Journeys and Journals

Women's Mystery Writing and Migration in the African Diaspora

by Carol Allen (Author)
©2017 Monographs VIII, 200 Pages


Using literary criticism, theory, and sociohistoric data, this book brings into conversation black migrations with mystery novels by African American women, novels which explore fully the psychic, economic, and spiritual impact of mass migratory movements. Diaspora travel has been forced and selected and has extended from the Slave Trade through the contemporary moment, causing the black subject to wrestle with motion, the self in motion, the community in motion, the spirit in motion, culture in motion, and especially the past in motion. Reviewing these major migratory patterns of Africans to and within the United States from slavery to the present and defining the primary tropes and traditions in African American female mystery writing, each subsequent chapter looks intensely at specific figurative locations that could become a repository for reconstituted dense space in the new world. Detectives as penned by African American women writers sound out and deliberate over the viability of integrated institutions, the family, Bohemianism, religion, cities, class consciousness, and finally culture. Courses on African American literature, African American history and culture, detective fiction, urban studies, and women’s studies would find the book instructive.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1: Bending the Falcon: Black Women Writers Revamp Mysteries
  • Middle Passages and the Economic Underpinnings of Slavery
  • Orphanhood
  • Dreams
  • Limitations
  • 2: Integrationist Tales
  • Police Officers
  • Academics
  • Journalists
  • 3: Travel: Meditations on Postmodernism
  • Metaphoric Motion
  • Crossroads
  • Margins
  • Double Consciousness
  • The Spectacle
  • Multiculturalism
  • Travelers, Tourists and Expatriates
  • Road Trips
  • Travel Writing
  • 4: Family Compounds
  • Mothers and Daughters
  • Fathers and Daughters
  • Cop Lovers
  • Children of the Yam
  • The Dead Speak
  • Epilogue
  • 5: Homegrown Religion
  • Christianity
  • Ancestor Worship
  • Karma
  • 6: Ubiquitous, Invisible Class
  • Wealthy Targets
  • Class Travelers
  • Bridge Builders
  • 7: On the Block
  • City Mirrors
  • Concrete Links
  • Glitch in the Machine
  • Interstitial City Sleuths
  • 8: Sensuality: A Reverberating Force
  • Foodies
  • Giggles
  • Music
  • Hunks
  • Notes
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1
  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter 3
  • Chapter 4
  • Chapter 5
  • Chapter 6
  • Chapter 7
  • Chapter 8
  • Select Bibliography
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • Series index

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In most detective fiction, the crime and its solving are the most crucial elements, followed, perhaps, by an intense criminal profile, an unveiling of the sleuth’s sublime inner machinations that allow him or her to problem-solve, and a detailed description of the landscape in which the detective operates. Such novels by black female writers invert these polarities as criminals are rarely profiled nor are they depicted as more than mundanely interesting. Instead, emphasis is placed on the environment that produces victims and aggressors, theft and survivors. So, we can say that often the transgression and the transgressor are secondary to the detective’s mapping of her turf, the territory which she knows best. I began this project to figure out why this trend holds sway, why there are few mastermind criminals or even memorable ones in black female mystery writing, why this deviation from the world of Holmes, Christie, and Hammett. My first assumption was that the major narrative strains in detective novels by black women would be survivor and mourning stories, lamentations over dead hopes and dreams, or gritty testimonials to the black world’s tenacity in the face of ongoing peril or a little of both, something akin to Stephen Soitos’ theory of the blues detective with a feminist or womanist slant. But, as I read these texts, different patterns began to emerge, and I discovered that this genre’s scope, as I view it, is more deeply rooted historically than the twentieth century when it emerged with Pauline Hopkins’s “Talma ← 1 | 2 → Gordon” in 1904, more complicated culturally, and more varied ideologically than I first imagined. I have concluded that detective novels written by African-American writers are, by and large, part of the grand story of Diaspora travel, of migrations, of spiritual longing, of philosophical wrangling, of intellectual production during times of impending threats from economic, social and nihilistic forces. They are pieces of a cultural tapestry that address and grapple with dreadful motion: forced displacement and its consequences. From the Slave Trade through the Middle Passage to intracontinental movement in the Americas during Slavery to the Great Migration and now the reverse Migration back to the south, black people have been forced to remake themselves and to claim and reclaim territory generation after generation. These mystery novels, simply put, chronicle that travel figuratively, hence the emphasis on the environment over the subject, the surrounding terrain over the individual psyche.

