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“Polar noir”: Reading African-American Detective Fiction

Alice Mills
Claude Julien

II. Space in the detective novel

The South as Literary Space in African-American Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction: Challenging Images that Persist and Matter in U.S. Culture

Norlisha F. Crawford


Southern African Americans have had a profound influence on national cultural in the United States. And yet, they remain among the most disparaged of all citizens. Chester Himes chose to create the backgrounds of many of his most ambitious Harlem characters in the American South. Himes creates transplanted Southern black characters that are dynamic, creative, master manipulators of their circumstances—thereby challenging stereotypical perceptions.

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1Place or setting has always mattered in hard-boiled detective fiction. In A Rage in Harlem (1957), Chester Himes’s first Harlem hard-boiled novel, the Southern United States is identified from the beginning as an influential element in the characters’ backgrounds. Jackson, the central male character, “had attended a Negro college in the South” (8), and with his twin brother, Goldy, had been nicknamed The Gold Dust Twins by “white people in the South” (29). The central female character, Imabelle, “had come from the South,” along with her cohorts in the money-making scam around which the plot revolves (17). When Jackson seeks information he joins an improbably named set of men for breakfast. They talk over a huge meal of “baked ham, lye hominy, stewed okra and corn, Southern biscuits, and... sweet-potato pie” (35). Although only the biscuits are explicitly named as such, the characters come together in a cultural ritual sharing specific foods, prepared and served in specific Southern ways. As they discuss ways to address a problem related to an “old hick-town pitch” that they all know, they all rely on a shared sociocultural rural South past from which an answer will be derived. The South is not the contemporary setting for the novel, and yet it obviously has been a pivotal place for the characters’ identity formation. It is the place that at various intervals the characters refer to as “back home” (35). Knowing that Himes understood the importance of place for the genre, the questions that this discussion addresses are how and why he chose to make an explicit connection between the South and Harlem in creating his characters. The South has meant a place where to migrate from with two mass movements in the 20th century. The first, the Great Migration meant moving to the North-East; the second, around World War II added the West as a destination. For the sake of comparison, this essay will consider Chester Himes’s and Walter Mosley’s fictions that were produced decades apart under vastly different circumstances.

2The most obvious and important answer to how Himes constructed the connection lies in the detailed presentations of and rituals associated with food and shared meals. In the same ways that foods literally support the survival of human beings, food ways are emphasized in support of Himes’s characters’ development. Despite years spent in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and his having a number of relatives on his mother’s side that were Southerners from various states, Himes was a Midwesterner by birth and acculturation, having spent most of his childhood in Ohio and an early portion of his adult life in the Northern United States. So, in much the same ways as Himes’s fictional Harlem is based on a short time actually spent in New York City, the South he depicts is not fostered directly by an intimate personal history there. And yet, the cuisine that his Harlemites prefer in their homes and restaurants is typical Southern “soul” food. In the only eating scene in A Rage in Harlem, the reader finds Jackson eating a “pot of pig’s ears, collard greens and okra” (41). That menu reflects the food of poor Southern blacks, inherited from their centuries-long slave diets –yet now made tasty and desirable. In The Heat’s On (1966), a character eats “fried hominy, covered... with fried [fat] meat, and doused... with molasses” (94). His companion, the woman who has prepared the breakfast meal, comments on the evident relish her friend shows, “You can get the boy out of the country, but you can’t get the country out of the boy” (94). The country, or rural South, is the region from which many of Himes’s most resourceful characters originally come.

3Walter Mosley is in some ways the heir-apparent to that literary space paved in part by Chester Himes. Each author, like all in the hard-boiled genre, has created fictional adopted “homelands” for their characters. And yet, very much like Himes, Mosley also evokes past connections among the characters that are reflected in their shared eating ways. When Easy Rawlins is out seeking information in Devil in a Blue Dress, he visits “Pete” Dupree. Easy is accompanied by his friend, Raymond “Mouse” Alexander. The characters’ prior connections are made evident first by their shared food literacy. Their shared socio-cultural past will lubricate the way for a more amenable meeting during which Easy will extract the vital information he needs. How to begin the discussion is awkward for Easy. Dupree is distracted by grief because Coretta, his girlfriend, has been found murdered the night before. Easy is uncomfortable because he has just had a clandestine sexual encounter with Coretta, and is the last to have seen her alive. He is withholding both facts from Dupree, and feels sad, ashamed and nervous. Mouse saves the day by quickly determining how to bring the two men together:

“Pete!” Mouse was bright. “That pigtails I smell?”
“Yeah, Bula made some this mo’nin’. Black-eyes too.”
“You don’t need to show me, I just run after my nose.”
Mouse went around Dupree toward the smell. We [Easy and Dupree] stood in the tiny entrance looking at each other’s shoulders. I was still half outside. Two crickets sounded from the rose beds that Bula kept. (216)

4The two men might have remained in that limbo space at the edge of the house’s threshold if Mouse had not astutely broken the barrier of discomfort and estrangement. Mouse uses the meal and the ritual of eating as the icebreaker: “‘You boys better com’ on in,’ Mouse said from the end of the hall. ‘Food’s on the table’” (217).

