Le Fin

When considering the idea of “Black noir” prior to this course, my thinking was fairly straightforward: detective fiction, probably hokey, written by Black authors or featuring Black protagonists. That’s not to dismiss the genre or the content of the novels I expected to read; I just didn’t think there was much more to it.

Instead, we confronted the complex, fraught realities of race in the United States through the lens of an evolving, evocative genre of writing most prevalent through the twentieth century. Noir itself presented itself as more layered and complicated than I’d previously been led to believe. In addition to the cheesy detective story with its overwrought narrative and sharply lit femme fatale, we defined noir based on its confrontation of the harsher realities present in our world, stories highlighting established systems of power and their potential for corruption and incompetence; criminal underworlds; moral ambiguities; self-autonomy; gender and its relation to power; queerness; and central to this course, race.

Throughout this course, we’ve examined the evolution of noir. From a white man’s perspective, one in which the masculine exerts dominance of women, foreigners, and those coded as queer. This view of the world undeniably informed the character of the noir genre; however, as we continued onward, we were introduced to Black male protagonists, reflecting various experiences in the eastern, western, southern, and northern/midwestern United States. We saw these men in large, urban settings, as well as smaller, rural areas. They came from money, or were working class, or earned a living as criminals. In most cases, these men rejected established authority figures and systems of power; they were wrongfully accused by racist police officers, or simply abandoned by systems meant to protect and care for all people without prejudice. Through the critical lens of noir, we saw that failed to be the case on more than one occasion.

At times, there was a frustration in reading the perspective of sexist, prejudiced, at times violent men with any sympathy; their anxieties and frustrations regarding poor and unfair treatment due to their race was valid, yet the genre sometimes felt too steeped in the toxic perspectives and behaviors of the white men who popularized it. As we came to see in Street Players by Kinohi Nishikawa, “Black Sleaze” as a genre of pulp/noir fiction represents noir with a mass market appeal that enticed white readers for its voyeuristic appeal and Black readers with no clear agency in determining which books would be published and made available to their communities. Here, the idea of black noir became complicated: with texts like Trick Baby, do we celebrate a sense of unflinching authenticity in its blunt examination of sex, crime, and violence, or do we recognize the predatory publishing practices that relied on sensationalism at the expense of other Black voices? The issue is still one I’ve yet to come to a clear conclusion on.

What most excites me at the end of this course is the ways in which we’ve seen noir grow. We read noir with a female protagonist, one who didn’t rely on sexism or gratuitous violence to survive, but recognized the complex racial dynamics at play in her world. We have writing that looks back on the past and its more problematic practices with scrutiny, injecting noir with modern sensibilities without abandoning what makes it so compelling: its ability to venture into areas of life most people would rather turn away from. As noir develops further, I’d hope to hear an even greater diversity of voices. For Black noir, it would be interesting to hear from more queer voices within the community. Given the reality of violence against Black members of the LGBTQ+ community, it feels like a large oversight. Given what we’ve learned about publishing, I suspect that’s intentional.

