OCTOBER 6, 2022
BROOKS E. HEFNER’S Black Pulp: Genre Fiction in the Shadow of Jim Crow is an effort to recover a neglected part of Black literary history: the pulp serials and short stories that ran in African American newspapers from the 1920s through the mid-1950s. Hefner, a professor of English at James Madison University, lays out a compelling case that these overlooked pulps form a body of work that “offers both the pleasures of genre and […] radical challenges to Jim Crow culture.”
The American Black literary canon, as most casual readers know it, can be summed up in a single not-so-deep breath: Phillis Wheatley, slave narratives, Douglass, Dunbar, Du Bois, Harlem Renaissance, Baldwin, Ellison, Black Arts, Angelou, Morrison. This isn’t necessarily bad, per se: a canon is by definition incomplete, bypassing smaller (lesser?) works and scenes to form a coherent narrative of what works matter and why. It comes as no surprise that anthologies with the goal of presenting (and defining) the canon, like Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Norton Anthology of African American Literature and Gene Andrew Jarrett’s The Wiley Blackwell Anthology of African American Literature, Volume 2: 1920 to the Present make no mention of any of the material in Black Pulp. These anthologies are filled with what Hefner calls “the tragic modes of serious African American literature” — works written for and by Black elites. The canonical stories are almost always tragedies, social critiques about the Negro’s place in American society.
Genre fiction represented an alternative. By working in popular pulp modes, Black genre authors brought hope and escape through stories of romance, justice, and adventure, writing for (and in conversation with) their audiences to create worlds of new possibilities. In these serials, Black pulp heroes could confront dangers familiar to their audience and overcome them in spectacular fashion, a far cry from the fatalism and tragedy of canonical highbrow fiction.
Many of these stories ran in a tabloid insert called the Illustrated Feature Section (IFS) that ran in Black newspapers across the country from 1928 to 1932. The insert, which counted George Schuyler and Benjamin J. Davis Jr. as editors, had a circulation of almost 200,000 at its peak, plus a significant pass-along rate; Black papers encouraged readers to share their copies after reading, meaning official counts would almost certainly be underestimates. Despite its popularity at the time, the marginal status of the IFS and similar supplemental sections meant that many editions were not microfilmed or survive only in incomplete runs.
The IFS existed in a strange position relative to both the white pulps and the Black literary canon, doubly marginalized and little considered by the traditional authorities in both fields. This, as Hefner writes, extends to the serial’s geographic position:
Although [the IFS] editorial offices were initially in Chicago, they soon moved to Baltimore. The section circulated most widely with the Baltimore Afro-American and the Pittsburgh Courierand the newspapers that did include the IFS were based in smaller and often more remote locations in the South, Midwest, and West. The Chicago Defender and the New York Amsterdam News were not included in the group of “thirty-four of America’s most prominent colored newspapers” that featured its content.
This often challenges unrealized assumptions about the geographic concentration of where the era’s black writing came from. Stuart Hall’s usage of “articulation” and Gates’ idea of “signifyin(g)” as “repetition with a signal difference” are touchstones here, applied in a recursive manner: if the black literary mainstream was writing “within and against” the white mainstream , what of the Black margins?
Hefner is at his best when teasing out the nuances of the “double articulation” at play in these serials. By drawing from the structure of white adventure pulps but transforming the form by introducing Black tropes, settings, language, and narratives, authors marked these stories as for and by Black audiences. James H. Hill’s Jacques Lenglet, for example, was a Senegalese flying ace who faced Germans in the World Wars as the Black Eagle, then fought Jim Crow segregation in the American South while serving as an “international agent.” Lenglet was adventurer, fighter pilot, and superspy in one, each a particular flavor of hero common to the pulps of the time. But for Black readers, Lenglet’s fight against the physically disfigured Nazi masterminds gives the lie to their claims of racial superiority, and bringing the fight against injustice home “turns the genre in on itself.” Here the Jim Crow South becomes the savage backwater, the Black hero the worldly and composed Doc Savage. Lenglet wages war and wins, dispatching a lynch mob with ease.
Some authors were even more creative in their play with genre. George Schuyler was the highest-profile author in the pages of the IFS. Excerpts from his 1931 novel Black No More appear in The Wiley Blackwell Anthology, and he would later become known (and shunned) for his outspoken conservatism. Before all that, however, he was a genre writer, whose works showed the same sharp bite towards any and all targets. Schuyler published two extended serials that ran for a total of 62 weeks from November 1936 to April 1938, “The Black Internationale: Story of Black Genius Against the World” and its sequel, “Black Empire: An Imaginative Story of a Great New Civilization in Modern Africa.” For Hefner, these serials represent a shift towards “Afrocentric utopian and dystopian forms” in which Schuyler extends the mechanics of Hugo Gernsback’s magazine Amazing Stories to consider answers to the race question and imagine outcomes previously considered unthinkable. Both serials star Dr. Henry Belsidus, a genius who forms the Black Internationale to win back control of Africa from European colonists. Science fiction gives Schuyler’s instincts for the puckish and the progressive ample material; the serial draws inspiration from the shadowy racial conspiracies in Fu Manchu-style “Yellow Peril” pulps and “pauses to explain in detail” the process behind the fictional solar technologies that have given the Black Internationale the power to overcome and destroy European imperialism.
Schuyler called “The Black Internationale” “hokum and hack work of the purest vein” in private correspondence, a reflection of his deep pessimism about Pan-African politics (among many other things). But the story resonated with readers, who were captivated by a utopian vision its creator had little faith in. What Schuyler bemoaned as “sheer improbability” was the feature, not a bug; As is the case today, many readers were less interested in sober realist analysis of the social order than they were in fantasies of a new world, however improbable these may be.
Black Pulp is a beginning, not a final word. Hefner’s analysis is impressively precise whenever he gets the chance to launch into it, but at only 165 pages, Black Pulp doesn’t linger long on any one story. Black romance fiction, for example, gets a standout chapter that feels far too short given how much ground it has to cover. There are further questions: about the particularity of genre across geography, about the relationship between canon and pulp (I would argue the divide isn’t as clean as Hefner makes it out to be; Schuyler’s Black No More is science fiction, after all, and both romance and noir have been significant influences on the canon’s biggest names), and about the composition and response of pulp readers, just to name a few. But all this can — and hopefully will — come later. Black Pulp is important and valuable chronicle because of the stories Hefner and the convincing argument he makes that they are worthy of careful investigation, and that in transforming white pulp to create new imaginative worlds, they fulfill an important role by offering new possibilities for readers who have often been deprived of them even in the realm of imagination.
Nathan Jefferson is the noir editor at Los Angeles Review of Books.