What accounts for the persistence of the figure of the black criminal in popular culture created by African Americans? Unearthing the history of art that has often seemed at odds with the politics of civil rights and racial advancement, this book explores the rationale behind this tradition of criminal self-representation from the Harlem Renaissance to contemporary gangsta culture. The author takes a broad view, examining the way the criminal appears within and moves among literary, musical, and visual arts. He traces the legacy of badness in Rudolph Fisher and Chester Himes' detective fiction and in Claude McKay, Julian Mayfield, and Donald Goines' urban experience writing, and also examines criminals in popular songs ranging from Peetie Wheatstraw's gangster blues to gangsta rap. Turning to the screen, the underworld films of Oscar Micheaux and Ralph Cooper, the 1970s blaxploitation cycle, and the 1990s hood movie come under the author's microscope as well. Ultimately, the book concludes that this tradition has been a misunderstood aspect of African American civic life and that, rather than undermining black culture, it forms a rich and enduring response to being outcast in America.