Free From Pro Se- Academic Essay Featuring Pro Se's 'Black Pulp'
It is always a wonderful experience when We find out how much a work from Pro Se influences or impacts someone. The following paper is written by Pro Se Author and Editor Percival Constantine for a class in pursuit of his Masters in English and Creative Writing with a Screenwriting Concentration. The paper is entitled 'Darkest Africa: A Racial Analysis of Pulp Jungle Heroes Tarzan and Mtimu'. Mtimu is a character created by Charles Saunders and featured in Pro Se's BLACK PULP Anthology.
Today, the term “pulp fiction” is most-commonly associated with the title of Quentin Tarantino’s successful 1994 film, but the term has existed for far longer and has become someone marginalized in the mass cultural consciousness. Ostensibly beginning in the 1890s, the “pulps” as they were called were cheap magazines that derived their name from the cheap wood pulp paper on which they were printed. Although mostly associated with the hard-boiled crime fiction published in magazines such as Black Mask, the pulps explored a wide range of genres, including science fiction, fantasy, sports, masked adventurers, and even romance. As the magazine format died out in the 1950s the pulps followed, replaced by mass market paperback novels. The legacy is still felt today, however, with a number of characters from the pulp era surviving into the modern-day: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars had a profound influence on science fiction and fantasy, including a recent big budget film adaptation, while his other creation, Tarzan, has remained a fixture in popular culture for decades, as has Johnston McCulley’s Zorro. Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian found new life in comic books and film, and other characters like Lester Dent’s Doc Savage and Walter B. Gibson’s the Shadow are currently enjoying a new renaissance in the form of novels and comic books, with proposed feature films in development. Their influence was also felt in characters that followed: comic book superheroes, which are currently enjoying immense success in film and television, were heavily influenced by the hero pulps that preceded them, as were popular characters such as James Bond and Indiana Jones. With the advent of digital printing and the burgeoning ebook market, numerous independent publishers and authors have sprung up, taking advantage of the ease in distribution and production in order to create new pulp fiction. Some of these are revitalizations of pulp characters who have fallen into the public domain, while others create new characters inspired by the pulps of old.
Despite their influence on popular culture and longevity, the pulps have never been particularly well-regarded by the literary establishment. In the Journal of Social History, Jay Hopler of Purdue University writes:
My reluctance to read the work of writers like Erle Stanley Gardner, Frederick Nebel and W.T. Ballard was a result of having been told by every academic I had ever encountered that it was completely worthless, not just as art, but even as schlock fiction. ‘They can't even do good garbage,’ one of my colleagues declared during one of our many discussions on the subject. … With the notable exception of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald, that hard-boiled trio the snooty, gate-keeping literati eventually embraced as delightfully cynical American modernists, the authors of hard-boiled detective fiction were not to be taken seriously (459-60).
Hopler’s reluctance to even look at the pulps showcases the literary establishment’s tendency to turn up their noses at those stories, and it is hard to judge them too harshly on this subject: there were many magazines that featured badly-written stories and also contained archaic depictions of race. Without fail, the protagonists of the pulps were almost always white men. Women and minorities were never the heroes, and were often presented in stereotypical fashion. While there were some exceptions, pulp fiction was dominated by white male authors and characters. Hopler, quoting Erin A. Smith’s Hard-boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines, defines the pulp readership thusly:
Ms. Smith makes a convincing argument that the readers of pulp fiction in the 20s, 30s and 40s were “primarily...white, male, often immigrant, and working-class” (16). These readers, according to Smith, were concerned with finding and keeping jobs that provided them with as much autonomy and money as possible, with asserting their manliness and keeping women in their traditional places—they used the stories published in the pulp magazines to find ways to quell their anxieties.
The use of stereotypes has long been common in not only pulp fiction, but also pop culture as a whole. In “Racial Formations,” Michael Omi and Howard Winant point out that “Television’s tendency to address the ‘lowest common denominator’ in order to render programs ‘familiar’ to an enormous and diverse audience leads it to regularly assign and reassign racial characteristics to particular groups, both minority and majority” (13). Popular culture not only reflects racial prejudices, but sometimes also perpetuates them, so it is little surprise that Burroughs’ target audience of white, working class males would find the racial components of Tarzan of the Apes appealing.
But the modern-day pulp writers are attempting to present a new face. Pro Se Productions, one of the new pulp fiction publishers, is leading the charge with the publication of Black Pulp, an anthology featuring a number of established and independent authors penning pulp stories, but with black protagonists. The focus of this essay will be “Mtimu,” a story by Charles R. Saunders, and a comparison of that story with its obvious influence, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. Like Tarzan, Mtimu was raised in the jungles of “Darkest Africa,” but there are a number of differences between the two, the most obvious one being their race.