The Femme Fatale Facade

In this final blog for class, I wanted to write about my experience and the topic of my paper. While the majority of the works we have read have been dominated by the male perspective, I was constantly intrigued by the women in the stories being caught between lives, and never being allowed to be comfortable in their own skin. The stories from the beginning of the course had the least developed woman characters that fit into the femme fatale description perfectly. They were dangerous women who tried to take advantage of the men they came across only to be bested by a real man when he caught wind of her devious plans. In an attempt to raise up the male dominance, the sexual power afforded to a woman was always stripped away from her, in the end, by the superior man. Her femininity was subverted and presented as a tool she could never effectively wield. As we progressed through time, the women began to be more developed characters, but they remained subordinate to their male counterparts. Women like Blanche had to deal with fighting against the patriarchy while subsequently upholding its values in order to survive. Because of this, she was forced to learn to use her stature as a black woman to move in and out of the limelight of society. This invisibility allowed her to operate as a detective within the shadows, but rendered her helpless against a few bounced checks caused by her unfair employers. Blanche fully accepted her blackness, perceiving herself as the night girl, but some of the other women we encountered could not so easily accept themselves as black women in a white world, especially when their skin allowed them a peek into the comfort that the white world enjoyed. The first person we see who struggles with being caught between two worlds is Alice, who is a light enough black woman to be mistaken for white. She has the opportunity to become something she is not if she sheds who she truly is, and that idea may be enticing when living in such a prejudiced world, but it is quite the act of self-hatred to turn against who you truly are. A similar character is Daphne, who we met in the final novel of the course. She was so traumatized by her childhood experiences and society itself that she had to completely separate herself into two identities. Daphne, the beautiful white woman who could ruin your life with a single kiss and Ruby, the abused black girl unwanted by men both black and white. The psychological damage that arises from such experiences is enormous, but these things are never explored in these stories because there are only men at the forefront. In my final paper, I hope to explore that female psyche a little more and all the components that make her up into the very shallow mirage we get in the stories of our noir fiction.   


    There is a saying in Spanish that goes like, Hay que mejorar la raza. This is a statement that literally translates to “You have to better your race.” Growing up in south Texas I hear this statement a lot from members of my community; not only from Spanish speakers but also from the white community. For example, when I was in high school on the night of homecoming or any sort of dance I would overhear white mothers telling their sons that they can fool around with their date but too not even think about marrying her. I think the damage of this statement is obvious and it should be said that this thought isn’t just a statement that belongs in the south it’s a universal one when it comes to interracial dating. I remember when I was helping a student at the writing center she was writing a paper on interracial dating and she quoted a study that stated that around only 40 percent of interracial couples end up getting married. I have many questions about this pattern: What are the implications of this ideology for women of color? How did this thinking even start? How did this belief evolve? And how can this ideology be seen in Noir and why is it important it is reflected in the Noir genre specifically? These are some of the questions that I would like to explore in my paper. I would hope to do this by addressing the interracial relationships that we see in If He Hollers Let Him and Devil in a Blue Dress. (Maybe Blanche on the Lam). What inspired this thought would have to be the constant frustration that I felt for the main characters when we read Noir literature and when watching Noir films. I could not ignore how the role of race in the 20th century caused many black women to be overshadowed by the statement mejorar la raza. I take this saying personally because it is not only an assault on Black women but Latin women as well. By exploring Noir I can see how this statement was inherently reflected in the culture at the time in books and movies. 

    I started this class absolutely confused and my first blog post reflects that. All I talked about were the struggles of defining Noir and did not really make an argument. I then started trying to grasp local patterns in Noir, not global ones. I was fascinated by the idea of nostalgia because it was the first thing I was able to identify with which prompted one of my Blog posts titled The Grass Is Not Greener On The Other Side. I won’t deny that this class was difficult for me but it was also difficult in a fun way. It was intellectually challenging and sparked very interesting conversations with my parents about the themes of the books. It really helped introduce me to the realities that other people experience that I will never have to go through. Some things might be similar to what my grandparents had to go through or my cousins, but it’s not the same. I have more of an appreciation for the adversities that the Black body has gone through. So to go back to this class was challenging but if I could go back to when I woke up at 7:45 AM last spring to register for my classes this semester I would register for Black Noir all over again. Going back to what I originally defined as Noir, I would definitely rule out some things like how I thought Noir had to include a crime. I would now define Noir as a journey into the margins with the purpose of pulling the sheet off the elephant in the room to benefit the main character. I also can’t forget to add,


Wrapping Up

I was incredibly confused for a long time in this class. My first day was me “shopping” for classes after having a course cancelled a week into the semester. I did not have time to prepare, I did not know what noir was, and I felt like I barely managed to jump on the back of a train and was holding on for dear life. It took weeks for me to understand what noir was, and I certainly did not have anything to add because I felt like I was constantly trying to catch up. The second half of the semester things got better, but my lightbulb moment came over Thanksgiving break. For once I had time to just read all day and absorb the story slowly and analyze it, rather than trying to comprehend English, history, theology, and anthropology all at the same time. Devil in a Blue Dress connected everything. We got the classic femme fatal, the paranoia, the descent into darkness, the nostalgia, and the murder mystery. It embodied everything we discussed this semester, but it helped me realize the ways in which our other texts are still noir.

