Can You Dig The New Breed?

The Original Black Eyes

Following the success of Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins, there was an outbreak of black private eyes. But once upon a time, blacks, like most minorities, were often treated shamefully in the genre, and black detectives were few and far between.

The first black gumshoe I could find reference to was Garveyite John E. Bruce's Sadipe Okukenu. He was not only one of fiction's first black private eyes, but he was also one of the very first private eyes, period. He was an operative for a private detective agency, a professional investigator working for the International Detective Agency, and predated Hammett's Continental Op and Daly's Race Williams by at least fifteen years! He appeared in one novel, The Black Sleuth, serialized between 1907 and 1909, in McGirt's Reader.

Another early black eye, although far less inspiring, was Octavius Roy Cohen's Florian Slappey, who was "little more than a caricature," according to The Whodunit. In fact, in a magazine ad promoting books as Christmas gifts, Cohen's book Come Seven is recommended as being perfect for the family member "who likes nigger stuff."

There was also a team of black private eyes, King Green and Moxie Sloss, who apparently appeared in Flynn's in a handful of stories in the twenties, although I'm sure most readers today would similarly be offended by the casual bigotry of these tales.

In fact, it took until 1957 for a truly credible black eye to crack the mainstream: Ed Lacy's Toussaint Moore. Lacy, however, was a white guy.

Meanwhile, black author John B. West was busy cranking out cheesy books about a white private eye Rocky Steele who owed more than a little to Mike Hammer.

In 1959, a black author, Chester Himes popped up with A Rage in Harlem, the novel that introduced Coffn Ed Johnston and Gravedigger Jones, two African/American cops who act more like two hard-boiled private eyes than anything.

And that was about it until Shaft (can ya dig it?) exploded onto the screen digging like a private sex machine with all the chicks in 1970, full of attitude and black rage. Guess what? Shaft's creator, Ernest Tidyman, was white.

Anyway, here are some significant black eyes, in chronological order...

Related Links

Kevin Burton Smith's feature article from the July 2000 issue of January Magazine, on Shaft, Toussaint Moore, Easy Rawlins and selected others.


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