Last month I spent a glorious week in Harlem, New York, recording a BBC Radio 3 Sunday Feature documentary about an unfairly neglected literary luminary, one whose writing, almost a century after he first put pen to paper – is still astonishingly relevant, but who has been practically forgotten - the Harlem Renaissance novelist and short story writer Rudolph Fisher (1897 - 1934).
Author of the celebrated short story The City of Refuge (1925) and the acclaimed novels The Walls of Jericho (1928) and The Conjure Man Dies (1932), Fisher was a veritable polymath - an Ivy League educated, highly regarded medical doctor by day and a successful writer, as well as a promising jazz musician, by night.
Yet nowadays his literary star has sadly somewhat dimmed. Outside a small coterie, Fisher is scarcely known and has been chronically under-appreciated, unlike his infinitely more famous Harlem Renaissance contemporaries, the poets and novelists Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and Zora Neale Hurston.
This egregious neglect can perhaps be attributed to Fisher’s tragic early death at the age of 37 (reputedly from the X-ray machine he worked with) and also arguably due to the fact that his novels and stories unashamedly focus far more on the black quotidian, black joy and black humanity than the litany of black pathologies, negative stereotypes and facile, limiting and ultimate pernicious tropes which many of his contemporaries mined, often to great success - namely the pathos, squalor and suffering of the black underclass.
Fisher’s ardent refusal to portray only one side of black life doesn’t just make him morally and intellectually complex; it means he used all of Harlem life as his creative inspiration. But that refusal also probably contributed to his writing falling out of fashion.
His conception of blackness - and of life – is not monolithic, but nuanced, heterogeneous and kaleidoscopic. Like Dante in his Commedia, Fisher fuses comedy, tragedy, metaphysical speculation and even amorous concerns. His work is classic and timeless, because, like all great art and literature, it touches the human universal by focusing on, in this instance, the African-American particular. His stories speak to today’s concerns with not only prescience, but an unnerving clarity and eloquence.
Fisher deftly captures all of 1920s Black Harlem - all of the ebullient humanity and all of the visible and invisible lines of social and shade-based stratification, often in a single paragraph. Fisher also rendered black life realistically, joyfully, and using its own language. His protagonists, especially the removal men Jinx Jenkins and Bubba Brown (who feature in both his novels), speak in the vernacular and their earthy, trenchant badinage is delightfully comedic.
But the single most consistent question Fisher addresses across all his writing – and the reason Harlem is such an omnipresent character – is of the black urban experience. His work skilfully articulates tensions between new arrivals from the South, those arriving from the Caribbean and longer-established Harlemites.
Fisher’s copious literary skill also deserves to be heralded. Stylistically, his writing is beautifully crafted, layered and seldom laboured, possessing a genuine lightness of touch which animates the page.
Moreover, Fisher has another claim to fame. He is also the father of the black detective novel. His 1932 mystery The Conjure Man Dies - a Harlem-set, Agatha Christie inspired, “closed room" whodunnit - is, for all intents and purposes, the first ever African-American detective novel, with black protagonists, black villains and crucially, black detectives, which had a resounding influence on future generations of writers. Thus Fisher is the proud literary forebear of titans like 1950s novelist Chester Himes and contemporary giants of the black crime fiction genre Walter Mosley and, more recently, Colson Whitehead, with his award-winning Harlem Shuffle (2021).
Fisher’s work therefore also foreshadows - and helps us understand - the liminal figure of the black cop - ubiquitous in contemporary popular culture, through films like Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Black and Blue (2019) and American TV shows like Law and Order, Bosch or Luke Cage - a perennially contentious figure, be it in his own stories or in our own fraught news cycles of police brutality.
Recording on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue - the throbbing heart of Harlem - was for me an absolute joy! Not only was I recording on the very spot where Fisher had set several of his short stories, but it was also where I have spent much time over the last twenty years, having first visited Harlem in 2002 to stay with a close friend’s aunt. In fact, Harlem has been a touchstone of my own intellectual, cultural and aesthetic development and has been instrumental in the genesis of my own racial consciousness, so it was both uplifting and rejuvenating to be back there, in a place I love and know well.
However, witnessing the current swathes of gentrification which continue to sweep through this iconic neighbourhood - for close to a century the “spiritual mecca of Black America” - was both challenging and thought-provoking. I too like nice coffee, but not at $7 a cup! Whilst many are undoubtedly benefiting from the burgeoning economic amelioration, much of the area’s soul is in danger of being lost.
Harlem – a historic neighbourhood known the world over as a place full of hope, possibility and unparalleled black excellence, but also as a place of frangible dreams, ephemeral happiness and arduous hustle - will always have a special place in my heart. And Rudolph Fisher captured it all, in passages of singular beauty, in poignant stories and in evocative vernacular dialogue – stories which are as enduringly relevant today as they were 100 years ago. What a tragedy he died so young! What would he have made of Harlem, the place he lovingly referred to as “New York’s Negro colony”, as it changed during the course of the twentieth century? What would he make of it today?
I can only wonder what this cerebral polymath, who bequeathed us writing of such beauty, humanity and joy, would have gone on to create, had he lived longer. Be in no doubt: we need a Fisher renaissance with alacrity!
X Ray Vision: Rudolph Fisher in Harlem is available here: