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Under a Bad SignCriminal Self-Representation in African American Popular Culture$

Jonathan Munby

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780226550350

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: March 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226550374.001.0001

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Original Gangsta Culture

Original Gangsta Culture

Fortune Economy and the Criminal Mediation of Black Entry into Urban Modernity

(p.23) 1 Original Gangsta Culture
Under a Bad Sign
University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines how and why the numbers racket (or policy) became one of the most definitive features of black Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. It explains that the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance was also the golden age of the black gangster and that black gangster enterprise held powerful significance among African Americans as an emulative modern cultural practice. The chapter also considers folklorist insights about the so-called ill-logic of the black badman in relation to the struggle against racial subordination to the space and time of the city.

Keywords:   numbers racket, black Harlem, Harlem Renaissance, black gangster, modern cultural practice, black badman, racial subordination

In 1940 one of the scions of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay, reflected:

Playing numbers is the most flourishing clandestine industry in Harlem. It is the first and foremost of the rackets and the oldest. Exciting the masses' imagination to easy “hits” by the placement of tiny stakes with glittering quick returns, it squeezes Harlem in its powerful grip. To the Negro operators it is not so enormously profitable today as it was in its halcyon period, when its foundations were laid and spread with impunity, not fearing white competitors and the action of the law. At that time the operators (“kings” and “queens” as they were called) each had a turnover of a quarter of a million dollars yearly…. Through all the changes Harlemites have played the game increasingly and apparently will as long as Harlem exists. Numbers is a people's game, a community pastime in which old and young, literate and illiterate, the neediest folk and the well-to-do all participate. Harlemites seem altogether lacking in comprehension of the moral attitude of the white world toward its beloved racket.1

Understanding the role of the numbers, or “policy,” racket in black Harlem life in the 1920s and 1930s is complicated by the African American's self-knowledge of him/herself as excluded from the legitimate (white) world. The 1920s and 1930s Harlem underworld as it was represented in the period's black popular fiction and music, on the black independent screen (the subject of the next chapter), and in the form of numbers speculation on the part of Harlemites themselves, constituted (p.24) not simply an ironic emulation of white capitalist mythology (of going legit). The black urban underworld (both imagined and real) was a means to overcoming the interrelated problems of economic and cultural marginalization on the basis of racial discrimination.

The self-staging of black entry into modernity was necessarily criminal. The new urban black community found itself sequestered and denied equal access to metropolitan opportunities. In the city within the city, an alternative economy evolved that mixed gambling and superstition. A syncretic system, or “fortune economy,” that fused business acumen and magic was born out of the frustrated ambition to be recognized as urbane and enterprising citizens. Looking forward and outward (at a future modern self-image and at Wall Street from the wrong side) was serviced through recourse to putatively “backward” practices associated with both southern and African roots culture as a means to overcoming exclusion and disadvantage. As Maurice Dancer, correspondent for the premier African American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, observed on December 16, 1933, the interrelationship between gambling and faith was a conspicuous and defining characteristic of Harlem:

Gambling is the human urge to get something for nothing, or a lot for little … in Harlem nearly everybody gambles … the big gamble is policy—a word applied to the ordinary game of “numbers.” … Harlem is a community of high-lights and low-lights—of the advanced thinking Negro, the college graduate who goes quietly about his business—of domestic workers who travel downtown to cook and clean each day, returning to Harlem at night to care for their children and cheap dancehalls and poolrooms…. And every day the police records give evidence that Harlem is also a community of credulous people, in whom lurk all the superstitious beliefs of darkest Africa, with its voodooism and black magic.

The disparaging view of how black folk's credulity made them open to criminal deception probably corresponded with an African American bourgeois perspective that strove to distance itself from a premodern identity. White observers were both perplexed and concerned about the pervasiveness of the so-called black arts in Harlem. A New York Herald Tribune piece on October 16, 1927, declared: “Although there are many races to whom witchcraft is real, such as the Sicilians, who have among them persons reputed to have the evil eye, the colored population suffers most from the alleged witches of New York.” The article sees charm vending and the flourishing of witchcraft in Harlem as a kind of extortion (p.25) “racket” run by spurious “herb doctors,” “fakirs,” and “voodoo witches” capitalizing on the gullibility of their patrons. These intelligent “necromancers” are seen to originate mainly in the Deep South or West Indies—and it is proclaimed that “a deplorable feature of the situation is that educated persons are willing to take enormous sums from the wage earners for worthless drugs and charms.”2

While such observations certainly identified the exploitative side of Harlem's fortune economy, they also betray a lack of understanding about the context in which people would make themselves “victims” of such charlatanry. As McKay highlights, Harlem's hoi polloi live in a world where white and bourgeois moral judgment is inappropriate. The New York Herald Tribune article inadvertently provides answers to how and why the proclivity for lottery and witchcraft remains unabated despite the chicanery of necromancers. A list of herbal remedies is provided, each of which is designed to protect an individual against local instances of bad luck or ill health. “High John,” “Adam and Eve,” and “John the Conqueror” are best in fending off evil, while “love philters,” also known as “Keep 'Em Powders,” are sold to those trying to keep their lovers faithful. As idiosyncratic as these potions appear, their consumption reflects the understandable concerns of a segregated and oppressed community for good health, family stability, and financial security—a collective desire for a better fortune in the widest sense.

In a sense, then, the confused view on gambling and voodoo as popular Harlem cultural practices plays out the contradictions definitive of the higher artistic engagements associated with the Harlem Renaissance. The writers and artists in this movement dramatized the problem of reconciling modern desires with folkloric traditions; of demonstrating mastery of white aesthetic codes, on the one hand, while trying to retain a distinctively black heritage, on the other. Given that this first black arts movement depended in large part on appealing to white patrons, it also ran the additional risk of confirming rather than dismantling stereotypes—especially when it came to primitivist expression. The appeal of this particular notion of “black” in the context of urban-industrial transformation lay in it appearing as an exotic antidote to the ailments of overcivilization. Yet this aesthetic construction of black culture ran counter to the more modern possibilities the city held out for African Americans.

For migrating black Americans in the 1920s, coming to New York constituted arrival at the heart of the United States' most dynamic metropolis. New York offered a chance for a black American to be something (p.26) other than an ex-slave. A heady mix of propagandistic and anecdotal appeals by northern African Americans (through intellectual-literary vehicles such as Crisis and word-of-mouth dissemination by the retinue of black Pullman porters who manned the trains) were sent down South proclaiming the move North as a chance for self-advancement and full and proper integration. New York was sold and perceived as a destination of choice for the black community. Unlike the original black arrival on the North American continent as slaves and bonded laborers, the migration to the northern city was a product of manumission. That the freedom to engage in wage labor and exercise a degree of self-determination was a promise deferred and frustrated through the imposition of Jim Crow segregationist policies in the South only increased the mythic appeal of the North as a place of salvation. As LeRoi Jones highlighted in Blues People, going to the northern city constituted a vital opportunity for the black community to “begin again” as “would-be Americans” with a chance “to make the American dream work, if it were going to.”3 And of all the urban destinations, it was Harlem that held the most powerful place in the black imagination.

Here in Harlem was gathering a mixed black community, not simply of removed southerners but of long-established northern blacks and West Indians. The mixed cultural heritage of these diverse groups enabled a cross-fertilization of traditions and a rich engagement with the terms and prospect of African American transformation, economically, politically, and culturally. Variously imagined as “home” (Home to Harlem, Claude McKay), “heaven” (Nigger Heaven, Carl Van Vechten), “city of refuge” and “promised land” (Rudolph Fisher), Harlem's site in the midst of Manhattan placed its black denizens in a dynamically contradictory relationship to the wider white culture and its priorities. An urban version of Jim Crow continued to delimit black opportunity in all major American cities, and New York was no exception. White racist real estate practices and mortgage redlining dictated that black folk were forced to live in segregated areas, while similarly prejudicial employment practices also set severe limits on the kind of work black Americans could expect and in which they could succeed.

These problems notwithstanding, the Harlem of the decade and a half following World War I was celebrated in its day as a place of African American rebirth—and it is also canonically remembered as such. Harlem in the 1920s was a gathering point for a growing class of black intellectuals, artists, and activists who fueled the growth of organized black political movements, most notably the National Association for the Advancement (p.27) of Colored People (NAACP), with W. E. B. Du Bois at its helm and Crisis as its official mouthpiece; the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), led by the charismatic Marcus Garvey; and the National Urban League, with Opportunity as its journal, edited by Charles S. Johnson. Self-styled New Negroes proudly proclaimed black America's political and cultural arrival and demanded that the wider society take note of its black membership and finally deliver on promises of equal rights and representation. This belated flowering of blackled organization and movement prospered until the Wall Street crash of 1929—and wilted with the onset of the Great Depression. As a rare and prodigious moment of coordinated black assertion, especially in the arts, the Harlem Renaissance has assumed its rightful place as a key object of study, not only within the field of black studies but also U.S. history and culture more generally.

Most critical attention has been devoted to the analysis of the Harlem Renaissance and its internal contradictions, especially as a Janusfaced cultural movement putatively compromised by white patronage, on the one hand, and an essentialist notion of “Negritude,” on the other. The contemporaneous antagonisms within the African American intellectual and artistic community illuminate the complex richness as well as the problems involved in the generation of an adequate black self-image at the time. Ideas of roots in “Africa” and “the folk” were pitted against ideas about a more urbane and cosmopolitan identity. The tension between a desire to assert a sense of black independence and autonomy and the desire to appeal across the color line was at the heart of the movement.

In the context of quite polarizing ideas, to focus on popular and folkloric cultural practice risked an array of criticisms. One could be accused of feeding a counterproductive exotic primitivist image. Behind the mask of a campaign to celebrate a non-Western notion of identity and tradition was the problem of white reception and the ironic further separation of black from white at a time when the New Negro was seeking full equality and acceptance as an American regardless of racial difference. Du Bois, for example, was to become increasingly dissatisfied with the way Harlem Renaissance writers and artists perpetuated strong differences between “high” European tradition and what he regarded as a retrogressive notion of black folk.

Central to this problem was the popularity of a white author's controversial vision of Harlem. Through the story of a relationship between two young African Americans (a demure librarian and aspiring writer) (p.28) tragically compromised by racism, Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven (1926) introduced readers to a comprehensive Harlem world of jazz clubs, speakeasies, numbers racketeers, coffee-drinking intellectuals debating racism, and elites arguing over art. While some black artists and intellectuals appreciated Van Vechten's work as heralding new possibilities for black writing, others were outraged by the book's promulgation of depraved stereotypes. Du Bois took the lead in castigating Van Vechten in a review for Crisis: “To him there are no depths…. It is the surface mud he slops about in…. Life to him is just one damned orgy after another, with hate, hurt, gin and sadism.”4 While Du Bois could attribute some of Van Vechten's sins to the fact that he was a Caucasian looking in on black Harlem, McKay had no such alibi. How could a black writer produce work that seemed to follow the misguided path of Nigger Heaven? Du Bois would pronounce that “Home to Harlem … for the most part nauseates me, and after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath.” He went on to suggest that McKay had “set out to cater for the prurient demand on the part of white folk.”5 In his lambasting of Van Vechten and McKay, Du Bois expressed his fear that these writers promoted a new form of minstrelsy that pandered to white fantasies of African Americans as exotic “others” undermining efforts to conjoin metropolitan African Americans with progressive (revolutionary) political crusades at home and abroad.

On different political terms, George Schuyler, an avowed proponent of assimilation, wrote a famous polemic against “a great renaissance of Negro art” for The Nation in June 1926. Titled “The Negro-Art Hokum,” the essay argued: “Negro art ‘made in America’ is as non-existent as the widely advertised profundity of Cal Coolidge…. Negro art there has been, is and will be among the numerous black nations of Africa; but to suggest the possibility of any such development among the ten million colored people of this nation is self-evident foolishness.”6 Schuyler is particularly sensitive to the fact that any reinforcement of racial difference in America risked sanctioning white supremacist notions of racial hierarchy that naturalized black as inferior to white:

Because a few writers with a paucity of themes have seized upon imbecilities of the Negro rustics and clowns and palmed them off as authentic and characteristic Aframerican behavior, the common notion that the black American is so “different” from his white neighbor has gained currency. The mere mention of the word “Negro” conjures up in the average white American's mind a composite stereotype of Bert (p.29) Williams, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, Jack Johnson, Florian Slappey, and the variant monstrosities scrawled by the cartoonists.7

According to Schuyler, black artists in America would do well to imitate their brethren in other nations by contributing to rather than deviating from the “national norm” and make the issue of color “incidental.” Otherwise the African American artist helped to legitimate a core “Negrophobist” premise: “that the blackamoor is inferior and fundamentally different” because that premise depends on “the postulate that he must needs be peculiar; and when he attempts to portray life through the medium of art, it must of necessity be a peculiar art.”8

An immediate response to Schuyler's scathing rejection came from Langston Hughes in the following week's edition of The Nation. In “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes put forward a compelling counterargument. The particular history of African Americans should not be jettisoned because it fed an inferiority complex. Rather, black artists were responsible for turning a history of disadvantage into something generative. A distinctive black aesthetic could overcome shame and give dignity to such a past when honed from the creative responses to the deracinating and sequestering experiences of removal from Africa, slavery, and Jim Crow:

Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing the Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing “Water Boy” and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem … cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty.9

While Hughes set himself up in an antagonistic relation to Schuyler in advancing a notion of black pride, he did so in order to show how cultural practices tied to a racially distinct experience could be part of a modern and modernizing world. He continually emphasized how drawing on black expressive traditions brings something new into being. His championing of jazz in particular is significant as a form that looks backward and forward simultaneously.

The fact that black success was signaled through an engagement with and creative innovation within the sanctioned “high” cultural arenas of orchestrated music, painting, dance, theater, and literature has tended to obfuscate the other ways in which 1920s and 1930s Harlem constituted (p.30) a black means of mediating entry into modernity. While members of Harlem's literati such as Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, and McKay turned toward vernacular forms and traditions for inspiration, they transformed these into modernist works of art. While the Harlem Renaissance's deliberate appeal to an Arnoldian notion of culture and cultural production was politically prescient as a means to countering white racist understandings of black as inferior, the intellectual valorization of 1920s and 1930s Harlem as a site of aesthetic rebirth has delimited the study and understanding of its popular cultural practices in quite rigid and problematic ways. Street and folk customs have been accorded a relegated status as material for either aesthetic bowdlerization or moral uplift. Indeed, in the case of the development of urban sociology, most seminally in the work of Gunnar Myrdal, the quotidian practices of the black lower class have been held up as evidence of that community's pathological condition.

As Henry Louis Gates Jr. points out:

What does seem curious about the Harlem Renaissance is that its creation occurred precisely as Harlem was turning into the great American slum. The death rate in Harlem was 42 per cent higher than in other parts of the city. The infant mortality rate in 1928 was twice as high in Harlem as it was in the rest of New York…. The unemployment rate, according the Adam Clayton Powell Jr., was 50 per cent. There was no way to romanticize these conditions.10

While Gates sees a contradiction between the harsh socioeconomic realties of Harlem and the work and aims of the first black arts movement, his observation does not invite us to look more closely at the culture of the black urban poor on terms that would counter pathological interpretation. And this seems indicative of the way the Harlem Renaissance has been positioned as a romantic movement, capable of turning the uglier prosaic features of a history of disenfranchisement and the squalor of a new urban world into something sublime or transcendent. The legacy of this framing and conceptualization has been a problematic prioritization of who is worth remembering as central to the movement and what works by those remembered are worth canonizing. As a corrective, and to help resuscitate a repressed understanding of what it meant in the early twentieth century to be both black and metropolitan, this chapter is devoted in part to looking at a forgotten Harlem Renaissance author, Rudolph Fisher, and an overlooked work, Harlem: A Negro Metropolis, by a celebrated writer, Claude McKay.

