Barbara Neely, creator of first African-American mystery series protagonist, dies age 78
Neely’s Blanche White series, while it contained just four books, made history by using the the “invisibility” of domestic workers and women of color as its pivotal plot device. Barbara Neely, the award-winning mystery novelist who created the first ever black protagonist in mainstream American publishing, died after a short illness, her publisher confirmed Monday.
She was 78.
Neely’s Blanche White series, while it contained just four books, made history by using the the “invisibility” of domestic workers and women of color as its pivotal plot device, the Associated Press noted. The series “had at its center a nomadic amateur detective and domestic worker who uses the invisibility inherent to her job as an advantage in pursuit of the truth,” AP said.
Fellow mystery writers are mourning the passing of the writer whom the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) awarded its 2020 Grand Master designation.
“She was an inspiration, a trailblazer, and a remarkable talent and voice whose loss is deeply felt,” the MWA said in a statement. “We are grateful we had the opportunity to let her know how much she meant to the mystery community before she left us. Her talent and memory will live on forever in her wonderful books. She will be missed.”
Her publisher, Brash Books, noted that Neely also wrote short stories appearing in anthologies, magazines, university texts and journals, and was an activist who “designed and directed the first community-based corrections facility for women in Pennsylvania and was the director of Women for Economic Justice, a Boston-based women’s advocacy organization.”
In addition, Neely produced radio shows for Africa News Service and hosted the Commonwealth Journal, a weekly interview program broadcast weekly on the University of Massachusetts Boston radio station, Brash said. Her activism earned her several awards.
Her writing, too, pushed past mystery into political and social commentary, her works tackling violence against women, racism, class boundaries and sexism, AP said.
Neely’s first short story, “Passing the Word,” was published in Essence magazine in 1981, according to AP. Neely was born in Lebanon, Pennsylvania in 1941 and earned a master’s at the University of Pittsburgh, AP reported. She passed away on March 2, Brash said.
Her Blanche White series includes “Blanche on the Lam” (1992), “Blanche Among the Talented Tenth” (1994), “Blanche Cleans Up” (1998) and “Blanche Passes Go” (2000), all listed on her author page at Brash.