Souljahs of Fortune: On “Black Pulp”
By Mark BouldMay 27, 2013
Black Pulp by Tommy Hancock, Morgan Minor, and Gary Phillips
“I'M YOUR GREAT white hunter,” Ernie Hudson explains to scientist Laura Linney in Congo (1995), “but I’m black.”
It is the one moment of genuine interest in Frank Marshall’s hilarious 1995 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s laughable 1980 novel. Marshall’s decision to replace Crichton’s white mercenary with a black character is the only time either book or film acknowledges the problem of working in a genre — the colonial adventure narrative — fundamentally constituted around imperialist-racist ideology. Admittedly, Marshall does nothing more, but even this very little sets his film apart from such epic racefails as the Indiana Jones films and Peter Jackson’s inept attempt to not make a racist King Kong. But can such pulp fictions be redeemed? Or when revived are they destined merely to be, in Lavie Tidhar’s infamous description of steampunk, “fascism for nice people”?
Black Pulp tackles the problem head-on — appropriately enough — and with an admirable lack of subtlety, giving us a dozen unabashed adventure stories with black protagonists. Of course, this is not the first endeavor of its kind, as more than a century of black-authored and black-centered genre fiction attests. Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood (1902-03) reworked the lost-race tale to connect contemporary African Americans to ancient African civilizations. W.E.B. Du Bois’s Dark Princess (1928) and George S. Schuyler’s Ethiopian Stories (1935-36, 1938-39) and Black Empire (1936-38) told Afrocentric stories of international intrigue and future war. Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure-Man Dies (1932) kick-started African-American crime fiction, a tradition that includes Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines, and Black Pulp contributors Walter Mosley, Gary Phillips, and Gar Anthony Haywood.
In 1937, Herb Jeffries became the first black singing cowboy in Harlem on the Prairie and other “sepia movies,” although black-centered westerns remain relatively rare — Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte in Buck and the Preacher (1972), Fred Williamson in the Nigger Charley trilogy (1972-75), Ron O’Neal in The Master Gunfighter (1975), Mario Van Peebles in Posse (1993), Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained (2012), Wesley Snipes in Gallowwalkers (2012). Black action cinema flourished in the 1970s and has never exactly gone away. The 1960s and 1970s also saw an effusion of black-centered thrillers about imminent race war by authors of color (Nivi-kofi A. Easley, Sam Greenlee, Chester Himes, Blyden Jackson, Julian Moreau, John A. Williams) and of pallor (Edwin Corley, John Jakes, Warren Miller, Mack Reynolds). And back when Samuel R. Delany seemed to be the only black SF and fantasy author around, Octavia E. Butler and Charles R. Saunders began their careers by reworking, respectively, mutant superhero comics and sword’n’sorcery fiction with protagonists of color.
Three decades later, the complexion of SF and fantasy has changed somewhat, as demonstrated by the popular and critical reception of Minister Faust, Nalo Hopkinson, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and Nisi Shawl. But while these authors write genre fiction, they do not write pulp. The authors in this collection, both black and white, do. Indeed, most of them are identified with the New Pulp movement.
New Pulp does not refer to the po-mo genre revisionism of Kim Newman and Howard Waldrop, or to such monumental literary pulp-regurgitations as Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day (2006) and Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker (2012), or to the pulp-and-comics allusiveness of Junot Díaz, or to the nouvelle pulp dabblings that occasionally emerge from those hipster literati — hipsterati? — over at McSweeney’s. Rather, New Pulp tells new stories about old pulp characters — such superscience do-gooders, wealthy-playboys-turned-masked-avengers, and jungle adventurers as Doc Savage, the Green Hornet, the Spider, and Armless O’Neil — or about new characters cast in the same mould. Black Pulp introduces a host of the latter.
