BOOK REVIEW: ‘Black Pulp: Genre Fiction in the Shadow of Jim Crow’
By Brooks E. Hefner | 2021 | Paperback, $25 | Nonfiction, academic | Available via Interlibrary Loan
In “Black Pulp: Genre Fiction in the Shadow of Jim Crow,” James Madison University professor Brooks E. Hefner shares the history of pulp fiction by Black authors in the early 20th century. Hefner details the rise and fall of publishing houses and papers that focused on Black American genre fiction.
For those unfamiliar, the “pulp” genre is named because of the cheap paper that the magazines were printed on. Pulp is often associated with noir but can encompass any sort of genre fiction, from crime to sci-fi to romance.
When I was in high school, I once became sick with a fever of more than 100 degrees. My dad came over and said he knew the best cure for being sick: watching pulp movies. After an entire evening of ridiculous and cheap flicks that spanned from gritty detective Blaxploitation to kung-fu classics, I did actually feel better. I began to love the pulp genre.
I ended up reading “Black Pulp” in the middle of Harlem, one of the cultural cornerstones of Black thought and creativity; however, I was struck by how the book didn’t feel accessible to me or nearly anyone from the community. While I believe Hefner is writing about an incredible topic, “Black Pulp” didn’t speak to me as a Black person in any way. Instead, it felt like it was for white academics.
A cursory Google search confirmed my suspicions that Hefner is indeed white.
Hefner excels when he analyzes excerpts of the pulp magazines, including illustrations and front pages that many people have likely not seen. I was particularly intrigued by the section on Gertrude Schalk, a Black woman who wrote romance for both white and Black magazines, with the protagonists of her stories reflecting each demographic. Learning about this prolific woman was incredible — she managed to excel and thrive in a society that continually disparaged the words of Black women.
Hefner takes the reader from the establishment of the publishing companies that would help promote these works, to the physical way that these magazines were distributed — often to the point of falling apart as they moved from person to person. He then guides the readers through the different genres that were most common and their more well-known authors, and how they may have led the way to modern fictional characters like Luke Cage and Black Panther, as well as horror maestro Jordan Peele.
But, for a more casual pulp fan, it is not easy getting through this book. It is chewy and, although short, coming in around 200 pages, very dense. The paragraphs are so full of information, it can be difficult to understand the narrative direction. If it weren’t for the thesis lined out in the introduction, it likely wouldn’t be clear to me at all.
Although Hefner sets up his thesis in the beginning, the introduction becomes bogged down by being self-referential to his own writing and speaking as if the reader has already completed a 400-level university course on publishing. The book would have benefited from a welcoming introduction that laid out definitions, a clear timeline and what Hefner hoped the reader would gain from “Black Pulp.”
There were many opportunities for Hefner to dig deeper into the context of the works he discusses, as well as his own place. Hefner rightfully discusses that very little scholarly attention has been paid to Black papers that published pulp fiction, but stops short of calling it what it is — the white supremacist limitation of imagination in academia.
This example isn’t the only one that stuck out to me. When discussing the minimal archived microfiche at libraries of Black pulp fiction, the underfunding of libraries and lack of resources in Black communities cannot be understated. Without funding for Black libraries and Black librarians, preservation faces an uphill battle. Although the legacy of Jim Crow is in the title, I felt the book paid very little attention to the broader implications of segregation that lead to the lack of information.
To make this book accessible, I would have made a few changes, such as including footnotes, adding a linear timeline and tying the historical pulp fiction to pop culture today to show its lasting effects. Hefner’s section on romance would have been an excellent place to reference the success of “Bridgerton” on Netflix and acclaimed author Beverly Jenkins. To Hefner’s credit, he does open the introduction discussing Jordan Peele’s masterpiece “Get Out,” which led me to believe similar allusions would be common in the text.
In fact, the history of pulp and funding reminds me of Kickstarter and how today you can also find modern-day pulp magazines seeking crowdfunding to be published. Pulp magazines have become the zines sold at bookstores and conventions. These adaptations to publishing are still developing in the shadow of Jim Crow in the year 2022.
However, this disappointment could also be my own failing as a reader — that I expected this book to be able to connect to Blackness. Although it speaks about Black works and authors, and how Black magazines published their stories, I stand by my assertion that it was not meant for “us.” And that is probably what made it the most disappointing. While I recognize that this book is maybe meant for the more serious academics studying the pulp genre, who have already overcome the barriers and gatekeeping in place for academia, I find it curious that “Black Pulp” had this largely white and institutional focus.
With these tempered expectations, I believe there is definitely something to be gained by reading “Black Pulp.” I don’t believe it was the right read for me, but it is certainly a fascinating glimpse into a part of Black history that isn’t well known. Understanding the rich literary history that came from the era of pulp magazines during Jim Crow provides a better understanding of literature as a whole.
Leinani Lucas is a millennial who enjoys reading, writing and exploring the Pacific Northwest. She can be found on Twitter @LeinaniLucas.
Interested in pulp? Check out:
• FIYAH, a quarterly literary fiction magazine by and about Black people.
• “Luke Cage Noir” by Adam Glass and Mike Benson.
• “Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity” by C. Riley Snorton.
• The 2020 show “Lovecraft Country” directed by Misha Greene.
Read more of the Feb. 23-Mar. 1, 2022 issue.