5Himes uses food and eating scenes in the same way. He makes obvious the import of food and eating as powerful metaphors when he connects religious practices and one character’s indictment of the failure of Christianity as a viable conduit to justice for poor black people: “I doan have to tell you the flesh of Jesus is indigestible... ‘cause they [poor blacks] ain’t even digested the flesh of the white Jesus in these two thousand years, an’they been eating him every Sunday” (Blind Man with a Pistol 117). He suggests that there is a price to be paid when what one eats is not nourishing. So, simply the act of eating is not alone what is to be sought. One must eat wisely, if it is to be a life-sustaining act. The presentation of Southern connections that buttress the identities of Himes’s characters is grotesque: Himes calls attention to a phenomenon that Wolfgang Kayser describes in his study of the grotesque in literature as “the distortion of all ingredients, the fusion of different realms, the coexistence of beautiful, bizarre, ghastly, and repulsive elements, the merger of parts into a turbulent whole” (79).

6As the Harlem series progressed and Himes understood the power of the genre, he made even more deliberate choices about past cultural connections in characterizations of his Harlemites. Readers, accordingly, found more and more scenes that showed eating and very detailed menus: cornbread, blackeyed peas and rice (aka hoppin’ john), huge watermelon slices, biscuits and red-eye gravy, and gallons of ice-cold lemonade –especially for the detectives when they are tired and find the cases they are investigating particularly baffling. There is a historical resonance in the inclusion of that kind of food; these are characters that have had a harsh past, but one from which they found ways to survive and nourish themselves. Typical of Himes’s resourceful female characters, Sister Heavenly is described thus in The Heat’s On: “At fifteen she had run away from the sharecropper’s shack her family had called home... because she was too cute and too lazy to hoe the corn and chop the cotton...[but after traveling to Harlem,] she had gotten into the faith healing pitch... she had been the ruler of the roost” (96). Characters like Sister Heavenly are successfully transplanted Southerners who eat and live in abundance. But the road to material comfort is not always smooth, even in Harlem. Card playing scams, like the one named “Georgia skin” (Blind Man with a Pistol 121) abound. Even Sister Heavenly is double-crossed by her criminal subordinates. When she loses everything she owns in a fire, she thinks, “Well, I’m back on my bare ass where I started, but I ain’t yet flat on my back” (96). And of course that survival ethos is the raison d’être for the Blues music form. In their new incarnations, even as Northerners by birth, Himes’s characters harken back to that musical past when needed. In doing so, one sees at least in part how these transplanted Southerners create a place for themselves within the new community.

7The formulaic use of closed settings allows one to examine closely the effects of societal containment on the key characters. The reader’s attention is explicitly directed to the details of place to identify almost immediately that an intimate home turf is being violated when the crime occurs, which suggests dis-ease within the text’s fictional community. That spatial mapping serves to establish two primary factors: who is imagined to belong in that communal space and who is imagined to not belong there. The author must establish an understanding of the values and rules of acceptable behavior for those characters that “belong”, because acceptance of those propositions will determine the reader’s later acceptance of who the culprit is and how that character has brought crime into the fold. The criminal will inevitably be an outsider in the disguise of an insider, or an insider who has been corrupted by the influence of outsiders. Outsider status is linked in large part to moral and ethical values that are posed as dishonest and, therefore, are unlike those idealized values and standards of conduct shared by characters that are configured as community insiders. A key to this construction is that the more heterogeneity there is, the greater the imperative will be for readers to be able to claim their own turf in the text’s social ordering. In other words, place identification constructs social bearings –a power struggle within the society of the text and its readers’ own. What is being established is who will be figured as a normative citizen in a contested and evolving society, and thereby who will be able to lay claim to the fullest share of society’s fruits.

8Historically, based on a convoluted mix of ancestral arrival over the colonial or early national periods, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males have claimed the four identity traits they possess as the most important for full citizenship: race, ethnicity, religion and gender. In other words, by highlighting and valorizing certain individual characteristics those in power made it clear that they were the group to be most like, to model and assimilate. But human beings are a more complicated conglomeration of identities than just their race, ethnicity, religious affiliation and gender. Are white lower class women superior to black men who manage to achieve upper class economic status? In the battle over voting rights in the late 19th century the answer was no, according to the de jure implications of the 14th amendment’s emphasis on males only. What of mixed-race people? Is physical appearance (looking “white”) to supersede genetic ancestry (having African “blood”)? If so, what of the Irish and other late 19th and early 20th century immigrants who looked white, but were not socially accepted as such until late into the 20th century? Obviously, those in the U. S. who wished to remain the societal standard-bearers decided they had to uphold ideologies that argued for differences invisible to the naked eye by being tied to visible signs of socio-economic differences, which were later construed as important determinant traits useful for further refining and differentiating what Richard Dyer refers to as “social groupings.”

9Accordingly, the detective’s primary job in African-American fiction has been not just to explain how the crime occurred but to help uncover that which is hidden in order to make obvious why the offending culprit never really belonged in the group or became dis-eased by association.

10When one begins reading Himes’s detective stories, one notices almost immediately the characters’ (male and female) connection with values and norms inherited from their ties with the South. Even non-southern-born characters have a connection via their ancestry. Or there are connections established through the vernacular spoken between the hero and other characters. Himes purposefully employs dialect as well as phonetic spellings like “shet up” (A Rage in Harlem 39) to suggest pronunciations that are stereotypically associated with Southern ways of speaking. One may surmise that there is an on-going historically and socially valorized cultural connection at work to place African-American characters of Southern ancestry as insiders in the mainstream U. S. cultures of the novels. That premise is true, and yet that relationship to place and the characters’ centralized inclusion in the text does not occur as only a marker for valorization. Instead, one finds a more complex counter discursive role for Southern ancestry and cultural influences.

11African-American characters, the figurative others usually encountered in mainstream detective fiction to establish, by comparison, desired normative traits and behaviors are repositioned in Himes’s fictional Harlem. His creations are outrageous and absurdist in their schemes, scams and costuming. They also robustly reject easy categorization based on pre-determined racialized expectations. In part that resistance is predicated on rejecting denigration of their rural, poor Southern pasts and cultural influences. The South has been a place of danger and denigration, but it also has been where the characters honed their survival skills. So, it is not mainstream acceptance per se that one may see in the characters’ agency. The characters are being judged as valorized by social forces that exist within their community. For Himes’s black characters, that community simply is the mainstream for their logic and worldviews. In keeping with the traditional formula of the detective fiction genre, the Harlem community, their value systems and even their sense of aesthetics are the authenticating barometers for measurement of norms and comfort: theirs is the place into which others must fit or be ousted.

12If, in the third novel of the series, The Crazy Kill (1959), Johnny Perry, the central male character, is an underworld kingpin involved in a number of lucrative criminal enterprises, he is also a revered community figure known for his integrity. Describing Perry to the police officers who are interrogating her, Mamie Pullen says: “No, sir, I’m dead certain it wasn’t him... Johnny was always a good boy... always as honest as the day is long”. And yet she also is straightforward about the violent capabilities she knows Perry has exhibited since his youth: “he did a stretch in a chain gang... He killed a man for beating his mother — his stepfather.... On the chain gang... he and another con got to fighting with pickaxes over a card game. Johnny was always hot-headed...” (38-39).

13Knowing the circumstances under which he became who he is in Georgia, knowing him as both loving, loyal, honest and dangerous, mercurial and tough, Mamie Pullen and her husband, Big Joe, had “thought of [Johnny] as a son” and brought him North with them when they migrated to Harlem. Big Joe apprenticed his protégé into the gambling business: he had learned in the South that one of the ways a big, unskilled, physically scarred, ex-convict young black who was smart and ambitious could create a successful business life was by addressing markets within his own community. Although this kind of social philosophy is not exclusively Southern, or even American, Big Joe gained entrepreneurial knowledge through his experiences in the South then “staked” (39) Johnny’s first businesses. Big Joe gave the specific seeds for home-grown business acumen to Johnny, who planted them in Harlem.

14In the later published prequel to Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley set all of the key scenes of Gone Fishin’ in rural Louisiana where every aspect of the characters’lives was formed by the local social pattern. Rich whites and poor blacks are framed by the dialect and vernacular culture of the setting. Life experience, folk wisdom, conjuring skills, and the ability to find avenues from which one may exert agency are the rungs that create hierarchy among the characters. Even though Easy at first resists the authority of Momma Jo, the powerful shaman woman Mouse leaves him with, he eventually gives in to her influence. In describing his and other characters’ responses to Momma Jo, Easy also suggests the power that she has accrued within the community:

They did what she said like they were children. But I didn’t question it either, because that is how life was back then. You listened to older folks and did what you were told. Even if you knew better you’d follow the rules because that’s how we were raised (50).

15Respect is garnered in some combination of two ways among these country people in both Himes’s and Mosley’s fictions. There is Momma Jo’s way, with an aura of spirituality, mysticism, and earthy feminine strength. And there is Mouse’s way that Easy describes as an ethic of violence:

Mouse never took an order unless that’s what he wanted to do. Mouse wasn’t the only man I knew who’d stand up for what he believed, but he was different in one way: most men who stood up for themselves would rather die than be slaves; Mouse would’ve rather killed (51).