(p.31) Fortune Economy: Rudolph Fisher's Literary Illogics

Until recently very little attention has been given to Rudolph Fisher—a significant figure in black literary circles in the late 1920s and early 1930s (who as we can see from Hughes's contention in the excerpt above ranked alongside Paul Robeson and Bessie Smith as a vital representative of “new” black possibilities at the time). Fisher died young and consequently, perhaps, his full literary potential was not realized. Yet at the time of his death at the age of thirty-seven in 1934, he had already written fifteen short stories, two novels, a number of journalistic articles, and had made strides as a roentgenologist (which tragically also led to him developing intestinal cancer as a result of exposure to X-ray radiation). Very much a “renaissance man,” Fisher was well-known and admired in his day as one of the most talented New Negroes. Accounting for his surprising absence from the record since, Maria Balshaw explains that “the lack of a collection of his stories before his death meant that for a long period his stories were unavailable to anyone but those willing to trawl through the archives of the magazines which originally published his work.”11 The consequence of such difficulty in locating his shorter work and the indifference to his novels going out of print has meant that Fisher has been left out of the history of the Harlem Renaissance. The work of John McCluskey Jr. in assembling Fisher's short stories for the first time as a collection in the late 1980s has helped to remedy this problem—sparking interest in republishing both of his novels in the 1990s.12

Stephen F. Soitos describes Fisher as the writer who set “new standards for applying detective story conventions to African American concerns.”13 As a writer who, according to Arna Bontemps, “gave us pictures of ordinary workaday blacks who were largely neglected by other Renaissance writers,” Fisher worked both with and against the grain of his New Negro peers.14 In providing a rich view of Harlem's class structure and in experimenting with a popular form, detective fiction, he would be difficult to categorize—something that probably contributed to his subsequent neglect by those charged with anthologizing the Renaissance canon. We now place Fisher as part of a tradition in black detective fiction, as “a key antecedent to those later writers like Chester Himes and Ishmael Reed who deal with key Fisher themes of crime, detection, the black inner city and popular culture.”15

Fisher's two novels represent related but different approaches to African American urbanity. The Walls of Jericho (1928) reads like a roman à clef playing out the key dichotomies of 1920s Harlem. The “dicties” (p.32) (members of Harlem's social elite) rub up against the “rats” (lower class) in a story that satirizes white patronage of African American causes and the color prejudice internal to the black community itself. Issues of skin tone and language interweave, as the bowdlerized and arch language of the “fay” “dickty” striver clashes with the fecund slang and “bump-the-bump” dance moves of the “eight-ball” “jiver” “rat.” A series of social vignettes is held together by two stories. A romance develops between Shine (a dark-skinned removal man) and Linda (a beautiful “Sheba” and “kitchen mechanic” [maid])—both of whom are employed by a black lawyer, Merrit, who can “pass” for Caucasian and sets out to break Manhattan's racist segregation practices by moving into a white neighborhood. Two jester-cum-chorus figures, Bubber and Jinx, surface at various moments, providing comic relief in espousing folkloric wisdom from the wings on events center stage in pure “Harlemese” street talk (Fisher is kind enough to provide a glossary of “contemporary Harlemese” at the end of the novel).

The Walls of Jericho could be described as an exercise in Harlem sociology from an insider perspective—one that refuses to be co-opted to the rationale of an objective and external scientific gaze (which is itself subject to parody in the form of Miss Cramp—a prejudicial white onlooker and patron of the Harlem scene). Fisher is keen to deal with the mediating force of language and cultural difference in everyday Harlem life through the discourse of Harlemites themselves. The consequent intermixing of high and low cultural practices poses questions about what kind of literary production is adequate to African American urbanity. And such questions receive their most sustained philosophical interrogation in Fisher's second novel, The Conjure Man Dies (1932).

Subtitled A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem, The Conjure Man Dies features a clash between scientific rationality and African spiritualism. Frimbo, the conjurer “psychist,” is an African king involved in fortune-telling and the purveying of various elixirs to Harlemites wishing to improve their luck. At the outset of the novel, Frimbo is discovered dead by Bubber Brown and Jinx Jenkins (the clowns from Walls of Jericho) at his conjure table in his apartment above Samuel Crouch's mortuary. Bubber dashes across the street to fetch Dr. Archer. Spatially, the world of the psychist faces that of the physician—the houses of fortune-telling and medical science on different sides of the same street. This configuration is further complicated by the location of the first scene of investigation, the undertaker's parlor. Here Dr. Archer examines the body and confirms that Frimbo is dead. Yet in a further twist, while Archer and (p.33) his friend Detective Perry Dart (the only black Harlem policeman with a rank above patrolman) are searching for clues in Frimbo's apartment, the corpse disappears. In his struggle to solve the crime, Archer provides an unwitting premonition when he muses: “Some day I'm going to write a murder mystery … that will baffle and astound the world. The murderer will turn out to be the most likely suspect.”16 Shortly afterward Frimbo dramatically reappears, returned from the dead. The site of embalming transforms into one of regeneration. A philosophical duel evolves between the undead African conjure man and the physician and the reasoning sleuth. The skills of Western medical science and deductive logic are pitted against Frimbo's more mysterious powers of divination in the mutual quest to find out who killed Frimbo.

This seemingly illogical premise is played out against the backdrop of Frimbo's clients and possible enemies, all of whom are involved in some form of fortune economy or are seeking solace in superstition. It emerges that Frimbo has a particular gift in being able to predict number combinations and has been winning big from a major policy racketeer, Si Brandon—something that has put his runner, Spider Webb, under suspicion. That we later discover Frimbo's gift to be quite scientific (he has been able to work out lucky numbers through a complex mathematical formula) does nothing to dispel the way Fisher opens up Harlem as a place where issues of occult divination and scientific rationality cannot be polarized. Indeed, the simplistic opposition of Western logic and African spiritualism is subject to deconstruction very early in the novel.

In their initial investigation of the murder scene, Archer and Dart come across Frimbo's study. To the declaration, “This man was no ordinary fakir,” Archer draws attention to Frimbo's framed Harvard bachelor's degree certificate. Such documentation of Frimbo's provenance clearly questions the easy syllogism that fakir equals faker. In the process the basis of deductive procedure is also put into doubt. Archer browses the bookshelf, noting titles concerned with determinism, such as Tankard's Determinism and Fatalism: A Critical Contrast, Bostwick's The Concept of Inevitability, Preem's Cause and Effect, Dessault's The Science of History, and Fairclough's The Philosophical Basis of Destiny (16–17). Confronted by the limits of his own either/or logic, Archer later articulates his sense of confusion over Frimbo: “a student of philosophy and a sorcerer. There's something wrong with that picture” (93). The book titles betray an apposite obsession for both scientist and conjurer with the problem of deterministic logic.

