Excerpt: 'Black Noir'
Mystery fiction written by black authors is, not surprisingly, often very different from work in that broadly defined genre written by white writers. The early novels and short stories, in particular, tended to show the detective in a reasonably insular community, trying to solve crimes with black victims and committed, in all likelihood, by black villains. There was little reliance on the outside (mainly white) world to administer justice.
A nation's government, in order for detective stories to flourish, needs to be a relatively democratic one. Under dictatorial and repressive regimes, it is the police themselves who are regarded by much of the citizenry as villainous, not as the source of relief from fear and injustice. The police, or their closely allied counterparts, militia, are in the employ of governments that use them to suppress the freedom of the men and women under their control. To speak out against emperors, czars, dictators, or monarchs means a swift trip to prison or the gallows, and it is the police who arrest the dissidents and bring them to their fate. As the enemy, then, it is hardly likely that fiction would be created in which these figures would serve as the righteous heroes who would protect society from murderers, robbers, and other criminals.
For mystery fiction to attain any degree of popularity, the culture in which it could be created requires the same elements upon which all forms of literary entertainment depend. A country has to be fairly prosperous, allowing a significant portion of the population to have leisure time. Edgar Allan Poe's invention of the first genuine detective story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," in 1841, approximately coincided with the start of the industrial revolution, beginning the process of changing America from a largely agrarian society to a manufacturing one. Gone for many thousands of people were the endless hours required to run a subsistence-level farm, replaced by increased income and the commensurate free time that allowed for the pursuit of relaxation and entertainment. As schools and literacy increased, so did the number of books and magazines that fed a newly created demand. England, a mighty colonial power, had been increasing the national wealth for many years, much of it trickling down to its populace. After France recovered from the excesses of its revolution, the French, too, enjoyed relative political freedom and arobust economy.
Sadly, little of this newly found social and political freedom affected the majority of Africans. On the continent of their homeland, there was virtually no tradition of the written word. As millions of Africans were uprooted to becomes slaves in America, the Caribbean, and many other parts of the world, there was little opportunity to learn to read or write; the very concept of creating literature was absurd in the context of the lives they lived. Even after British and American slaves were freed, their lack of educational opportunities, in confluence with an absence of a literary history, were not conducive to an establishment of any meaningful body of work.
As the twentieth century approached, society, slowly and reluctantly, began to shift in small ways as modest numbers of blacks entered such mainstream elements of the culture as academia, law, medicine, science, and the arts. Fiction by black writers, often but not exclusively, produced for magazines run by and for blacks, became more abundant. It tended to portray life in black communities that were theoretically part of America but in fact were separated from white America. Stories were frequently set in the black ghettoes or the black middle class section of a city, often in dialect that was clearly designed to appeal to core black readers. While many of these stories featured blacks as the victims of institutionalized racism, a large number of stories and novels by black writers of the time were highly sentimental romances-just as were those written by white writers.
Fiction is a mirror of society. While individual works may be filtered through the prejudices and limitations of their authors, the entire oeuvre of a given period of time, compared or contrasted with a different time, will accurately illustrate changes of attitude and practice. The black American experience following World War I reflected a greater level of integration into the rest of society, particularly in the north. The economic growth of the first three decades of the twentieth century affected Americans of all socioeconomic levels. The rich got richer while the poor got less poor. Mandatory schooling improved literacy rates, so more people, black and white, were able to read and write, so they did. Fiction magazines flooded newsstands, millions being sold every month, and, while no type of fiction was ignored, none was more eagerly consumed than detective stories, notably in the pulps, most of which were written by white writers, about white characters, and read by white readers.
There were exceptions, of course. W. Adolphe Roberts, a black Caribbean author, wrote three mystery novels, beginning with The Haunting Hand in 1926, and some adventure fiction that bumped against the edges of the genre. Rudolph Fisher wrote an important Harlem renaissance detective novel, The Conjure Man Dies, in 1932, and one of the most significant figures in the development of the black crime and mystery story, Chester Himes, wrote his first story in 1933, beginning a career that would spanmore than four decades.
The years following World War II marked the continuation of the absorption of black Americans into a more integrated society, a process dramatically accelerated during the civil rights movement that began in earnest during the 1960s
While many novels and short stories by black Americans had been published during the twentieth century, very few were detective novels. Many blacks saw the police as adversaries whose job it was to maintain the social status quo by beating them into submission. Therefore, just as nondemocratic societies failed to produce detective fiction, so did the black community, though a high percentage of the fiction created by these authors contained elements of crime fiction. Alcoholism, drug addiction, and violence, with black characters both as the perpetrators and as the victims, were frequently found in the works of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Clarence Cooper Jr., and others, but it has not been until the past twenty years or so that there has been a regular flow of detective stories by black writers.
Although not the first, certainly the opener of the way was Walter Mosley. The debut of Easy Rawlins in Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) marked the beginning of the crossover era in which white readers didn't need to feel virtuously liberal for reading a black mystery writer; they could read it for the pure pleasure of reading an excellent novel about fascinating, original characters, bringing to the experience the same incentive they had had for years when reading books by white writers with white characters: entertainment. The books in the Rawlins series have gone on to enjoy tremendous success, both critically and with frequent appearances on the best-seller list. Mosley has indicated his intention to abandon the character, but his other work has also found a large readership, especially his mystery and crime fiction. After Mosley, readers discovered the work of such black writers as Barbara Neeley, Hugh Holton, Gar Anthony Haywood (whose first novels actually preceded those by Mosley), Paula L. Woods, Robert Greer, Gary Phillips, Eleanor Taylor Bland, and the British writer Mike Phillips, among others.
Many of the books and stories by contemporary black writers continue to examine the black experience in a society in which it remains a minority, focusing on the ways in which it is different and separate from its fellow citizens. In this collection, for instance, Rudolph Fisher's "John Archer's Nose" and Robert Greer's "Oprah's Song" could never be made into a film with white actors. Others have little or no relation to race. The thieves in Gary Phillips's story "House of Tears" could just as easily be white and the story would be unchanged. The police in Paula L. Woods's story "I'll Be Doggone" could be Latin or Indian, black or white, and it wouldn't make a bit of difference. There is much to be said for a tale that emphasizes and highlights the colorful differences between one group and another. There is an equally valid point to telling a story in which differences between people vanish, or at least have little significance. Ultimately, what should matter is whether the story is a good one. On the pages that follow, you will find stories that transcend race and genre to fulfill their primary purpose-to inform and entertain.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.