16That inculcated complex cultural sensibility comes with Easy to Los Angeles and informs his way of life and value system. Finding what of that ethic he wants to retain and that which he wants to jettison informs his moral struggle.

17The perspectives of Himes’s Harlemites and of Mosley’s transplanted Angelenos may not be that of most of the readers. Poor black Southerners are frequently stereotyped, considered to be easy fodder for jokes and condescension. While the music, dance, food, fashion, and even language styles (minus the regional accents) of Southern blacks may have been accepted, imitated or modified for consumption by people from other walks of life and ethnicity, the citizens themselves have not been elevated in esteem or cultural status. Too many people feel free not only to disparage but to laugh at and dismiss poor black Southerners as hopelessly ill-fitting for the times – undereducated, socially unassimilated, and of little, if any, political importance. They are not perceived as valued 21st century Americans.

  • 1 The detective fiction series of BarbaraNeely and Paula Woods are not explored specifically in this (...)

18That on-going denigration goes back a long way. Demeaning human beings based on social and economic categorization was argued against in Phyllis Wheatley’s poetry, by Linda Brent and Frederick Douglass; and W. E. B. DuBois was addressing a similar situation when stating that the problem of the 20th century would be the color line. The costs of racial categorization is in part the glue that binds the works of writers as different as Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Chester Hirnes, and Toni Morrison to each other; as well as to detective fiction writers as diverse as Walter Mosley, BarbaraNeely and Paula Woods.1 Often unnamed but equally powerful, socio-economic class issues have been integral parts of the defining equation in the symbiotic relationship between mainstream American and African-American literary traditions. What an overview of the arc of detective fiction that extends from Himes to Mosley suggests is a kind of richness of ambiguity in addressing the specific categorization related to the nexus of race, class and regional origin. While the South figures in African-American history and imagination as a corrupting place of quick death, fear, crippling discrimination, and disappointment, it is also a place that fosters agency, creativity, vibrant self-reflective cultural forms, including vernacular language and incisive humor. Looking at the ways both novelists have constructed their detective characters will show that ambiguity. In particular, one notes the changes that have occurred in the interval between Himes and Mosley, and the way things have stayed the same, especially with regard to the influence of the South on their respective characterizations of the heroic.

19This essay offers a speculative view intended to spark more discussion and research. Both authors are recuperating and valorizing a significant segment of the American population that has yet to be fully accepted in American society: poor, black, rural and urban Southern African Americans. Himes’s and Mosley’s detective fictions argue implicitly that being poor, black, rural or urban traditional African American characters cannot a priori be a legitimate basis for posing them as agents for societal dis-ease.

20Over the last twenty years, detective fiction has been increasingly seen as a medium in which to examine the fears, anxieties, values and beliefs of the mainstream culture that produces it. In other words, by looking at the construction of the detective hero and heroic actions, the femme fatale and virtuous female characters, characters that are racialized and/or sexualized, the community setting or home space in which they reside, and the ways they are assigned socioeconomic class status, one begins to understand something of the issues that are informing the worlds of the novels’ authors and readers. In the mid-1800s, for instance, when Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Murders on Rue Morgue,” he designed what would become essentially a blueprint for the first 75 years of the genre. At that moment in history, Poe’s mainstream, middle-class readers evidently were concerned with the residual effects of the on-going Industrial Revolution, which was causing international and intranational mass movements of laboring class people away from the land. The 19th century also was a time when many of the sciences, including forensics, anthropology, blood-related medical health specialties, were professionalized. And it was a period of deepening colonial incursion.

  • 2 A name that connotes death as well as haughtiness.

21Predictably, then, in the rue Morgue2 story, Poe features an upper-middleclass white detective that is able to use newly developed scientific knowledge to decipher the clues that lead to the capture of the orangutan that has been invading the space of working class neighborhoods and murdering the women living there. There is also a strong suggested eroticism to the violent animal’s handling of its victims’ bodies. In the drawings that illustrate the story, as well as in the written descriptions, the character bringing dis-ease to the community is man-like in his appearance. The most obvious connections would be to a ruffian or a man of color, i.e. a migrating rural peasant-turnedworking-class-urban-dweller, or an immigrant from the colonies.

22Dupin resides in Paris, where the middle classes organized a police force to maintain law and order. African-American detective fiction changes the settings to African-American communities in urban or rural America. Most of the socioeconomic and political assumptions change, too. And yet, African-American authors use the expectations of the genre’s form (the questing hero/detectives and the closed community settings) as literary devices for adding to their commentary about the contextual lives of their black characters. That rhetorical strategy is important because it allows African-American writers to counter degrading racial stereotypes that have persisted in mainstream literature, in general, in detective fiction, in particular and in the imaginations of many of the readers.

