The question is not Who stole Black pulp fiction, but Who owned and profited from it.
“Social movement and popular culture are not the same thing.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Kinohi Nishikawa.Nishikawa is Assistant Professor of English and African American studies at Princeton University.His book is Street Players: Black Pulp Fiction and the Making of a Literary Underground.
Roberto Sirvent:How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Kinohi Nishikawa: Street Players lends historical perspective and conceptual depth to current debates about cultural appropriation. Those debates often get caught up in determining who has the “right” to claim a cultural representation or practice. Adjudication takes place in the theater of social media, and while thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people weigh in on any given dust-up, their opinions tend to congeal around two positions: culture is identity, and neither is available for appropriation, and culture is hybridity, so all culture is appropriation.
My book illuminates why both positions are insufficient. It takes us back to an era, the late 1960s and early 1970s, when appropriation was not only the standard practice of white culture producers but proudly avowed as such. In that milieu, Street Players tracks how a cultural commodity,black pulp fiction, originated out of prurient white interest in the racial “Other”yet came to be embraced by urban, working-class African Americans as a literature they could call their own. Today we recognize black pulp fiction’s two standout authors, Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, as icons of street culture and major influences on the development of rap and hip-hop. The upshot is that this entire transition was facilitated by the same white-owned publisher, Los Angeles’s Holloway House, that had subjected black urban life to the white gaze in the first place.
“Black pulp fiction originated out of prurient white interest in the racial ‘Other.’”
The book is clear-sighted about the symbolic and material exploitation subtending the production of black pulp fiction: just because culture is hybrid doesn’t exempt us from discussing the power differentials that produce it.Yet the book is equally committed to destabilizing presumptive links between identity and culture. African American interest in black pulp fiction had to be made (it was not a foregone conclusion), and in that process of making we discover further power differentials, particularly those concerning gender and sexuality. Street Players thus helps us see how contemporary debates must inquire into the profit motive not only of appropriation but of identification—that is, when identity is assumed to cohere with culture.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
The rise of black pulp fiction coincided with the flourishing of Black Arts, yet the movement’s participants were justifiably circumspect about Holloway House’s authors, and Iceberg Slim in particular. It wasn’t a matter of the elite looking down on the masses, or of the avant-garde distinguishing itself from ordinary tastes. The movement’s effort to intertwine arts programs with community activism exploded such divisions. No, Black Arts was wary of this insurgent popular literature because it understood early on that white owners called the shots, meaning that Holloway House inevitably presented a skewed, if not distorted, vision of black urban life. The movement would level similar (and today better-known) critiques against blaxploitation movies in the early 1970s, but Street Players shows that these in fact had been rehearsed the previous decade when it came to the rise of black pulp fiction.
“Black Arts was wary of this insurgent popular literature.”
Even at the height of its popularity among African American readers, black pulp fiction was subjected to racist and sexist directives in editorial, production, and marketing. In presenting evidence for such exploitation, Street Players suggests that white ownership and control over black pulp fiction never ceased to determine how it would be read and received. The takeaway from this, I hope, is a fundamental Black Arts principle: valuing black self-determination in all facets of life, including owning and operating community-oriented presses, journals, and magazines. Street Players makes a fairly good case, I would like to think, for seizing the means of production from those who have little to no accountability to the community itself.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I’ve observed a tendency in critical discourse to conflate mass social movement with African American popular culture—that is, what the masses are reading, watching, listening to, and thinking about. The appeal is understandable: it can be incredibly gratifying to see one’s political ideals manifested or reflected in representations that are consumed by millions of people. Indeed, my interest in black pulp fiction stemmed in part from reading Robin D. G. Kelley’s take on the political meaning of Iceberg Slim for the black working class in his classic 1994 study Race Rebels. (The idea being that Slim’s books held up a mirror to the reality of racial inequality in postindustrial America.)
By contrast, Street Players time and again demonstrates how social movement and popular culture are not the same thing. Part of the reason comes back to the profit motive: Holloway House’s ownership did what made financial sense for them, not for the community. But the other part has to do with the nature of popular culture itself. There’s nothing inherently progressive (much less Left!) about “the popular,” even among communities of color. Street Players explains that black pulp fiction was, by definition, formulaic, and as such, recycled scenarios, plotlines, and character types that were more aligned with the go-it-alone moral universe of, say, the crime boss or action-adventure hero than the community organizer or social activist. (Put in analogous terms: think Denzel as Frank Lucas, from 2007’s American Gangster, rather than Denzel as Malcolm X, from 1992’s Malcolm X.) In emphasizing black pulp fiction’s distance from radical politics, my book highlights the need to be more precise about mass social movement’s cultural conditions of possibility.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
My work as a book historian is greatly influenced by a long tradition of black bibliophiles and bibliographers who have understood their collecting to not only lay the foundations for African American historiography but demonstrate the humanity of black people in the face of white-supremacist denials of their history. Among these figures, I’ve been particularly inspired by Arturo Alfonso (Arthur) Schomburg, Dorothy B. Porter Wesley, Charles L. Blockson, Donald Franklin Joyce, and Kathleen E. Bethel.
As a book historian, I’m invested in synthesizing bibliographic data with broad social, political, and cultural trends. The hope is that my analysis yields a compelling story to tell. In this light, my work is also greatly influenced by scholars—historians, biographers, cultural critics—whose key insights emerge out of the art of telling a story over several chapters (rather than saying everything of import in the introduction and leaving the rest as optional or interest-specific reading). Among these, I’ve loved reading the work of Arnold Rampersad, Lawrence P. Jackson, Jacqueline Goldsby, and my colleagues Tera Hunter and Imani Perry cover to cover.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
For decades the story of Holloway House has been obscured by what I consider romanticized assessments of its standout authors. By contrast, Street Players takes a broadly historical and sociological approach to the market for black pulp fiction and thereby complicates what it means (and has meant) to identify with the transgressive, “outlaw” ethos of some of its characters.
That ethos was still widely popular when I started conducting research for the book in the mid-2000s. Echoes of Iceberg Slim’s pimp persona could be found in everything from pornography to self-help books. A laudatory biographical documentary of Slim, co-produced by Ice-T, appeared as recently as 2012.
But so much has changed even since that time. #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and social-media protest generally have shifted the coordinates of our popular culture, calling into question what had been tacitly accepted, if not celebrated, just a few years ago. In itself, that reckoning is a good thing because it shakes us out of our complacency, demanding that we seek alternatives—popular or otherwise—for our cultural gratification. I’m not sure black pulp fiction as we know it will be part of the story that emerges out of this reckoning. But that’s OK, I think, insofar as imagining new worlds may require not only an expansive sense of what’s possible but also an acute sense of what we need to leave behind.
Roberto Sirventis Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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