Ladee Hubbard Knows the Truth About Food Histories and Anti-Black Racism

In her sophomore novel, ‘The Rib King,’ Hubbard investigates caricatures and consumption

With her 2017 debut novel The Talented Ribkins, New Orleans-based writer Ladee Hubbard pulled inspiration from W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Talented Tenth” — the essay that argued for “developing the best of [African Americans] that they may guide the mass away from the contamination and death of the worst, in their own and other races” — to look at a family of Black superheroes. Her latest historical fiction novel The Rib King (out now via Amistad) takes an ancestral figure from Hubbard’s debut and allows readers to get a more complex view of the character beyond the stories passed down by his descendants. Through Mr. Sitwell, who becomes a controversial food icon known as The Rib King, the novel explores themes of racial trauma, anger, and the ways in which African Americans have been exploited and caricatured for capitalistic gain.

During a recent Zoom interview with ZORA, the New Orleans-based writer sat in front of a poster of her late mentor Toni Morrison (from the 2019 film The Pieces I Am) while discussing the inspiration behind The Rib King, as well as its relevance to our current national conversations about race.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ZORA: How did you decide to write this book as a prequel to your debut novel?

Ladee Hubbard: I was thinking about [The Rib King] even before the first book came out. I just write so much about the characters. Where do they come from? What’s their backstory? I just have a tendency to go off on different tangents and he became a part of the research for the first book.

At the time there was a lot of attention being given to the vulnerability of African American children to racial violence. For some reason, that got into my thoughts about who this [character] was.

Your book comes at a time where we have been having conversations about the ways in which the food industry has created these caricatures of Black people. What were you thinking as news about brands such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben were breaking last year?

It did strike me that this book would come out the same [time] that supposedly these figures are going to finally be retired after 100 years. Part of [this book] is thinking about as much as things have changed, what has not changed.

“There’s a lot of really violent imagery of Black people to sell products.”

You must’ve done a lot of research on this topic. Was there anything in particular that really struck you?

Rastus, the Cream of Wheat man. If you ever look at a lot of them, they’re very bizarre. They put him in all kinds of weird, different scenarios and it’s always the same smile. When I look at them, I’m very aware that I’m not seeing what apparently other people are seeing. They’re very disturbing in a quiet way.

The reason I mentioned him is because a lot of the ads that I looked at are much more offensive on the surface. There’s a lot of really violent imagery of Black people to sell products. It was painful to look at. The current incarnation of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben [is] much different than what they were actually using to sell pancake mix initially. It makes you really think about the appeal of these images on these products and what that says about the people that these were appealing to.

Yes, or even that you can “clean up” an image over time in an effort to separate it from its racist roots.

There’s so many things like that in this culture. That is part of what is going on with Mr. Sitwell in terms of his trauma. The attempted erasure of racial violence. To clean it up and cover it over as opposed to actually dealing with it. That’s a violation and I think that’s what actually sets him off.

Can you talk about Jennie’s storyline and how it touches on the legacy of Black women entrepreneurs in beauty?

I read all the memoirs and accounts I could find of women who were entrepreneurs, and that’s a part of why I feel like I learned so much from writing the book. Just to ask basic questions of the characters. What kind of options would you have had as a Black woman?

There’s a lot of stuff in there that’s based on the lives of actual women. It’s hard enough to get a loan if you were a Black man. I think it was from one of these interviews that someone was talking about when they started their beauty salon. They had to marry someone they trusted so that he could co-sign their loan. I might have known it but I hadn’t really thought about what that meant and what that said and how difficult it was.

I was thinking of how Jennie’s perspective might complicate a reader’s sympathy for the Rib King. His actions are a result of a very real racialized trauma he experienced, but there are all of these other Black people, including women, who are harmed by this anger he feels.

There’s repercussions of all of our choices. I think I was trying to represent how complicated the negotiation of the United States is for Black people still. I just wanted to explore the complexities of those dynamics without judging them.

As a writer, how do you navigate being historically accurate but also having the creative license to shape the characters in whatever way you see fit?

I tend to write a lot of books and do a lot of research, and then I almost try to forget [what I learned]. It’s in there somewhere, but I want to give myself the freedom to make my own connections.

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