Tarzan of the Apes and Burroughs’ successive novels feature some of the worst examples of racism in literature, and much has been written about them. Despite being raised by apes, Tarzan nonetheless becomes incredibly civilized in a remarkably short amount of time. Burroughs presents this as a condition of Tarzan’s lineage, being a descendant of English nobility, and John Newsinger has stated as much: “it is not Tarzan’s humanity that allows him to master his environment, but his English aristocratic heritage that runs in his blood and has been passed on by his forebears (60). He discovers the cabin he and his parents lived in for a short period and becomes transfixed by the books his father had brought from England. Simply by studying the words, he learns to read, which Burroughs admits in the narration that this is “a task which might seem to you or me impossible” (Ch. 7). After a few years, by the time he’s eighteen, Tarzan “read fluently and understood nearly all he read in the many and varied volumes on the shelves” (Ch. 9). Newsinger writes of Tarzan: “To all intents and purposes, he is a wild beast, but somehow he manages to overcome his savage upbringing and eventually emerges a primitive but still recognizable English gentleman” (60).
Burroughs portrays Tarzan in stark contrast to the black characters in the book, in particular the Mbonga tribe, who are cannibalistic savages. One of them, Kulonga, kills Kala, the ape who adopted Tarzan. To avenge his adoptive mother, Tarzan stalks and lynches Kulonga. Now presented with the opportunity to eat his prey, Tarzan hesitates. “All he knew was that he could not eat the flesh of this black man, and thus hereditary instinct, ages old, usurped the functions of his untaught mind and saved him from transgressing a worldwide law of whose very existence he was ignorant” (Ch. 9). Whereas the Mbongans are depicted as cannibals, Tarzan finds himself unable to partake in that same habit. Jeff Berglund discusses this key difference between Tarzan and the Mbongans:
What impels him at this point more than anything, the narrator makes clear, is his inherited instinct for right and wrong. His advanced Anglo-Saxon stock, which still courses through his arteries despite close to twenty years of jungle education, encodes for him a superior morality. This Darwinian survival of the most moral is continually repeated throughout the later parts of the novel, particularly when Tarzan is faced with the rescue and protection of others like himself (58).
The white savage (Tarzan) is depicted as more civilized and moral than the black savages (the Mbongans). Berglund notes that the only other black character in the book is Esmerelda, a servant of Jane’s. But Esmerelda’s depiction is also stereotypical, “a heavy, buffoonish, hysterical mammy, the foil to Jane’s slender, beautiful, and proper white womanhood” (60). Berglund also makes an interesting observation about Tarzan’s relationship with the Mbongans, the first humans he sees: “Why does Tarzan not write to the Mbongans? … Tarzan doesn’t hesitate for a second before scrawling a message to the whites who have ransacked his house. If he intuits that writing is a product of humans, why does he refrain from using it with other humans?” (60). This is an important feature, and Berglund is right to draw attention to it. After Tarzan kills Kulonga, he clearly recognizes him as a man. “Had not his books taught him that he was a man? And was not The Archer a man, also?” (Burroughs Ch. 9). As far as Tarzan’s experience is concerned, English is the only language of man, but he never attempts to use it with the Mbongans. Instead, he steals from their village and terrorizes them, but when it comes time to face the whites, he is initially suspicious but quickly becomes a protector of them.
The message Tarzan writes to the whites is also worth noting: “This is the house of Tarzan, the killer of beasts and many black men” (Ch. 13). Berglund points out the meaning of Tarzan’s name in the ape language: white skin. Substituting that meaning for Tarzan’s name in the note and what we are left with is white skin is the killer of black men (68). Despite their designation in the narration as human, the way Burroughs has Tarzan treat the black characters suggests that he views them as little more than animals. Newsinger also notes the difference between the Mbongans and Tarzan on the subject of cannibalism and how it serves to set them apart:
Tarzan’s humanity is distinguished from that of the blacks. Their humanity is of a lower order. They are part of the African darkness, incapable of rising from it, at least through their own efforts. … They are, in fact, numbered among the jungle’s savage inhabitants, as part of the wildlife (62).
Esmerelda does not fare much better in this depiction, because she is nothing more than a servant and cannot do anything for herself. In fact, she seems to need Jane more than Jane needs her and “Tarzan regards her as some sort of domesticated animal, as a pet black” (62). Tarzan judges almost exclusively based on skin color, as proven in this exchange with Paul D’Arnot, the French Naval Officer whom Tarzan saves and who then tutors Tarzan in the ways of civilization:
“Maybe they are friends,” suggested D’Arnot.
