Black Genre Fiction Reimagined: Review of Black Pulp by Brooks E. Hefner
Garrett Bridger Gilmore
Black Pulp. Brooks E. Hefner. University of Minnesota Press, December 2021.
In his autobiography The Big Sea Langston Hughes famously opines that despite the fashionable fervor for Black art among white audiences in the 1920s, “the ordinary Negroes hadn’t heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn’t raised their wages any.” This observation springboards Hughes into several chapters worth of dirt-spilling on the social scene of Harlem Renaissance literary production: personality conflicts between authors, struggles to cultivate Black publications, controversies in the press. In the midst of this dissection of the Harlem literati, one could be forgiven for losing sight of the ordinary Black reader Hughes conjures only to dismiss. What fiction were Black readers reading?
Brooks Hefner’s Black Pulp: Genre Fiction in the Shadow of Jim Crow pieces together a compelling history of genre fiction published in African American newspapers between the late 1920s and 1950s that provides a window into both the texts and contexts of Black American popular readership in the mid-twentieth century. Black Pulp focuses on three primary publications: the influential African American newspapers the Pittsburgh Courier and the Baltimore Afro-American as well as the Illustrated Feature Section, a syndicated tabloid insert that ran in smaller Black-owned newspapers around the U.S. Hefner provides fascinating summaries and analyses of dozens of short stories and serials that, due to their circulation in some of the most widely-read African American newspapers of their day, “likely had more Black readers than virtually all of the African American canon through at least the middle of the twentieth century”.
These stories are unique because while they participate in what we now consider pulpy genres, they were not published in pulp magazines, which were dominated by white publishers. Remarkably, then, this fiction was not only likely the widest-read black fiction of its day, but also likely represented some of the widest distribution of genre fiction in the early twentieth-century. According to the Circulating American Magazines Database (of which Hefner is a co-director), Weird Tales peaked at a circulation of about 90,000 in January 1945, less than half the low-end 1929 circulation estimate of 185,000 for the IFS that Hefner provides in his study. These works then, by nature of their sheer availability, are massively important for a full understanding of both African-American and genre fiction in the twentieth-century.
Like the works Hefner discusses, Black Pulp is situated at the intersection of traditional conceptions of African American literature and genre fiction. Black Pulp’s central critical contention is that the genre fiction published in African American newspapers—horror, romance, science fiction, hero fiction—presents meaningful alternatives to the pervasiveness of both racism in white-authored genre fiction and pessimistic realism in canonical mid-century African American fiction. Emphasizing its orientation toward Black readers, Hefner argues that newspaper genre fiction simultaneously offered “the pleasure of genre and the radical challenges to Jim Crow culture”. Put another way, the stories Hefner details in Black Pulp did not labor under the burden of having to persuade white audiences that racism was really a problem, nor did they simply reproduce racist tropes associated with early pulp genres. Rather, they provided opportunities for Black readers to experience satisfying narrative resolutions to cultural and political conflicts and to imagine alternative forms of social organization. Distinct from popular vernacular traditions that located Black happiness in the past of memory, this newspaper fiction imagined present-day and near-future possibilities for Black flourishing, or at the very least small moments of victory over the quotidian structures of mid-century racial violence.
Black Pulp is organized into four chapters, each focusing in-depth on one genre or publication. Chapter One, “Beneath the Harlem Renaissance: The Rise of Black Popular Fiction” recounts the emergence and demise of the Illustrated Features Section, a short-lived literary supplement carried in Black newspapers across the country that laid the foundation for the newspaper publishing discussed in the rest of the book. While uplift-minded fiction had long been a mainstay in Black periodicals dating back to the early nineteenth century, the IFS introduced genre fiction to its readers and provided an early venue for authors and editors (including George Schuyler, a key figure throughout the book) who would later go on to publish fiction in other newspaper venues. Hefner’s work recovering IFS material from scattered archival sources is remarkable, and from a pedagogical perspective this chapter would be a worthwhile inclusion in a range of history, literature, and media classes in both secondary and higher education settings.
The remaining three chapters focus on specific popular genres and the prominent authors writing therein. Chapter Two explores romance fiction and offers an important study of Gertrude Schalk, a prolific columnist and author of romance stories who published in both white romance pulps and black periodicals, including the IFS. Chapter Two also delves into a truly fascinating sequence of interracial romance stories published in the Baltimore Afro-American in the spring and summer of 1934 following a solicitation to readers: “Where Is Your Boiling Point on the Race Question: How Much Can You Read about Interracial Love and Sex without Getting Sore?”. Chapters Three and Four turn their attention to more readily legible speculative fare. Chapter Three is a study of George Schuyler’s many serials in the Pittsburgh Courier and of William Thomas Smith’s 1937 Baltimore Afro-American serial “The Black Stockings.” The Smith serial, a response to Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, depicts the rise of a fascist white-supremacist political figure in a near-future U.S. and was advertised at the time as “The Biggest Mystery Serial Ever Presented to AFRO Readers.” Chapter four is primarily composed of a study of two prolific but largely unremembered authors, James H. Hill and H.L. Faggett, both of whom published in the Baltimore Afro-American between the late 1930s and early 1950s.
Throughout Black Pulp, Hefner displays a remarkable ability to concisely summarize sensational stories and serials without spoiling their fun. As a reader, I came away desperate to find copies of most of the works Hefner discusses. Several of George Schuyler’s most famous linked serials originally published in the Pittsburgh Courier are commercially available under the title Black Empire, but the majority of the works that fill the pages of Black Pulp are only available in archival settings and rare (and expensive on the secondary market) small-run collected volumes. Luckily, the Baltimore Afro-American is in the process of digitizing its archives in a partnership with Google, but I have been unable to locate any of the stories or complete sequences of serials discussed in Black Pulp.
Hefner frames Black Pulp as an initial foray into a vast trove of discarded material and offers a strong case that this fiction is not only interesting to readers, but worth studying as a significant piece of twentieth-century American literary culture. The authors, texts, and reading publics analyzed in Black Pulp offer a powerful corrective to traditional conceptions of genre fiction as a whites-only space in Jim Crow America. Hefner offers incisive and measured analysis of how both Black fictional worlds and publishing spaces developed both with and against the grain of mainstream white genre fiction. Black Pulp helps us to better understand not only the great creativity of neglected Black genre authors, but also how race has shaped publishing and reading practices in genre fiction since its early days. Ultimately, I hope that Black Pulp leads to the wider availability of works by authors like Schalk, Smith, Hill, and Faggett, and helps develop a broader conception of the kind of critical and political work that genre fiction can do.
Garrett Bridger Gilmore teaches literature classes in the departments of English and Gender and Race Studies at the University of Tuscaloosa. You can find him on Twitter.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for reviews. The author and editors were previously acquainted through an ARB commission. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. A review copy was arranged by ARB from the University of Minnesota Press.