Sunday, December 20, 2015

[Link] The Case of the Disappearing Black Detective Novel

Sidney Poitier in the 1967 adaptation of ‘In the
Heat of the Night.’United Artists / Photofest
By Sarah Weinman

In September of 1950, Hughes Allison, a playwright and writer of pulp fiction, responded to a manuscript sent by a writer who requested that he reply via the Mystery Writers of America. The author, Polly MacManus, singled out Allison for a reason: He was black, she was white, and she wanted his advice on how to write from the point of view of a black detective.

Allison warned MacManus he would be “brutally frank” in his letter: “I urge you to abandon the attempt to write about Negroes.” He felt MacManus’s detective “neither talks nor acts nor thinks like any college-trained Negro I’ve ever met.” Another black character in the manuscript, a maid, “is the most unrealistic chauvinist I’ve ever encountered in fiction. And in real life, she would be regarded by the Negro detectives whom I know as the kind of stool pigeon only heaven could spawn.”

He then followed up with what he considered to be one of the major pitfalls white writers face when writing black characters:

When you begin handling Negroes as major characters in fiction you immediately enter into that big and enormous and important and most complex area of American life called the Negro Question—where no answer can be secured from any part of that question if conjecture is allowed to play even a small part. You can’t guess. You have to know. You have to know Negro life as Negroes live it—and they live on numerous political, economic, social, and intellectual levels growing out of cause-and-effect patterns, the character of which is historical. The history of this matter is well documented—so well documented that those who are informed can tell at a glance who knows and who is guessing.

MacManus may have had good intentions, but those, Allison wrote, “are seldom consistent with the harsh facts of history.”

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