- Street Players: Black Pulp Fiction and the Making of a Literary Underground by Kinohi Nishikawa
Pimps and prostitutes, dealers and dope fiends, gangsters and gamblers, all manner of street denizens. For a moment in the 1960s and ’70s, these were the models for characters peopling the novels of writers such as Iceberg Slim (Robert Beck), Donald Goines, and Odie Hawkins. Their books told brutal, often ugly stories—and rose in popularity alongside the civil rights and Black Power movements to the chagrin of those advocating for equality and asserting the beauty of blackness. With content antithetical to positive racial representations, these novels codified narratives of Black pathology while justifying governmental neglect. Initially they satisfied the prurient interests of a primarily white male gaze, but as the genre developed and became known by various names—Black pulp, street lit, urban lit, ghetto novels among them—as they were sold at newsstands, corner stores, liquor stores, barbershops, distributed via mail order, and passed from hand to hand, they became something more than just dirty books. As Kinohi Nishikawa elucidates in Street Players: Black Pulp Fiction and the Making of a Literary Underground, they lay the foundation for a literary movement.
Nishikawa’s work places itself in conversation with other examinations of the evolution of pulp fiction, such as Megan Honig’s Urban Grit: A Guide to Street Lit (2011), Justin Gifford’s Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing (2013), and my own History of the African American Novel (2017; chapter 11). This well-researched study opens by noting the global legacy of Black pulp. Citing the reminiscences of Scottish novelist and playwright Irvine Welsh, as well as African American rapper, actor, and record producer Tracy Marrow (better known as Ice-T) as both recall reading Iceberg Slim novels. Nishikawa reveals the cosmopolitan nature of Black pulp and its ability to resonate with multiple working and ethnic classes. Black pulp’s portrayal of the street both as a site for personal discovery and as a rite of passage resonated with a British writer who would turn addiction into the novel Trainspotting and a musician whose lyrics used pulp forms to make a lingua franca of street life.
The book’s eight chapters chart the impact of Holloway House publishers on the evolution of Black pulp. Founded by Ralph Weinstock and Bentley Morris, and producing erotic paperbacks and male-oriented adult magazines, Holloway became an equal opportunity conveyer of erotica when it debuted Players magazine. Modeled along the lines of Playboy magazine and designed for a Black male reader-ship, it profiled the likes of Dick Gregory, James Earl Jones, Chester Himes, and numbered Ishmael Reed and Stanley Crouch among its contributing writers while also featuring nude pictures of Black women. Holloway’s cross-marketing of their own pulp novels in their sex magazines expanded the books’ exposure and vivified notions of Black male power via Black female sexual commodification. Street Players maps how Weinstock and Morris went from producing works that catered to white male prurient interests to hiring Black writers to appeal to Black male readers. Perhaps unexpectedly to Holloway House, but no less welcome, “black sleaze” (a term Nishikawa uses to denote the white-oriented pulp that used spectacle and [End Page 339] unrealistic language to sensationalize Black life) birthed a hugely popular Black pulp genre that depicted “authentic” Black life on ghetto streets, one that resonated with a previously unacknowledged readership and seeded a “For Us By Us” literary underground. Along its thoughtful journey, Street Players examines the role of sleaze in manifesting desires to contain emerging feminisms, the transformation of sleaze once Black writers revised the form, and the Black pulp that emerged from their revisions.
Nishikawa’s examination of Black pulp engages many complex questions. In a section titled “Lose Your Mother” (allusion to Saidiya Hartman’s contemplation of enslavement’s familial ruptures and the resulting alienation discussed in her 2008 book Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave...