During high school, I read dozens of Agatha Christie novels. But, recently, I rarely read mysteries. Like everybody else, I plowed through The Da Vinci Code and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books, but I’ve picked up few others in the past decade.
So it was a rare treat to set aside a few hours over the weekend for Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure-Man Dies (1932). It’s a lovely book, wonderful even though Fisher was writing with one hand metaphorically tied behind his back. His was the first mystery novel published by an African-American writer, so the writing style is reserved, even staid. If the whole narrative were written with the linguistic inventiveness that Fisher was capable of, he might not have found a publisher.
Within dialogue, though, Fisher lets his writing crackle. The following passage shows off this dichotomy:
On he strolled past churches, drugstores, ice-cream parlors, cigar stores, restaurants, and speakeasies. Acquaintances standing in entrances or passing him by offered the genial insults which were characteristic Harlem greetings:
“What you say, blacker’n me?”
“How you doin’, short-order?”
“Ole Eight-Ball! Where you rollin’, boy?”
In each instance, Bubber returned some equivalent reply, grinned, waved, and passed on. He breathed deeply of the keen sweet air, appraised casually the trim, dark-eyed girls, admired the swift humming motors that flashed down the Avenue.
Though the novel is nearly a hundred years old, its concerns are strikingly modern. For instance, the narrative digresses into an investigation of free will, the relationship between quantum-mechanical uncertainty and human thought, the limitations of medical diagnosis — all topics that still confound contemporary philosophers. Fisher was remarkably up-to-date: the Heissenberg uncertainty principle was first proposed a mere five years before The Conjure-Man Dies was published, and yet the novel incorporates the central idea more accurately than many contemporary writers. Some of this can be seen in a short dialogue between the characters Dr. Archer — Fisher’s simulacrum within the novel — and Frimbo, a brilliant, highly-educated man who makes his living as a fortune teller.
Easily and quickly they began to talk with that quick intellectual recognition which characterizes similarly reflective minds. Dr. Archer’s apprehensions faded away and shortly he and his host were eagerly embarked on discussions that at once made them old friends: the hopelessness of applying physico-chemical methods to psychological problems; the nature of matter and mind and the possible relations between them; the current researches of physics, in which matter apparently vanished into energy, and Frimbo’s own hypothesis that probably the mind did likewise. Time sped. At the end of an hour Frimbo was saying:
“But as long as this mental energy remains mental, it cannot be demonstrated. It is like potential energy — to be appreciated it must be transformed into heat, light, motion — some form that can be grasped and measured. Still, by assuming its existence, just as we do that of potential energy, we harmonize psychology with mechanistic science.”
“You astonish me,” said the doctor. “I thought you were a mystic, not a mechanist.”
“This,” returned Frimbo, “is mysticism — an undemonstrable belief. Pure faith in anything is mysticism. Our very faith in reason is a kind of mysticism.”
If you like mysteries, you’d be well-served reading this novel.
And so, when I reached the end of the book, I expected to find a few pages with a catalog of other mystery novels. Instead, there was a list that began, “BLACK HISTORY: Other Books of Interest. Individual titles in Series I, II, and III of the Amo Press collection THE AMERICAN NEGRO: HIS HISTORY AND LITERATURE are listed in the following pages.” The selections were almost all academic history books, things like Modern Negro Art and Religion in Higher Education Among Negros (to choose only those two titles that bracket the page on which The Conjure-Man Dies is listed.)
Methinks this listing is not the way for The Conjure-Man Dies to find its audience. Which I could elaborate upon, but, as it happens, I don’t need to. Percival Everett, in his novel Erasure, explained this better than I could:
While Lisa wandered off to the garden book section, I stood in the middle of Border’s thinking how much I hated the chain and chains like it. I’d talked to too many owners of little, real bookstores who were being driven to the poorhouse by what they called the WalMart of books. I decided to see if the store had any of my books, firm in my belief that even if they did, my opinion about them would be unchanged. I went to Literature and did not see me. I went to Contemporary Fiction and did not find me, but when I fell back a couple of steps I found a section called African American Studies and there, arranged alphabetically and neatly, read undisturbed, were four of my books including my Persians of which the only thing ostensibly African American was my jacket photograph. I became quickly irate, my pulse speeding up, my brow furrowing. Someone interested in African American Studies would have little interest in my books and would be confused by their presence in the section. Someone looking for an obscure reworking of a Greek tragedy would not consider looking in that section any more than the gardening section. The result in either case, no sale. That fucking store was taking food from my table.
Saying something to the poor clone of a manager was not going to fix anything, so I resigned to keep quiet.
I learned about Erasure from Parul Sehgal’s lovely essay in the New York Times Magazine. Erasure is a satirical novel about an ambitious black writer who struggles to have his work taken seriously — he’s losing his struggle, though, because, although his work is good, his writing does not match what people expect from someone with his skin tone. From the opening pages:
While in college I was a member of the Black Panther Party, defunct as it was, mainly because I felt I had to prove I was black enough. Some people in the society in which I live, described as being black, tell me I am not black enough. Some people whom the society calls white tell me the same thing. I have heard this mainly about my novels, from editors who have rejected me and reviewers whom I have apparently confused and, on a couple of occasions, on a basketball court when upon missing a shot I muttered Egads. From a reviewer:
The novel is finely crafted, with fully developed characters, rich language and subtle play with the plot, but one is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience.
One night at a party in New York, one of the tedious affairs where people who write mingle with people who want to write and with people who could help either group begin or continue to write, a tall, thin, rather ugly book agent told me I could sell many books if I’d forget about writing retellings of Euripides and parodies of French poststructuralists and settle down to write the true, gritty stories of black life. I told him that I was living a black life, far blacker than he could ever know, that I had lived one, that I would be living one. He left me to chat with an on-the-rise perfomance artist / novelist who had recently posed for seventeen straight hours in front of the governor’s mansion as a lawn jockey. He familiarly flipped one of her braided extensions and tossed a thumb back in my direction.
The hard, gritty truth of the matter is that I hardly ever think about race. Those times when I did think about it a lot I did so because of my guilt for not thinking about it. I don’t believe in race. I believe there are people who will shoot me or hang me or cheat me and try to stop me because they do believe in race, because of my brown skin, curly hair, wide nose and slave ancestors. But that’s just the way it is.
Sehgal has written several excellent essays about the phenomenon of erasure, or silenced voices, recently. Two paragraphs from her essay on the student protests at elite universities cut deep.
In Tablet, James Kirchick wrote, “When I hear, in 2015, students complain about feeling ‘marginalized’ at Yale due to their racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, or any other identity … I can’t help but think of James Meredith.” In 1962, flanked by federal marshals, Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi.
“When I see photographs of Meredith and other black students of the civil rights era,” Kirchick wrote, “I don’t see people pleading for dean’s excuses so they can huddle in a ‘safe space’ to recover from ‘traumatic racial events.’ I see unbelievably courageous young men and women.”
Of course, it’s one thing to look at a photograph of James Meredith and concoct a fantasy of his bravery and resilience — a photograph is silent; it cannot clarify or correct. To listen to James Meredith is a different thing entirely. “Ole Miss kicked my butt, and they’re still celebrating,” he said in an interview with Esquire in 2012. “Because every black that’s gone there since me has been insulted, humiliated, and they can’t even tell their story. Everybody has to tell James Meredith’s story — which is a lie. The powers that be in Mississippi understand this very clearly.” He continued, “They’re gonna keep on doin’ it because it makes it impossible for blacks there now to say anything about what’s happened to them.”
What a masterful reversal of logic.
Passages like this hurt so much for me to read because I, too, tacitly assented to our systematic silencing of minority voices for many years. During my twenty-some years of formal education, I hardly ever read the work of black authors, learned almost nothing about African-American history except than the usual narrative about how Martin Luther King, Jr. strove mightily and was sacrificed but everything is all better now. Which is, it seems, not exactly correct.
