Urban Fiction – the most popular genre of fiction among Black people, particularly Black youth – like all great genres of fiction, has old, deep roots. They are roots that have borne fruit the likes of Sister Souljah, K’wan, Teri Woods, Vickie Stringer, Treasure Blue and Wahida Clark, just to name a few.
The roots of the Urban Fiction tree – the Founding Fathers, if you will are:
Chester Bomar Himes was born July 29, 1909 in Jefferson City, Missouri, but his parents –Joseph Sandy Himes, a peripatetic professor of industrial trades at Black colleges and universities and Estelle Bomar Himes, a teacher at Scotia Seminary – eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio.
In late 1928, Himes was arrested, chained upside down, beaten by police until he confessed to an armed robbery and then sentenced to 20 to 25 years of hard labor in Ohio Penitentiary. In prison, he wrote short stories that were published in national magazines. Himes stated that writing in prison and being published was a way to earn respect from guards and fellow inmates, as well as to avoid violence.
His first stories appeared in 1931 in The Bronzeman and, beginning in 1934, in the prestigious men’s magazine, Esquire. His story, To What Red Hell, published in Esquire in 1934, as well as his novel Cast the First Stone – only much later republished, unabridged, as Yesterday Will Make You Cry (1998) – dealt with the catastrophic 1930 prison fire Himes witnessed at Ohio Penitentiary in 1930.
In 1934 Himes was transferred to London Prison Farm and in April, 1936, he was released on parole into his mother’s custody. Following his release, he worked part-time jobs and at the same time continued to write. During this period, he came in touch with Langston Hughes, who facilitated Himes’ contacts with the world of literature and publishing.
Later, in 1936 Himes married Jean Johnson.
In the 1940s, Himes spent time in Los Angeles working as a screenwriter and authoring two novels, If He Hollers Let Him Go and The Lonely Crusade. He also provided an analysis of the Zoot Suit Riots for The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP.
Himes’ brief career as a screenwriter was for Warner Brothers. He was terminated, however, when CEO Jack Warner heard about him and screamed “I don’t want no niggers on this lot!”
By the 1950s Himes had decided to settle in France permanently, a country he liked, in part due to his popularity in literary circles. In Paris, Himes was the contemporary of the political cartoonist Oliver Harrington and fellow expatriate writers Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and William Gardner Smith.
Famed author, Ishmael Reed said of Himes: “He taught me the difference between a black detective and Sherlock Holmes” and it would be more than 30 years until another Black mystery writer, Walter Mosley and his Easy Rawlins and Mouse series, had even a similar effect.”
Himes wrote a series of Harlem Detective novels featuring Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, New York City police detectives in Harlem. While most Urban Fiction features law enforcement officers as the antagonists, Himes, considered the father of Urban Fiction, chose detectives as the protagonists, but they are as victimized by racism as any other Black man and thus become defenders of their community and opponents of the unjust and racist system.
The titles of the series include A Rage in Harlem, The Real Cool Killers, The Crazy Kill, All Shot Up, The Big Gold Dream, The Heat’s On, Cotton Comes to Harlem, and Blind Man with a Pistol – all written in the years 1957–1969.
Cotton Comes to Harlem was made into a movie in 1970, which was set in that time period, rather than the earlier period of the original book. A sequel, Come Back, Charleston Blue was released in 1972, and For Love of Imabelle was made into a film under the title A Rage in Harlem in 1991.
In 1969 Himes moved to Moraira, Spain, where he died in 1984 from Parkinson’s Disease. He is buried at Benissa cemetery.
Robert Beck – better known as Iceberg Slim – was born Robert Lee Maupin on August 4, 1918 in Chicago, Illinois. He spent his childhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Rockford, Illinois until he later returned to Chicago.
Slim attended Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, but soon began bootlegging and was expelled as a result. After his expulsion, his mother encouraged him to become a criminal lawyer so that he could make a legal living while continuing to work with the street people he was so fond of, but Maupin, seeing the pimps bringing women into his mother’s beauty salon, was far more attracted to the model of money and control over women that the pimps provided.
Slim started pimping at 18, and continued to pimp until age 42, after a final 10-month prison stretch in solitary confinement in 1960. At that point, he decided he could continue making money off pimping by writing about it instead. Slim moved to California to pursue writing under the Iceberg Slim pen-name. In normal life, he changed his name to Robert Beck, taking the last name of the man his mother was married to at the time.
His first novel, an autobiographical classic, was Pimp: The Story of My Life, published by Holloway House.
Reviews of Pimp were mixed; it was quickly categorized as being typical of the Black “revolutionary” literature being created at the time. However, Beck’s vision was considerably bleaker than most other black writers of his era. His work tended to be based on his personal experiences in the criminal underworld, and revealed a world of seemingly bottomless brutality and viciousness. His was a peek into the world of Black pimps, hustlers and crooked cops. Pimp sold very well. By 1973, it had been reprinted 19 times and had sold nearly 2 million copies.
Following Pimp, Beck wrote several more novels: Trick Baby (1967), Mama Black Widow (1969), Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim (1971), Long White Con (1977), Death Wish: A Story of the Mafia (1977), and Airtight Willie & Me (1985). He sold over six million books prior to his death in 1992, making him one of the best-selling African-American writers (after Alex Haley).
