Remembering the “Other” Black Writers

Frank Yerby remains the most commercially successful black author in history, but he is almost entirely forgotten and out of print. Though he sold more than 55 million copies of his novels during his lifetime, you will very likely never see a poster dedicated to his memory in an elementary school classroom in America.

While trying to wrap one’s head around the mindbending legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is important to remember black writers and artists who fit outside the dominant and often patronizing paradigms of black cultural production inculcated during things like “Black History Month.”  Growing up, I was taught to believe in a single cohesive narrative that explains how the leaders of black culture (to use an already fraught term) contributed to bringing the end of institutionalized racism in America.  When reading Their Eyes were Watching God, Native Son, Invisible Man, and Go Tell it on the Mountain, the narrative was often oversimplified: black writers wrote books that overtly protested segregationist practices, and did so in a single unified voice.  The truth is, of course, much richer and more complicated, but also more difficult to teach.Maybe this is hyperbolic, but my sense is, not by much.  The point is that characterization of a unified black voice in the long middle part of the century misses two very important facts:

 

  • First of all, Hurston, Wright, and Baldwin had huge differences of opinion, not only about how best to fight Jim Crow–but perhaps more importantly what constituted material that was necessary for portrayal by black artists, and how aesthetics could be used as strategic practice for subverting legalized segregation.
  • Secondly, there were a number of black writers who eschewed the form and style (though, I argue not the themes) of  Protest Fiction, and in so doing worked within commercial and cultural structures to  manipulate these structures from the inside.  They are important to remember because they demonstrated that black writers could gain recognition within the literary and Hollywood establishment precisely by not writing protest fiction.  They gained membership in what had always been a whites-only club, and along the way made it possible for the establishment to recognize the necessary inclusion of black artists.

I want to be clear here: an understanding of the contributions of both camps of artists is vital.  The problem arises when writers like Frank Yerby, Chester Himes, Willard Motley, and Ann Petry (among many others) are denigrated as “genre” or even “pulp” artists whose critical contributions to the canon of African-American literature are largely ignored.  This, despite the fact that they were among the most popular and most widely read figures during the early part of the Civil Rights Movement

Take the case of Yerby and his first novel Foxes of Harrow, for example.  Instead of fighting against segregation in his fiction, so the story goes, Yerby absconded for Europe in 1951 and published most of his 33 novels from Spain, racing cars and fattening his wallet with proceeds from romance genre bestsellers.  For the last forty years, the few scholars who have written about him have attempted to justify (or apologize for) his genre, taking it as a given that he dodged confrontations with problems of race in order to set his own rules for publication.  According to these readings, the value of Yerby’s work arises more from his rejection of expectations imposed upon African-American writers of his generation than from thematic or formal achievements.  Yet close examination of The Foxes of Harrow, his first hugely popular novel, presents an opportunity for reconsideration of racial themes in Yerby’s work.

After all, Foxes was optioned by Hollywood for $150,000, making Yerby the first black author to win a big film contract, and this despite the fact that the book dealt with themes of miscegenation in the racially complex setting of Civil War New Orleans.  Moreover, it was a huge deal that Yerby had written a commercially successful novel (for which he received a six-year contract with Dial Press and a huge advance) that featured a white protagonist.  To this point, it was assumed that black authors either could not, or simply did not desire to, center a story on a white character.  Simply: it wasn’t something that black authors were doing or that readers were used to seeing.

But what critics often miss when fetishizing the commercial success of the novel, is that Yerby did not abandon racial themes simply by featuring a white protagonist.  Rather, the subversion of slavery plays a central role in the book.  One of the novel’s most prominent characters, Caleen, is a slave whose influence over the white owner of the plantation controls the direction of much of the plot.  Caleen wields mysterious predictive and healing powers, and is believed by white characters to be a kind of witch.  But there is strong evidence throughout the novel that Caleen is fully aware of how to mobilize these “powers” in order to gain meaningful concessions from Stephen Fox, the owner of the plantation.    She does so in the interest of eventually securing the freedom of her grandson Inch from the Fox estate.  By the end of the book [spoiler alert], her grandson Inch escapes slavery and returns to New Orleans after the war as the chief of police.  He now has legal jurisdiction over his former masters.

Because Yerby was popular, and because he was not writing the next Native Son (and was, in fact, frustrated by his inability to write Protest Fiction that he could sell), he is on the margins of academic research.  But moreover, despite his outrageous commercial success and the impact that he had on readers during a four decade-long career, he is almost entirely forgotten outside of English departments (where PhD students love him precisely because he is just that forgotten).

We should not lose sight of the broad range of politically vital commentaries levied against institutionalized racism by popular black authors.  Nor should we limit our vision of what constitutes important works by black authors to those writing overtly about racism in the 20th Century.  Rather, we should expand our view to include the achievements of black artists, who by exploring race in subtle and yet often wildly popular ways, helped pave the way for broader racial inclusion in the structures of literary and cultural production.

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