Just wanted to pass along a groovy reading tip. I’m a little late to this party (this book was published in 1997), but I highly recommend Barbara Hambly‘s A Free Man of Color, which is a murder mystery set in 1833 New Orleans (right around Mardi Gras). This is the first in this series. The main character is Benjamin January (or Janvier, as the French and Creole New Orleans residents call him), a free man of color, whose stepfather freed him upon his death.
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January is a trained musician and he went to Paris as a free man and learned medicine. He became a surgeon, but found that he missed New Orleans and after the death of his wife, he returned there, where members of his family resided.
Hambly is a prolific and award-winning author in several genres, including science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, and historical mystery. She really did her homework to write the Benjamin January series, capturing the hierarchies of New Orleans — and, by extension, Southern — society as categorized through race, skin color, nationality, and gender. January is a free man, yes, but his skin is so dark that he’s constantly stopped by white officials and he has to produce his “papers” — the papers that attest to his manumission and the fact that he does, indeed, have dark skin.
New Orleans society places a premium on lighter-colored skin, with all its designations of “mulatto” and “quadroon” and octaroon.” Hambly explains in the Author’s Note what that means. Read it, because it’ll help you get a sense of how truly twisted race and color have made us as a culture, and it weighs heavily in the Benjamin January series.
Here, January has returned from Paris and he’s still grieving the death of his wife. He’s not entirely certain why he returned to New Orleans, since he’s constantly under scrutiny from whites and light-skinned blacks, and he has to affect degrading behavior to deal with whites — especially the influx of white Americans, whom, it seems, most French, Spanish, and Creole residents of New Orleans absolutely loathe for their uneducated and boorish ways as well as their absolute views of race and color. Americans are making it even harder for men like January, who are free but dark-skinned. January can never work as a surgeon in New Orleans because of the racist codes Americans are placing across the city, though he is able to practice minimally through French circles. He therefore must earn his living as a musician and music teacher.
January is about to play music at a Mardi Gras ball (also fraught with social hierarchies and nuances), but on his way in to the venue, he comes across a woman who is in the clutches of a man who is forcing himself upon her near the venue’s entrance. She recognizes January, though he doesn’t at first recognize her because she’s in costume (it’s Mardi Gras), but he helps her out, and in that encounter with the white prominent man who is attempting to brutalize a woman, we see how race plays out in 19th-century New Orleans, and what January has to endure in order to ensure the safety of a white woman. From this initial encounter, the reader will be privy to January’s anger and humiliation every time he has to deal with a white person who treats him as no better than horseshit on a shoe. And that, unfortunately, is how the majority of whites treat him.
Once January realizes who the woman is (a grown former student of his — he’s in his early 40s) — they chat briefly, as he wants to make sure she’s okay. As it turns out, she is trying to go into the venue to speak with another woman who has a consummately nasty and vile reputation though she’s one of the most beautiful and sought-after light-skinned colored women in French society. January warns his charge not to stick around (because people talk so), and he says he’ll set up a meeting between the two women elsewhere. He figures it has something to do with the fact that the woman he just helped is the widow of a man who died 2 months prior, but whose mistress was the nasty high society woman.
And that is a whole other layer of society — prominent white men who are married but take light-skinned mistresses. Here, we get a glimpse of what some women do to ensure their own safety and the safety of their children. It’s a social custom, for white men to take light-skinned mistresses and have children with them, and for those mistresses, the custom both further entraps them while at the same time providing a modicum of freedom and decent living standard for them and their children.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave, yes? Murder ensues at the ball where January is playing, and January has to negotiate the various lines that divide New Orleans society to find out who the killer is, because he was one of the last people to see the woman who dies alive, and because he’s black, he is automatically a prominent suspect.
Hambly writes a rich, beautifully rendered narrative with some most excellent twists. Even her backstories (which, in the hands of less skilled writers, I would call “info dumping”) are sewn tightly into the lining of this 19th-century tale, and provide an exquisite view of an era that we claim to be beyond, but yet that influences us still, reflected in current issues that surround race and culture.
You may find this an initially difficult book to get into, and you may stumble over the French names, if you’re not familiar with that language. It takes a chapter or two, but do stick with it, because it’ll open your eyes as well as provide a wonderful read. And check out Hambly’s website, as well, so you can see the range of what she writes.
Happy reading, happy writing!