Slim died of complications from diabetes on April 28, 1992. He was 73 years old.
At the age of 15, Goines lied about his age to join the Air Force, where he fought in the Korean War. During his stint in the armed forces, Goines developed an addiction to heroin that continued after his honorable discharge from the military in the mid-1950s. In order to support his addiction, Goines committed multiple crimes, including pimping and theft, and was sent to prison several times. He began writing while serving a sentence in Michigan’s Jackson Penitentiary. Goines initially attempted to write westerns, but decided to write Urban Fiction after reading Iceberg Slim’s Pimp.
Goines wrote novels at an accelerated pace in order to support his drug addictions, with some books taking only a month to complete. His sister Joan Goines Coney later said that Goines wrote at such an accelerated pace in order to avoid committing more crimes and based many of the characters in his books on people he knew in real life.
In 1974, Goines published Crime Partners, the first book in the Kenyatta Series under the name ‘Al C. Clark’. Holloway House’s chief executive Bentley Morriss requested that Goines publish the book under a pseudonym in order to avoid having the sales of Goines’s work suffer due to too many books releasing at once. The book dealt with an anti-hero character named after Jomo Kenyatta that ran a Black Panther-esque organization to clear the ‘hood of crime.
On October 21, 1974 Goines and his common-law wife were discovered dead in their Detroit apartment. The police had received an anonymous phone call earlier that evening and responded, discovering Goines in the living room of the apartment and his common-law wife, Shirley Sailor, in the kitchen. Both Goines and Sailor had sustained multiple gunshot wounds to the chest and head. The identity of the killer or killers is unknown and no motive for the murders has been found.
Thanks to one of my favorite authors, Lynn Emery, I have learned there was also a Founding Mother of Urban Fiction:
The Lane girls were raised sheltered from most of the disadvantages other black people in the United States had to experience due to the color of their skin; however there were a number of incidents of racial discrimination.
After an English teacher read one of Ann’s essays, she told Ann that she should, one day, become an author. She decided to write professionally. Her parents, however, had different plans for Ann. They decided she would be a pharmacist and, in 1931, Ann graduated with a Ph.G. (Graduate of Pharmacy) degree from Connecticut College of Pharmacy in New Haven. After graduation, she worked in the family business for several years. She also began to write short stories while working at the pharmacy.
On February 22, 1938, she married George D. Petry of New Iberia, Louisiana, which brought her to New York. She wrote articles for newspapers such as The Amsterdam News and The People’s Voice and published short stories in The Crisis. She also worked in an after-school program at P.S. 10 in Harlem. It was during this period of her life that she realized and experienced the racial inequality and injustice suffered by the majority of Black people in the United States.
Published in 1946, The Street became wildly popular and won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship with book sales exceeding one and a half million copies.
The impact of Petry’s writing continues to be appreciated: literary critics praise her as the most successful author of urban protest writing; and black feminists cite The Street as the first African-American novel in which motherhood is a major theme.
In an article in the February 1946 issue of The Crisis, Petry said of The Street:
“My aim is to show how simply and easily the environment can change the course of a person’s life … I try to show why the Negro has a high crime rate, a high death rate, and little or no chance of keeping his family unit intact in large northern cities.”
Ann Petry died April 28, 1997, near her home in Old Saybrook, after a brief illness.
Recently, I interviewed Fagbuyi, Urban Fiction historian and co-writer of the soon-to-be-released Urban Fiction audio drama series, STREET STORIES: Diesel:
What was your introduction to Urban Fiction? How did you start reading it?
My introduction to Urban Fiction was in 2000, during my senior year of high school. One of my classmates was reading The Coldest Winter Ever, by author Sister Souljah. She let me borrow it. I read the book in one day. I’ve been hooked on Urban Fiction ever since.
What do you like about Urban Fiction?
I love the complex plots; the twist and turns. I love how the story pulls you in.
How many Urban Fiction books have you read?
I’ve read at least 200 Urban Fiction novels.
What is Street Stories: Diesel? And how are you involved?
Street Stories: Diesel is a gritty street story full of love, treachery and revenge. With every corner you turn in the world of Diesel, you have to watch your back because everybody wants to wear the crown and rule the streets. Some will even die trying to get that crown. Diesel was thought of by Balogun. I was given the opportunity to co-write. I am excited to be a part of this awesome project!
An audio series is a unique and new approach to Urban Fiction. Why did you and your co-creators choose to create an audio series? Are there any Street Stories: Diesel novels in the works? A television series? A movie?
An audio podcast is an awesome idea! There aren’t any Urban Fiction audio drama series out there and we wanted to do something unheard of; to start a trend.
Yes, there is a Diesel novel in the works. There will be a novel for every Street Story that we record. The books will give a more juicy, behind the scenes detail of what’s going on in the Street Story world. We will give our listeners a deeper look into the characters in the novel and trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
A television series? We would love to give you that answer right now, but you will just have to stay tuned for that one. No contracts have been signed as of yet.
A movie? When presented with the opportunity to bring Diesel to the big screen, yes.
The torch lit and carried by the three great Founding Fathers of Urban Fiction has been passed into capable hands and it appears the fire of Urban Fiction will forever burn brightly.
Soon, that flame will grow into a conflagration and set the streets on fire when a little Diesel is poured on it!