The other texts were not always as cut and dry as Devil in a Blue Dress, but the aspects I have been able to draw out highlight different aspects of black life and the realities of the darkness they live in. I came back to darkness many times in my posts because there was always some decent. That was the one thing I was able to pick out of every book. It defines the noir genre and the nature of humanity. Despite the way we think our life should go, other forces work to push toward the darkness. For the people that live in that darkness, they understand the relationship better. Sometimes they walk the line, sometimes they try to get out, and sometimes they descend further, but they all fight and intrigue and inspire this voyeuristic gaze that makes the noir genre impossible to ignore.

A Spotlight on Noir

In the first couple of class periods, I was silent. I was intimidated because everyone around me seemed to be an English major or some major requiring higher proficiency in reading and writing. I questioned my voice’s validity and doubted the relevance of my perspective. Additionally, we were reading books about experiences I was less familiar about and believed that meant I had to platform to speak about them. However, one of the biggest lessons I have learned throughout this class is that one of the overall major points of the noir genre is to expose readers to experiences that exist along the margins. Though I still might not talk a lot in class, I do have the confidence to speak when I want to, even if I know it might not be right on the spot.

Most of the books out there are centered around a white Christian narrative. Noir provides the antithesis of this account with contrasting perspectives. We learned that one of the major themes of noir was that people live and exist on the margins and that there is a world of corruption that exists where no light reaches. While this theme is incorporated into each of our stories like Trick Baby which highlight the life of a pimp, I think it also speaks to the genre as a whole. Noir is the darkness that exists in the literary world, full of topics that people largely stray from. It is not a large genre, but it exists and it is our glimpse into a world we may be unfamiliar with. For a while this foreignness is partly what made me fall silent. I, like many common readers, was comfortable reading the big name books. Yet, these books and this class was the challenge that pushed me to become a more intelligent and informed reader and person.

While I grew up right outside D.C., where I was exposed to social and political issues from a young age, I will be the first to admit the limitations that came with my all-girls Catholic education. I had one or two classes that strayed from traditional literature. I am not trying to discount these other books that taught me numerous of other lessons, but I very much maintained a position in the light of literature, somewhat blind that a darker side to literature existed. One of our books, If He Hollers, Let Him Go was especially challenging to me. I was less familiar of the psyche behind the black experience, but the main character, Bob gave me a full transparent look into the paranoia and anxiety that he faced. In some ways when I encountered these books, I experienced my own descent into the darkness because a spotlight was finally shown on the marginalized. I was not completely ignorant to the existence of these real issues, but our noir books took my understanding to a greater level. With exposure, I became more comfortable in not only this class but all my other classes because I learned I did not have to know everything to know that my voice is still valid.

The noir genre is a darkness in all literature that sheds light on the darkness of marginalized issues. These books have become a powerful learning experience about the world and myself. My descent into the darkness of noir is definitely an illuminating experience.

Final post: nostalgia, fiction, and race

Looking back to my first post for this course, all I had were questions. I asked what the purpose of the novel was: whether it was supposed to reflect reality or if it should be an escape from it? I also asked if a novel is art, and if so, what would make it art? Building off of my history in the English major, I thought that the noir novels that we were reading were somehow sub-par to that of the canon of English literature. The “spirit of detachment” as Raymond Chandler wrote about noir,  which separated old detective fiction from the canon, came to me as a shock and I felt that noir was hard to take seriously. The Maltese Falcon, I wrote, existed in a space that I could not imagine because of its black and white morality. Now, having read all 8 of the books this semester and engaged with the supplementary materials, I have found a few answers. 