Gary Phillips gives us Decimator Smith, a thirties prizefighter whose investigation into his sister’s murder uncovers a weird-science Hollywood cult cum extortion racket. In the ensuing, er, Decimation, Smith’s body is bathed in unknown chemicals and violent electricity, more or less guaranteeing he will return as a Chester Himes version of Luke Cage. Charles R. Saunders first novel Imaro (1980) prompted a lawsuit from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s estate because its cover described the protagonist as “a black Tarzan.” In “Mtimu,” Saunders finally gives us precisely that. The eponymous African-born lord of the jungle finds his Jane in Enid Brown, an African American aviatrix — dubbed “the Black Amelia Earhart,” much to her race-conscious chagrin — who crashes while attempting the first solo non-stop North-to-South flight over Africa. Together, they must defeat Clive “Take ’Em Alive” Bailey, the insane white hunter who wants to capture, mutilate, and then exhibit them as examples of the missing link.
Mel Odom’s Captain Ngola is a former slave who wages war on Portuguese slavers and ancient African supernatural monsters — like a radical black Solomon Kane on a mission and with a crew . D. Alan Lewis’s Black Wolfe, a moderately superpowered detective in a not-very-specific Jim Crow setting, is embroiled in the shenanigans of a corrupt mayor, an evil hypnotist, a middle-aged former superheroine, mobsters, pimps, and prostitutes. Christopher Chamber’s strutting black navy pilot, Rocket Crockett, is haunted by his war-hero brother’s lynching even as he downs enemy planes over Korea and gets caught up in an oriental caper involving racist sailors, yakuza, geisha, rikishi, and a looted Korean relic that somehow survived the atom-bombing of Hiroshima (and will probably end up in the same warehouse as the Ark of the Covenant and the Roswell UFO).
Derrick Ferguson’s Dillon is a black Mack Bolan, or a black, male Modesty Blaise, freelancing his way through a world of covert agencies, deadly inventions, and beautiful women. Michael A. Gonzales shows a pair of late-eighties hip-hop crimefighters, Jaguar and Shep, foiling would-be supervillain Jazzmatazz’s plot to rid Harlem of rap. Kimberley Richardson, Black Pulp’s only female author, introduces Agnes Viridian, who uses her occult powers to solve a crime for an Egyptian god in twenties Memphis (USA). Tommy Hancock takes a slightly different tack. Just as Jack Kirby extracted Black Panther from terrestrial strife in the late seventies and launched him into cosmic adventures, so Hancock recounts the posthumous adventures of John Henry — that hammer-wielding, “whirling dervish of obsidian” — on another, Burroughs/Howard-esque barbarian plane of existence. In contrast, Gar Anthony Harwood offers a straight-up period heist story.
The New Pulp movement is hardly surprising, considering that the Modern Library has sanctified Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft, and the latter is now the author-of-choice for cutting-edge European philosophers. Undoubtedly, if the movement was better known, there would be endless op-ed guffery connecting its vivid protagonists and narrative drive to a post-9/11 desire for the moral clarity of a simpler world. Or drawing parallels between the social and cultural functions of old pulp and New Pulp in a post-2008 world of austerity and immiseration for the majority while the one-percent further line their own pockets. Indeed, Walter Mosley’s introduction to Black Pulp recalls the importance of such fiction to Depression-era readers, describing “stories that bring us out of the darkness of the common work-a-day world” and “allow us to imagine a different world, a different self … and a different life where the chains of the modern world can be shrugged.” But such parallels do not hold. New Pulp’s nostalgia is too self-aware to be some mooncalf yearning for a non-existent past. Moreover, it is not mass fiction. It is niche fiction — a subcultural e-publishing/print-on-demand outgrowth of fan, collector, and other participatory cultures.
It is also a curious literary experiment, a bizarro Oulipo manqué. New Pulp attempts to roll back the clock to the twenties or thirties or forties (or whenever), to create fiction that could have been published then. Or, more accurately, it is fiction that, to early twenty-first-century sensibilities, appears as if it could have been published then (even if the exact then is rarely all that specific). Fiction, in other words, that acts as if none of the specific genre’s intervening literary-political developments have happened.