The difference between Frimbo and the doctor-detective duo is that (p.34) he is capable of inhabiting the worlds of science and superstition simultaneously. In an unreflecting manner Dart pronounces on the “African-ness” of N'Gana Frimbo's name: “This sounds definitely African to me. Lots of them have that ‘N’ in their names. The ‘Frimbo’ suggests it too—mumbo—jumbo—sambo.” To which Archer adds in a more contemplative manner, “Limbo” (16). That Fisher calls his doctor and detective protagonists Archer and Dart is clearly part of this name game. The unidirectional (and connected) connotation of the words archer and dart betrays a single-minded and unquestioning commitment to the principles of medical diagnosis and scientific reasoning (including the blindness on Dart's part to the import of his own name). Dart's metonymic linking of “Frimbo” to “mumbo—jumbo—sambo” exposes the degree to which apparently objective explication is highly pejorative. Archer arrests this tendency with the interjection “limbo” because unlike Dart he is prepared to question the certainties of deductive procedure. Before Frimbo “done done a Lazarus” (102), as Bubber Brown puts it, Archer is already ill at ease, stating, “I've a very uncomfortable feeling that something is wrong…. I mean something in the way we've been reasoning. It's so easy to ignore the obvious” (95).

Indeed, the relationship between Archer and Frimbo is itself determined by conversations about reason. Frimbo pronounces that “our very faith in reason is a kind of mysticism” (128). His ability to state “a mystic paradox in terms of level reason” (103) is integral to a rhetorical game designed in part to throw the doctor and detective off course. We find out that he has resorted to a degree of dissembling in order to carry out a vital African burial duty. To protect Frimbo from possible assault by enemies, his servant had been posing as the conjure man. Mistaken for Frimbo, the servant and fellow tribe member had been killed. As his king and brethren, Frimbo was obliged to carry out a cremation within three days of the homicide in order to guarantee the man's afterlife. For this ritual to take place, the corpse had to be protected from police procurement and lengthy autopsy. While such logic may explain the dead man's disappearance and resurrection, it does not undermine or explain Frimbo's commitment to mystical custom. In this sense Fisher reinforces a mystical paradox even as he shows the conjure man to be a man of considerable reason.

Archer's discomfort with Frimbo's Africanness encourages him to diagnose the conjure man's behavior as abnormal. When Frimbo describes the “rite of the gonad” to him, for example, he rationalizes its strangeness as the product of individual psychological delusion rather (p.35) than a valid cultural practice. To Frimbo, testicular extract is a form of “germplasm” that preserves “the unbroken heritage of the past.” The jars of sex glands in his study contain

the only vital matter which goes back in a continuous line to the remotest origins of the organism. It is therefore the only matter which brings into the present every influence which the past has imprinted upon life. It is the epitome of the past. He who can learn its use can be a master of his past. And he who can master his past, that man is free. (159)

Archer reduces such ideas to paranoid desires to counter determinism whose side effect in this case would lead to Frimbo becoming addicted and “oversexed” (172).17

To Frimbo, however, law and lore are not to be bifurcated. The world of the conjurer is one where it is possible that “a gentleman … turns out to be one of the suspects in his own murder case” (125). And in such a world, the rational can be exposed to its own contradictions. As he describes to Archer:

You are working with a common assumption that any creature who is alive cannot have been dead. This is pure assumption. If a body which has presented all the aspects of death, resumes the functions of life, we explain the whole thing away merely by saying, “He was not dead.” We thus repudiate all our own criteria of death. (108)

Frimbo's primary challenge is to overcome determinism—something that for the most part seems to be a quite arcane metaphysical indulgence. Archer, however, diagnoses Frimbo as suffering from paranoid delusions of grandeur, the consequence of his feeling the victim of racial prejudice. Frimbo had told him that his skin color had made it difficult to get into college in America. Dart interjects, stating, “Where's the delusion in that?” (152). Using pure deductive reason, Archer dismisses any argument made on the basis of racism:

The delusion in that is that plenty of students the same color, but with more satisfactory formal preparation, have no such difficulty. Also that plenty the same color with unsatisfactory preparation don't draw the same conclusion. And also that plenty without his generous inheritance of pigment and with unsatisfactory preparation have the same difficulty and don't draw the same conclusion. (152–53)

In spite of Dart's further objection (“Call it a delusion if you want to…”), Archer then concludes that one delusion necessarily demands a (p.36) compensatory further delusion, summarizing Frimbo's logic as follows: “Well, since I'm so persecuted, I must be a great guy” (153).

Archer's confidence in his own methods is challenged, however, in a critical exchange with Frimbo over the very value of deductive reason in a world where the illogical force of racism holds sway. On the occasion of this meeting, Archer states, “I had really intended to discuss the mystery of this assault…,” to which Frimbo responds:

Mystery? That is no mystery. It is a problem in logic, and perfectly calculable … genuine mystery is incalculable … 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.

… what on earth does it matter who killed Frimbo, except to Frimbo? … The rest of the world would do better to concern itself with why Frimbo was black. (136)

The solving of the crime is a distraction or red herring (as is the diagnostic rationale used toward this end). The genuine mystery is the problem of the color line. Fisher thus confronts the logic informing Western metaphysics with the absurdity of race prejudice. In doing so, that which appears irrational and delusional (the rite of the gonad, masquerade, conjuring, fortune-telling, gambling) can no longer be dismissed as such. The witch doctor's quest to conquer the odds can be read not so much as a pathological response to white racism but as an apposite means to self-determination. In pitting Dr. Archer, MD, against conjure man Frimbo, the question Fisher leaves us with is this: exactly what kind of a doctor makes sense in providing remedies for the ills of a racially segregated urban ghetto?

Divining Numbers/the Business of Numbers: Claude Mckay's Poetic Sociology

As Fisher outlines, the trafficking in obeah and voodoo was connected to policy speculation in Harlem. Fisher's questions about how and why conjuring might have a place in a modern black urban environment addressed the intricate dependency of gambling and divination. In Conjure Man Dies, our access to the street world of pool halls, blackjack, numbers running, addiction, and infidelity is provided by Bubber Brown—himself a marginal figure to the major center of narrative interest—Frimbo, and Archer. Brown takes us out of the rarefied atmosphere of the drawing (p.37) room and into the more fecund parts of Harlem, running errands on behalf of the doctor and detective. As he trawls through bars, pool halls, and nightclubs, we see an array of types at “work,” gambling, drinking, singing, dancing, and running numbers. The relation between this space of speculation and play and the metaphysical debate between MD and witch doctor is indirect—something left for readers to infer or deduce from Frimbo's vocation. While Conjure Man Dies provides only glimpses of the wider social world that framed Harlemites' passion for both playing numbers and investing in occult prognostication, Claude McKay set out to provide a fuller picture.

In Harlem: Negro Metropolis, McKay connects the world of occultists to that of the policy racket. The more ancient customs of the one are connected to the more modern practice of numbers playing. As he notes, “The innumerable cults, mystic chapels and occult shops which abound in Harlem are explainable only by tracing back to the original African roots. For Africa remains the continent of magic.”18 Yet it is precisely “magic” that enables business:

A few of the prominent occultists are known in the wider field of the community's life…. The most interesting of all perhaps is Madam Fu Futtam, the last wife of Sufi Abdul Hamid, the former labor agitator and cult leader…. Very industrious in the art of clairvoyance, she has published a series of dream books with interpretive numbers which have made a fortune for her. (79)

In a subsequent chapter, “The Business of Numbers,” he goes on to describe the peculiar appeal of this kind of speculation to the innercity black community. A small penny bet on a three number combination (gig) promised a disproportionate reward of six dollars. An auxiliary industry of number diviners and fortune-tellers held consultations and/or produced dream books that enabled players to translate private and public events into number sequences. Perhaps most importantly, the policy business was seen to be a community enterprise whose bosses (numbers bankers known as “kings” and “queens”) were often black like their customers. Although illegal and having to operate from behind legitimate fronts (such as realty offices, barbershops, cigar and candy stores), policy was a structured hierarchical organization of bankers, controllers, collectors, and runners. And the determination of the “hit” or lucky number was dependent on Wall Street Clearing House records. In this sense, not only did numbers represent and demonstrate black organizational (p.38) business acumen, but it also offered its clients (as quasishareholders) a chance to emulate the speculative practices of the white world from which they were excluded.