Nostalgia is the one idea in Noir that I have really grasped onto and has helped me find a definition for the genre. Nostalgia is a desire for a past that has never existed, and with each Black Noir novel, the black characters navigate a world that is inherently nostalgic in that the society they live in places assumptions upon them that are not true. For black characters, there is a disconnect between the reality of their personhood and an imagined idea of who they are and how they should be treated. Bob in “If He Hollers…” viewed himself as a man, yet his society viewed and treated him as sub-human. 

I believe that the sense of nostalgia that pervades each noir novel has given me an understanding of what fiction is for. Fiction allows us to examine aspects of our lives from an aesthetic distance. Without the consequences of realism.The unreality of fiction gives us space to apply the ideas to our reality. The novel “If He Hollers Let Him Go” was the first novel in this course that proved this to be true for me. Bob’s paranoia bordered on insanity in some instances, but I was able to conceptualize my own feelings of insecurity around my race through him. Just like Bob, I have feelings of anxiety towards how people see me. I get weird looks from girls in my residence hall, and my first thought is that it is about my race. If I walk by a group of white girls in my section and they suddenly go silent and watch me, I feel like a zoo animal and suddenly I feel outside of myself, watching them watch me. Bob’s story was a way for me to place these feelings into a context where I could examine them. It gave me a structure for the very real and confusing emotions I have. 

This was difficult work for me to do, but I am glad that this course has given me a new perspective on how fiction works to examine the inner self. Especially because I am doing a double major in Africana Studies and English, this course has helped me solidify my desire to examine the role of the novel in the development of our society’s conception of and reckoning with race. In the future, I will look back on this class as one that was difficult personally, as it made me think about my race and gender in a deeper way, forcing me to grow up, and it was monumental in my progress as a scholar in solidifying what I want to study at Notre Dame and in Graduate school. 

Last Post — A Reflection on Noir and Reality

As our course comes to an end and I begin to reflect on my previous blog posts, I find myself still in agreement with my very first post. In my post, “Noir – Moral Ambiguity and Reality” I argued that although Noir may seem really dramatic and many of the stories are not the most relatable, Noir examines the “darkness and imperfections of reality and human nature.” Now, having read more works in the noir genre and those which we have characterized as black noir, I still feel that noir reflects reality, in all of its darkness, imperfections, and moral ambiguity.

As a political science major, I have always enjoyed analyzing written works and trying to discern the deeper meaning or lesson that is hidden somewhere in the literature. In our discussion of Trick Baby, I found myself questioning the books that we were reading and if there is any deep meaning behind this literature, or if it is simply just an enjoyable book to read. However, even if a book is for entertainment purposes, I think it can still offer commentary on society and life at a certain point in history, which is why I think that many books in the noir genre are so reflective of society. In our first noir book, The Maltese Falcon, we were given a glimpse into San Francisco in the 1920s and met characters who didn’t make the best decisions at times, much like many people do today. Making mistakes and imperfections is a part of human nature and our reality. Many of the noir books we read exemplified this. Looking back on my other blog posts, which covered topics such as power, race & class, masculinity, and women in society, these are all things we experience daily and books in the noir genre reveal the darkness or problems which may exist in these areas.

The books which we characterized as “Black Noir,” while varying in storyline and subject matter, can also be seen as reflecting society. In the works such as If He Hollers Let Him Go, The Expendable Man, or Blanche on the Lam, these authors offered us glimpses of society in the United States throughout different time periods. In traditional Noir fashion, these books have elements such as a descent into darkness, moral ambiguity, and characters existing on the margins of society. These elements reveal themselves through the focus on racism in the United States and the different ways in which it manifests itself, and the ways in which many of these characters cope with experiencing racism. In this way, Noir can be seen as further reflecting our past and current realities, as racism is still an ever-present issue in the United States.

