The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard is an amazing book to read, and yet the meaning can be evasive until the main character, Johnny Ribkins, can be fully understood. Johnny is a 72 year-old member of an extraordinary African-American family: the Ribkins, descendants of the Rib King™ (“said to have invented the best barbecue sauce recipe in the entire southeast”). Each member has an extraordinary talent, or power, whose value can be initially dubious, and, in isolation, maybe useless. Johnny can make maps of places he has never been nor seen, his brother Franklin can climb anything (even flat walls), his cousin Bertrand can spit fire, and his niece Eloise can catch anything that is thrown at her.
Initially, during the Civil Rights movement, Johnny organized his family (and some similarly-gifted friends) to form the Justice Committee, dedicated to helping Civil Rights heroes through their Freedom of Movement Movement, allowing them to move safely about the country. But when the Justice Committee falls apart due to interpersonal conflict, money issues, and Johnny’s escalating paranoia and flights of fancy, Johnny feels lost. Later, after he discovers the existence of his half-brother Franklin, and his wall-climbing capability, he turns to a life of crime as thieves-for-hire.
His partnership with Franklin eventually sours, too, leaving him freelancing his maps for slick gangster Melvin Meeks, from whom Johnny has been embezzling money for years. Now, Johnny has one week to pay off his $100,000 debt to Meeks. His plan is to raid his squirrel-holes from his past all up and down Florida, having burying money like a paranoid pirate, in places that are almost designed to bring back memories. It should be a relatively easy job, what with the amount of money he has stashed away. But he keeps running into people who need a hand-up, and ends up paying for two mortgages. Also, he finds the nature of his mission radically altered: his discovers, for the first time, his deceased brother Franklin’s 13 year-old daughter, Eloise (of catching ability). Soon, he finds her escorting her all over Florida, introducing her to her people, the talented Ribkins, and what it means to live life when you’re just a little bit…different.
The name of this novel and its themes are inspired by W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of the Talented Tenth. Basically, DuBois argued that a well-educated aristocracy of African-Americans would, if educated and equipped, rise up and lead the race of their race into prosperity and success. While this idea might sound elitist, context is critical. He was countering Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta compromise“: that the races could be separate as the fingers, but work together as one hand economically. While Washington accomplished much and was interested in black advancement, his ideas appealed to pragmatic white supremacists, who wanted to keep black people not only humble but subservient. DuBois’s arguments were for black dignity, and full personhood, although not every black person would benefit initially.
The Ribkins are literally talented, standing in (in many ways) for the Talented Tenth. Eloise is talented and smart, but young and the product of a single-parent home. Can the examples of the elder Ribkins be emulated? Should they be? Do all the Ribkins(and Flash and the Hammer, the friends from the Justice Committee) use their talents the same way, and for the same purpose? This is important background information for a novel that is neither parable nor allegory, but definitely infused with important ideas.
But this isn’t a book with just ideas, it is filled with artistry and craft. The setting and history is immersive, and the characters are unique and memorable. Johnny himself is a cipher whose nature seems to shift through the paradigm of whatever old acquaintance he is interacting with. He is an interesting foil for Eloise, who is in the youthful process of discovering herself and her potential. The journey they make is an odd odyssey, filled with hosts with their own complicated motivations. Personally, one of my very parts is the “pie scene,” filled with some of the most delicious dramatic tension I have ever read.
Ultimately, though, you can’t fully appreciate the book until you finish it, when the story comes back home to Leigh Acres, when you find out what Johnny really is (and, for that matter, the true nature of Eloise is capable of). It is then that you see the way forward, and you will understand what DuBois says later when looking back at his Talented Tenth idea:
My own panacea of earlier days was flight of class from mass through the development of a TalentedTenth; but the power of this aristocracy of talent was to lie in its knowledge and character and not in its wealth.
Ladee Hubbard will serve as a panelist on the “First Fiction: The Discovery of the Debut” discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, August 19 at 4 p.m. at the State Capitol in Room 113.