August 8, 2017
Behind the Book: Ladee Hubbard’s The Talented Ribkins
by Ladee Hubbard
I began writing the first draft of my novel The Talented Ribkins, published today, at my grandparents’ house, three months after the birth of my third child. It was a fitting place to start the journey. Even though I had not yet worked out the plot, I knew that I was writing in some ways about my grandparents and what they meant to me. Throughout my childhood I moved a lot, but I went to Florida to live with my grandparents every summer. Their house was always home for me. It was where I saw my family— not just my grandparents but my aunts, uncles, and cousins — all of whom had very strong personalities and very distinct ideas about what it meant to live a life of value.
The Talented Ribkins developed in part from the voices of the characters, many of them derived from members of my family. The main character, Johnny Ribkins, sounds and feels to me like my grandfather, although in other respects they are nothing alike. To the extent that his character is rooted in his voice, the things Johnny tells Eloise and the love and respect he shows to his niece mirror the love and respect my grandfather always showed me.
He was my hero as a kid. I admired him for many reasons, but in particular I was inspired by the story of how hard he’d worked to get an education. He’d wanted to go to North Carolina Central University but didn’t have the money to enroll. Instead he walked to the house of James Shepard, the president of the college, knocked on his door, and announced that he wanted to be a student. He was given a job in the cafeteria and worked there, busing students’ tables, which is how he met my grandmother, who came from a more affluent family. Eventually he received a basketball scholarship that allowed him to attend classes and discover his love for chemistry. After he graduated, despite the financial hardship it entailed, he continued with his graduate studies while raising five kids.
What inspired me most is the tenacity it must’ve taken for my grandfather to realize his particular vision of who he wanted to be. I was amazed by the specificity this vision. It struck me that chemistry was a relatively obscure ambition given his circumstances — not the most direct route to social status or financial stability. Becoming a chemist was not the kind of goal anyone could have imagined or foreseen, but it was what he wanted and so he kept going. He and my grandmother were both people who truly believed in the transformative potential of education. What that transformation led to was something everyone had to decide for themselves. They taught me that knowledge—what I had experienced, and what I had learned from those experiences—was the one thing nobody could ever take away from me.
In reflecting on the quest for knowledge that drove my childhood heroes, I was inevitably reminded of W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous essay “The Talented Tenth.” Published in 1903, it was about the importance of a liberal arts education to the creation of a black leadership class. Over the years it has sometimes been used as a shorthand for the aspirational striving of the black bourgeoisie and dismissed as elitist. It’s worth remembering, though, that the essay was actually composed for a specific audience and written at a time when many whites believed African Americans should be taught only vocational skills — or have no access to education at all.
When I read the essay I was struck by the assumption of responsibility: the idea that those who have more will do more is presented as a given. Like the superheroes in a comic book, Du Bois sees his tenth as responsible for the well-being of an entire community. It’s a daunting mandate, and one Du Bois himself strove to live up to, even as his ideas about what that meant continued to evolve over time. Due to the efforts of people like Du Bois, people like my grandfather, who was not born into privilege, at the very least had a door to knock on.
The main character in my book, Johnny Ribkins, is also trying to open doors, create new paths, and forge ways out for people. The why of what he is doing is always clear to him; it is in trying to figure out the how and the what that things get more complicated. It leads to clashes and bitter disagreements with other members of his family, all of whom are ultimately just trying to do the best they can with what they’ve been given. For me, what makes Johnny Ribkins a hero is the way he grounds his particular vision in love, and his struggle to stay true to that vision, even when it clashes with others ideas of who he is or what he should be.
Ladee Hubbard is a winner of the 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and the William Faulkner—William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is the author of The Talented Ribkins, available now from Melville House.