The series takes place in 1830s New Orleans, when the city was still in the process of changing from a French/Spanish city to an American one. Many of the stories have to do with clashes between the uncouth Americans and the genteel Creoles. As the title of the first book indicates, Benjamin January is a black former slave who was freed as a child and given a world-class education by his mother’s protector. Much of the conflict in the stories is about racism and class—especially class among the free people of color. (Having at least one white grandparent made you colored, not black—an important distinction. Benjamin is considered colored.)
I’m a big fan of Barbara Hambly’s writing. She has a gift for sketching out details that make you gather in a whole scene in a few lines—including the clothing and attitudes of the people involved. Her books are extremely well-researched (she lived in New Orleans while writing the first few) and she creates an atmosphere that draws you right in.
I decided to reread A Free Man of Color, realizing I hadn’t read it since it came out. Although, I remembered a lot of the story, I couldn’t remember the “who dunnit.”
What a pleasure it was to be reintroduced to the New Orleans of Benjamin—scholar, surgeon, pianist, and informal detective. In the intervening years since I first read this book, I have read a lot of Georgette Heyer (Barbara Hambly is a fan too) and can see her influence on Hambly’s writing about clothing as well as the interpersonal relationships of the “demimonde” (as opposed to Heyer’s “upper ten thousand”).
What fascinated me most in this reread are the topics of misogyny and racism, that play major roles in all of these books, and how prescient they were in A Free Man of Color about conversations happening twenty-two years later. The story follows a recently widowed woman who is trying to get back jewelry and slaves that belonged to her that her dead husband had given to his “colored” mistress. She attempts to get into a space reserved for “colored” mistresses, but is intercepted by Benjamin January, her former piano teacher, who agrees to carry a message to the mistress. When the mistress ends up murdered, Benjamin must track down the killer or face murder charges.
Hambly’s descriptions of how powerless women are—their possessions all belong to their husbands—and how powerless people of African descent are is heartbreaking and enraging. But all to good effect to make the story move along at a quick pace.
A problematic element in 2019 that wasn’t as much a worry in 1997 is that Barbara Hambly, a white woman, is writing the story of a black man and other people of color. In my opinion, as another white woman, I feel she does an amazing job of characterizing the constant fear that Benjamin has that he could be kidnapped and sold as a slave at any moment. His humiliation at having filthy river boat men condescend to him or brutalize him, because they can.
Coming from my vantage point of privilege, my first reaction is “they can’t get away with that” or “people wouldn’t really do that.” Of course, they can and do. Being so closely aligned to Benjamin’s POV, it’s hard not to take umbrage as he does, but where he has to swallow his pride, I could get in the face of the perpetrator. I feel like Hambly does such an immersive job in her writing, that it gets to the deepest parts of racism and exposes it for the idiocy that it is. How a person of color would react, I don’t know.
Maybe what this book does best is create an atmosphere of embedded racism that allows me to get an inkling of what pervasive racism can be like. Benjamin is a dynamic hero—clever and smart and very aware—and the reader can’t help but be fascinated by him and his world.