A Novel by Wesley Brown
Introduction by Richard Wiley
A mystical, musical novel in the spirit of Ralph Ellison. Darktown Strutters takes readers on a surreal journey through 19th-century America and far beyond. Jim Crow lives. Blackface is just beginning. And America is just as wild, strange, and divided as it is today.
“A vivid, disturbing work of the historical imagination.”
– New York Times Book Review
“Written in hot, jazzy language and filled with lively characters, this small book is dynamite.”
– Library Journal
A scary book, and mordantly funny too.”
– Russell Banks
“Darktown Strutters is a novel of ideas devoted to exploring the complex fate off black and white Americans caught, as ever, in a racial history they can neither surmount nor escape.”
– Eric Lott, African American Review
On Darktown Strutters
By Richard Wiley
I have been a fan of mixing up historical fact with fiction ever since E. L. Doctorow did it with Ragtime, back in 1976. Historians tell a certain truth―based, of course, on original-source materials―while novelists create worlds that might just as easily have existed. Novelists sip from the murky pond of research, yes, but far more fully from the crystal pool of their own imaginations. And that is what Wesley Brown has done with his informative, moving, and raucous novel, Darktown Strutters, now reissued by Concord ePress.
Here one discovers that before and even after the American Civil War there were such things as barrels placed around the streets of southern cities or the pathways of plantations for black people to stick their heads into should they get the urge to laugh in public. It seems that local white people didn’t want to hear their laughter, lest they gain the sense that it might be aimed at them.
Think of it: laughing barrels! How heinous, how it scars our national identity, and at the same time how hilarious! Ours is a country with many marks against it, the mark of slavery cutting most deeply into our muscle and bone. Yet from its first page to its last, Wesley Brown’s exemplary novel turns those marks into the cork-burnt facial make-up that whites and blacks alike used during these once ubiquitous minstrel shows.
Did you know that the term Jim Crow―coined to designate the American caste system laws that came out of reconstruction―originated with the 1828 minstrel song Jump Jim Crow, popularized by Thomas Rice, a white Englishman and showman? I didn’t know that, and when I discovered that I found it edifying. But when Wesley Brown discovered it, far from being merely edified, he invented a flesh and blood new Jim Crow, a slave and then a free man, a minstrel to dance and sing and laugh his way through this book, as the moral voice and compass by which we began to find our way out of our darkest, darkest, time.
What I like best about Darktown Strutters is that it is a story and never not a story, yet at the same moment it is an absolute and harrowing American history. Those laughing barrels might easily be filled by the tears of those who read this amazing story.
– Richard Wiley, Las Vegas, Nevada, May 2011