In signing up for this course I was curious about how we might centralize the black identity within a Noir genre, which I did not recall having any black characters. In being introduced to literature by black authors and that has protagonists who were black, I have come to realize the importance of being exposed to a range of literature and authors. Reading literature that is different from what we typically read challenges us both as readers and thinkers, exposing us to new ideas and perspectives. I know in reading Trick Baby and Never Die Alone, I really struggled to read a book that seemed so foreign to me, but I think this challenge allows me to realize that there are a lot of different stories to be told, all revealing truths that need to be shared.  

One Last Post!

If all 8 of our texts we read this semester were laid out in front of me before I ever took this course, I think I would be able to connect all of them together with common themes. They all retain a sense of nostalgia and pre modern age language (even Devil in a Blue Dress and Blanche on the Lam feel to me as though the are still set in the 60’s), focus on race and sexuality, and include a fair share of violence.

But, prior to taking this class, if you had asked me to provide 8 texts that fell under the Umbrella of “Black Noir,” I’m not sure I would have produced the ones we read.

After taking this class, I’m still unsure if all the novels fall under this umbrella. To me, we started of with a clear shell of what Noir was, then dove into what Black Noir is by focusing on Black characters like Hugh and Bob. I feel as though we drifted from what Black Noir is in the middle of our semester, then returned back to the Noir novel with Blanche on the Lam and Devil in a Blue Dress.

While, as we all probably know by now, I did not like Trick Baby and Never Die Alone nearly as much as the other novels, this is not the only reason why I have trouble considering them Noir.

I still think that in my definition of Noir, there has to be some sense of mystery, especially through a fictitious story. Our readers must piece things together and must figure things out as we go to connect to this feeling of “descending into darkness.” I think Noir is not just about a descent as the characters in our books go to extremes, face increasing violence, and avoid the law, but also about the opposite; Noir is also about a reader coming to the light as the truth is illuminated to them. In The Maltese Falcon, Farewell my Lovely, Blanche on the Lam, and Devil in a Blue Dress, readers ascend into the light of truth as they discover who the true murderers were and move past the point of conflict. However, in Trick Baby and Never Die Alone, conflict is only resolved after our characters make a choice—such as Paul donating the money—as opposed to them uncovering something.

With the help of Street Players, I think I would most link Trick Baby and Never Die Alone to Black Pulp Fiction. The stories are too autobiographical and too straightforward for me to consider the Black Noir. However, I am still glad we read them and feel as though they exposed me to topics I’ve never encountered before at this level.

Something else that I think this class helped me do is realize how fast I can read if I really want to. My mom always asks me, “What are you reading?” every time I come back for break, and usually I reply, “I’m too busy to read.” My love for literature has never ceased, but my free time spent reading has decreased exponentially as I entered high school. Hopefully now I will realize that I can finish books more rapidly than I expected.

Overall, I think this class was extremely crucial for me to take. I like that I took it as my first English elective so that I can be reminded how much I love to read fiction and to analyze. While others might see Brit Lit 1 or Exploring Shakespeare as more important courses, I think Black Noir is equally significant as it tells the story of the Other.

Course Wrap-Up

Starting on the first day of class when I did not even know how to pronounce the word “noir,” I feel like this course has continually challenged me in exactly the manner that I had hoped for when I signed up for it. In the first place, it has exposed me to literature that I am certain I would have not come across in any other class that is offered here at Notre Dame. While I have appreciated the very classical education that the English degree here has given me, there is no doubt in my mind that it is important to expand beyond the typical American and English literary canon. This class, as one that was listed as non-American and non-English literature, certainly gave me a good sense for exactly why it is important to expand beyond the aforementioned canon; the rich, if unorthodox, literature that I have been introduced to in this class will stick with me (and stick out in my mind for years to come when I think about my English degree) because of its difference from almost everything else I have read for school and for personal enjoyment. The books felt distinctly modern (even the oldest books that we read are comparatively modern) and often distinctly American.

