérature et civilisation des pays anglophones at the University of Caen. It was published in English in PALARA, no. 4, Fall 2000, ISSN: 1093-5398.

13 See Tambourines to Glory, Little Ham and Simply Heavenly.

14 Examples abound: “[Blanche] thought about what women have always been and done for each other since the first human breath (Blanche and the Talented Tenth, 124)”, “Women like us need our girl friends (Blanche and the Talented Tenth, 129)” Yet, as I previously mentioned, Blanche reverts to American mainstream criteria of beauty when she finds Carrie “plain faced”. What is more, Carrie’s alleged lack of physical appeal is repeatedly associated with a kind of mild stupidity and narrow mindedness. Inez, another black cleaning lady “does not know sunshine from shoe polish” (Blanche Cleans Up, 116). The black women characters who find mercy in Blanche’s eyes are either very young ones like Shaquita in Blanche Cleans Up or unusually attractive ones, like Tina in Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, “whose eyes were meant to break hearts. Her face could have been the model for a profile on an African coin. Her full features were perfectly balanced”(67). Coincidentally these exceptionally beautiful young women are also remarkably gifted intellectually and nothing indicates that they will become maids. So, if Blanche were to apply to herself the same criteria to assess her own beauty and achievements in life as the ones she applies to others, she would have no reason to be proud of her fiftyish, size sixteen, ancillary self.

15 Houses are often explicitly described as having personalities and powers comparable to those of people: “Blanche believed in the power of houses” (Blanche on the Lam, 15). “The minute the house sensed she understood it to be a living, breathing, watching creature with a personality and intentions of its own, the house confided in her” (Blanche Cleans Up, 104). At the subliminal level images of uncomfortable houses, rooms and shelters, their association with threat and pain may also reflect Blanche’s uneasy attitude towards her own body/womb which was once raped. The frequency of the negative images of houses in the first three novels may in fact balance out the surprisingly brief and casual mention of the rape itself. The character, so outspoken about sensitive issues of any sort avoids the discussion of her own rape, which becomes central and finds a form of closure only in the fourth novel. Linked to the desolate aspect of the rooms/wombs are sharply cutting objects – knives, pieces of glass – or elements related to the cutting process like butcher’s blocks. Interestingly the sharp objects enclosed in the often threatening rooms are presented in a rather positive, even life-saving way. They may be symbolically related to and reflect on Blanche’s happy pro-abortion attitude. Blanche, who went through a teenage abortion herself, “jumps for joy” when she realizes that Shaquita still has time to abort (Blanche Cleans Up, 64), becomes depressed when the girl decides to keep her baby and hides her smile when the father leaves the pregnant girl, leaving her no choice but to have an abortion. Still, to go back to the semantics of the text, butchers knives and blocks, even presented in a positive way, hold a symbolism at least partially related to rupture, sacrifice and death. On another level for a black woman of Blanche’s (and BarbaraNeely’s) generation the sociopolitical context surrounding the issue of abortion may have been less clear than the character’s militant discourse suggests. At the second Black Feminism Seminar at Spelman College in 1991, Evelyn L. Barbee and Marilyn Little talked of “the effort of African American women to balance their rights not to have unwanted children with their fear of genocidal or international policies (cf. Theorizing Black Feminisms, 192), and Loretta J Ross noted that in the nineteen seventies white conservatives saw family planning as an assault on the traditional values of motherhood while some black male radicals saw it as a race and class-directed eugenics program, thus the assault on birth control and abortion came both from the right and from the left (cf. Theorizing Black Feminisms, 154). From another point of view, that of anthropology, Blanche White, if only because of her name and positive attitude towards cutting items corresponds to Gilbert Durand’s definition of the archetypal “héros solaire” (cf. Structures anthropologiques de l’imaginaire). The héros solaire” is a fierce enemy of all that dwells in caves, grottoes and dark places that are associated with horror and evil The héros solaire” is a shining, white, male figure who keepsthings at a distance and whose sharp edged weapons, usually swords and arrows, cut, divide, purify and bring light and order to obscurity and chaos.

16 Blanche’s most legitimate reasons for treating Leo the way she does apparently are that “maybe that was what irritated her the most. It was as if he had decided to wear her down with kindness and decency” (Blanche on the Lam, 21).

17 One can argue that forms of reverse sexism and double standards are sometimes expressed in the Blanche series. In Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, Blanche and her soul sisters refer to Mattie who misses “the good old days when women were strong and men were conveniences (28)” as a “visionary feminist writer”, a “living treasure” and a “walking shrine” (69) even though Mattie chose to marry a rich white man, bear his children and be supported by him in a life of luxury. They do not consider that Mattie has betrayed her race, class or independence as a woman, apparently simply because she says that she was never in love with her husband to begin with. Blanche is not so open-minded about black men marrying white women or having white lovers. About Donnie, a gay black male who has a white lover she says: “being gay did not relieve you from your “white is better” slave heritage” (Blanche Cleans Up, 117) but when it comes to Mick the lesbian she remarks “years ago she’d have had an attitude because Mick’s lover was not black but the older she got, the more certain she became that someone you loved who loved you back was what was important” (Blanche Cleans Up, 147).

18 Neely and Mosley started publishing their novels in the early nineteen nineties but that is not all that the two authors have in common. Their heroes have a discourse that always takes place on two levels. Perhaps both are, to use BarbaraNeely’s formula, “weakened by the idea of a thing and the real thing” (Blanche Cleans Up, 125).


An Associate Professor at the University of Caen. Her work on Afro American literature has been published by the Presses Universitaires de Caen, Presses de la Sorbonne, R.F.E.A., P.A.L.A.R.A. (University of Missouri Columbia, Pennsylvania State University), Journal of Haitian Studies (UC Santa Barbara), The Black Scholar and an anthology of the Indian Chapter of M.E.L.U.S. (University of Calcutta, University of Delhi, University of Chandigarh.)

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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