Darktown, by Thomas Mullen*****

darktown I was originally turned down for a DRC of this novel when I requested it last spring, and I took the unusual step of following up with Atria, more or less begging for it. I’ve been reviewing titles for Net Galley for two years and have received nearly 300 DRCs, so it is a sign of my interest level that I went to this extreme to read this one in advance in exchange for an honest review, and it’s a sign of decency and responsiveness that a representative from Atria Books invited me to review it after all. Although I am grateful , this five star review is not about gratitude, but a measure of the importance I attach to the issues it addresses and the skill with which the story is told.

The story centers on the first African-American cops hired in Atlanta; the year is 1948. This is considered an experiment, and to say the least, it’s awkward. The basic plan is that a small number of Negro—which is the polite term at this time in history—officers will report to a Caucasian supervisor, and they are responsible for patrolling the Black section of Atlanta. There are just eight men in this force.  They have no authority to make an arrest, so if someone has to go to jail, they must call for Caucasian police who are considered real police by higher-ups within the city administration.

To say the very least, it’s hard to take.

Mullen’s protagonists here are African-American officers Boggs and Smith, and the problem arises when they witness a crime, the assault of a woman by a Caucasian man in a car. The woman disappears, and no Caucasian cops are interested in hearing what these officers saw that night. The white cops that come in response to the report of a crime demean the Black officers, calling them “boy” and a variety of other horrible slurs.  As the white cops leave the scene, “Boggs was still standing in the street. If his rage had been a physical thing, it would have split the car in two.”

Eventually one of the white cops, a man named Dunlow, goes too far in the eyes of his rookie partner, Rakestraw, and the latter finds himself in a tenuous, secret alliance with Boggs.

Light banter breaks up tension in places, but no mistake, this is a brutal story. If it wasn’t harsh, it wouldn’t be the truth. This is one of the rare instances when the frequent use of the N word and other racist, vulgar language is actually historically necessary; you’ve been forewarned. Though Darktown is a useful history lesson, its greater value comes from causing readers to think more deeply about the role police play in western society.

A question I found myself considering, and not for the first time, is how much good Black cops can do even today to combat racism and other ugly biases by the department that employs them. Clearly cop violence toward people of color remains ever present.  If this book had been published ten years ago, I would have been concerned that in focusing on past racism, the story might have left us with the impression that racism was a problem only in the past, as if all that mess is over now.

But in 2016, we all know otherwise.

I hope you’ll read this painful but well crafted novel, and reflect some about how the dynamics of power have developed and why. Will a more diverse police presence be the key to equity for those that are so frequently crushed beneath the boot heel of what passes for a justice system in the United States, or is meaningful police reform impossible as long as cops are employed primarily to protect the property of the rich?  Would ordinary people be better off if we can, in the words of the old folk song, “…raze the prisons to the ground”?

This book becomes available to the public September 6, 2016. Highly recommended.

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