The climate there was always changed from what the rest of America knew.
Legendary author Chester Himes originally published Hot Day Hot Night in 1969 as Blind Man with a Pistol, with this Dell photocover edition featuring a beautiful model coming in 1970. Those two years are about as far forward as we're willing to go when it comes to fiction for our website (we often read newer books, but don't write about them). Elmore Leonard and Stanley Ellin likewise have pushed the upper boundary of our vintage perimeter, so Himes, of course, has received an exception too.
Hot Day Hot Night features a typically digressive Himes narrative that derives from the murder of a charlatan and a missing suitcase of cash. The dead scam artist, who called himself Doctor Mubuta, had convinced a ninety-something preacher named Mister Sam that an arcane formula could restore youth and virility. It sounds a bit crazy that anyone would believe that, but Himes puts it succinctly: It wasn't any harder to believe in rejuvenation than to believe equality was coming. It's also easier to believe when you have no idea what the ingredients in the concoction are, as revealed in this amusing exchange:
“What's that milky stuff floating around in it?”
“That's albumin, same stuff as is the base for semen.”
Mubuta doesn't answer that—smartly, we think. Other elements of the miracle mixture include baboon balls, bits of rabbit, eagle, and shellfish, some rooster feathers, and a “concupiscent eye.” Of course, this is total baloney, though we never find out what's really in the stew. Ingredients readily available around Harlem exclude eagles. Anyway, when the deal goes awry and Mubuta ends up stabbed to death, Himes' franchise detective duo Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are drawn into the investigation in what is their final official appearance here in the eighth novel in Himes' Harlem Detective cycle (they also featured in 1993's posthumously published Plan B).
We've described Himes as a sort of literary walk on the wild side, and he's as uncompromising as ever all these entries into his Harlem series. It will be interesting to see how his work is regarded as the years pass. Himes is a mirror image of writers like Chandler and Spillane, working along identical literary lines, casting nearly every character in his books as criminals or victims. But the expectations on Himes were different, because—indisputably—rules change according to who's playing the game, and what color they are. We recommend this book, and everything by Himes.
Shaft hit America and changed the game.
We've discussed quite a few blaxploitation movies, but have neglected the 1971 thriller Shaft. What can you say about the granddaddy of them all, the movie that helped change Hollywood thinking about what viewpoints would sell? Many of the black oriented movies that came afterward were cash grabs, and for that reason most of them weren't good. No such problems exist with Shaft. It's fast, furious, and fun. Our viewing was a reminder that in addition to being a detective movie and a movie that centers black experiences, it's also a neo film noir in both execution and mood. Directed by acclaimed photographer and photo-journalist Gordon Parks, Shaft is gorgeous work, made mostly in actual locations around New York City, and sprinkled with symbology and visual metaphor right from the opening credits.
The character of Shaft is important in film history. Because the theme song is so widely heard most people know Shaft is a bad mother shut-your-mouth, but as the song also says, he's complicated. He lives in Greenwich Village in a bachelor pad decorated with modern art and filled with books. He's kind to children and helps people in need. He has feelings for his girlfriend but will not be tied down and is obliging toward other women who desire him. And he's a friend to any people who treat him with respect. This extends to his local bartender, who's gay and dispenses a familiar pat to Shaft's ass that we can assume isn't the first or last. A bad mother shut-your-mouth? For sure, but he's so much more. And likewise, Shaft is more than a detective movie. It's a cinematic achievement that entertains visually, intellectually, and viscerally. It's a must watch. It was first seen by the public at a special premiere in Detroit, Michigan today in 1971.
The best defense is a good offense.
Above: the original promo art for Hell Up in Harlem, a blaxploitation classic starring former NFL defensive back Fred Williamson, along with Gloria Hendry and others. This masterpiece was painted by Robert Tannenbaum, a promo art icon whose website you can check out here. You can read about the movie here. Hell Up in Harlem opened in New York City today in 1973.
Anthony Quinn and Yaphet Kotto give their all and then some in hard luck crime thriller.
Across 110th Street premiered today in 1972, which makes it one of the early arrivals in the blaxploitation wave that was sweeping American b-cinema. With its ample budget and its well established headliner in Anthony Quinn, you could make the case that it isn't fully part of the genre, but we think it fits, even if it's atypical. Outlier or not, you'll see several faces in this that would soon become well known in blaxploitation, and you'll also see Burt Young, later of Rocky and Chinatown.