Indeed, even when I began to learn more history and investigate silenced voices for my own work, I came at the problem through mythology. Canonical texts typically related only one side of stories, and even then include only the voices of a privileged few; the lives of others are submerged by time. Even in epic poetry like The Iliad, the cares and concerns of women disappear: Helen, for instance, is used as a mouthpiece for male sentiment. After leaving her rampantly-unfaithful husband for a more charming lover, she says (in the Stephen Mitchell translation):
“But come in, dear brother-in-law,
sit down on this chair and rest yourself for a while,
since the burden falls upon you more than the others,
through my fault, bitch that I am, and through Paris’s folly.
Zeus has brought us an evil fate, so that poets
can make songs about us for all future generations.”
Really, Homer? “Bitch that I am?” I’m well aware that many women who leave violent, abusive husbands suffer self-recriminations for years, but this strikes me as a decidedly male sentiment, as though the “face that launch’d a thousand ships” were really the inanimate wood of a ventriloquist’s dummy.
Until Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, women seem similarly silenced in American history. Until Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, women & the low-caste seem to have been silenced from Hinduism. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no similar corrective to Christianity, at least not one that has seeped into the popular consciousness.
This phenomenon is part of what drew me to the Ramayana. This myth burbles with unheard stories at the periphery of the main narrative. Through the years, numerous writers have attempted to bring these admurmerations to the fore, but their work has been similarly neglected. From an essay by Nabaneeta Dev Sen,
Similarly, Candravati Ramayana [composed circa 1600] has been neglected and rejected for years by our male custodians of Bengali literature as an incomplete work. This is what we call a silenced text. The editors decided it was a poor literary work because it was a Ramayana that did not sing of Rama. Its eccentricity confused not only the editors but also historians of Bengali literature to such an extent that they could not even see the complete epic narrative pattern clearly visible in it. It got stamped as an incomplete text. Today, a rereading of the narrative exposes an obvious failure of the male critics and historians: to recognize Candravati Ramayana as a personal interpretation of the Rama-tale, seen specifically from the wronged woman’s point of view.
And, linking the Ramayana with the issues described at the beginning of this post, the villainized dark-skinned king’s side of the story is never told. I’ve been enamored with the peripheral stories in the Ramayana ever since learning of the Dravida Kazhagam interpretation, which recasts the dark-skinned villain as a hero and the entire narrative as a tragedy.
To put this into perspective for someone from the United States, this is akin to a retelling of the Bible in which God is a tyrannical oppressor and Satan the tragic hero (and, to differentiate this hypothetical work from Paradise Lost, Satan would have to think of himself & his efforts to enlighten humanity as fundamentally good). To wit: a radical, and oft-denounced, retelling.
What with recasting the erudite, beleaguered dark-skinned man as a hero, you could reasonably draw parallels between the DK Ramayana and, say, the upcoming Nat Turner film. The struggles of a man rebelling against the invention of “race” in the United States.
Why, after all, should the presence of more melanin in someone’s skin curtail opportunities? Which is yet another idea presented beautifully in The Conjure-Man Dies. Here, I’ll end this post with one last quotation, again drawn from the conversation between the sleuthing doctor and the fortune teller (who was presumed to have died, but somehow returned to life to investigate his own murder):
“I had really intended to discuss the mystery of this assault,” the doctor declared. “Perhaps we can do that tomorrow?”
“Mystery? That is no mystery. It is a problem in logic, and perfectly calculable. I have one or two short-cuts which I shall apply tomorrow night, of course, merely to save time. But genuine mystery is incalculable. It is all around us — we look upon it every day and do not wonder at it at all. We are fools, my friend. We grow excited over a ripple, but exhibit no curiosity over the depth of the stream. The profoundest mysteries are those things which we blandly accept without question. See. You are almost white. I am almost black. Find out why, and you will have solved a mystery.”
“You don’t think the causes of a mere death a worthy problem?”
“The causes of a death? No. The causes of death, yes. The causes of life and death and variation, yes. But what on earth does it matter who killed Frimbo — except to Frimbo?”
They stood a moment in silence. Presently Frimbo added in an almost bitter murmur:
“The rest of the world would do better to concern itself with why Frimbo was black.”