“They are black,” was Tarzan’s only reply (Burroughs Ch. 25).
Tarzan’s first instinct upon seeing a black man is to view him as an enemy, he does not even consider the possibility that they could be similar to him or possibly even helpful to him and D’Arnot. Instead, Tarzan is much more willing to kill them before they can even see him.
The ways in which Burroughs sets up the different statuses of blacks and whites figures directly into early twentieth century ideas on race. Tarzan of the Apes was first published in serial format in 1912, and so the Civil War and slavery were still part of recent American history, and an era when blacks were considered subhuman.
Some may argue that works such as Tarzan of the Apes should simply be left in the past, not revisited. The popular notion seems to be that the pulps were drivel, with very, very politically incorrect depictions of racial minorities, and so the culture should move past that. In “Blueprint for Negro Literature,” Richard Wright discussed the problem of black literature in the past:
Negro writing in the past has been confined to humble novels, poems, and plays, decorous ambassadors who go a-begging to white America. They entered the Court of American Public Opinion dressed in the knee-pants of servility, curtsying to show that the Negro was not inferior, that he was human, and that he had a life comparable to that of other people. These were received as poodle dogs who have learned clever tricks. … In short, Negro writing on the whole has been the voice of the educated Negro pleading with white America (ChickenBones).
A book titled Black Pulp, which serves to cast black characters in roles traditionally reserved for whites, would seem to be exactly this sort of “poodle dog” that Wright criticizes. But author Walter Mosley offers a different perspective in his introduction to Black Pulp:
I am more than happy to read about the history and psychology of oppression, the disenfranchisement of our culture and the overwhelming power of capital—but these revelations are poor fare if I cannot also imagine a different world and a different life where the chains of the modern world can be shrugged (9-10).
In a podcast interview promoting the collection, Mosley told a story about his father, who grew up reading and loving the pulps and eventually tried to submit a story of his own and never got a response. Mosley then says that a year later, his father found a magazine that contained what was basically his story and “he realized that he was going to forever be excluded from this world. … This is a property that we’re reclaiming” (Pulped! Ep. 18). And the stories within the collection do fit one of Wright’s qualifications that every story “should carry within its lines, implied or explicit, a sense of the oppression of the Negro people, the danger of war, of fascism, of the threatened destruction of culture and civilization; and, too, the faith and necessity to build a new world.”
The lack of speculative fiction from black voices is not necessarily surprising. In “Futurist Fiction & Fantasy,” Gregory E. Rutledge posits an explanation for why there is a dearth of black voices in science fiction and fantasy, which could also be extended to pulp fiction as well:
Wealth and security generate zones of freedom to indulge in speculative thought, reading, and writing. … Neither Black communities in Africa nor in the African diaspora, long encumbered with sociopolitical and socioeconomic travails, has had the opportunity to acquire the critical momentum to make speculative fiction a broad phenomenon (240).
Rutledge also notes two other problems raised previously: the low opinion of pulp fiction held by the literary establishment as well as the racism prevalent in the industry for some time:
Given the tendency of many literary scholars, Black and otherwise, to think of FFF as hedonistic, and the systemic racism of the FFF industry that persisted for many years, among other things, the resulting cosmology of constraint limited and limits the exploratory aspirations of many (diasporic) Africans (236).
As Wright noted, black writers wanted to be taken seriously by the literary establishment and were rewarded with little more than condescension. Had there been more black writers producing non-literary fiction in the form of the pulps, the chances are great they would have been regarded at a lower status than the oft-derided white pulp authors. However, like Mosley, Rutledge points out the appeal this kind of fiction has for black readers:
This link between Otherness and the otherworld phenomenon of both fantasy and futurist fiction is something with which many persons of African descent may identify. Relegated early to the position of exotic Other, Africans and their descendants have been marked as the primitive for centuries (237).
It has already been demonstrated how Burroughs contributed to this relegation of blacks as Other, and fiction written from that point of view, fiction that can transport black readers into another world, could very well help illuminate legitimate and pressing concerns among the black community.