Plotwise, the movie centers on odd couple cops—old school racist Quinn and college educated reformist Yaphet Kotto—thrown together à la In the Heat of the Night to solve an NYC murder/robbery. As familiar as this oil vs. water dynamic may be, the movie still comes together in exciting fashion thanks to the way it tracks the robbers' storylines. They're a trio of amateurs who ripped off the Mafia for $300,000 and now are being hunted by both crooks and cops. Quinn and Kotto must find these thieves before the Mafia turns Harlem into a war zone.
When the film was released it was criticized for its violence and bitter racial subtext, but upsetting the herd is one of the things it tries to achieve. And while it may not appeal to people's better angels, it's quite interesting, with the grit of Wally Ferris's otherwise radically altered source novel left intact, and the central metaphor embodied in the title—that of which lines will be crossed and what the consequences will be—deftly observed. Across 110th Street is rough stuff, but well worth a watch.
Who's the hardest dick in New York City? You know who.
We don't know about you, but we had no idea Shaft was a novel that predated the movie until we saw the above cover art. Written by Ernest Tidyman, this originally appeared in 1970 and was quickly snapped up by Hollywood. That edition was a hardback with a black and white cover by Mozelle Thompson and is rare. The edition you see at top was published in 2016 by Dynamite Entertainment and is widely available.
Plotwise, Shaft is hired to find a drug kingpin's kidnapped daughter with the help of Black Panther style revolutionaries. Tidyman's take on New York City and the social climate of the time is entertaining and the violence is swift and brutal. Because filmdom's Shaft was inclusive in his views, even to the extent of a jokingly flirtatious friendship with a gay bartender, we were surprised by the book's homophobia. Tidyman saw Shaft as ultra tough and therefore anti-gay, but the filmmakers saw right through such silliness and decided to turn that aspect of the book on its head. Another change is the treatment of the drug kingpin's daughter. In the movie she's merely kidnapped, but in the novel her captivity takes the form of narcotic and sexual slavery.
In terms of white authors inhabiting the personas of black Big Apple detectives, the trailblazing Ed Lacy did it better with 1958's Room To Swing, but Tidyman manages well enough, we think, even if his prose sometimes meanders. Though we read Shaft only because it was the wellspring of an excellent blaxploitation flick, turns out the book is worth a gander on its own merits. Tidyman also wrote like five sequels. We know nothing about those, but maybe we'll have a look.
I have a vision... It's getting clearer... It's you... buying the updated and revised edition of my book.
Above you see the cover of Old Aunt Dinah's Dream Book of Numbers. We've already talked about Gene Bilbrew's covers for 1970s dream books. We're revisiting the subject today to give you this additional look at his work, but also to take a historical angle on his specifically African American art. Playing daily numbers was an African American invention, part of an underground economy that flourished in many large cities, but reached its apotheosis in Harlem.
It's impossible to know when playing the numbers began—certainly long before the turn of the twentieth century—but the practice took off during the 1920s when a black West Indian man named Casper Holstein began using bank-to-bank transaction data published in New York City papers as the selection mechanism for his daily numbers. Previously, numbers had been chosen in various unreliable ways, but Holstein's innovation placed the selection of numbers in public view, removed any suggestion of corruption, and as a result Harlem's daily lottery thrived.
Which is exactly why the city of New York decided to take it over in 1980, a coup it managed in part by promising to use a portion of the numbers revenue toward public education costs. And of course, proving once again that politicians are the lowest creatures that ever crawled from beneath slime covered logs in miasmic swamps, the city then cut its contributions to the education budget so there was ultimately no net gain for schools, while profits were neatly excised from the black community.
Old Aunt Dinah's Dream Book of Numbers is the third dream book illustrated by Bilbrew we've shared. We're fascinated by the exotic, made-up personae on the covers. The idea of gypsies, Arabs, creoles, Asians, or very old people somehow tapping into mystical power thrived in pulp fiction, early movies, cartoons, and, as you see, even on the covers of dream books. Old Aunt Dinah is our favorite dream book invention, but the characters Madame Zodia and Princess Shaharr—the latter of whom we'll show you later—are close runners up.
For those who don't know what books like these are about exactly, we explained that in our typically roundabout way in previous write-ups, here and here. Shorter version: Dream until your dreams come true. We already have a couple more to share, and we'll keep an eye out for others. And of course we'll continue to be on the lookout for paperback art by Gene Bilbrew. You can see what he's about by clicking this link.
A love blooms in Harlem.
Chester Himes' wild Harlem crime novel For Love of Imabelle, which we talked about last year, was originally published in 1965. This Signet edition is from 1974. We rarely like ’70s covers, but this is great, with its expansive afro used as a background for the text. The art is by the same person who illustrated this Himes cover, but both, unfortunately, are uncredited.
Himes' Harlemites take the prize.
