"Neely, Barbara (b. 1941), short story writer, novelist, feminist, and community activist. While writing and a love for language had been deeply held interests since her childhood, Barbara Neely did not begin to take herself seriously as a writer nor consider earning a living as such until 1980 when the tensions between balancing a career and a stable emotional life lessened. The oldest child of parents Ann and Bernard, Neely grew up in the small Pennsylvania Dutch community of Lebanon. She attended the town's Catholic schools where she was the only African American through both elementary and high school. A nontraditional student who never acquired an undergraduate degree, Neely obtained her master's degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Pittsburgh in 1971. Until the publication of her first novel in 1992, Neely led the very demanding life of a community activist. Formerly the director of the Massachusetts-based Women for Economic Justice, she resigned in 1992, becoming cochair of the organization's board of directors to allow more time for her writing. Neely was also a founding member of Women of Color for Reproductive Freedom and is a member of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Arts Council. She lives in Boston.
Neely is the author of several short stories and two novels featuring Blanche White, a black maid who inadvertently becomes involved with murder or suspicious deaths. Yet despite the success of the two Blanche novels, the short story remains Neely's first love. In 1981 “Passing the Word,”her first nationally published story, appeared in Essence; other tales have been anthologized in Breaking Ice, Speaking for Ourselves, Things That Divide Us, Angels of Power, Street Talk, World of Fiction, and Test Tube Women. The connecting link between Neely's professional life as an advocate for social issues and women's rights first surfaces in her short fiction. “Passing the Word”involves the dreams of two women about marriage, fulfillment, and taking control of and assuming responsibility for one's own life. A 1990 story, “Spilled Salt,”illustrates a single mother's unmitigated pain when she must confront conflicting emotional duress because her son, whom she raised alone, has raped a young woman, gone to prison, and returned home. In both the short story and the novel, Neely's fiction reflects her clear intention of illustrating, often with a measure of humor, the issues of race, class, gender, and social values as these impact on her characters.
Blanche on the Lam (1992) is set in fictional Far-leigh (Raleigh), North Carolina. Readers meet the very dark Blanche White, a very capable, articulate, proud, and perceptive African American woman whose very name is a pun. Fleeing from jail on a bad-check charge, Blanche finds work as a cook and maid for a wealthy white family. In the course of her service she uncovers a mystery and identifies a murderer. The true focus of the novel, however, is less about the murder and more about Blanche as distinctive character, as a social commentator and working woman with a very distinct view of her employers and firm ties to her own community. Neely's second novel, Blanche among the Talented Tenth (1994), takes Blanche from North Carolina to the Boston area and on to Amber Cove, Maine, an oceanside resort community for wealthy African Americans. Another mystery must be solved, and in the process, Blanche faces the twin barriers of class snobbery and intraracial color consciousness. Although the two novels developed in the mystery/detective mode have been well received, the tag “mystery writer,”because it signals adherence to a defined genre format, makes Neely uncomfortable. Her aim was to write social novels, and creating the element of mystery was a means to that end. Indeed, in the second novel, the social commentary sometimes overshadows the mystery; and in her haste to critique lingering vestiges of an absurd class and color bias, the prose is somewhat strained. Neely continued her Blanche series with the publication of Blanche Cleans Up in 1998.
Barbara Neely's fiction stems from a drive to write about those whom she believes the larger society shunts aside, those black women whose experiences have been scorned or unappreciated. Yet Neely's talents in the mystery/detective genre have been recognized by others. In 1992 she won the “Go on Girl!”Award for the best debut novel from the Black Women's Book Club; that same year, from three different organizations that support mystery fiction, she won the Agatha, the Anthony, and the McCavity awards for the best first mystery, the latter granted by Mystery Writers International. She also won the 1994 Women of Conviction Award for Arts and Literature from the Massachusetts section of the National Council of Negro Women.
Neely has read writers as diverse as Agatha Christie, P. D. James Chester Himes, and Walter Mosley. It was Toni Morrison, however, whose evocative fiction created the most lasting impression on her.Morrison served Neely as both model and inspiration, freeing her to use the experiences of black women, illustrating for her the evocative power good writing taps to tell the stories of ordinary people."
- Barbara Neely, interview by
- Rebecca Carroll, in I Know What the Red Clay Looks Like: The Voice and Vision of Black Women Writers, 1994, pp. 174–184.
- Bonnie C. Plummer, “Subverting the Voice: Barbara Neely's African American Detective,” Clues: A Journal of Detection
20:1(Spring-Summer 1999): 77–88
Sandra Y. Govan