Black Pulp

Genre Fiction in the Shadow of Jim Crow

2021
Author:

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

From the pages of the Pittsburgh Courier and the Baltimore Afro-American, Brooks E. Hefner recovers a rich archive of African American genre fiction from the 1920s through the mid-1950s—spanning 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 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 that 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.


Contents


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


Notes


Index