The (double) Consciousness in African American crime fiction - Popular literature as platform for social criticism

Bachelor Thesis, 2008

40 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1 Introduction

2 The detective novel

3 Double consciousness

4 Works discussed
4.1 Himes’ Cotton comes to Harlem
4.2 Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress

5 Diving into Devil In A Blue Dress
5.1 Plot
5.2 characters
5.3 Narrative style
5.4 Imagery

6 Diving into Cotton Comes To Harlem
6.1 Plot
6.2 Characters
6.3 Narrative structure
6.4 Imagery

7 Conclusion

8 Bibliography

“Play the game, but don’t believe in it

– that much you owe yourself.”

(Ralph Ellison – “Invisible Man”)

1 Introduction

This work deals with double consciousness in contemporary African American crime fiction. It could be argued that on the one hand crime fiction in general is a literary field that belongs to mass culture and thus offers no aspects which could be of academic interest. If this is truly the case then it is presumably the aim of crime fiction just to entertain the reader. So the question would be why African American crime fiction should in any way stand out from the masses of detective novels and claim any further analysis or even autonomy, as a kind of sub-genre. For the question of literary legitimization, however with no particular regard to crime fiction, Stephanie Girard offers an explanation: she says that sophisticated art and mass art constitute the poles of a large field and that between these poles there are different sorts of art which can be, admittedly arbitrary, considered academically accessible (cf. Girard 162).

In order to find out what characterizes African American crime fiction, or at least a part of it, and where it can be settled in this large field, two selected novels, Chester Himes’ Cotton Comes To Harlem and Walter Mosley’s Devil In A Blue Dress will be analyzed in the background of the concept of “double consciousness”, a term which was coined by W.E.B. Du Bois in his work The Souls of Black Folk in the early 20th century. In a few words, double consciousness signifies the difference between self-perception and how one is perceived, or stigmatized, by others in relation to ethnicity. Du Bois claims this phenomenon to be a social injustice.

Light will be shed on the generic features of the novels, such as the plot, the narrative structure, the imagery and the constellation of the characters. Afterwards a short outline of the development of the detective novel shall be sketched to provide the reader with a necessary knowledge which will help during the analysis of the works. Before going into detail with the novels, the theoretical concept of double consciousness will be introduced and specifically referred to literature.

The thesis of this paper is that double consciousness is an omnipresent element in the selected works and that it shapes each character differently in a way that it might lead either to success or failure. Depending on how the specific character is able to

recognize his/her own two consciousnesses, this awareness forms the character’s development in the plot and what he/she achieves in the end.

2 The detective novel

In order to assure this chapter’s relation to the context of this whole work, one must not go into deep detail of the early beginnings of the British mystery novel. The name Sherlock Holmes and that of his fellow assistant Dr. Watson are well-known but the principles of Doyle’s short stories around the two detectives do not have much in common anymore with what shall be treated in this work. However, it is important to remember that, by the works of writers like Doyle and Poe, crime fiction became a genre which was marked by strict rules and thus by a certain conservatism. It is this conservatism that is still present in the novels of the early 20th century. But already then the genre had changed: as violence in any way is still not overtly present in the old-fashioned ‘locked-room mysteries’* or ‘armchair mysteries’*, it is a key element in the new so-called ‘hard-boiled’ detective novel. The detective no longer is immune to violence but has to defend himself against physical attacks. Other features of the hard-boiled detective are that the detective is a white, middle-class and male person. He cannot have any firm social relations or any roots since he has to be independent. This also implies that love is unacceptable for the detective. Nonetheless the ‘femme fatale’ is an important element and she challenges the detective’s life as a loner. This French term signifies a woman who seduces the detective sexually and who always tries to intrigue the detective in order to keep him from solving the crime. The ‘femme fatale’ reveals human traits (weakness) of the detective since he is no longer as perfect as he used to be in old British mystery novels. It is the detective’s mission not to succumb to her seduction. Concerning the narrative style of the hard-boiled detective novel, Storhoff explains its method:

Perhaps the most teleological of all popular fiction, the detective novel usually adheres to Aristotelean conventions of time, which are linear, incremental, and fundamentally purposive: A crime is committed to begin the plot, the detective assembles evidence throughout the plot’s middle, and at the plot’s end he reveals the solution. (Storhoff 50)

It is indeed, as presented in the introduction of this work, the detective novel’s function to entertain. However, the methods to entertain go way back a very long tradition to Greek drama. Storhoff says that the “typical crime throughout the genre’s history inevitably constitutes a generalized threat to middle-class privilege; […] the reader’s catharsis occurs when his/her latent anxiety about social instability is relieved” (Storhoff 48) (emphasis added). To legitimize the ethnic detective novel’s coexistence besides the original genre serves a remark by Todorov who speaks about literary genres, boundaries and how authors can deconstruct these boundaries. This general remark can also well serve as an explanation for the element of ethnicity in crime fiction.

Man könnte sagen, daß jedes Buch zwei Gattungen verkörpert, zwei verschiedene Normen zur Geltung bringt: die der Gattung, welche die vorherige Literatur bestimmt hat und die es überwindet,- und die der Gattung, die es nun selbst erschafft. (Todorov 209)

Furthermore he mentions that, concerning the genre of the detective novel, an author need not try to reinvent the novel in order to create something perfect but rather adapt the genre features (ibid. 209).

The African American detective novel in general arises from the hard-boiled detective fiction and it changes its original eurocentric perspective into an afrocentric perspective. As a consequence, additional burdens are laid on the black detective and this will be the topic in the next chapter.

3 Double consciousness

In 1903, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, an African American scholar, who was born in Massachusetts in 1868, published a book called The Souls of Black Folk. From the first chapter of the book, Of Our Spiritual Strivings is a frequently quoted passage which shall be looked at in detail:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (Du Bois 17)

In this chapter, Du Bois speaks about the life of African people in US society. He accuses white American society of being unable to shake off the old ‘Negro’ image and thus oppressing him.

African Americans are, in spite of their positive cultural influences on society, not allowed to live the same life as white people. Double consciousness is a mere reaction, a “Pavlovian reaction” (Ostendorf 17), to the mental and physical exclusion to which African Americans are constantly exposed. Yet, double consciousness is not necessarily a phenomenon which is just ethnically bound, but it is “an identity conflict and […] a schizoid phenomenon evident in all human interaction and communication” (ibid 19). It means that the individual perceives him or herself through one’s own eyes, the excluded, and through the eyes of white society, the excluding. One becomes aware of one’s ‘self-ness’, the essence of one’s existence, and one’s ‘other-ness’, representing the stereotypes that are projected into one’s existence, which results in Du Bois’ “two-ness”. This process of split self awareness leads to realizing that in order to break through the walls of oppression, one has to adapt traits of the excluding power while still managing to keep one’s original social and cultural roots. Petesch demonstrates this by giving the following example: “As Jean-Paul Sartre’s waiter plays at ‘being waiter in a café,’ blacks, in the presence of whites, often play at being blacks in the expressive ways expected of them” (Petesch 70). Bernd Ostendorf refers Du Bois’ theory to today’s situation of African Americans:

In short, double consciousness has to be understood as a result of existential predispositions, reinforced and maintained by cultural and social factors. It refers to the schizogenic split between having and being a body, radicalized by the color stigma: […] (Ostendorf 20)

It is now important to see what impact double consciousness has on literary creation of African Americans. In Oates’ biography of William Faulkner there is a remark about the oppression that African Americans face every day which causes a black author of his time, Richard Wright, not to be able to make use of his whole literary creativity because he is so concerned to present the problems of their people.

