Scratching the Itch

By Lise Funderburg

July 1998

What do you do when your first novel is optioned for the movies (twice!) by Natalie Cole and hits the number-one spot in hardcover and paperback on the Blackboard list? Many writers would feel pressured to recycle such success, but Benilde Little, the author of Good Hair (1996), refused to write a sequel. “I was sick of Alice and Jack,” she jokes, speaking of the main characters in her humor-laced expose of life and romance among the talented tenth. But Little’s new novel, The Itch (Simon & Schuster, $23), is not a complete departure: Several characters from the first novel show up in the second, where they’re woven into the lives of girlfriends Natasha and Arabella (better known as Abra), who struggle with men, the marketplace and material wealth. The two books connect, Little says, in that their characters travel in the same circles. “What I picture is this big community,” she explains, “with just two degrees of separation.”

Little’s ongoing interest in the underrepresented subtleties of Black middle-class life comes in part from having grown up in one of its factions — in the Weequahic section of Newark, where her parents were the first Blacks to move into the neighborhood in 1950. The family dinners, piano lessons and emphasis on education lodged her and her two brothers firmly in the manners and morals of the middle class, a position she maintained during her time at Howard University. It is a world that she later came to view as largely overlooked. “Many of the people at Howard were invisible to the larger culture. To Whites, not to other Blacks.”

Little defines “the itch” her characters experience as what comes out of the discontents and disconnections of middle-class life. “These are people with no shortage of things, but still there’s a shortage of peace, of serenity. For most of the characters, it’s this feeling that there must be more. Like, I’m at the mountaintop and this is it? C’mon.”