Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The concerns in dem are addressed with such economy and directness that the novel’s considerable literariness may be overlooked. Its satirical extravagances, however, reveal the novel’s illustrious lineage. The complicated variations by which motifs of innocence and culpability, infantilism and maturity, intertwine relate dem to a number of age-old storytelling traditions. Among those that have the most resonance with regard to the modern, satirical sensibility of dem are the simpleton narrative, the tale based on the waywardness of fortune, the infant-substitution story, and the career of the confidence man. The latter is used to scathing effect in Mark Twain’s The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), and there is in dem something of Twain’s mordant derision of human cupidity and blindness, though the overall effect lacks Twain’s bleakness.

In addition to dem’s intriguing literary lineage and Kelley’s transposition of it to a contemporary urban setting, it is the social and cultural background to that setting that provides the most accessible sense of the novel’s context and relevance. dem may be regarded as a cultural document of some significance. Reflecting very much not only the revaluation of black America that was attempted by African Americans in the 1960’s, the novel also reflects the revolution in African American artistic expression that that decade also witnessed. The daring themes, angry tone, and innovative sense of form that distinguish much African American art of the time are also prominent features of dem, though arguably Kelley does not endorse their revolutionary potential as wholeheartedly as other artists of his generation. The novel’s caustic anatomy of the ineradicable racist element in American society is, however, a noteworthy expression of the outspokenness and righteous impatience of its time, and makes both fitting and understandable its dedication by the author “to the Black people in (not of) America.”