Books such as Darktown make me squirmy and uncomfortable because they delve into the true nature of racism in our country’s history. Set in 1948 Atlanta, author Thomas Mullen’s story centers around Mayor Hartsfield’s appointment of the first eight black police officers in exchange for a vote his way in the upcoming elections from the influential blacks in the community. Despite the motivation, sounds like a break-through for equalizing blacks and whites, right? Not even close. The black officers did not have patrol cars, could not arrest whites, and were relegated to the basement of the YMCA as their headquarters since they weren’t allowed in the regular “white” police station.
On top of the blatant racism from the white cops and citizens, black citizens were almost equally as unsupportive to the new officers. While accustomed to harassment and abuse from white cops, the black community saw the new officers as an additional intrusion into their way of life. In a poignant conversation between one new officer and a black woman whom he was questioning about a fight, she became increasingly agitated by his repeatedly referring to her as ma’am. She finally lost her cool and yelled, “You see a ma’am here? I look like a white lady to you?”
The novel tracks a few of the fictionalized black officers as well as a couple of the white officers. As the black officers attempt to solve the murder of a young black woman whose decomposing body was found in a pile of garbage, they face substantial push back from their white superiors. But not everyone is opposed to the integration of the police department, and the black officers find some quiet support from people they wouldn’t have expected.
This is a tough book to read and the bad guys don’t get as much of a comeuppance as you’d like. But it is important story. The timing of its release seems ominously appropriate in light of the ‘if you are not like us, you are not welcome’ rhetoric of one of our current presidential nominee’s platforms. In the novel, Mullen references a billboard on a Georgia highway opposing the United Nations. It read, “Keep America safe from foreigners!” Language on a billboard almost seventy years ago that could just as easily be found on one today.
The plot is good; the historical significance and relevance is better. The complexity and ugliness of the relationship between blacks and whites, particularly in the South, continues to remain something that cannot be unpacked in neat little boxes. Mullen enlightens the reader on why the same street changes names when it leaves the white section and enters the black part; those white aristocrats could not stomach having the same return address as their negro counterparts.
Darktown is gritty, real and, despite its historical roots, is hauntingly relatable in today’s times.
Publisher: Atria Books/Simon & Schuster
Elizabeth’s rating: 4 stars