23The question that implicitly guides the narratives’ characterizations then is: “How can a member of the black community shift perceptions to allow for a full reckoning of the African American contribution to the nation’s identity, so black people are fully accepted and respected as citizens?” In partial answer to that question, many writers of hard-boiled fiction changed (and are changing) the valuation of poor, black Southern characters as a group, so that the heroic characters’ cultural specificity can be acknowledged as a value system, a marker to claim and identify with, that is equally important for the characters’ own moral and ethical evolution. Indeed, this regional acculturation becomes in part a key measure of the characters’ full worth.

24Although 20 years separate Mosley’s work from Himes’s last Harlem detective novel, there is in both writers’ works a particular relationship between their characters and their Southern roots. The characters that are ultimately “heroic” base their ethical stances (as convoluted as those stances may sometimes be) towards crime, justice, civil rights and to some degree their conception of manhood, upon experiences from their own or their inherited Southern backgrounds. This connection is as important to understand now as it was at the turn of the 20th century, when Pauline Hopkins’s serialized Hagar’s Daughter was first published in The Colored American Magazine. It was true then, and remains true today, that in the hierarchy of social ordering the visibility of one’s race is a significant category because to a large extent the nation remains a segregated society. Within racialized communities specific cultural practices continue to evolve, even as those practices are also expressions of syncretic interaction with the larger mainstream society. One’s cultural literacy is learned from within the community that shapes the individual. Because of her Southern acculturation the detective heroine in Hopkins’s novel is able to manipulate local expectations and help to solve the mystery. In a similar vein, in the two Himes and Mosley series, the heroic characters are attuned to the blues ethos at play in their respective communities. So much so that Grave Digger and Coffin Ed make it clear that they have a two-tiered personal system for evaluating the crimes they will pursue. There are crimes they will not investigate because they are guided by a kind of moral imperative that is based upon “insider” knowledge of the socioeconomic and historical reality of the community they are in charge of policing.

25Grave Digger and Coffin Ed know that many of the Harlem people have already had to “escape” oppressively poor and restrictive backgrounds in the Jim Crow South. There, abusive legal practices and traditions directly provoked the creation of alternative black systems of conduct –if people were to achieve any semblance of opportunity for socioeconomic advancement. But those alternative rules of conduct were not devised in willy-nilly fashions. As a reaction to state-sanctioned unjustly truncated paths to opportunity, choosing criminal conduct for economic gain follows –considering the characters’ environments. The black detectives do not condone criminal activity per se or without reservation. They simply understand why crime is prevalent. Accordingly, they appear to create a hierarchical system for the crimes they investigate. In fact what they do is to follow the lead of the Harlem citizens themselves by relegating crimes of property, petty theft, and sexual exchange to a status that might be termed entrepreneur activities. Those activities are not the purview of any particular nation or region. In fact, Himes’s and Mosley’s characters suggest traditions born from the plantocracy system (from crafty Br’er Rabbit stories to baaad men figures such as Stagolee), blues figures and even the underground economy characters valorized in the blaxploitation novels and films of the 1970s and 1980s.

26On the other hand, Himes’s detectives receive succor amid the social chaos of their domestic and professional spaces, and that comfort also involves reflective notions of traditional racially segregated Southern black life –the food, music, language, religious practices, folk ways, close-knit community networks, and value systems for personal conduct. Therefore, the hero-characters’ very concepts of the American Dream, achieving socioeconomic success in America, are conceived as intricately entwined with perceptions gained from their Southern pasts. And yet, Mosley and Himes present the South in ways that differ greatly.

27Himes does not offer resolutions to the situations he involves his characters in. He does not “distract our attention from the absurd,” as does Mosley, who “describe [s] with compassion his protagonists’ and their race toward destruction [with] an emotional perspective... that weaken [s] the effect of the grotesque” (Kayser 186). The various characters’ personal histories (escape from the law, or dirt-poor sharecropping life, or a partner they have tricked or been unfaithful to) are often cited as reasons for being in Harlem. In the music played and danced to in clubs, bars, and restaurants, where schemes are hatched by criminals and clues found by the detectives, the reader will find lyrics to Delta blues as well as the Chicago or St. Louis jazz styles. In the references to religion and religious music, especially lyrics characters intone from spirituals and slave ditties, particularly about “patterrollers” (A Rage in Harlem 73), the Southern past and influences always are there.