It’s a terrible burden that the Negro has to carry in my country. It’s astonishing that any of them can disassociate themselves enough from that problem and that burden to make anything of a talent. (Oates 285)

The disassociation Faulkner talks about is probably meant to be Du Bois’ double consciousness because the ability to disassociate equals the ability to recognize one’s two consciousnesses. Although this statement surely has to be seen as praise to black

literature, Faulkner’s criticism, namely that the artistic quality of black writers’ literature suffers from the need to present racial issues, however, only seems to be legitimate if one fully neglects the social, cultural and political background of an author and merely focuses on the work. It remains to be questioned if it really causes a lack of literacy to involve these factors in the writing and the reading or if it is in fact Faulkner who is unable to disassociate himself from a stereotypical and narrow-minded view on literature and its functional diversity. Ostendorf exactly picks up this problem and says that

[t]he function of black artists within their black communities, their social act, is to counteract the repressive force of ritualized behavior by lifting it from thoughtlessness into consciousness, from social habit into aesthetic form, […]. (Ostendorf 32)

This statement counters Faulkner’s remark about Wright’s works and it emphasizes the need of social criticism in African American literature. This criticism can even transcend boundaries of literary genres depending on its presence: this can be seen in Chester Himes’ novel If He Hollers Let Him Go which is originally classified as a detective novel but in fact does not have much in common with this genre. This happens

[w]hen the writer begins to push a political or social message or to overtly teach readers about the designated culture, [so that] the plot gives way to lecture or preaching and the detection becomes less and less central. (MacDonald 94)

In the end, to return to the thesis of this paper, the topic of finding double consciousness in African American crime fiction and how it works can be proven by asking the questions: how can a black detective preserve his integrity while trying to restore an order in a society that denies him? What influence does double consciousness have on the characters in the plot? These questions shall function as a guideline throughout the analysis of the selected novels.

4 Works discussed

4.1 Himes’ Cotton comes to Harlem

This book was first published in 1965 and belongs to a whole mystery series about the two African American detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson in Harlem. Although the author was born in Missouri, United States, the book was printed and first read in France because after a lot of negative critique, Himes moved to Europe in hope to find a more open readership. His critics accused him of a harsh display of violence, be it inter- or intraracial. Especially from the African American community Himes met with criticism which then finally made him leave his country.

In the story, the two detectives take the reader through Harlem/New York because they must find a bale of cotton which was stolen. This bale contains 87,000 $ which belong to African American families who invested this money in their return to Africa and a piece of land in their original homeland.

Himes places his story in the time of the publication, in the 1960’s. During the story the environment of black Harlem and detailed descriptions of streets and places play an important role. When looking at the investigative methods of Himes’ detectives Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones, it seems clear why the criticism of explicit violence is still persistent. The narrator’s voice justifies violent tendencies by saying that “[...] colored cops had to be tough in Harlem to get the respect of colored hoodlums” (Cotton 117). In his essay about urban space in Mosley’s novels, Liam Kennedy explains the general meaning of race in detective novels.

Race functions as a source of psychological and social fantasy for many hard-boiled writers, with blackness often signifying an otherness within the white subject which requires control and mastery. Sin, lack of reason, and absence of discipline not only confront the white detective but are internalized using race as a topos around which images and discourses are organized. (Kennedy 226)

This exactly seems to be what differentiates Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones from white detectives: they have the ability to transgress the boundaries of law although they are the law.

Against the common rule of the protagonist as being one person who investigates on his own, the detectives seem inseparable and it is impossible to tell if one of them is the main figure and the other being his sidekick or not.


* two notions which are used to refer to 19th century British mystery novels in which the detective solves the crime by reflecting and not by acting (he sits in his armchair). The crime often happens in a locked room to which nobody seemed to have access during the moment of crime.

Excerpt out of 40 pages


The (double) Consciousness in African American crime fiction - Popular literature as platform for social criticism
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Philologie)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Consciousness, African, American, Popular
Quote paper
Kristof Hoppen (Author), 2008, The (double) Consciousness in African American crime fiction - Popular literature as platform for social criticism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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