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Under a Bad Sign

Criminal Self-Representation in African American Popular Culture

Under a Bad Sign

Criminal Self-Representation in African American Popular Culture

What accounts for the persistence of the figure of the black criminal in popular culture created by African Americans? Unearthing the overlooked history of art that has often seemed at odds with the politics of civil rights and racial advancement, Under a Bad Sign explores the rationale behind this tradition of criminal self-representation from the Harlem Renaissance to contemporary gangsta culture.

In this lively exploration, Jonathan Munby takes a uniquely broad view, laying bare the way the criminal appears within and moves among literary, musical, and visual arts. Munby traces the legacy of badness in Rudolph Fisher and Chester Himes’s detective fiction and in Claude McKay, Julian Mayfield, and Donald Goines’s urban experience writing. Ranging from Peetie Wheatstraw’s gangster blues to gangsta rap, he also examines criminals in popular songs. Turning to the screen, the underworld films of Oscar Micheaux and Ralph Cooper, the 1970s blaxploitation cycle, and the 1990s hood movie come under his microscope as well. Ultimately, Munby concludes that this tradition has been a misunderstood aspect of African American civic life and that, rather than undermining black culture, it forms a rich and enduring response to being outcast in America.

224 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Black Studies

Film Studies

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature


Under a Bad Sign moves deftly across decades and disciplines to present well-researched and theoretically fertile analyses of the origins, evolution, and practical utility of criminal imagery in many different works of fiction, film, and music. Munby is an engaging writer, a scholar with extraordinary mastery of a vast array of black expressive texts, and an original thinker about the relationships linking artistic works and their social and historical contexts. This is a splendid book whose argument will be of enormous value to both scholarship and civic life.”

George Lipsitz, author of How Racism Takes Place

“One of the principal virtues of Munby’s alternative approach to black crime stories in popular culture is that it gives him an opportunity to devote serious—but not humorless—critical and historical attention to fascinating but previously marginal figures like Rudolph Fisher, Ralph Cooper, Julian Mayfield, Rudy Ray Moore, and Donald Goines. The less marginal they are, the more interesting the twentieth century gets.”

Carlo Rotella, author of Cut Time: An Education at the Fights

Table of Contents

Introduction: “Cruel Stack O’Lee”: Trickster Badness and the Fight against Subordination in African American Vernacular Culture
1          Original Gangsta Culture: Fortune Economy and the Criminal Mediation of Black Entry into Urban Modernity
2          Sin City Cinema: The Underworld Race Films of Oscar Micheaux and Ralph Cooper
3          Hustlers in the House of Literature: Julian Mayfield, Chester Himes, and the Black Literary Ghetto
4          From Up Tight! to Dolemite: The Changing Politics of Baadasssss Cinema
5          Keeping It Reel: From Goines to Gangsta
Epilogue: Global Gangsta—Life in Death

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