There is a terror at the heart of these potboilers that is tended to by the sleuth/primary voice just as the ancient caretaker would watch the bubbling volcano for omens of impending doom, ready to alert the city to haul out and begin the exodus anew. This form, then, acts as a reminder, a huge echo chamber to alert those of the Diaspora that travel is nearly always imminent, has become an alpha and omega trope. The detective novel announces: “don’t become complacent,” “that chair is not yours to claim,” a move is just around the corner, one bound to be weary, heavy and dispossessing. Yet, in the midst of this general despair and well-deserved paranoia, these narratives also deposit vestiges of hope, utopian projections that are outlined and inserted here and again, representations of how a secure anchor in place might appear. These narrative ghost worlds are the text’s faith, the lost entity that stimulates the crimebuster to rise from bed each morning and meet the hungry trail. They are the places where she would be, if she could ever stop traveling (which she can’t). Not only do these projected sites, institutions, or practices buoy even the most cynical of detectives, they foster her growth as she becomes stronger when she defends her chosen bastion (or bastions) of potential. So, for a people who are historically captured in a series of transitions (often prodded under duress), the detective genre is a metaphorical reflection of that historical circumstance: the great game board of Diaspora travel complete with jails, houses, hotels, shoots, ladders, and mysterious haunted buildings.

Some might argue that my concentration on black migration in relation to any form is merely another modernist study, that black people are in fact black folk who are still nostalgic for an agrarian past that capitalism and wage-labor markets have overwritten. I work with and against this notion. Yes, the slave trade destroyed agrarian or water-based economies that promoted folk production, ← 2 | 3 → and, yes, during the Great Migration, black American citizens vacated the rural south in droves to become wage laborers in larger towns and cities, an historical process that fomented mass alienation and yearning for a lost way of life and work. We do see this zeitgeist driving black artists to partake in the detective genre. But, there is more to the story. My disquiet lies in the definition of the folk, who are believed generally to cohere around and bond over common labor, exertions that link them to the natural world. Pre-slavery West African societies often fell under this category as communities where designed to thrive from shared (compound) efforts, but many of these same communities also held that ancestral and divine essences shared space with the living; that is: in a given place, conterminous realms coexist. So, what formed communities and a sense of duty to the group was a desire to stoke and answer to those on the other side who were nearby.1 This philosophy granted immense spiritual resonance to a given place. It became the terrain on which the individual made sense even before he or she put his or her hands on the earth because that individual becomes as a process of traveling through realms. She gels and is made and remodeled by both living and dead, the spiritual and the visible, all acting on and through the natural environment. Under this belief, we conceive of a specific geography as a moral-based educational nexus where spirits intervene using the natural tools around them to build a better human world: an animal’s chatter or river’s rushing, for instance, can be a manifestation of an ancestor’s or a deity’s language: The Christian’s burning bush on a daily and vast basis.

There are numerous contemporary illustrations from the Diaspora: Ben Okri’s Famished Road and several African films depict these shared, intersecting realms where spirits and humans encounter each other.2 The African-American practice (borrowed from Africa) of pouring libation for a fallen comrade is an attestation to the dense cohabitation of space. The Egungun rite that predates the African Slave Trade is designed to invoke and praise the passed-on in hopes of soliciting good fortune. This festival lives on in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where masked stilt walkers usher in the boisterous and barely containable essences, who seem to enjoy visiting an exuberant and expectant crowd. In addition, Orisha (most often hailed by the Yoruba), an intermediary deity between God and man, are immersed in the geographical strata and communicate through nature. The most common sightings are the Signifying Monkey and the Spider who are folkloric manifestations of Orisha, entities who have migrated to the west and turn up in the form of Anansi, Coyote and Brer Rabbit. Proverbs traced to West Africa also share in the faith that flora and fauna can be instructive and used as a teaching tool. Totem or representational embodiments such as elephant, snake ← 3 | 4 → or turtle are yet another example of this encompassing belief in coexisting and co-constructing fields.

In many regards, the spirit and its natural setting are synonymous in West Africa life, but there is also secular reverence for the land that can be attributed to the commercial advantage that it has granted to West African communities. We know that early currencies derived from local production of the land and were represented in natural forms such as cowrie shells, palm wine, chattel and gold. Musical instruments and jewelry comprised of indigenous elements stimulated pre-Slavery industries just as arts developed from the handcrafted transformation of home-based elements (especially textiles, sculpture, and jewelry). If we combine the spiritual and philosophical importance of the land with its economic and cultural significance, we can appreciate that it represented a deeply seated sustaining force, or what the Yoruba might call Ashé. The Slave trade cut that vital link for over twelve million people and their lost descendents.