Above is an unusual orange cover by an uncredited artist for Chester Himes' crime yarn The Big Gold Dream. We're Himes fans, but for us this wasn't as enjoyable as For Love of Imabelle or The Real Cool Killers, nor as well written, in our opinion, but the author's flair is undiminished in a tale about a lottery winner whose $36,000 cash prize is stolen. The most interesting character here is Dummy, a man permanently deaf from a beating and mute from having his tongue cut out, but whose disrespectful nickname belies his tenacity. And of course franchise detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones also star. There are caricatures many readers will find offensive, but that just makes Himes like most writers of the period. No matter what, with him you can count on a portrayal of Harlem that's quirky and insightful, and that's probably reason enough to read the book. It originally appeared in 1959, and this Signet edition dates from 1975.
From behind the microscope to in front of the camera.
You don't know U.S. actress Emily Yancy but she's been around for a long time. She started performing on television in 1963 and is still going strong as of 2018. Of her few cinematic efforts two were notable—the blaxploitation classics Cotton Comes to Harlem and Blacula. Her small screen appearances include Starsky & Hutch, The Mod Squad, and MacGyver.
The above photo is from 1961, and it was made when she was eighteen years old and competing in the Miss American Beauty Pageant, not be confused with the Miss America Pageant. Interesting story, she was a biology major and was working at NYU Medical Center operating an electron microscope when her coworkers persuaded her to give parading up and down a stage in a swimsuit a shot. She won Miss American Beauty, which gave her a chance to compete again in France.
She was sent to Cannes and finished second in the Miss Cannes Film Festival competition. After that Hollywood called and those boring old electrons were forgotten. Television, film, nightclub performing, modeling and a lot of travel followed. There's a lesson in this story, and maybe not one that should be taught to little girls—Forget science! Give us a little leg!—but you don't need a microscope to see that Yancy takes a great picture, and her career longevity suggests she made a good choice.
A Harlem detective learns the rules of engagement in pre-civil rights America.
Ed Lacy is credited by many as having created the first African American detective, Harlem gumshoe Toussaint Marcus Moore. Room to Swing is the novel in which this uniquely named character debuted. The set-up for the plot is also unique. The producer of an unsolved crimes television show called You—Detective! has located a fugitive she wants to arrest on air. She hires Toussaint to keep an eye on this ratings goldmine and make sure he's still around when she and her film crew are ready to spring their trap. Sounds simple, but in 1958 a black detective following a white man 24/7 will run into problems, considering he can't safely go to all the same places. Hell, he couldn't comfortably go to all the same places even today.
And if being a cop magnet isn't bad enough for Toussaint, having a white woman as a client is even more problematic, since they can barely be seen in public together. This is true even in New York and Ohio, where the action takes place. Although the northern U.S. was not part of the Jim Crow system, outside of large cities apartheid generally reigned. Small town Ohio is no different from Alabama for Toussaint. Even getting lunch or using a pay phone is often difficult. Speaking to a white man without calling him “Sir” generally leads to trouble, and being referred to as “boy” in return is standard practice. All of which raises the question: Why did this deep-pocketed producer hire a black detective at all? She has her reasons.
Room to Swing won Lacy the coveted Edgar Award, though we wouldn't say the book is brilliantly written. But it takes readers into fresh territory for a detective novel, and Toussaint is portrayed humanistically and empathetically. The book exemplifies the idea that it's possible for anybody to write about anybody else, regardless of race. Unfortunately, it wasn't a luxury that was often afforded to any but white writers back then, but it certainly should have been. All sorts of insights might have been possible. Room to Swing has plenty of those, and if you can find this Pyramid paperback edition with Robert Maguire cover art, all the better.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1954—Joseph McCarthy Disciplined by Senate
In the United States, after standing idly by during years of communist witch hunts in Hollywood and beyond, the U.S. Senate votes 65 to 22 to condemn Joseph McCarthy for conduct bringing the Senate into dishonor and disrepute. The vote ruined McCarthy's career.
1955—Rosa Parks Sparks Bus Boycott
In the U.S., in Montgomery, Alabama, seamstress Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white man and is arrested for violating the city's racial segregation laws, an incident which leads to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott resulted in a crippling financial deficit for the Montgomery public transit system, because the city's African-American population were the bulk of the system's ridership.
1936—Crystal Palace Gutted by Fire
In London, the landmark structure Crystal Palace, a 900,000 square foot glass and steel exhibition hall erected in 1851, is destroyed by fire. The Palace had been moved once and fallen into disrepair, and at the time of the fire was not in use. Two water towers survived the blaze, but these were later demolished, leaving no remnants of the original structure.
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