Black Pulp

Black Pulp

Genre Fiction in the Shadow of Jim Crow

Brooks E. Hefner

A deep dive into mid-century African American newspapers, exploring how Black pulp fiction reassembled genre formulas in the service of racial justice

248 Pages, 6 x 9 in

  • Paperback
  • 9781517911577
  • Published: December 21, 2021
  • eBook
  • 9781452966786
  • Published: December 21, 2021
  • Hardcover
  • 9781517911560
  • Published: December 21, 2021


Black Pulp

Genre Fiction in the Shadow of Jim Crow

Brooks E. Hefner

ISBN: 9781517911577

Publication date: December 21st, 2021

248 Pages

15 black & whilte illustrations

8 x 5

"Brooks Hefner’s compelling and insightful book asks us to reconsider not only what counts as Black imaginative writing but what it means to read Black literature at all. Attending to a vast yet overlooked archive of serial genre fiction, Hefner highlights the pleasures afforded by African Americans’ engagement with popular formulas in the Black press. The result is an eye-opening account of modern literary production that centers the tastes and experiences of Black readers themselves. Beyond the predominance of the protest novel in the white imagination, Hefner reveals the narrative forms and medial formats out of which Black America’s imagined communities were built."—Kinohi Nishikawa, author of Street Players: Black Pulp Fiction and the Making of a Literary Underground

"Black Pulp tells a much needed and long overdue literary history of the short fiction and serial narratives featured in the African American periodical press of the mid-twentieth century. As Brooks E. Hefner’s deft and compelling close readings and contextual accounts of the pulp fiction industry’s developments demonstrate, Black popular fiction’s fresh formulas offered Black readers utopian (not nihilist) visions of the justice they deserved—but were denied—in Jim Crow America. Thoroughly researched, shrewdly argued, wonderfully illustrated, and bracingly written, Black Pulp is as thrilling to read as the literature it surveys. This is a work that anyone interested in mid-century African American and American popular literature, genre criticism, and US periodical history must read."—Jacqueline Goldsby, Yale University

"Beyond the invaluable historical work it performs, Black Pulp offers numerous and exciting theoretical suggestions regarding the politics of reading, the innovations of popular fiction and the huge gulf between the historical experience of readers in a given period and the retrospective constructions of literary history. It constitutes essential reading for whoever is interested in Black studies, pulp fiction or the sociology of reading, probing the limits of these intersecting fields and helping to recover the forgotten hinterlands that lie beyond them."—Journal of Social History


"Hefner stitches together the seams of genre and race... Black Pulp challenges us to reimagine and expand our conceptualization of African American literary culture by adopting Black bibliographic practice that simultaneously recovers relationships between lost texts and a larger network of literary practice, even as it might redefine what we mean as Black bibliography."—Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America


"A fascinating glimpse into a part of Black history that isn’t well known."—Real Change News


"Black Pulp is important and valuable because of the stories Hefner chronicles 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."—Los Angeles Review of Books


"Hefner’s study is—from beginning to end—an absolute pleasure to read, just as it is a convincing case for the political importance of Black pleasure in reading."—Modernism/modernity


"Hefner reveals the dauntless envisioning of emancipatory futures by Black writers and illustrators. "—Colors of Influence


"For Hefner, recovering African American newspaper fiction is significant because it provides archival evidence of fertile genre experimentation among Black writers in the pulp era... a major achievement. Black Pulp should make it impossible for scholars of popular genre fiction to suggest that Black creators entered the field late or that antiracist approaches to genre are a new development. "—American Periodicals


"Breathtakingly researched and astutely argued, Hefner shines a light on a hidden corner of Black cultural production that has remained mostly out of sight." —Modern Fiction Studies


A deep dive into mid-century African American newspapers, exploring how Black pulp fiction reassembled genre formulas in the service of racial justice

In recent years, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Marvel’s Black Panther, and HBO’s Watchmen have been lauded for the innovative ways they repurpose genre conventions to criticize white supremacy, celebrate Black resistance, and imagine a more racially just world—important progressive messages widely spread precisely because they are packaged in popular genres. But it turns out, such generic retooling for antiracist purposes is nothing new.  

As Brooks E. Hefner’s Black Pulp shows, this tradition of antiracist genre revision begins even earlier than recent studies of Black superhero comics of the 1960s have revealed. Hefner traces it back to a phenomenon that began in the 1920s, to serialized (and sometimes syndicated) genre stories written by Black authors in Black newspapers with large circulations among middle- and working-class Black readers. From the pages of the Pittsburgh Courier and the Baltimore Afro-American, Hefner recovers a rich archive of African American genre fiction from the 1920s through the mid-1950s—spanning everything from romance, hero-adventure, and crime stories to westerns and science fiction. Reading these stories, Hefner explores how their authors deployed, critiqued, and reassembled genre formulas—and the pleasures they offer to readers—in the service of racial justice: to criticize Jim Crow segregation, racial capitalism, and the sexual exploitation of Black women; to imagine successful interracial romance and collective sociopolitical progress; and to cheer Black agency, even retributive violence in the face of white supremacy. 

These popular stories differ significantly from contemporaneous, now-canonized African American protest novels that tend to represent Jim Crow America as a deterministic machine and its Black inhabitants as doomed victims. Widely consumed but since forgotten, these genre stories—and Hefner’s incisive analysis of them—offer a more vibrant understanding of African American literary history.   

Brooks E. Hefner is professor of English at James Madison University. He is author of The Word on the Streets: The American Language of Vernacular Modernism and codirector of the NEH-funded digital humanities project Circulating American Magazines.  


Introduction: Signifying Genre, Articulating Race

1. Beneath the Harlem Renaissance: The Rise of Black Popular Fiction

2. Romancing the Race: The Politics of Black Love Stories

3. News from Elsewhere: Speculative Fiction in the Black Press

4. Battling White Supremacy: A Prehistory of the Black Superhero

Conclusion: Writing New Histories