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Hughes Allison
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pulp fiction writer
mystery writer

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Hughes Allison

Hughes Allison
Hughes Allison, author of the first black detective story in ‘Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine,’ pictured in 1950. [Hughes Allison Archive, Newark Public Library]

In September of 1950, Hughes Allison, a playwright and writer of pulp fiction, responded to a manuscript sent by a writer who requested that he reply via the Mystery Writers of America. The author, Polly MacManus, singled out Allison for a reason: He was black, she was white, and she wanted his advice on how to write from the point of view of a black detective.

Allison warned MacManus he would be “brutally frank” in his letter: “I urge you to abandon the attempt to write about Negroes.” He felt MacManus’s detective “neither talks nor acts nor thinks like any college-trained Negro I’ve ever met.” Another black character in the manuscript, a maid, “is the most unrealistic chauvinist I’ve ever encountered in fiction. And in real life, she would be regarded by the Negro detectives whom I know as the kind of stool pigeon only heaven could spawn.”

He then followed up with what he considered to be one of the major pitfalls white writers face when writing black characters: "When you begin handling Negroes as major characters in fiction you immediately enter into that big and enormous and important and most complex area of American life called the Negro Question—where no answer can be secured from any part of that question if conjecture is allowed to play even a small part. You can’t guess. You have to know. You have to know Negro life as Negroes live it—and they live on numerous political, economic, social, and intellectual levels growing out of cause-and-effect patterns, the character of which is historical. The history of this matter is well documented—so well documented that those who are informed can tell at a glance who knows and who is guessing."

MacManus may have had good intentions, but those, Allison wrote, “are seldom consistent with the harsh facts of history.”

In a 1950 interview with the Newark Evening News, Allison explained: “It’s a battle to get a story about a Negro detective published in a national magazine, you know. I send the publisher a page-by-page explanation of what I’m doing in the story, and how I know what I’m talking about. He has to be ready in case some letters of protest arrive from Mississippi or Georgia.”

Literary erasure is not always deliberate, but literary championing must be. Rachel Howzell Hall wrote earlier this year about being one of the few black mystery writers at annual genre conferences in an essay titled “Colored and Invisible” for The Life Sentence, a web site for crime and noir writers: “It can be lonely in those grand ballrooms, in those lesser ballrooms, at that reception. And there have been times when I’ve retreated to my hotel room, emotionally exhausted from being visibly invisible all day.”

For a moment in the 1990s, after Walter Mosley and Devil in a Blue Dress, crime fiction made room for more black writers. But then writers like Eleanor Taylor Bland, Penny Mickelbury, Paula Woods, Charlotte Carter, and others perhaps fell away in the relentless turnover of the publishing industry: canceled contracts, merged companies, and shifting editorial priorities. In recent years, few black crime-genre writers have reached Mosley’s level of popularity. To date, there are no available statistics on how well, or how badly, they are represented in the industry.

Recognizing the problem and addressing it accordingly takes work, and time. Yet it is frustrating, even shameful, how few writers of color get through the mystery corridors with a fictional representation of their own experiences. The door opened, briefly, for Hughes Allison. Before editorial neglect slammed it shut, Allison showed, years before Mosley, Himes, or any black detective fiction writer, what it was to live in his character’s skin.

Hughes Allison was born in Greenville, South Carolina in 1908. His family moved to Newark, New Jersey in 1919. Allison attended Bergen Street Grammar School, Barringer High School, and Upsala College. His first short story was published in Challenge Magazine in 1935.

By 1937, Allison’s first play, The Trial of Dr. Beck was being produced on Broadway, which starred famous white actor, William Bendix. Also throughout the 1930s, Allison worked as a reporter for True Story Magazine. Later he authored a series of articles about school segregation for the Newark Evening News. He wrote over 2,000 radio scripts.

Allison’s most famous character is African-American detective Joe Hill, who was modeled after the real Newark Police Homicide Detective Carlton B. Norris. Allison was married to Elitea Bulkley Allison, a children’s librarian at the Newark Public Library. He died on August 26, 1974 at Presbyterian Hospital in Newark.

Info: 'The Case of the Disappearing Black Detective Novel,' by Sarah Weinman and 'Newark's Literary Lights'