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Review: The Black Sleuth


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John Edward Bruce's The Black Sleuth has been described as the first black detective story in American literature, but it is really a detective story in name only. The sleuth of the title, a Yoruba named Sadipe Okukenu, doesn't even take up detecting until the second half of the narrative, and once he does join the International Detective Agency and is assigned to tackle a gang of con artists planning a diamond heist, he does little actual sleuthing. The story peters out before the diamond is stolen or the criminals are even apprehended.

I don't mean to dismiss Bruce's tale, which was published in his lifetime only as a magazine story that ran in monthly installments from 1907 to 1909. The main interest of the story, which is considerable, lies in Bruce's angry, arch repudiation of white supremacy and in his commentary -- a half-century before Ralph Ellison published The Invisible Man -- on how whites do not see blacks. The Black Sleuth is, more than anything, a restatement of the race philosophy and activism of a widely published journalist, whom a contemporary described as "the prince of Afro-American columnists." Bruce, however, rejected the term "Afro-American," insisting on "Negro." He was a fervent black nationalist who advocated fighting lynching with lynching, and who saw Booker T. Washington as obstructing black progress with the mediocrity of vocational education. He was a largely self-taught student of black history, an early Afro-centrist who co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research with Arthur Schomburg.

Black Sleuth revolves around Sadipe and his brother, Mojola, who are superior in every way to every white person they encounter. Sadipe was educated at Eton, is an expert chess player and a piano prodigy, and is fluent in Latin, French, and German. Mojola writes and speaks even more languages, and quotes Shakespeare, Burns, and the Bible. Throughout the first half of the narrative, they engage whites both hostile and sympathetic in travels through South Africa, England, and America. They shame and confound the Caucasians they meet with their indictments of white racism and colonialism, and of the hypocrisy of white Christian evangelism. The book upends white concepts of race relations, portraying Africa as the land of light and promise, and Western society as the more barbarous.

"Before your race had a civilization or a religion, mine was, and from it your race has borrowed and stolen all that was best and most useful in art, science, religion, letters, politics and government, from which you have evolved what you proudly term Anglo-Saxon civilization," Mojola lectures an American Southerner whose father captained a slave ship. "Intelligent Africans laugh at your complacent egotism."

Sadipe travels to the United States, where he is astonished to learn about segregation and lynching. In Washington, D.C., he visits the Capitol and notes that the "misnamed" statue of the Goddess of Liberty keeps watch from her peak over the liberties and rights of the people in only "mock seriousness." One of the most stirring scenes in the book comes when Sadipe attends a black church in the deep South and hears a white missionary talk about how the "favored race" is lifting up heathen Africa. When the congregation sings the missionary standard, "From Greenland's Icy Mountains," with its references to the error and darkness of indigenous peoples, it becomes too much for Sadipe. He rises and delivers a soliloquy of rebuke, saying the heathens of Africa are not nearly so barbarous as the white Christians of the South, "who burn Negroes at the stake and hang them from trees and telegraph poles." As for the hymn, "it was written for a race at a time when human slavery dulled the consciences of men," he says. "No black man who understands the meaning of the words can sing it and retain his self respect."

Bruce is often didactic, but one of his deft touches is to have Sadipe pose as a waiter to investigate the white con artists. Because his face is black, his boss tells him, he can listen in on their plans and they will never take notice of him. Some of Bruce's rhetoric is prescient, as when he says the white nations then carving up Africa will not be able to hold onto it in the end. His optimistic Ethiopianism (Mojola quotes Psalms 68:31) has yet to be ratified, however. After a century of war and apartheid and disease, these words ring a little hollow: "[Africa] has no fears as to her future. Her star is in the ascendant. She stands upon the threshold of a future pregnant with hope and big with magnificent possibilities."

By the time Bruce published his tale, the Sherlock Holmes series had run its course and defined the genre. Black Sleuth is a weak sliver of a detective story, with much of Sadipe's success coming from the blind luck of walking into the right music hall at the right time, and from what he admits is pure guesswork. But it is clear Bruce's aim was polemic rather than entertainment. Mojola lectures, and the Southerner sees the error of his prejudice. Sadipe vows to die before he will let a crowd of rednecks force him into the Jim Crow car on a train, and they slink away with their tails between their legs. Bruce's story ran in McGirt's, a Philadelphia-based black magazine with a circulation of about 1,500. I imagine black parents reading that story to their children in 1,500 sitting rooms and parlors month after month, and those children listening in awe as two African supermen fearlessly defied all who tried to diminish them. And I think that is what Bruce envisioned, too.

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