Another problem in the publication of a work such as Black Pulp lies in what Werner Sollors called the belief in ethnic exclusivity:
This attitude is quite common in ethnic studies today. It is based on the assumption that experience is first and foremost ethnic. Critics should practice cultural relativism and stick to their own turfs (based, of course, on descent), since an unbridgeable gulf separates Americans of different ethnic backgrounds… “You will never understand me. Don’t you understand?”—is the gesture with which cultural interaction seems to function… (12-13)
Michael Awkward also criticized such an approach in “Race, Gender, and the Politics of Reading”:
Taking traditional readings of Afro-American literature to their logical extremes, the black experience represents the hermeneutic tie that binds Afro-American writer and critic and the hermetical seal that protects black texts from penetration by uninformed and potentially racist white readers (9).
While Sollors and Awkward are mostly discussing literary criticism as opposed to the fiction itself, their ideas can also be applied to the world of fiction. Indeed, the attitude of an impenetrability does exist: “It was commonly believed that European-American FFF readers would not pay to read about the doings of Black characters” (Rutledge 239). With the racism present in the industry and the past treatment, why would black authors and readers even want to be part of such an establishment? What possible significance could a story about a white aristocrat raised in the jungle have to a black reader in the modern day? Or even in the past?
It is, of course, nonsense to believe that there is absolutely nothing to take away, or no possible way to write a story about a black Tarzan. After all, Depression-era Montana is far removed from feudal Japan, which is far removed from the Old West and a modern-day high school. Yet Dashiell Hammett’s novel, Red Harvest, was adapted into Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film, Yojimbo, which was also adapted into the Italian-made western film A Fistful of Dollars, and the story was also recently moved into a twenty-first century high school in the film Brick. The same story, spanning different eras, cultures, and countries, and yet it fits in each one.
This is true in Saunders’ story, “Mtimu.” As this is just a short story, it is understandably shorter than Tarzan of the Apes and much of Mtimu’s origins are told in brief as opposed to the expounded form we get of Tarzan’s origins. But here we have a man raised by ape-like people, a love interest from a “civilized” world, an elder “civilized” man who serves as mentor to the jungle hero, and other savage peoples who inhabit the land. But Saunders differentiates them from their roots in Tarzan of the Apes in a number of ways. While Jane Porter in Tarzan of the Apes was a stereotypically proper, upper-class American woman, relegated to the status of a damsel in distress, Enid Brown is an African American pilot who crashes in the jungle while attempting a non-stop solo flight from Egypt to South Africa that would make her “the first woman pilot to have accomplished that feat—and the first colored woman in the bargain” (Saunders 81). When in danger, Enid maintains her cool, unlike Jane, who is reduced to hysterics.
Alpheus Wilson was a black professor of botany in Georgia before embarking on an expedition to “darkest Africa” in order to search for a rare plant. He came to live in a village in a remote part of the Congo and met a young orphan named Yeke. After a slaver gang attacked the village, Alpheus escaped with the child until they were found by the Soko, a tribe of ape people who allowed the pair to live with them and Yeke grew to become Mtimu as he’s called by the natives, a term which means “wild man” (110). Unlike Tarzan, Mtimu was not granted a superhuman ability to understand languages, but learned them through Alpheus’ tutoring, grounding Mtimu’s story in a more realistic setting than Tarzan’s. The closest comparison there is for Alpheus in Tarzan of the Apes is D’Arnot, who teaches Tarzan how to speak French. Within two days, Tarzan is able to converse in the language. D’Arnot is anxious not only to return to civilization, but also to “civilize” Tarzan, chiding him for his preference of raw meat over cooked and proper eating habits: “You must not eat like a brute, Tarzan, while I am trying to make a gentleman of you. MON DIEU! Gentlemen do not thus—it is terrible” (Burroughs Ch. 25). It is also from D’Arnot that Tarzan discovers his heritage in the form of Lord Greystoke’s diary (written in French). But even before D’Arnot reads the diary, he suspects Tarzan’s true heritage: “Tarzan…you are pure man, and, I should say, the offspring of some highly bred and intelligent parents” (Ch. 25). D’Arnot recognizes an inborn nobility in Tarzan and wants to show the world the gentleman that exists inside the jungle hero. But Alpheus is quite different from D’Arnot. The Frenchman is eager to return to his home and to the civilization. Alpheus, however, understands that he does not belong there:
“Would you like to come back to America, Professor, and share what you have discovered here?” Enid asked after her narrative wound down.
“Never!” Wilson replied emphatically (Saunders 113-114).