So, if the saga of the African Diaspora is about numerous folk dispossessed on one shore and cruelly reassembled on another, it is also and, perhaps, more centrally about communities that lost their path to naming their condition as beings, as persons, as persons to be molded by the wisdom of a dense place. Kwame Nkrumah states it most poignantly when he recounts his life in Ghana on the eve of his migration to the United States: “I saw the women and children of the village standing knee deep in the water [river] unconcernedly bathing or washing clothes. At this peaceful picture of African rural life, I felt my first pang of homesickness” (25). “Home” or unified ground is defined by Nkrumah as a line running smoothly from mother/nurturer to nature, from the future and regeneration to the opaque strength of the river, from his environment to his sense of belonging. The water symbolizes a dense realm where spirits and breathing gaze on each other through the reflective plane of the river’s surface, an above and underworld of activity coming to a crossroad on a thin sheath of shimmering molecules. This is also the time and place where loss begins, not a scene of communal labor, but a scene of unconscious being, a unity with his environs that he would never fully experience again. Similar to Wordsworth’s elusive Lucy in the woods haunting the English forest, Nkrumah turns to an idyllic depiction to anchor and access the present, to help him describe his feeling of loss.3 He describes a home world that only lives through porous memory and imagination. When those fail, as they are bound to over time and generations, we begin to redefine ourselves through a more nomadic and restless ethos, or as Walter Mosley’s sage premier detective Easy Rawlins calls it: “There’s a lotta good strong hearts out there, problem is they get lost when they wander too far from home” (Blonde Faith 93). The detective ← 4 | 5 → genre provides a vehicle for the black artist to search for a substitute for what has been lost, a duplicate or stand-in, an equal but different energy, an education about self-awareness, a unifying mission, a safe harbor, a praise-worthy Mecca, and/or a laughing Orisha picking her teeth after a good trick. Black mysteries are geared around seeing, looking, peering, assessing, and hunting in familiar and unfamiliar grounds. The lead miscreant catcher surveys her environment, marks its potential and pronounces it viable, rehab-worthy or fallow.

Before delving into more specific ways in which the gumshoe inscribed by black women functions, it helps to highlight briefly how migration, forced and willing, has impacted on the people of the African Diaspora in order to appreciate how pervasively African people have had to contend with being uprooted.4 The Atlantic Slave Trade that started around 1600 reached its height between 1751 and 1800 when over three million Africans were transported across the Atlantic. Between 1800 and 1850, another two point five million arrived to add to the over two million that had arrived previous to 1751. By its conclusion, over eight million live bodies had been shipped and delivered. Of this number, approximately 35% were women.5 Caribbean hubs served as the first stop during the trade’s early years, but the lanes shifted to North America as the tobacco and cotton industries began to rival the sugar trade. Olaudah Equiano’s narrative captures the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ volatility as Africans and colonialists alike were sailing through the triangle buffeted about by mighty commerce.6 By the nineteenth century, another major branch of migration began as U.S. slaveholders in the upper south commenced to sell their slaves to black belt areas down south for profit, shifting the focus to slave breeding as a money-making occupation.7 Fear of being sold down river emerged in written documents such as slave narratives and in fiction (Uncle Tom’s Cabin for instance). Hastened by this fear along with the growing slave population and analogous increasing codification of laws, criminalization of slave persons, and punishments meted out, escapes increased. Runaways fled to the anonymity of urban areas where they could blend in with free blacks and to isolated regions in the woods, swamps and bayous of the south. Some found refuge in the Indian territories.8 By the end of the Civil War, African-Americans had infiltrated much of the eastern seaboard from free populations in the north and large cities of the south to the newly freed in the south to maroon communities in remote areas to Native American converts to outlaws who patrolled the borders of known civilization. During Reconstruction, many hit the road searching for disappeared loved ones and to better economic conditions. Consequently, western expansion held sway over many former slaves who dreamed of acquiring land and establishing safe towns free from racial ← 5 | 6 → intimidation and economic oppression. In 1879 alone, thousands from Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas set off for Kansas with a near messianic fever that God would deliver them to the Promised Land.9 Many were beguiled by dubious advertising and arrived in the new territories without the support that had been promised. Some of those disillusioned by the hoax returned south, and others pushed further west.10 Throughout the late nineteenth century, black Americans established safe communities, land ownership, banks, schools, civic organizations, businesses and towns largely on their own after the repeal of Reconstruction Laws beginning in 1878.


VIII, 200
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (December)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. VIII, 200 pp.

Biographical notes

Carol Allen (Author)

Carol Allen received her Ph.D. in American literature from Rutgers University and her M.A. and B.A. in English from the University of Virginia. Dr. Allen has been employed at Long Island University since 1995 and has been a full professor in the English Department since 2009 and Director of the Africana Studies Program since 2005. Her previous publications include several journal articles, reviews, and two books: Peculiar Passages: Black Women Playwrights, 1875 to 2000 and Black Women Intellectuals: Strategies of Nation, Family, and Neighborhood in the Works of Pauline Hopkins, Jessie Fauset, and Marita Bonner.


Title: Journeys and Journals
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209 pages