"Born in a Mighty Bad Land"
The Violent Man in African American Folklore and Fiction
Publication Year: 2003
The figure of the violent man in the African American imagination has a long history. He can be found in 19th-century bad man ballads like "Stagolee" and "John Hardy," as well as in the black convict recitations that influenced "gangsta" rap. "Born in a Mighty Bad Land" connects this figure with similar characters in African American fiction. Many writers -- McKay and Hurston in the Harlem Renaissance; Wright, Baldwin, and Ellison in the '40s and '50s; Himes in the '50s and '60s -- saw the "bad nigger" as an archetypal figure in the black imagination and psyche. "Blaxploitation" novels in the '70s made him a virtually mythical character. More recently, Mosley, Wideman, and Morrison have presented him as ghetto philosopher and cultural adventurer. Behind the folklore and fiction, many theories have been proposed to explain the source of the bad man's intra-racial violence. Jerry H. Bryant explores all of these elements in a wide-ranging and illuminating look at one of the most misunderstood figures in African American culture.
Published by: Indiana University Press
Series: Blacks in the Diaspora
Over the thirty or so years that I’ve taught, thought, and written about this material, I’ve developed a fondness for the African American badman that I’ve heard novelists express for the characters they have created. For sure, I didn’t invent Stagolee, Devil Winston, John Hardy, Dupree, Railroad Bill, or any of the other actors in the badman drama. For that I’m indebted not only to the ...
Bad-Lan’ Stone is one of a distinct type in the African American imagination: the “bad nigger,” the “badman,” the “bully.” He is a violent man: a killer, a creator of mayhem, a sower of disorder. He lives to “break up the jamboree,” to put down opponents, build a reputation, create awe in the timid and fear in competitors. Black historian L. D. Reddick suggests that this personage and his opposite, the Uncle ...
1 The Classic Badman and the Ballad
While “bad niggers” doubtless prowled the paths of the slave quarters and picked fights in free black taverns in southern cities, the full lineaments of the classic badman were not drawn until after the Civil War, when the slave society was reconfigured as a quasi-free one. De facto slavery replaced the “peculiar institution” in the form of Jim Crow, sharecropping, and a carefully controlled labor market that forced black men and women into the worst and lowest-paid jobs. ...
2 Postbellum Violence and Its Causes:“Displaced Rage” in a Preindustrial Culture
What accounts for this genre of folk song? To what extent did such men exist in the real black world in these years? How widespread was the kind of intraracial violence that these men committed and the songs tell us about? There was, in fact, an unusually high homicide rate among lower-class African Americans in the years between the Civil War and World War I. Both North and South were afflicted, with violence among blacks increasing in both regions in the last ...
3 Between the Wars:The Genteel Novel, Counterstereotypes, and Initial Probes
Before the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s only the folk seem to have made anything of the violent side of black life. Black novelists avoided the subjects of intrablack violence and the violent man. The four novels known to have been written by blacks before Emancipation—William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or The President’s Daughter (1853), Martin Delany’s ...
4 From the Genteel to the Primitive: The Twenties and Thirties
The “new Negroes” of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance belonged to the generation raised in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century. Their parents were proper, upward-striving members of the growing black bourgeoisie. The “new Negroes” had the same sense of confidence in their status and abilities that members of the Black Cat Club had, though with considerably more education and much less levee crudeness. ...
5 The Ghetto Bildungsroman: From the Forties to the Seventies
In Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), his protagonist, Bigger Thomas, becomes enraged with his friend Gus for arriving late at Doc’s pool hall in Chicago’s South Side. Now, raves Bigger, the robbery of Blum’s delicatessen they had planned will have to be scratched. With Doc and Bigger’s two other friends, Jack and G.H., watching, Bigger pulls his switchblade, holds it to Gus’s throat, ...
6 Toasts: Tales of the “Bad Nigger”
Nathan McCall and the bildungsroman novelists write from the viewpoint of those who have left violent badness behind and entered the nonviolent world. As is only natural, they apply the measurements of the respectable and law-abiding to the street culture of the community which they fled. Even if the bildungsroman protagonist is to the ghetto born, and most of them are, his escape moves him into a different frame of reference whose judgments are set by a different, ...
7 Chester Himes: Harlem Absurd
In the late fifties and sixties, during the most active years of the civil rights movement, Chester B. Himes was the African American ghetto novelist par excellence. Nobody wrote about its violent men and women as he did, with such fertile variety, with such knowing and ironic detail. Nobody in Himes’s Harlem, though, rises out of the ghetto into the middle class or escapes it by going to college, as do many of the characters in the ghetto bildungsromans. Nor is his Harlem ...
8 A “Toast” Novel: Pimps, Hoodlums, and Hit Men
In the late sixties and early seventies, a cohort of black novelists seems to have deliberately set out to write the “toast” into a new form of fiction. It was a genre not destined for either mainstream popularity or critical acclaim. But it took on the world of the street player with gusto. The novels that make up this genre are virtually long prose toasts, with literary and thematic ties to the old badman ballad as well. They cross the ghetto of Chester Himes with that of Toledo Slim and Broadway ...
9 Walter Mosley and the Violent Men of Watts
In the last three decades of the twentieth century, African American crime writers transformed the work of Chester Himes and the Holloway “black experience” writers. Some twenty-three black novelists in more than sixty novels have joined the all but numberless membership of the crime writers’ fraternity. Starting with the conventions laid down by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross MacDonald, they have gone off in the directions pursued by hordes of their white ...
10 Rap: Going Commercial
Perhaps the most strident, certainly the most self-promoting, badman of all explodes in “gangsta” rap, a complex social development wrapped in a poetry that, like the toasts, is sometimes doggerel, sometimes cleverly original. It marks the triumphal “crossing-over” of a black badman sensibility into mainstream entertainment, a creative extension of the toast into a new style of expression that also draws on Caribbean forms. As a dozen books and countless articles show, the hip ...
11 The Badman and the Storyteller:John Edgar Wideman’s Homewood Trilogy
John Edgar Wideman and Toni Morrison bring a whole new esthetic stature to the treatment of the African American man of violence. Let me take Wideman first. He does not set out to deal specifically with the traditional badman figure. In his Homewood trilogy, made up of the novels Hiding Place (1981) and Sent for You Yesterday (1983) and the story collection ...
12 Toni Morrison:Ulysses, Badmen, and Archetypes—Abandoning Violence
It is amazing to me that it is Toni Morrison, among living black novelists, who brings the most probing and insightful eye to the tradition of the violent man and provides the most fitting conclusion to my study. Perhaps that is what makes her a worthy Nobel laureate. She speaks as a member of a black intellectual elite that desires to preserve the uniqueness of the African American sensibility, establish a sense of communal independence, and participate in the American mainstream on its own ...
Appendix: Analysis of Thirty Prototype Ballads