Black Pulp’s protagonists of color add a specific twist to the endeavor, however. For example, Ron Fortier’s “The Lawman” is an episodic patchwork of occasionally domestic but mostly action scenes in which the first African-American US Deputy Marshall guns down or otherwise brings to justice a succession of rustlers and other crooks. An epilogue reveals that the protagonist, Bass Reeves, is a real historical figure, and that the story merely dramatizes scenes from his life. But “The Lawman” is written as if Elmore Leonard had not made the western hard-boiled in the 1950s; as if Walter Van Tilburg Clarke, Charles Portis, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, and others had not rendered the genre more literary; as if The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The Shootist (1976), and Unforgiven (1992) had not made clear the role of western fictions in mythologizing American history. And yet despite Fortier’s apparent rejection of all that the western has been and become since some-not-entirely-clear moment in its past, he nonetheless works some simple revisionist magic — not through metafictional sleight-of-hand, but by simply recalling a black lawman, immensely famous in his own day, and placing him in the kind of pulp narrative that helped create the legends of other real (but white) gunslingers.
The major exception to this not-exactly-rigorous literary experiment is also Black Pulp’s only reprint, Joe R. Lansdale’s “Six Finger Jack.” Another delicious slice of the East Texas noir for which the author is rightly famed, it engages rather differently with the history and temporality of pulp. It carefully drip-feeds the details necessary to work out when it is set while unfolding a tale of multiple murders and betrayals among low-level criminals in the blasted landscape of contemporary late capitalism. Simultaneously, Lansdale evokes his pulp heritage — he describes “marshy land that would suck the shoes off your feet, or bog up a car tire until you had to pull a gun and shoot the engine like a dying horse” — without recapitulating it.
It is a misleading story with which to open the volume in other ways, too, not least because the quality of Lansdale’s writing is of a different order. In some other contributions, it is not always clear when pulp pastiche becomes merely pulp. But Lansdale’s prose is precise and evocative, and his adept shifts of tone and idiom are irresistible — as when he describes the “tricky,” rain-drenched backroads near Gladewater: “some of them were little more than mud and a suggestion. Others were slick and shiny like snot on a water glass.”
Lansdale’s female characters, however, every one a sexualized betrayer, a low-rent femme fatale, indicate a problem that haunts the rest of Black Pulp. When Danny Glover cannot raise Hollywood funding for a biopic of Toussaint L’Ouverture because the story lacks a white viewpoint character, it sadly and astonishingly remains a vital cultural task to move characters of color center stage. But in returning to pulp paradigms, this collection’s authors have not always been sufficiently thoughtful about their female characters, too many of whom are little more than erotic set dressing for masculinist adventures. There are exceptions, most obviously Saunders’s Enid Brown and Richardson’s Agnes Viridian. And to be fair, as the cover’s pairing of a gun-toting, black Indiana Jones with a Red Sonja of color — sword-wielding and breast-plated but sans underpants — suggests, Black Pulp is no more sexist than much of mainstream culture. But still. In a revisionist project concerned with representation, one would hope for a little more effort and attention. Or for a companion volume, Black Pulp: Sistahs Doin’ It For Themselves.
Apart from this nagging problem, Black Pulp is tremendous fun. It shows us how far we have come, and how far we have left to go. Its straightforward action-adventures conjure a sense of belatedness, of fiction oddly disentimed, while its insertion of black characters into pulp scenarios suggests an alternative history. One cannot help but wonder how different the world would have had to be for these stories to have been published in the old pulp era, and imagine the incendiary effect they would have had if they had appeared in our world back then. So while Black Pulp may be a very long way from what Raymond Queneau and chums had in mind when they founded Oulipo, it is an ouvroir de littérature potentielle, a workshop of potential literature, of rousing, two-fisted yarns in which you always know the protagonist’s weight and how many inches over six feet he stands.
And if you like your great white hunters black, this collection is definitely for you.
If you’re hipsterati, probably not.
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