28That past is also present in the suggestions of historical references that buttress the narratives. When Jackson says the old folk songs are “like a ghost haunting him” (Ibid. 75), that haunting is from a past in the South. And just in case the reader misses that point, the omniscient narrator provides a seeming aside of historical information, or the reader’s knowledge is called upon to infer that information. But what does that mixing of past and present offer? Some bitterness and some happiness are found, but no answer to the bigger questions of how to escape the categories of race and class is proffered. However, in much the same way as authors of mainstream American literature will infer contextual information based upon the assumption their readers share their worldviews, Himes assumes his readers will bring certain knowledge to the reading of his texts that is shared with his experience of black life rooted in the South, even if the readers are not themselves African American. So, he turns his detective fiction into blues novels. And he does so without explaining his frame of mind. Those readers who are not informed are left to discern meaning strictly through the narrative’s context –to receive the world as presented by the characters’ own experiences and rules of conduct.

29Himes always presents the South as a dangerous place which many of his characters have had to flee. Most readers will recognize and expect to see that view of the South. And yet, Himes gives two sides to his characters’ Southern experience, life-affirming and life-threatening. Both facets influence the characters as they are now in “Harlem”, which produces a more complex picture of these people, their pasts, and their cultural communities than if a less unequivocal regional were presented.

30Mosley is more direct and to some degree more nostalgic in his presentation of his characters’ Southern pasts. He, like Himes, makes the cultural connections transparent. But the past he shows stands on a firmer ground than Himes’s. It is a place where the characters have ancestral and intimate connections with the people, the land, and the culture: they are not just from the South, but of it. They do not just participate in that cultural background, they help to form it at its most fundamental levels. In Los Angeles these same characters seem to be struggling to establish their place among other strangers questing in the same way. Predictably one finds more ethnic, racial and cultural diversity in the characters that are seen in the periphery of the main characters. Chicanos, Asians, West Indians, and others will be neighbors, local business people, witnesses questioned in search of clues. Himes’s detectives work in Harlem, but live in Astoria, a middle-class African-American neighborhood that is removed from the “action.” One senses, however, that Mosley’s Rawlins will stay in Los Angeles, in the heart of things, because it affords him a different kind of freedom than Texas or Louisiana might, with their rigid and segregated social hierarchies.

31Looking at A Little Yellow Dog (1996), one can see that Mosley firmly establishes the ways the South inform the story’s cultural milieu. The novel begins, “‘Hi, Easy,’ EttaMae Harris greeted me in our common Texan drawl” (18). That drawl is their home language, the language of comfort, familiarity, a locating tool for identifying commonality. And, of course, there is the beauty and warmth of the melodious sound of “Hi, Easy.” Whenever Easy is with characters from his past, they speak with each other in dialect, even in Los Angeles. They readily embrace their Southern roots that help them establish their identities in a proud, self-accepting way. Their social status has improved because of their westward migration, but they do not feel they must reconstruct a totally new self in order to succeed in their new home.

32The first clue to the crime that will unfold in the novel is found at the Sojourner Truth Junior High School. The reference to the great emancipator is too obvious to delve into, and yet her name alone marks historical layers of referencing to an infamous Southern past. Then, the reader meets Easy’s most significant friend, Mouse, whom he calls “an old time gangster”. Mouse is in the tradition of the legendary baad black men of the South: men around whose lives songs were sung, and against whose actions the bravery of those resisting slavery and oppression were measured. Mouse is described as “A tough who could work with you or go it alone. He wasn’t afraid of prison or death, and that made him the kind of man that people left alone... Even the police” (28-29). Easy, a morally upright character, the socially conscious knight-errant of the series, is coupled with the much more pragmatic and street-wise Mouse in order to create a detective team. Mosley follows the hard-boiled tradition to an extent, and this teaming allows him to make Easy a more self-reflecting protagonist. In choosing to maintain his close ties with Mouse, who on the one hand is unremorseful in his use of violence and thoroughly interested in the “bling bling,” while on the other hand the most reliable and trustworthy friend Easy has, Mosley poses an important ethical dilemma for the detective hero: the price to pay for friendship.

33In large part the ethical and moral value systems that support Easy’s decisions about his conduct in answer to that question come from a stance he has formed in the “fire” of Southern life. One stands up for one’s friends, even when they are the kind that shoot first and ask questions later –because there are always extenuating circumstances for blacks in the South of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s. After a crime of passion (one of several, along with the crimes of opportunity and the crimes of criminal necessity), Mouse explains to his friend: “I didn’t mean to hit him. You know that woman didn’t mean a thing t’me. When William hit the ground I knew I was wrong. I was gonna say I was sorry. I was gonna buy him a drink –but he went for his gun, Easy. I swear he did.” Then tears well up in Mouse’s eyes because he really feels sad –which in turn, “brought tears uncontrollably to [Easy’s] own eyes” (31). These are characters Mosley creates in order to give complexity to black people who in traditional mainstream detective fiction would be silent servants to white characters. Black people that give their lives wholly and cheerfully, gracefully or sullenly to white folks and their needs –but never to their own black families, friends, neighbors, or selves. Black people who are the buffoons and “zip coon” figures that have provided comic relief for traditional genre texts, aping white life as it is idealized. The female racialized counterparts have been lustful Jezebels or emasculating Sapphires. But Mosley says this of his Southerners-turned-Southern Californians:

Southwest L. A. was palm trees and poverty; neat little lawns tended by the descendents of ex-slaves and massacred Indians. It was beautiful and wild; a place that was almost a nation, populated by lost peoples that were never talked about in the newspapers or seen on the TV. You might have read about freedom marchers; you might have heard about a botched liquor store robbery (if a white man was injured)— but you never heard about Tommy Jones growing the biggest roses in the world or how Fiona Roberts saved her neighbor by facing off three armed men with only the spirit of her God to guide her (32).

34Mosley, like Himes in a more satirical and scathing turn, creates characters that challenge stereotypes about black folk, and they both, accordingly, begin that ideological work with the most commonly held assumptions, those concerning the least valued members of American society –poor, Southern, rural African Americans.

35When things get tough (as they must in the ultra-violent world of hardboiled detective fiction) Rawlins, and others like him, turn to their pasts for both physical relief (temporary escape) and moral and ethical rules of conduct. It is, then, more than just the memories of their Southern pasts that sustain Mosley’s heroes. It is the place where the hero’s self that one finds in the narrative’s current setting has been forged. Unlike the more traditional American dream of escaping as much as possible from one’s situation through movement to build a better life in a new place, Easy seems to have moved to California looking for more opportunities to express the self he became in his Southern homeland. There is a kind of positive acceptance in that view of the Southern black migrant to post World War II Los Angeles (an American frontier of sorts) that resonates with the double-consciousness that DuBois addressed as he talked about becoming fully functioning African-American citizens. In both historical time periods, the point was to have better access to the American Dream.

36The United States is in the midst of an immigration boom unheard of since the turn of the last century –and not just in the influx of new populations from Europe. People of color, in particular Hispanics and Asians, are leading the numbers. The U. S. are different. Things have changed. The effects of the modern civil rights movement are being felt. There is a significantly increased number of American blacks in the middle-class, arising from affirmative action programs. Condolezza Rice, descended from a traditional Southern African-American background, and currently the nation’s Secretary of State, after serving as the highest ranking foreign policy expert, is emblematic of that societal change. Regarding the changing faces of the last 50 years of immigration, remember Colin Powell, a second-generation American citizen, the son of working-class Jamaican immigrants, who was the face the world turned to for years, representing U. S. diplomacy. Both Ms.

37Rice and General Powell have served under a president elected from the Republican party, the self-avowed political group that represents U. S. business interests. Yet, things have not changed all the way with regard to the categorization of black people. There is more racial openness, and yet much has remained exactly the same, or grown worse in so far as certain segments of the population have been left behind.

38We see what we want to see, what we have been repeatedly incited to see by all of the shared forms of public discourse: television, movies, pictures in the newspapers and popular magazines, videos, and literature. We see what makes each of us comfortable in positing ourselves as the normal citizen who belongs. And yet, there are other ways of seeing, other perspectives. Detective fiction, as it is being written by African-American authors, is allowing for some of those other ways that are perhaps not so new, but certainly only newly acknowledged as a norm in the genre. It is important to understand this change in the use of the trope of the “other-worldly” black character because it is, as Toni Morrison suggests in “Romancing the Shadow,” an essay in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992):

... autonomy, authority, newness and difference, absolute power—not only become the major themes and presumptions of American literature, but that each one is made possible by, shaped by, activated by a complex awareness and employment of a constituted Africanism. It is this Africanism, deployed as rawness and savagery that provided the staging ground and arena for the elaboration of the quintessential American identity (44).

39Contemporary detective fiction, written by and about African Americans makes clear that the “quintessential American identity” is and has always been constructed to some degree in relation to its “Africanness,” but decidedly not in all of its human dimensions.

40Despite a remarkable amount of social, political, economic, even racial advancement, poverty remains endemic across whole swaths of the American South. In Himes’s posthumously published Harlem novel, Plan Β (1993), Thomsson Black’s family’s ancestral past from slavery to the poverty-stricken rural then urban areas of the post-emancipation South is prefaced in a long digressive section that leads up to the 1960s and the commencement of the contemporary story. The reader cannot know Black without knowing the stories of his fathers. The Black family was one of successive generations of dirt-poor men who were never expected to be of much social value, including Thomsson himself when he arrives in Harlem.

