Black mystery author speaks about, and through, her books

Pamela Steinle

Blanche White, a size-16 black woman with a lust for life, doesn’t speak without the permission of a small, fine-boned woman named Barbara Neely.

Neely, author of four books featuring the character, carefully chooses Blanche White’s words to provide social commentary from the perspective of a working-class black woman.

“Blanche is my political mouthpiece,” Neely said. “I wanted to write a book about race and class in America in a way that is funny and accessible.”

On Friday, Neely spoke to a group of more than 60 University students, staff and faculty, as well as members of sponsor organizations, giving them insight on the meaning and significance of her mystery books.

The event is one of three Neely attended over the weekend in honor of Black History Month.

Neely said she doesn’t normally participate in Black History Month because “we have history every day of the year.”

But she said she was lured by the opportunity to talk with women of color and the chance to do something for the library system that has done so much for her.

The Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library worked with the University Women of Color Network, the Office for University Women and the Office for Multicultural and Academic Affairs for Friday’s event.

Neely, who said she is committed to working for a just society through organizations such as Women for Economic Justice, YWCA and Africa News Service, said her books are issue-driven, with the mystery narrative acting as the stage.

“The color issue is oppressing all of us,” Neely said. “We are all having our butts kicked because of this.”

Blanche is comprised of many elements. Blanche has children, but they aren’t of her womb (they are her late sister’s), she ages throughout the series (she is 50 in the most recent book) and the bachelorette’s lust for life is matched by her lust for men.

The most recent book, “Blanche Passes Go,” deals with violence against women. Blanche, a victim of rape, meets and confronts her attacker.

Neely said she was “majorly pissed off” while she wrote the book, but she said the book has been useful because she has been able to hold benefits for organizations that address violence against women.

Sherry Lee, a writer and member of the University Women of Color Network, said she has a deep appreciation for Neely’s literature.

“It’s an easy read with a cultural message you’re not going to get with mainstream mysteries,” said Lee. “As a woman of color, it’s nice to see that.”