Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Hunting in Harlem is Mat Johnson’s second novel, following the publication of his well-received debut, Drop, in 2000. The novel was inspired by the author’s sojourn in Harlem while attending the master of fine arts program at Columbia University. While there, Johnson studied the history of Harlem and witnessed at first hand both the deterioration of the area and efforts to revitalize it.

The novel has experienced some backlash as a result of its unfavorable depictions of African Americans. A handful of critics have denigrated Hunting in Harlem as updated “ghetto” literature, also known as black pulp fiction. They assert that the novel glorifies urban violence and crime in the tradition of earlier writers such as Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim (Robert Beck), and Donald Goines—the character Piper Goines is an homage to that late author. A few New York bookstores have removed Johnson’s work from their shelves, citing its negative influence upon rappers and hip-hop artists, who tend to focus on the brisk action of the stories at the expense of their underlying issues. Most critics, however, have praised Johnson’s keen wit, dark humor, insight into human psychology, and ear for realistic “street” dialogue. The book won the 2004 Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction.

Undeterred by criticism, Johnson followed the novel with other controversial works dealing with the African American experience, including a historical fiction novel, The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Murder and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century New York (2007), an issue of the comic book Hellblazer featuring the vengeful black character “Papa Midnite,” and a graphic mystery novel investigating lynching, Incognegro (2008). Recognized as a dynamic, talented, fresh voice in African American literature, Johnson works to influence a new generation of authors: He has taught creative writing at Bard College and at the University of Houston.