As our overarching theme for Autumn is ‘Dreams and Nightmares.’ What better way to explore this theme than with a very interesting new title Darktown by Thomas Mullen. Darktown is set in 1948 in Atlanta, Georgia. It concerns the lives of the first eight black policemen on the force and the investigation of the death of a black woman by a white suspect. This is a time in history when black men had just arrived back from serving in the Second World War and were seen as heroes (though they were in racially segregated ranks). On their return if they lived in a place such as Georgia they faced discrimination wherever they went.
You can see how the civil rights movement grew from these origins. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous 1963 speech: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal…” is fifteen years ahead in a turbulent future.
Mullen convincingly portrays the grinding reality of the day to day lives that these policemen had to endure. Darktown is the area of the city where the black people reside, it is known as Darktown, (a racial slur) and was previously patrolled by white officers but is now the beat of two new black officers.
Lucius Boggs and his partner Tommy Smith are two of the new recruits on the black force. Though they both want to do a good job as police officers and take it seriously, they experience frustration at every turn. The officers have a separate base from the rest of the force in a YMCA building. They are not allowed into the main police headquarters and are also not allowed to arrest anyone but have to call on white colleagues to do so for them. This, despite often being more educated and less prone to bribery and corruption than many of the white officers. The black officers want to clean up the community in Darktown by getting rid of the gambling dens, unlicensed bars and brothels.
Officer Boggs is the son of a Reverend, a prominent figure in the community who is involved in Civil Rights. He himself is viewed with suspicion by his community as the police historically have a bad reputation with the black community as they are seen as racist, unfair and violent. The community has therefore developed their own system of crime and punishment. Misdemeanours are settled inside the community with vendettas and fists. Boggs is determined and intelligent, his partner Smith is more hot headed and frequently breaks the numerous rules the officers have to obey by womanising. Boggs and Smith are frequently called ‘Boy’ by white officers and have to address these officers ‘Sir’ in return.
The narrative arc of the book concerns the murder of Lily Ellsworth a black woman Lucius and Tommy encounter in a car in Darktown after she was struck by a white male driver during an argument. The murder is insufficiently solved and pinned on the wrong person so Boggs decides to covertly investigate further as does rookie white Officer Denny Rakestraw.
What Mullen does so effectively is display that this is not just an issue of black versus white, he recognises that not all white people are racist and the figure of Officer Rakestraw is a great testament to that.
Rakestraw is a young new recruit, he wants to do a good job also like Boggs but Rakestraw has the unfortunate luck to be paired with a very racist partner Officer Lionel Dunlow. He frequently sees his partner being racist at every turn, Dunlow beats up “suspected bootleggers” and sometimes black people just for the “crime” of walking out late at night. Rakestraw is an interesting character, he is progressive and hates the racist attitude and behaviour of officers such as Dunlow and wants to work with the black officers not against them. His protective behaviour towards his new black neighbour Calvin can be seen as an example of his real thoughts and feelings. Though Rakestraw has a more progressive stance towards working, he knows that this is not a popular attitude in the white community in which he finds himself. Therefore, he needs to be careful about how he handles himself and finds himself conducting a covert investigation into the murder of Lily Ellsworth. He believes like Boggs that the murder has not been sufficiently investigated by the white officers who try to blame the wrong man for the crime. Boggs and Rakestraw are sure that this is to do with the initial main suspect being white.
Mullen weaves a fascinating narrative that is not only evocative in that you really feel like you are there with the characters as he displays such a strong sense of place but also you learn such a lot too. I knew a superficial amount about historical racism in the American south and the rise of civil rights and was aware of the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) and the terrible, race riots and lynchings. What I was not aware of was the more minor but relentless daily treatment of zero respect that black people had to endure. This must have been truly soul destroying and the shame and unfairness of this would surely endure for generations.
Darktown explores several serious issues. It reads at times like the best of James Ellroy, has sympathetic main characters and several villains. It exposes the fallacy of white ‘social appearance and respectability’ and highlights the constant extreme intolerance and prejudice that black people had to endure at that time in Georgia. I feel that this book also examines the origins of some of the trouble that is now being experienced in America with race and policing as can be seen in the #blacklivesmatter campaign. Mullen displays that this issue is so complicated and goes back decades.
Despite being a difficult read at times (as the scenes are so realistically portrayed), this is an extremely important book and one that does offer a glimmer of hope towards the end, though the spectre of racism is ever present. I would definitely recommend that you read this book, it taps into so many current issues and you learn so much. It has been optioned to be made into a TV series starring Academy Award Winner Jamie Foxx so Darktown deservedly looks set to be huge for a long time to come.