Book Review - Jackie K Cooper
DARKTOWN by Thomas Mullen
Some books educate, some books entertain, Thomas Mullen's DARKTOWN is the rare book that does both. Mullen retraces the history of Atlanta in 1948 when eight black men were hire to be police officers. On that branch of history Mullen hangs a tale about a murder that occurs in the Negro section of Atlanta and the effect it has on two of the new policemen. It is a story that shocks as well as shames the reader.
Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith are police officers who are assigned to patrol the area of Atlanta known as "darktown." The hiring of eight black men by the city of Atlanta as policeman has been celebrated by some as being a true step in the right direction, and it might have been if there had not been such harsh restrictions on what these men could do. They did not have squad cars; they had to operate out of the basement of the YMCA building; they had to enter the "real" police headquarters through the back door if their duties required them to come there, and they were constantly harassed by the white policemen.
Boggs and Smith accept all of this, or at least abide it, until they learn of the murder of a young black woman. They had seen her on a certain night when they had stopped the white driver of a vehicle which had rammed a street light. This young woman was in the car and looked like she had been beaten. The two men had ben unable to arrest the white driver but they did not forget the woman they had seen.
When they learn of her death they are determined to bring her killer to justice, a feat that is almost impossible. DARKTOWN presents the story of this investigation and its outcome. In doing so it highlights the horrors of being a person of color in the 1940's South.
Mullen masterfully creates the world in which these two officers live. He brings to the reader the stinging heat, the bitter smells, the glare of the sun and the grime of the red dirt that is natural to this section of the country. Even better he gets inside the souls of the oppressed and the minds of the oppressors. You understand the hatred from both sides as the war for equality is fought. Power is in the hands of the whites but determination resides in the hearts of the blacks.
DARKTOWN is a novel that holds up a mirror to the vestiges of discrimination that remain alive and well today. It does this by forcing the reader to see all the blatant bigotry and casual heartlessness that dominated society in the late 1940's. It is difficult to think this type of cruelty thrived in America just a few decades ago.
It is to Mullen's credit he is able to show the harshness of the life Boggs and Smith endure, yet somehow imbues their story with a small glimmer of hope. That is what makes the reading of their story bearable, and also makes it impossible to put down.
You should read DARKTOWN in order to understand the past, but more importantly to understand the present.
DARKTOWN is published by Atria Books. It contains 384 pages and sells for $26.00.
Jackie K Cooper