41But Thomsson Black is poised to break that chain of ignominy. The change evolves as he asks a series of rhetorical questions throughout the novel to himself, in dialogues with other characters, and with the novel’s readers. He wonders whether black and white people, even when not under similar circumstances, are not all essentially looking to achieve the same goal: self empowerment. Black regards doing what must be done to improve one’s life, and to consolidate some degree of personal power, as primal to human beings. Even if one fails, worthiness lies in the attempt to take some action on one’s own terms. The novel suggests poor black Southern characters learn early to know that if they are to survive as anything more than a beast of burden, they “would have to rely on [themselves]... would have to assume the authority that controlled [their] life” (174). Through Thomsson Black Himes suggests the dilemma of having outlying class and racial status in late 20th century America. That idea is one that Himes alludes to in all of his works from the 1950s until the 1970s. When he created black urban transplanted characters that are from rural and urban ghettoes of the South, he gave them a manifesto:

We must achieve our equality in this society against overwhelming odds. That is why we need a springboard, why we need a beginning. We need capital. The white people had slaves, the wedding of coal and ore... the fertile earth... the underground lakes of petroleum. With all that, it didn’t require too much creative imagination for this nation to become rich and prosperous. We, however, must start at the bottom, at the chitterling of the hog (Plan Β 166).

42Thomsson Black is the character that fools everyone who underestimates him as his increasing intelligence and political savvy evolve. He fools whites, and those black characters who make unquestioned fetishes of all that represents white mainstream U. S. culture, because they see him simply as another darky from the country talking “corn-pone slavery-time gibberish” (191). All the while, working from a cover business called Chitterlings, Inc., he organizes blacks from all walks of life to finally and violently rebel against racism. The novel is grim as it moves towards its impossibly violent denouement, and yet it does not close the imagination to other possible endings, certainly to other ways of thinking about characters like Black.

43Himes did not finish the last novel in his Harlem series. The version currently available ends with an editor’s note bracketed within the last page written by Himes: “No formal conclusion exists for Plan B. The following pages are reconstructed from a detailed outline found with the rest of the manuscript” (192). After Himes’s death, a composite conclusion was added for the sake of narrative continuity and closure. True to the dictates of the grotesque, however, “no true answer can be given” (Kayser 186) for the alienated world Himes presents. There is much of the absurd and the flamboyant about the reality pictured in the Harlem setting of the series. Richard Dyer notes, “Cultural representation forms set the wider terms of limitation and possibility for the (re) presentations of particularities and we have to understand how the latter are caught in the former in order to understand why such-and-such gets represented in the way it does” (2). Poor black Southerners are limited by a lack of political clout, a lack of money, and an overabundance of social constrictions that are all buttressed by the ways they are represented by and in the wider society. The dynamic nature and potential of the interactions between their strengths as well as their weaknesses as individuals, and as members of their several communities, is represented in Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series, and especially Himes’s Harlem series, as having come first from the particularities of their Southern pasts. The complexity of issues and ideas that the authors’ Southern background settings bring into sharp relief demonstrate clearly the value in creative energy and humanity these literary characters can bring to readers.


Works Cited

Dyer, Richard. 1993. The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations. New York: Routledge, 1993

Himes, Chester. 1993. Plan B. Jackson: Univ. of Mississippi Press.

— 1991 (-1957). A Rage in Harlem. New York: Vintage.

— 1989 (1969) The Crazy Kill. New York: Vintage.

— 1989 (1969). Blind Man with a Pistol. New York: Vintage.

— 1988 (1966). The Heat’s On. New York: Vintage.

Kayser, Wolfgang. 1957. The Grotesque in Art and Literature. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Morrison Toni. 1993. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage.

Mosley, Walter. 1990. Devil in a Blue Dress. New York: Washington Square Press.

— 1997. Gone Fishin’. Baltimore: Black Classic Press.

— 1996. A Little Yellow Dog. New York: Pocket Books.


1 The detective fiction series of BarbaraNeely and Paula Woods are not explored specifically in this essay. But their African-American female protagonists, Blanche White and Charlotte Justice, respectively, would provide compelling additions to any subsequent studies of the issues highlighted here concerning the ways ancestral influences from Southern culture and experiences help shape African-American detective fiction characters. Blanche White is a working-class domestic who moves back and forth, depending upon the various crises in her life, between urban Massachusetts and her rural hometown in North Carolina. Blanche’s dependency on the folk wisdom as well as learned anxieties, especially regarding race, racism and racist traditions, are explicitly discussed between the characters in the novels as retentions from her past and her birth family’s continued life in the South. Charlotte Justice’s Southern cultural connections are less direct because she is a third generation native of Los Angeles. And yet, the retentions from her family’s cultural roots in the South can be traced by readers with the cultural literacy to discern those historical origins within the characters’ intimate conversations and references among family and friends. Both series’ characterizations and settings suggest that the two authors are calling the reader’s attention to issues related to changes wrought by diverse migration patterns that have occurred over the 20th century among African Americans.

2 A name that connotes death as well as haughtiness.


Staff of the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, as Assistant Professor, English and Director of the African-American Studies Program. Upcoming published essays include “The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful: Chester Himes’s Femmes and their Work in his Harlem”, in The National Women’s Studies Association Journal.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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