ST. PETERSBURG –Last month, the St. Petersburg Branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc., (ASALH) presented its fourth annual Celebration of Black History Month by featuring Dr. Ladee Hubbard, who discussed her debut novel “The Talented Ribkins.”
Held at St. Petersburg Country Club, this year’s theme was “Young, Gifted and Black.”
Hubbard, a professor at Tulane University, has roots in St. Pete as her late grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Peter C. Williams, were educators here. Hubbard’s uncle is Judge Charles E. Williams of Sarasota and Ladee’s mother, Attorney Jacqueline Hubbard, is the president of the St. Petersburg Chapter of ASALH.
“There’s a lot of my grandparents in this book,” Hubbard explained. “I came to visit them every summer when I was growing up.”
The novel centers on a family of African Americans in which each member is born with a unique talent, and the title is a nod to W.E.B. DuBois’ influential essay “The Talented Tenth,” published in 1903. But whereas DuBois spoke of talent in a more abstract way, Hubbard wanted to give her characters special physical abilities.
One family member can see in the dark, one can scale any wall and one can catch anything thrown at her. The main character, Johnny Ribkins, can make perfect maps of any landscape that he passes through.
Much of the book is about the family members trying to figure out how and where they belong and what they’re talents are good for.
The majority of the novel is structured as a road trip, where 72-year-old Johnny Ribkins is driving around and visiting places that were significant to him in his past. Owing a very large debt at the outset of the story—to a mob boss, no less—Johnny is traveling through Florida and digging up bags of money that he had buried at various times during his younger days.
At the first stop of his deceased half-brother’s childhood home, Johnny discovers he has a 13- year-old niece Eloise—another family member with a special talent—whom he takes along in his journey.
“For her, for Eloise, it’s the first time she’s met anybody in her family before,” Hubbard said, “so she’s actually learning a lot about history. So they’re both kind of going on the same route, traveling together, but it’s a very different journey for both of them.”
As she read an excerpt of her book, it became clear that Hubbard possesses a gift for engaging prose, as when Johnny arrives at his cousin’s Simone’s house after many years:
“Johnny looked around the room. The last time he’d come to visit it hadn’t been like this. Simone and her third husband, the judge, had just moved in so half their belongings were still in boxes, the yard outside a rolling hill of dirt and sand. He remembered staring out the window while Simone described her plans for a glorious flower garden. He’d been in a bad mood at the time, but at some point felt her hand on his shoulder and realized she was telling him that everything would be okay, explaining some theory of why things can only get better in time.
So he nodded and tried to smile at her imaginary landscape when in truth, all he’d seen when he looked out her window was a good place to dig a hole.”
Hubbard noted that she was interested in exploring the differences between talent and vision in this book, adding that’s “it’s about being receptive to new ideas.”
“The Talented Ribkins” began life as a short story back in 2009, but Hubbard soon realized a fuller version of the story she wanted to tell.
“I just really wanted to write more about the characters Johnny and Eloise,” she said.
Dr. Ladee Hubbard is a professor of African Studies at Tulane and is the winner of the 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition for the Short Story