Please excuse my rusty English, I am out of pratice.
Here in Germany we grew up with the aftermath of World War Two, the Nazi-Regime and the Holocaust. I belong to a generation whose grandfathers fought in the war. We were sensitized about what happened to the Jewish population since Hitler got voted in 1933. Yet it is a difference to read about racism in books and watch movies about it, or to experience it firsthand. Of course racism did not stop after the war ended and the Nuremberg trials were held. But it declined over the decades and we Germans grew up with a special sensitivity and awareness about the topic. Racism and anti-Semitism always lurked under the surface , and from time to time it had its peaks. Right now, in the wake of a worldwide growing populism of the right wing, it shows it’s ugly face by people, who think, they can come out of the closet and say what has been a taboo for decades. They are a minority, but they are loud.
Still for Germans it is always an astonishing experience to learn about institutionalized racism backed by the law in the years after World War Two, especially when it happens in the country that has freed us from the tyranny of the fascists. It is also surprising for the most of us, how long after the end of the Civil War and the liberation of the slaves, the segregation continued wide into the 1960s. And we are also shocked about, how deep this racism is still rooted in the former Confederated States. A fellow student of mine, who, back in high school (in the year 2007!), lived as an exchange student in Georgia, was shocked, when she was not allowed by here guest family to invite black students for her birthday party.
Books like Darktown are important in reminding us that those dark times are not that long over, and that pieces of them still remain to haunt our society. The 1950s and especially the 1960s are pretty good covered by books and movies like Mississippi Burning, the slave times are covered by authors like Frederick Douglas or Harriet Jacobs or fictional biographies like Roots, but the years right after World War 2, this transitional years, before the baby boomers and the consumerism, were like a blank pages (at least in my perception, of course there are books and movies about those years) .
Thomas Mullan filled some of these pages in his crime novel about one of the first black police units in America and especially the southern states that were haunted by an openly lived out racism, lynch mobs, and the Ku Klux Klan. How can the land of the free, the oldest democracy of the world, still have laws based on racism?
The novel cannot answer this (maybe unanswerable?) question. The victims of this injustice, this hatred, and this torment are perplexed by this question. When asked, why he is going to move to Chicago, the cousin of the black officer Lucius Boggs says, those people here are all mad. Black lives did not matter for them, and the police did not give a shit about a dead „nigger“ – they are just looking for the next Bigger Thomas.
The times have changed, but they haven’t changed enough. White people today seemed to have forgotten about those centuries of violent oppression. They need to be reminded, why the slogan „black lives matter“ need to be repeated, and that it does not mean that white lives do not matter, but that there is a difference, because not long a ago there was a time when black lives did not matter for huge part of the white population in the USA.
Darktown is an entertaining and thrilling crime novel, but it is also a vivid reminder of those dark times that can sensitize people for the history of racism and discrimination. Those young officers like Lucious Boggs and Thomas Smith have fought in World War Two against the Nazis, just to return to a country where they are still oppressed by the American equivalent of the German fascists.
The picture of the savage Indian has been formed by the movies of John Ford (who regretted it later) and his colleges in western movies where the word Geronimo was enough to scare people to death. The influence of medias like movies and books on a society cannot be underestimated. And so it is up to those medias to change this aberration. They can do, what boring history classes can not, they can create empathy for characters like Kunta Kinte or Lucius Boggs.
But Dark Town does not preach. It is a crime novel, a murder (of a young black woman) has to be solved, and in the tradition of the genre, we follow two of the investigators through a lot of trouble, while they are just trying to do their job properly in a vicious environment. Mullan is able to create a vivid image of this time that grabs the reader an pulls them into the perspective of the black Officer Lucius Boogs and the white beat cop Denny Rakestraw, whose not willing to follow the path of racism, abuse and corruption that so many of his colleagues have violently stomped into the dusty ground of Georgia over the last decades.