McKay's particular attention to the figure of Casper Holstein provides vivid insight into the way numbers defied white prejudice. The white epithet for policy was “nigger pool” or “nigger pennies,” indicative of the contempt held for a system of gambling that appeared to have no high rollers and seemed to reflect the inferior status of black economic behavior. Such outward appearances, however, hid a different reality: “The white world never imagined that the pennies of Harlem's humble folk were creating fortunes of thousands of dollars and ‘kings’ and ‘queens’ in Harlem” (102). And one of these kings was Casper Holstein.

Unlike some of the other major number bankers (the so-called big six) in Harlem, Holstein “never flashed his prosperity in the flashy big-shot-of Harlem way…. He dressed quietly, like a dignified broker” (105). He used the front of being a realtor and was known as a top philanthropist. As McKay describes, Holstein was “persona grata among Harlem's elite … he gave pecuniary assistance to struggling and aspiring writers and artists,” and he funded literary prizes through his collaboration with Opportunity, the Urban League's monthly journal (which gave him column space to voice his grievances against the U.S. government's maltreatment of his birthplace, the former Danish Virgin Islands) (102).19 Such philanthropy from a “Talented Tenth gangster”20 exposed a crucial relationship between the flowering of the first black arts movement and the skills of African American economic entrepreneurship; both were born out of creative responses to racial exclusion at the very heart of the nation's supposedly most cosmopolitan city. Just as artists wrestled with the pitfalls of trying to meet mainstream standards while articulating something distinctively black, the African American financier fought to build economic structures that emulated those of legitimate white barons.

On September 21, 1928, Holstein was kidnapped by four white hoodlums who demanded a ransom of $50,000. The incident made frontpage news. Its shock value had everything to do with the way it drew white attention to something they could never imagine. In the first instance the very idea that a black American could be ransomed for such a huge amount of money was astounding. The event overturned prejudicial concepts of policy as well; “nigger pennies” were clearly supporting a business system more complex and ingenious than the white imagination had presumed:

(p.39) Holstein's kidnapping flashed the searchlight on a Harlem underworld, different from the drab ugly tenements nauseating with odors of fried pork chops and rot-gut gin. This was an underworld comparable within its dimensions to the dazzling dynamic underworld of the whites, a world in which the shrewd enterprising members of the Negro minority chiseled out a way to social superiority by exploitation of the potentialities of their own people.21

With the police hot on the trail, Holstein was released on the fourth day of his capture. Perhaps wary of drawing further attention to his enterprise, he remained evasive about what had happened. According to McKay, Holstein's decision not to reveal the identity of his captors had less to do with honoring conditions for his release than obeying a gangster code of never squealing.22

The consequences of the case did have negative consequences for Holstein. In advertising the scale of business to be done in Harlem, white gangsters tried to muscle in on what was otherwise one of the few industries run predominantly by black entrepreneurs. The key offender was Dutch Schultz, who went to war with the black bankers, forcing them to acquiesce to white mob control. Initial resistance by African American policy bosses Bumpy Johnson and Stephanie “Queenie” St. Clair gave way to an asymmetrical deal in which the mob allowed St. Clair to run a minor operation and Bumpy Johnson was given responsibility in managing the black collectors and runners.23 Schultz had been forced to realize that his operation would not work without an African American face. As McKay outlines, when the white mob initially took control, the black controllers, collectors, and runners went on strike. And to compound matters the players, in an act of solidarity, also boycotted the policy wheel. Collectively, black Harlemites demonstrated passive resistance to the violent intrusion of white mobsters into something they valued as belonging to their community.24

In spite of its rich insight into the life-world of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s, McKay's Harlem: Negro Metropolis has been largely overlooked as a source of information on the significance of Harlem. As a collection of essays published in 1940, the work appeared after the show was over, as it were, tinged with nostalgia for the heyday of Harlem. It did not sell well and proved to be McKay's last book. Although it did not succeed in its day, this reflective study was written by one of the movement's most celebrated figures, and as such it remains puzzling as to why this work, unlike James Weldon Johnson's Black Manhattan (1930), for example, (p.40) has remained confined to rare books collections of academic libraries.25 As the contemporaneous success and subsequent influence of Langston Hughes's The Big Sea, published in the same year (1940), suggests, the time was right for a summary or hindsight account of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes's autobiographical work provided an insider account of the ambitions and flaws of the movement, chronicling his growing dissatisfaction with the way the Harlem Renaissance distanced art from political struggle.

Intriguingly, Hughes and McKay had been traveling in opposite ideological directions. Hughes's increased political radicalization had led to him visiting the Soviet Union in 1934. In that same year McKay returned to Harlem following twelve years of overseas sojourns in the Soviet Union (in 1923 he delivered an address to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International), France, Spain, and North Africa. McKay's experiences had led to a rejection of communism and a turn to Catholicism (he converted in 1944). Hughes's account of “When the Negro Was in Vogue” (the title of the section on the Harlem Renaissance in The Big Sea) was framed by a political journey that by 1940 had led him to a putatively balanced centrist position. He enjoyed the authority of a seemingly objective reflection authenticated by firsthand experience. While McKay could claim that his observations were firsthand, it is clear that Harlem: Negro Metropolis reflects his own rejection of the logical secular world of political causes for the apparently illogical one of cultism, faith, and superstition. Although the work represented an apparent turn to a sociological essayistic account of black Manhattan's significance, its overwhelming focus on the ludic aspects of Harlem life probably made it awkward to categorize.

As sociology manqué, Harlem: Negro Metropolis lacked the full and comprehensive empirical rigor that characterized St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton's seminal Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, which would appear in 1945. Nor is it a driven historical corrective to the gloss that the cultural achievements of New York's black community hid, such as Gilbert Osofsky's Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto (a timely and rigorous study of segregationist real estate practice and its consequences), which covers the period 1890 to 1930 and was written in the climate of 1960s urban race rebellions. By contrast, McKay's work is permeated by poetic allusion and structured by apparently quite subjective predilections for charismatic cultists, occultists, and politicians (who become difficult to distinguish from one another)—giving (p.41) most space to the less salubrious aspects of Harlem's “business” practices (policy racket, beauty business, mystic realty ventures). Compounding matters was the fact that McKay's reputation and legacy as the militant race-conscious poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance undermined acceptance of his shift to social anthropology.

Nathan Huggins's authoritative overview, Harlem Renaissance (1971), only makes very brief reference to Harlem: Negro Metropolis as providing evidence for a more balanced view of McKay as not simply novelist or militant poet but as “consummate essayist.”26 While this is an important qualification, one could argue that in making such an assertion Huggins runs the danger of polarizing the fictional and essayistic aesthetic and thus missing the point about the liminal status of McKay's sociological gaze. What is interesting about Harlem: Negro Metropolis is its awkward status—what I would like to call poetic sociology. Symptomatically, Gilbert Osofsky refers to McKay's work as “primarily a popular history of Harlem in the 1930s.”27 While a poetic sociology sounds like a contradiction in terms and might seem to be a spurious basis for advancing larger claims about what has gone missing in accounting for Harlem's significance in black history, I would argue that McKay's study is invaluable because of its sensitivity to the generative rather than pathological character of everyday Harlem life—in its aversion to the very dualities that construct sociology (rationality/empiricism) in contradistinction to the sacred and superstition. To this extent it is not difficult to connect Harlem: Negro Metropolis to issues central to Fisher's Conjure Man Dies when it comes to exploring the black inner city.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to a better appreciation of Harlem: Negro Metropolis was the flurry of major sociological tracts that superseded it. Not only did Drake and Cayton's landmark study of black urban experience establish extraordinary standards for fieldwork in this area shortly after McKay's effort, but also national attention became dominated by the work of the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal. Appointed by the Carnegie Corporation to direct a project devoted to the study of the Negro in the United States in 1938, Myrdal would go on to publish An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy in 1944. Myrdal's framing of the sociology devoted to the modern black experience as the “Negro Problem,” while driven by an admirable quest to substantiate and redress the iniquity of white racism, perpetuated a pathological view of the African American community. The work's influence forced Richard Wright into introducing Drake and Cayton's book accordingly:

(p.42) The hour is too late to argue if there is a Negro problem or not. Riots have swept the nation and more riots are pending. This book assumes that the Negro's present position in the United States results from the oppression of Negroes by white people, that the Negro's conduct, his personality, his culture, his entire life flow naturally out of the conditions imposed upon him by white America. To that extent this book supplements and endorses the conclusions arrived at by Gunnar Myrdal in his American Dilemma.28

Myrdal provides a view of black experience that is deeply determined by institutional racism. While he accentuated this environmental argument to counter notions of racial difference grounded in biology, Myrdal provided a disparaging view of African American attempts to challenge such discrimination. The community is seen to be wide open to exploitation by its own charlatans. Black business is portrayed not as an example of entrepreneurial guile against the odds but as the exploitative result of a segregated market. Ordinary denizens of the black ghetto are seen to be passive dupes and victims. Equally, his view of churchgoing and other faith practices is skeptical. The recourse to the supernatural is indicative of how the desire to change things was politically defused:

The instability of the Negro family, the inadequacy of educational facilities for Negroes, the emotionalism in the Negro church, the insufficiency and unwholesomeness of Negro recreational activity, the plethora of Negro sociable organizations, the narrowness of interests of the average Negro, the provincialism of his political speculation, the high Negro crime rate, the cultivation of the arts to the neglect of other fields, superstition, personality difficulties, and other characteristic traits are mainly forms of social pathology which, for the most part, are created by the caste pressures.29

In his chapter “The Negro Church,” he would surmise:

Potentially, the Negro church is undoubtedly a power institution. It has the masses organized and, if the church bodies decided to do so, they could line up the Negroes behind a program. Actually, the Negro church is, on the whole, passive in the field of intercaste power relations. It generally provides meeting halls and encourages church members to attend when other organizations want to influence the Negroes. But viewed as an instrument of collective action to improve the Negroes' position in American society, the church has been relatively inefficient (p.43) and uninfluential … in the North it has only occasionally been a strong force for social action.30

The political expediency of Myrdal's desire to make social research a force for policy transformation notwithstanding (and indeed his work made a difference in animating civil rights legislation in Brown v. Board of Education), the legacy of this view of blacks and black community as the pathological products of white racism tends to denigrate the history of common cultural practice in urban black communities. Myrdal would pronounce: “In practically all its divergences, American Negro culture is not something independent of general American culture. It is a distorted development, or a pathological condition, of the general American culture.”31

As Roderick Ferguson has argued, approaching the black community in this way means that “African Americans enter Myrdal's framework as the antithesis of heteronormative American identity, and thus, as the antithesis of Enlightenment rationality.”32 Myrdal attends to the excessive emotionalism, “other-worldly,” and overly demonstrative character of black religious ritual and the putative instability and disorganization of the black family as evidence of the pathological costs of excluding African Americans from the same rights as whites. What goes unquestioned here is the hegemonic insistence on the Tightness of the epistemologies this kind of sociology assumed would open up African American identity and experience to study and understanding. Drawing on James Baldwin's engagement with the pathological force of sociology in Notes of a Native Son (1955), Ferguson adumbrates that the investment in “rational reflection ostensibly to record” sponsors the construction of African American culture “as the site of irrationality.”33

Against the grain of this paradigm, African American observers provided a more dispassionate view of such putatively pathological practices. In the same year (1944) that American Dilemma pronounced pejorative judgment on black religion, one of the first African Americans to earn a PhD in anthropology, Arthur Huff Fauset, published Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North. Fauset's study of the plethora of church and spiritual movements in the black belts of the United States' northern cities highlighted how these held the potential to become the bases for political agitation. Drake and Cayton also provided a more generative understanding of the role of the church and its congregation. In the first instance they highlight the degree of criticism that (p.44) is directed toward the church (as a kind of racket) by everyday urban black folk, revealing a far from passive community. At another level they also reinforce Fauset's prognosis that the church is a critical space for the development of an uncompromised black leadership:

The Negro church is largely free of white control. Negro preachers have the greatest “freedom” of any Race Leaders. Politicians must fit themselves into machine politics. Most “civic” leaders are dependent on white philanthropy. Most of Bronzeville's preachers are answerable to no one except their congregations. They can say what they please about current affairs and race relations…. Because they are so largely free of the political and economic controls of the white community, Bronzeville expects them to be real Race Men. Preachers are subjected to continuous community criticism, and to retain the allegiance of their followers they are forced to concern themselves with a wide range of secular activities—political action, protest against discrimination, advice on securing jobs and legal aid, and the encouragement of Negro business enterprises.34

Black Gods of the Metropolis has a content list and approach not dissimilar to McKay's, indicative of a shared understanding of how and why apparently spurious behavioral indulgences matter in ways conventional approaches cannot understand. The contents page of Harlem: Negro Metropolis is as follows:

  • Harlem Vista
  • The Negro Quarter Grows Up
  • God in Harlem: Father Divine, 1935 A.D.F.D.
  • The Occultists
  • The Cultists
  • Harlem Businessman
  • The Business of Numbers
  • The Business of Amusements
  • Harlem Politician
  • Marcus Aurelius Garvey
  • Sufi Abdul Hamid and Organized Labor

This list has much in common with Fauset's:

  1. I Negro Cults in the Urban North

  2. II Mt. Sinai Holy Church of America, Inc.

  3. III United House of Prayer for All People (Bishop Grace)

  4. (p.45) IV Church of God (Black Jews)

  5. V Moorish Science Temple of America

  6. VI Father Divine Peace Mission Movement

  7. VII Comparative Study

  8. VIII Why Cults Attract

  9. IX The Cult as a Functional Institution

  10. X The Negro and His Religion

To Fauset and McKay, following cults and sects, playing numbers, are not so much symptomatic of pathological traits as evidence of organized creative practice and response to living with the bad sign of blackness in white America. Where James Weldon Johnson saw charlatans duping the idiot lower social strata, and Myrdal saw irrationality, McKay and Fauset see something different, certainly not to be decried. Alongside McKay, Drake and Cayton, through their interviews with legitimate businesspeople (such as a bartender, tavern owner, street food peddler, and coal man) also saw policy and cultism combining to form an alternative economy—evidence of rational business organization (to counter a pathological view) supporting a more legal economy against the odds.35

Indeed, Drake and Cayton corroborate McKay's view of the policy king as a community patron and race leader. They make the salient point that for a community “denied full participation in the economic life of Chicago … every attack on South Side gambling [is] interpreted as an attack on The Race.”36 In their identification of the cult aspects of policy, Drake and Cayton avoid promoting a denigrating view of both spiritualists and players. Policy “has a hold on it devotees which is stronger than the concrete gains from an occasional winning would warrant…. Just any number will not do for a ‘gig.’ People want ‘hot’ numbers. Numbers and combinations of numbers derived from ‘lucky’ situations are much more powerful.”37 And perhaps the most important source of lucky numbers is one's dreams. The key means to translating dreams and significant personal experiences and public occurrences into number combinations was the “dream book.” Numbers divination is a subsidiary business that taps into a community's desire for their dreams to be realized. Drake and Cayton do not describe this as a parasitic relationship.

It would take until the 1960s and the establishment of folklore studies as a full-fledged discipline for the insights of McKay, Drake, and Cayton into an economy of fortune to be supported. George J. McCall's “Symbiosis: The Case of Hoodoo and the Numbers Racket” was published in 1963 and then reprinted a decade later in a seminal folklorist collection (p.46) edited by Alan Dundes, Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Black Folklore.38 McKay's work on policy would finally be treated as an authoritative account in the mid-1990s by Rufus Schatzberg in African American Organized Crime: A Social History.39 Significantly, however, it was a blues historian who was first to pursue the interlinking of luck and money as a key feature of urban black experience.

