Occasionally, I do a Twitter search on authors or topics I am researching. When I did a search for “Frank Yerby,” I came across a one of Stephen King’s tweets from January 2017: “Re DARKTOWN, by Thomas Mullen: Can’t help wondering if Lucius Boggs’s Uncle Percy was based on black historical novelist Frank Yerby.” Mullen replied to King and stated that Uncle Percy is loosely based on Yerby. Mullen’s response and acknowledgment of a fictional Yerby in Darktown peaked my interest. Darktown is a book worthy of a longer study, and I am seriously thinking about how it would work alongside books such as Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season or Hilary Jordan’s Mudbound. I think that pairing Darktown with these novels would open up some very interesting and important conversations. However, I do not want to focus on these aspects today. Rather, I want to briefly look at Uncle Percy and his correlation to Yerby.
Uncle Percy does not figure prominently in the narrative of the book. In fact, he only appears in about two chapters. He initially appears about halfway through the novel during a going away party for one of Lucius Boggs’ cousins who is moving to Chicago. In the novel, Lucius Boggs is one of the first Black policemen in Atlanta during the 1940s. Apart from the hyperbole of Percy’s dress–“an impeccably tailored black suit . . . complete with a monocle dangling from the pocket”–his expatriation from America in the 1930s, and his continued attempts at suicide, the description of Percy fits Yerby pretty well. (Yerby expatriated in the 1940s, after World War II.)
Percy exists as an outsider due to his expatriation. During that time, he “had lost his tolerance for the humidity, among other things,” and he wore his hair “in a wave that was perhaps the style among the Negroes who lived in Europe.” Most importantly, Percy had become “more and more disenchanted with the backwardness of the South.” This comment is one that echoes Yerby’s positions and his continued attempts, throughout his career, to dismantle the ideas that buttressed the idyllic Old South. The Los Angeles Times‘ 1992 obituary for Yerby highlights that while Yerby sought to eradicate these beliefs he did not necessarily succeed because many white readers, upon learning of his ancestry, changed their perspectives: “Frank Yerby, whose novels of the antebellum South sold millions of copies but who left the United States because he said many of his Southern readers found his mixed blood offensive, has died.”
It must be noted that people still do not realize Yerby’s ancestry. A few people in the Stephen King thread commented that they did not realize Yerby was Black. The Los Angeles Times piece above quotes Yerby, from a previous interview, commenting on questions about his race. He said, “You can call me a racist if you like, because I dislike the human race. . . . But do not call me black. I have more Seminole than Negro blood in me anyway. But when have I ever been referred to as ‘that American Indian author?'” Comments like this, of course, drew backlash from Black critics such as Robert Bone and others who maligned Yerby’s work. Some, like Blyden Jackson in his review of The Foxes of Harrow, saw Yerby just trying to financially cash in by recycling plantation romances.
Yerby’s comment calls upon us to question labels, something I have written about extensively on this blog. It also calls upon us to think about the ways that we construct our literary canons. Ultimately, though, the comment makes its appearance in his novels as he writes about multicultural cities where, while race does create social hierarchies, he comments on the equality of individuals no matter their ancestry. In essence, he calls out, under he guise of costume novels, the legal fictions of society, in hopes of reaching the white middle-class “bigots” (Yerby’s term) that made up his primary audience. How many of them noticed these aspects? I’m not sure. I think these aspects became really subsumed underneath the veneer of the lusty adventure narratives.
Uncle Percy embodies these same ambiguities in Darktown. Describing Percy, the narrator states,
Percy was a novelist. Under an assumed name, he wrote historical adventures, and though he occasionally penned an ancient Greek or Roman epic, mainly he set his tales in early America. He was the best-selling Negro writer in America, and probably the world, partly because no one realized the writer of those stories was a Negro. Lucius had started reading Percy’s novels when he was in grade school and had loved them, swashbuckling tales of pirates off the coast of the Carolinas and gold miners in the Georgia mountains, of lost Confederate battalions fighting off alligators in Louisiana swamps and Virginia cavaliers risking all to defeat the colonizing British. Seemingly every chapter ended with a lit keg of dynamite or a train careening dangerously toward a trapped stagecoach. It hadn’t been until Lucius was in high school that he heard his father’s low opinion of the books. That’s when he started noticing that his people were either absent from the stories or were represented in exactly the way the white readers of the antebellum Southern yarn would expect them to appear.
The description of Percy, apart from writing under a pseudonym and some of the plots, is pretty spot on. As stated earlier, many Black critics saw no redeeming value in Yerby’s work; however, some like Arna Bontemps and even Langston Hughes (who I will discuss next post), saw promise in Yerby after The Foxes of Harrow. They praised Yerby for transcending the barriers of race by writing about Stephen Fox and his family. Yet, they became disappointed after subsequent novels deployed the same formula, pushing Black characters to the margins.
Some critics also concluded that Yerby’s Black characters existed, if at all, as merely stereotypes; however, others saw the ways that Yerby challenged these preconceived images. Even when the 1947 adaptation of The Foxes of Harrow was underway, Darryl Zanuck, studio head at 20th Century Fox, “saw [Foxes],” according to Thomas Cripps, “for its black angle embedded in conventional plantation legend stuff” when he read the book. Unfortunately, as production continued, this angle diminished in the film and the theatrical adaptation became nothing more than, as Bosely Crowther said in his review of the film, “The O’Hara of Twentieth Century-Fox.”
Near the end of the party, Lucius and Percy have a conversation that explores their relationship to the South. Lucius thinks about how he used to write and thinks about his cousin leaving the South. As Lucius thinks, Percy asks him, “How can you stand it here, Lucius?” Lucius responds by saying things are getting better. To this, Percy brings up Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, authors whose heroes, as Percy puts it, “are good men who discover that their environments are far darker than they realized.” Percy’s assertion of Chandler’s and Hammett’s heroes is what Yerby does in his novels, albeit in a more oblique manner. He shows the horrors of the contemporary environment through the lens of history. He buries them in plain sight, and it is up to the reader to unearth them.
Percy ties his comments on Chandler and Hammett to the contemporary issues facing Lucius as a Black policeman in Atlanta in the 1940s. Lucius tells his uncle, “I suppose that living here all he time makes me tolerate it a bit better. . . . I’ve built up antibodies.” Percy grabs Lucius by the color and tells him, “You need to bleed those antibodies from your veins, Lucius. Understand me? Bleed them from your veins.” Yerby bleeds the veins, but in his case, he bleeds the viruses. He directly confronts the false narratives of the Old South that arose after Reconstruction, and he even uses his novels set in medieval Europe or other time periods to counter racist thought. For all the appearances that Yerby’s work does not address race, he does. He even told Hoyt Fuller in 1966 that he paid attention, albeit from afar, to the Civil Rights Movement in America.
This is not everything that can be said about Yerby and these issues. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
Note: I highly recommend Darktown. As I say in the first part of this post, it is a work that could be read alongside Locke and Jordam. I would even add that it is a novel we should consider in relation to Water Mosley.