The city culture that we read about with shady figures everywhere and things happening in the shadows all the time is something that has always been familiar to me, but never in a literary context. Moving from seeing these sort of news stories to seeing the same type of plots written in novel form has been an incredibly fun and rewarding experience. I think that when we read a news story we do so with a much different eye than we do when we read a work of fiction – even when that work of fiction directly reflects reality. As a result, I have become much more aware of the types of motivations and incentives that go into some of the personal stories and news stories that I have grown accustomed to. In this way, the fiction of noir – and specifically the black noir that this course has focused on – has paradoxically given me a better sense of reality, especially in the context of African-American city life. Many of my posts have reflected this personal experience that I have since I spent many of my formative years in Brooklyn (a setting that I believe is ripe for a great noir novel!), and how the characters in the book are identifiable to me by their backgrounds, opinions, or motivations. In fact, as this course went on and the books got more modern and less shackled by wanting to fit into the typical hardboiled detective genre associated with noir, the books became easier to read. I know that many of my classmates perhaps felt as if the material became harder to engage with, but I think that there is something much more familiar about what we read in the second half of the course than there is with someone like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. I do not know a single private detective, and I have never even heard of one similar to Sam Spade. For better or for worse I know plenty of people gripped by addiction, poverty, and a desire for a better life that leads them to make questionable decisions. Again, seeing these types of characters in fictional works has given me a whole new perspective on the same sort of people in the real world.

As a final note on the course, and more specifically the blog posts, I was very satisfied with the structure of the weekly assignments. The open-ended nature of the blog posts (and the final paper) have given me the opportunity to engage with the parts of the text that I find most intriguing. While this approach by a professor can be double-edged (since sometimes students struggling to grasp material want nothing more than some prompting questions or ideas), I find it to be incredibly useful at this level of my academic journey. Being that I am a senior, I appreciate being trusted to engage with the text appropriately and in a constructive manner, which I felt like I was in this course.

Black Noir: Revealing the Light in the Darkness

In the aftermath of the Great Depression and World War II, a certain disillusionment with the status quo and a fascination with the darker, unknown borders of society manifested itself in the genre of noir. Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon centers on a straight white male detective who is able to trangress the borders of society due to his moral ambiguity; Sam Spade is able to descend into the darkness without being completely overtaken by it. Yet Sam also uses fear as an organ of perception to navigate the anarchy and disillusionment of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Hammett creates a sense of false anxiety that is mirrored by white male detective Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. Both protagonists demonstrate how traditional noir is defined by the white male voyeuristic gaze; Sam and Philip treat the “other” in society–the non-white, seemingly-morally ambiguous characters–as caricatures instead of humans.

Yet when black characters are centered in the plot, noir evolves into black noir. This new version of the noir genre seeks to make black people and culture visible, not white. Chester Himes explores the themes of black rage and institutionalized social injustice in If He Hollers Let Him Go; popular concepts such as the talented ten and the color line come into play as the protagonist attempts to regain a sense of masculinity while completely negating the politics of race and racism. The intersection between class and race is examined in Dorothy Hughes’s The Expendable Man. What begins as attempts to shed light on the reality of black culture in the United States borders on appealing to the white voyeuristic gaze as the black underworld is revealed in Iceberg Slim’s Trick Baby. The line between black sleaze and ghetto realism blurs in Donald Goines’s Never Die Alone; he purposely employs the tactics of black sleaze to inform the black voyeuristic gaze. Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam and Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress use the black voyeuristic gaze to shed light on the dualities of modern black life in America. All in all, black noir centers black characters not to ascend out of the darkness, but to reveal the light that already exists on the exigencies of society.