Coda: Policy Blues

Paul Oliver's seminal Blues Fell This Morning, dedicated to “meaning in the blues,” was first published in 1960.40 Linked to Drake and Cayton in also being endorsed by a foreword from Richard Wright, Oliver chronicled the predominant concerns associated with blues music. Two central chapters, titled “The Jinx Is on Me” and “Let the Deal Go Down,” concern the interlinking of superstition and gambling. Here we find that the fortune economy is not limited to the practices of seeking counsel from conjurers and playing numbers but extends to themes at the heart of popular music. African Americans seeking release from everyday troubles and frustrations found themselves being entertained by musical performances that represented their core obsessions. In the red-light areas of the black inner city, at house rent parties, bars, and on record, blues musicians reworked the old blues refrain, “If it weren't for my bad luck, I'd have no luck at all.”

The blues artist who perhaps best encapsulated dealing with living under a bad sign was Peetie Wheatstraw: The Devil's Son-in-Law. Born William Bunch, he adopted the moniker of a folkloric badman shortly after establishing himself as a major blues musician in East St. Louis in the late 1920s. A rural childhood in Tennessee and Arkansas gave way to a peripatetic hobo existence before taking up residence in East St. Louis on Third Street, which ran through the center of the city's vice district (known also as the Valley) in 1929.41 In this journey from the country to the city, Peetie Wheatstraw updated older folkloric traditions for urban consumption. William Barlow notes that the self-styled “Devil's Son-in-Law” “began to build his public image as a streetwise, self-confident, jive-talking blues rebel. His signature piece, ‘The Peetie Wheatstraw Stomp,’ was a boisterous bit of self-aggrandizement that aligned him with the supernatural forces of the Christian underworld.”42 Performing in venues at the heart of East St. Louis's prostitution and gambling zone, he would declare in his “Peetie Wheatstraw Stomp,” “I am Peetie Wheatstraw, the High Sheriff of Hell,” possessed (p.47) of hellion powers to “come into your town” and make “the women and men clown.”43 He merged spiritual and secular underworlds, freely exploiting clichés about outlawry and organized crime in songs such as “Machine Gun Blues” and “Gangster Blues,” where he declares:

  • Last night buddy, I caught you kissing my wife.
  • Don't you know I'm going to take your life.
  • I got the gangster blues. (x3)
  • Boys, I am feeling mean.
  • I'm going to take you for an easy ride.
  • Drop you off on the river side.
  • I'm gonna bind your mouth so you can't talk.
  • Tie your feet so you can't walk.
  • You can start your screaming, but must give in.
  • I'm gonna tear you to pieces, and put you back again.
  • Put up your hands and reach for the sky.
  • Gonna let you down before you can bat an eye.
  • I'm gonna bury you out on the lone prairie.
  • Because I know you're (biting) on me.44

Wheatstraw's badman character connected urges for revenge and redress of personal wrongs to a range of pressing black urban workingclass issues, such as urban renewal (“Third Street's Going Down”—a lament to the gentrification of the “Valley,” the tearing down of brothels, bars, and gambling houses), factory work (“Chicago Mill Blues”—a song in which opportunity to work is recast as an opportunity for sexual conquest), relief jobs for the Works Progress Administration (“Working on the Project”—in which the payday is too far away and your woman spends it all anyway), and unemployment (“304 Blues”—receiving a 304 slip meant the WPA had made you redundant, which to Wheatstraw was a blessing in disguise). As Barlow emphasizes: “Sex, work, play—whatever the subject, the persona of Peetie Wheatstraw opposed bourgeois attitudes and social practices. He was a self-indulgent anti-hero and a funloving raconteur—a braggart and a sage.”45

In the context of the Depression and its attendant socioeconomic immiseration, Wheatstraw's music proved immensely popular in its day. As Elijah Wald highlights, Wheatstraw's recording output of 161 songs between 1930 and 1941 was bettered by only four other blues artists: (p.48) Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, and Bumble Bee Slim (Amos Easton).46 In the reconstruction of blues history, however, Wheatstraw has been overlooked, primarily in favor of Robert Johnson, as the primary badman blues artist.47 Yet as Wald adumbrates, not only was Johnson relatively unsuccessful in the 1930s, but it also seems clear that one of his prime inspirations was Peetie Wheatstraw. Wheatstraw's laid-back vocal style, with his falsetto “oooh well, well” refrains, are elements that Johnson emulated. Additionally, Johnson went on to cover many Wheatstraw songs as well as duplicating the idea that he had entered into a satanic compact.48

Wheatstraw's repertoire included songs that dealt with policy, such as “Numbers Blues” and “Cut Out Blues,” where he advocates giving up playing policy:

I'm gon' cut out playing policy because my numbers just won't fall. (x2)

Somebody's put a jinx on me, oooh, well, and I can't have no luck at all.49

In this he shared an ironic view of gambling and the policy wheel with other notable blues artists of the era, such as Blind Blake and Bumble Bee Slim.

In “Playing Policy Blues” (1930), Blind Blake declares, “Numbers, numbers'bout to drive me mad…. Thinkin' about the money that I should have had,” and places faith in a dream that “the woman I loved was dead.” If he had interpreted his dream correctly, he should have played the “Dead Row.” Instead he opts to play 3, 6, 9—which, of course, fails to hit. “I acted the fool and played on 3, 6, 9…. Lost my money and that girl of mine…. I played on Clearing-House, couldn't make the grade.” Out of pocket and miserable, he seeks sexual gratification with a girlfriend: “I begged my baby to let me in her door…. Wanted to put my 25, 50, 75 in her 7, 17, 24.”50

Certain numerical sequences—most notably 3, 6, 9 and 15, 60, 75—were valued for their scatological and sexual significances (3, 6, 9 being the number assigned to feces; 15, 60, 75 called “Big Dick”). Clearly, Blind Blake plays with common knowledge of what specific gigs signify in a humorous exercise of double entendre. The popularity of gigs with fecund associations testifies further to the way policy, as an unlicensed imitation of stock market speculation, attempts a kind of alchemy on behalf of the dispossessed, turning dirt into gold.51

Bumble Bee Slim sees policy as a “racket” that is “awful hard to beat.” (p.49) His “Policy Dream Blues” features a verbal sparring match in which a numbers “writer” persuades him to play a gig recommended by one of the most popular policy dream books, “Red Devil.” The gig, 4, 11, 44, is one of the most well-known combinations, the ultimate “lucky” number as it stands for the policy office and lottery itself. Bumble Bee Slim is skeptical especially as the writer himself is betting on a different gig based on his dream last night. Yet having “promised to leave that policy alone,” he plays his last dime and ends up broke in the county jail. Six months later, he encounters the writer again, who on this occasion takes Bumble Bee Slim's bad luck to be a good sign, stating that he will play his name as a result. An inversion of fortune is taken once again to be a portentously positive sign:

  • I said, “Your policy racket is a cryin' shame.”
  • He said, “Just for that, mister, I'm gonna play your name.
  • The polic' draw is good, buddy. But your name is the best.
  • It (signed) up last night in the east and west.”
  • I said, “Go on, Mr. Writer! That jig ain't comin' out.”
  • He said, “You'd better get on it. I know what I'm talkin' about.”52

Such art attends to popular cultural activity and production not as evidence of the pathological condition but as a form of inventive, creative, and self-actualizing improvising enterprise within and against highly proscribed limits. Such songs inverted the problem of fortune through the blues artist's trickster wit. Peetie Wheatstraw, Blind Blake, and Bumble Bee Slim find in the ill fortune of their community their own calling as singer-sages committed to an underworld ethos. For Wheatstraw, that this calling was so bound up with his invocation of Satan made his brand of “devil's music” particularly conspicuous—and his demise a form of ludicrous fulfillment of bad sign destiny. Forget the afterlife, it was this present world that mattered he shouted in “Bring Me Flowers While I'm Living”:

Don't bring me flowers after I'm dead, a dead man sure can't smell.

And if I don't go to heaven, oooh, well, well, I don't sure need no flowers in hell.53

Having recorded this and the equally tragically apt “Hearse Man Blues” in Chicago in November 1941, Wheatstraw returned to St. Louis only to be killed in a car crash on the twenty-first of December—his birthday. Putatively, spurned on by early morning celebratory drinking, (p.50) Wheatstraw had challenged a friend to push a Buick to the limit, a joyride that ended with the vehicle crashing into a standing freight train one block from his home in East St. Louis.54

As insider observers of their communities, Fisher, McKay, and Wheatstraw developed modes of representation that refuted pathological characterization of the emerging black urban experience. Attention to the “ill-logic” informing the terms of African American modernity did not mean confirming an abject understanding of black as “problem.” Indeed, Fisher's critique of deductive reason, McKay's investment in cults and lottery, and Wheatstraw's mobilization of badman folklore to address Depression realities, pointed in exactly the opposite direction, toward the perversity of normative whiteness. And nowhere would this be made more obvious than in the history of the underworld race film.


(1.) Claude McKay, Harlem: Negro Metropolis (New York: Dutton, 1940), 101.

(2.) New York Herald Tribune, October 16, 1927, unpaginated clipping, New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

(3.) LeRoi Jones, Blues People (New York: Morrow Quill, 1963), 96.

(4.) W. E. B. Du Bois, review of Nigger Heaven, by Carl Van Vechten, Crisis 33 (December 1926): 81.

(5.) W. E. B. Du Bois, “Two Novels,” Crisis 35 (June 1928): 202.

(6.) George Schuyler, “The Negro Art Hokum,” The Nation, June 16, 1926, reprinted in Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie McKay, eds., The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (New York: Norton, 1997), 1171.

(7.) Ibid., 1173.

(8.) Ibid., 1174.

(9.) Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” The Nation, (June 23, 1926), reprinted in Gates and McKay, eds., The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 1271.

(10.) Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Harlem on Our Minds,” in Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Richard J. Powell and David A. Bailey (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 166.

(11.) Maria Balshaw, Looking for Harlem: Urban Aesthetics in African-American Literature (London: Pluto Press, 2000), 31.

(12.) John McCluskey Jr., ed., The City of Refuge: The Collected Short Stories of Rudolph Fisher (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987). The Conjure Man Dies was reissued first in 1971 by Arno Press and then in 1992 by the University of Michigan Press, which also reissued The Walls of Jericho in 1994. Other than McCluskey, Balshaw, Looking (p.186) for Harlem, and Stephen F. Soitos, The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996), have been at the forefront in reintroducing Fisher as a significant Harlem Renaissance contributor.

(13.) Soitos, The Blues Detective, 95.

(14.) Ibid., 95, quoting from Arna Bontemps, The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1994), 45.

(15.) Balshaw, Looking for Harlem, 31. To Himes and Reed, one could add Walter Mosley to this legacy.

(16.) Rudolph Fisher, The Conjure Man Dies (1932; London: The X Press, 1995), 93. Hereafter cited in text.

(17.) It is significant that Chester Himes, the next great African American detective writer, would resuscitate the idea of sperm elixir in Blind Man with Pistol (1969); see chapter 3.

(18.) McKay, Harlem: Negro Metropolis, 75. Hereafter cited in text.

(19.) David Levering Lewis identifies Holstein as one of six figures crucial to nurturing the Harlem Renaissance. See When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 121, 129–30, 220

(20.) Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue, 220.

(21.) McKay, Harlem: Negro Metropolis, 105.

(23.) For a full history of the white mob's invasion of Harlem's policy racket, see Walter A. Bell, “Black Gangs of Harlem, 1920–1939,” at http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/gangsters_outlaws/gang/harlem_gangs/7.html. Hoodlum (1997), a film directed by Bill Duke, starring Laurence Fishburne as Bumpy Johnson, Tim Roth as Dutch Schultz, Andy Garcia as Lucky Luciano, and Cicely Tyson as Stephanie St. Clair, also covers this period.

(24.) McKay, Harlem: Negro Metropolis, 113.

(25.) McKay dedicated Harlem: Negro Metropolis to Johnson as “friend and wise counsellor”—a clear nod to the tradition that he was working with and against.

(26.) Nathan Huggins, Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 215.

(27.) Gilbert Osofsky, Harlem, the Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York, 1890–1930 (1966; Chicago: Ivan R, Dee, 1996), 212.

(28.) St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945), Richard Wright's introduction to the first edition, xxix.

(29.) Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy, vol. 2 (New Brunswick, NJ: Transactions, 1996), 928–29.

(30.) Ibid., 873. For a full critique of Myrdal's view of religion and his more general discussion of the pathology of black communal life, see Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997) and Roderick Ferguson, “Nightmares of the Heteronormative,” Cultural Values 4, no. 4 (2000): 419–44.

(31.) Ibid., 928.

(32.) Ferguson, “Nightmares of the Heteronormative,” 425.

(33.) Ibid., 432.

(34.) Arthur Huff Fauset, Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 427–28.

(35.) Drake and Cayton, Black Metropolis, 493–94.

(36.) Ibid., 486.

(37.) Ibid., 474.

(38.) George J. McCall, “Symbiosis: The Case of Hoodoo and the Numbers Racket,” Social Problems, 10 (Spring 1963): 361–71, reprinted in Alan Dundes, ed., Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Black Folklore (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973), 419–27.

(39.) Rufus Schatzberg, African American Organized Crime: A Social History (New York: Garland, 1996; and New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997).

(40.) Paul Oliver, Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues (London: Cassell, 1960; 2nd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

(41.) William Barlow, Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 263; Paul Garon, The Devil's Son-in-Law: The Story of Peetie Wheatstraw and His Songs (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2003), 3–11, 78–81.

(42.) Barlow, Looking Up at Down, 263.

(43.) “Peetie Wheatstraw Stomp,” Peetie Wheatstraw: Complete Works, Volume 4 Document DOCD-5244 (2000; original recording, 1937).

(44.) “Gangster Blues,” Peetie Wheatstraw (1930–1941), RST Records, CD 3541–2 (1988; original recording, 1940).

(45.) Barlow, Looking Up at Down, 265.

(46.) Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2005), 41.

(47.) Paul Garon suggests that Wheatstraw's absence from the canon can be attributed to the way postwar blues revivalists favored guitar players to pianists, and Gennett to Decca recordings (Decca being Wheatstraw's primary label). Garon, The Devil's Son-in-Law, 109.

(49.) “Numbers Blues,” Peetie Wheatstraw: Complete Works, Volume 2, Document DOCD-5242 (2000; original recording, 1934).

(50.) “Playing Policy Blues,” Blind Blake: The Complete Works, Volume Document DOCD-5027 (1991; original recording, 1930).

(51.) See Paul Oliver, Blues Fell This Morning, chapter 5, “The Jinx Is on Me,” 117–37, for the most sustained treatment of how numbers featured in blues music; and “Aunt Sally Policy Dream Book” by Catherine Yronwode for details on how Blind Blake manipulates the meaning of numbers, at http://www.luckymojo.com/auntsallys.html, accessed September 29, 2009.

(52.) “Policy Dream Blues,” Bumble Bee Slim (Amos Easton), 1934–1937, Wolf Records, B.o.B 6 CD (1994; original recording, 1935).

(53.) “Bring Me Flowers While I'm Living,” Peetie Wheatstraw (1930–1941), RST Records, CD 3541–2 (1988; original recording, 1941).

(54.) Garon, The Devil's Son-in-Law, 106–9.