This exchange comes about after Enid has told Alpheus of what has transpired in America since he began his expedition—she tells him of World War I, prohibition, and the continuing struggle of blacks against segregation. Alpheus seems to realize that the plights he encountered years earlier are still present: “It was 1905—a new century. But the notion of a Negro leading a scientific journey was unthinkable to most—including, sad to say, more than a few Negroes (109). Whereas D’Arnot has a home in France and a respected position as a Naval Officer, Alpheus realizes that civilization holds no attraction for him any longer. Despite his education and his position as a professor, he would still be regarded as a second-class citizen, and Alpheus instead prefers the life he has built for himself in Africa—where he has a son in Mtimu and is respected and held in high esteem by the Soko.
Perhaps most interesting is the depiction of Lulama, who parallels the Mbongans from Tarzan of the Apes. Like the Mbogans, Lulama is a native serving the white man and at first, she is depicted as somewhat savage in nature. The goal of Bailey, the white villain of the story, is to capture Mtimu and Enid and present them in a freak show as the Missing Link and his mate. However, he notes that Enid’s face and body would need to be scarred beyond recognition and that “He would teach Lulama the skills necessary to perform those grisly tasks, which he considered beneath him, but suitable for a savage. ‘And you’d enjoy every minute of it, wouldn’t you?’ the animal catcher whispered to the native woman. Lulama remained silent” (100). But later, after Bailey is killed by Mtimu, a new side of Lulama stands revealed:
“Bad man,” Lulama said, speaking Bailey’s tongue for the first time. “He come to my village. Save my father, who was healer, from lion. Spirits say we owe him. He make my people, the Uthama, his dogs. Make us do things…learn things…wear strange clothes…all for him. We could not kill him…because of debt. Spirits angry…if we not pay.” Then she looked at Mtimu. “You kill Bai-ley. I…Lulama…free now” (116).
Lulama is not the savage she may have appeared to be at first, she is simply a woman enslaved by the debt she owes to Bailey. This provides a sharp contrast to Newsinger’s depiction of the contrast between Tarzan and the Mbongans: “Tarzan is shown as having mastered his savage environment, as having risen above it like some sort of demi-god, whereas the blacks have succumbed and have become part of it” (61-62). But in “Mtimu,” Lulama and the Uthama are forced into this savage stereotype by their harsh master. Bailey is in fact the true savage, “the pitiless white man” as Mtimu refers to him (Saunders 108).
There are also significant differences between Tarzan and Mtimu, despite their similarities. Mtimu is of the jungles himself as he is an African native, and so he lacks Tarzan’s aristocratic heritage. Despite this supposed deficit, Mtimu proves capable of learning English and speaking it fluently, even affecting Alpheus’ southern accent (103). Both Tarzan and Mtimu are feared by the natives, but only in the case of Tarzan is the fear justified. Not only in Tarzan of the Apes, but numerous other tales, “one of [Tarzan’s] principle diversions was the baiting of the blacks” (Newsinger 63). Mtimu, however, is different: “The natives fear him as much as they do the Soko, even though he returns to safety anyone who wanders too deeply into the wild” (110) is what Alpheus tells Enid about the view the surrounding natives have of Mtimu. Unlike Tarzan, who despises the natives and sees them as marks to steal from, victims of pranks, or sometimes far more vicious torture, Mtimu treats all as equal. He sees himself as a protector, not only of his home, but also of those who may face danger should they wander too deeply.
While Burroughs did not seem in his personal life to hold negative racial beliefs, as noted by Berglund: “My purpose is not to label Burroughs a racist; in fact, his rather positive personal record of intercultural and interracial relationships might suggest otherwise” (59), it cannot be denied that his prose definitely appears racist in tone, particularly to a modern-day reader. Nevertheless, his stories can still serve as an inspiration to modern-day writers and readers, including black ones such as Saunders and Mosley. Without Tarzan of the Apes, Saunders likely would never have composed a response as engrossing as “Mtimu” and we might never have a collection as entertaining as Black Pulp. The pulp works of the past were certainly written for the target audience of the time: white, working class men. But this does not limit the potential reach they could have. As Mosley stated so wonderfully in his introduction: “Pulp fiction, in many cases, is the second movement in the dialectic of inner transition. It is the antithesis of what is expected and the stepping stone to true freedom” (9). Mosley’s introduction makes a profound argument for escapism, an opportunity to take what we know of the real world, and weave it into a fantastical world of adventure, where larger-than-life heroes and villains clash in cataclysmic tussles. We need not be bound by pulp’s racial prejudices of the past in order to move it into a new era, nor do the shortcomings of some of the tales mean the medium as a whole is without any merit.
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Newsinger, John. “Lord Greystoke and Darkest Africa: The Politics of the Tarzan Stories.” Race & Class 28.2 (1986): 59-71. Web. 2 August 2013.
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