You’ve had a rough week. Now it’s Friday, and all you have to do is make it to 5pm and you’re free. So let us help you waste 15 of those minutes. Sit back, huff some Wite-Out, and relax with Freaky Friday.
Black in Time, get it? DO YOU SEE WHAT HE DID THERE? It’s like a pun, only stupider. And yet, this might be one of the best/worst titles ever conceived. Especially when you read the back cover blurb:
RIGHT ON! Into the time machine plunges Jomo, the black militant leader of BURN. “Revolution then” is his motto; he’s going to rearrange history so the blacks get a fair shake…but in another area of time, rabble-rousing white supremacist Billy Roy Whisk is also at work—fixing history so the slaves are never freed.
I may be a sorry excuse for a human being, but few things have quickened my pulse faster than finding this book in a used paperback bin. Black to the Future! Bill and Ted’s Racial Awareness Adventure! White People’s Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel!
And then I read it.
If you happen to own John Jakes: A Critical Companion, you might be surprised to find that it contains zero mentions of Black in Time. It says Jakes “has made American history come to life” yet it doesn’t mention his one book in which Harriet Beecher Stowe attacks a time-traveling racist with a red-hot poker. It calls him the “godfather of the historical novel” but doesn’t include a single word about his book in which the leader of white jihad beats Benjamin Franklin nearly to death at a Quaker meeting. He’s named “the people’s author,” but utter silence on his book that features the immortal line, “Thee are not a nice person!”
It doesn’t mention his sci-fi and fantasy writing at all. But Jakes got his start in the pulps back in the Fifties, and he was even part of the Swordsmen and Sorcerers’ Guild of America, a loose affiliation of writers that included Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock, and Fritz Leiber. He made a living writing books like Six-Gun Planet (‘This is the story of the planet Missouri…”) and The Asylum World (“Take a trip to the Asylum World, a mind-blowing science fiction satire of our times—and times to come!”) before he started writing the historical fiction novels that made him famous. History is what bought Jakes a Cadillac Seville, like the North and South Trilogy that became three miniseries (featuring Patrick Swayze), and his Kent Family Chronicles, with more than 16 million copies in print. After years of laboring in the pulp fiction salt mines, it’s easy to see why he abandoned speculative fiction.
But let’s travel b(l)ack to a time before he bought his wife a mink coat.
Set in the futuristic year of 1977, Black in Time tells the tale of mild-mannered Harold Quigley, a professor of theater studies at a historically black college. The United States is caught in a violent racial struggle as a white supremacist demagogue, Billy Roy Whisk, and his All American Apostolic Fellowship are trying to spark a race war so they can eliminate all the black people and bring the United States of America back to Jesus, who is, according to Whisk, “the greatest white who ever lived.” Whisk is prone to violence (“You make one more remark about our meek and gentle Savior an’ I’ll nail your nuts to a stump!”) but he’s matched by BURN (Brothers United for Revolution Now). A black militant organization led by Jomo, they want to meet Whisk’s violence with high caliber revolution, breaking their brothers and sisters out of the ghetto where they nosh on Queen of Sheba Brand Frozen Soul Dinners and wear Nuit de Mozambique perfume.
Harold isn’t interested in any of this. He just wants to use the time machine at The Foundation to go back to ancient Rome and work on his paper about the playwright Terence. Dr. Norval Freylinghausen invented the Nexus time machine but doesn’t want the military to get hold of it, so he insists that it only be used for research purposes. But when Harold’s sister’s husband, Gator, assassinates one of Reverend Whisk’s lieutenants during a rally, he agrees to take Gator b(l)ack in time to hide in New Orleans, circa 1815. But Jomo and his comrade, Diana, get the idea that if they can travel back in time to 622AD and assassinate the prophet Muhammad before his flight to Medina, they can nip Islam in the bud, and Muslim armies would never have overthrown the Songhay Empire, which would have probably gone on to rule the world.
It’s a long chain of cause-and-effect, that only gets more complicated when the Rev. Whisk gets in on the game, and he and his pneumatic assistant, Miss Adelaide Pepper (“I been busier than a two-headed chicken in a bucket of bugs”), decide to go back in time to stop the Emancipation Proclamation from being written. Rather than treating the timeline like a delicate flower being rustled by butterfly wings, Black in Time socks it in the mouth, roughs it up, and drags it down the street by its hair. Unable to assassinate Lincoln (with a cannon), Whisk tries to burn Harriet Beecher Stowe’s manuscript of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (and gets punched through a window), then tries to stop Frederick Douglas from escaping slavery so he can’t go North and speak out against slavery, then tries to beat Benjamin Franklin to death, and so on.
Meanwhile, Jomo, Diana, and Harold romp through time like a slapstick rumble through the world’s biggest bounce castle, running into themselves trying to assassinate Muhammad, getting stuck in a world where the Songhay Empire discovered America (it’s now the Republic of New Songhay, Mozamopolis is Paris, and the latest automobile is the Masai Spear), then evading a squad of cops sent from 1970 to 1785 to bring them back to the present. It all spins wildly out of control, but it’s never quite as wild as you want it to be.
Using time travel to examine the history of race in America has been done before, most sensitively by Octavia Butler in Kindred, her beautifully realized novel that considers the effect of slavery by examining the relationships between a handful of characters over several years. The writing is quiet and lowkey, the emotions are complicated and realistic, and the effect is powerful and deep. Black in Time is no Kindred. Jakes seems to be banging this one out on his typewriter as fast as he can to keep the novelty of the title fresh for himself. Diana is constantly “chopping” people in the neck with her kung fu grip, the word “chrome” is applied to anything from the future, and the book ends with Harold embracing manliness by abandoning academia (“I can’t hide behind books anymore”) and telling people to shut up, which causes Diana to regard him in “a strange way.” In this kind of book, that’s a code word for “soon they’re going to be having sex.”
The era that is most fully explored in this book is 1970. The Black Panthers had just announced the formation of the “Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention,” the Chicago Seven trial was going on, and racial unrest was rocking America. George Wallace kept popping up as a presidential candidate and a series of assassinations had gutted the country of the leaders who could appeal to its better nature. And yet, Jakes is writing what’s essentially an escapist romp, where there’s no problem that can’t be solved if smart men belt a little whiskey, pull up their big boy pants, and speak manfully. His solution to racial inequality is to unleash the wrath of two-fisted academics who have been pushed to the limit. And that means it’s not the time travel, Chicago burned by an all-black revolutionary army inspired by the Prophet Nat Turner, or a fistfight in the hold of a slave ship crewed by blind sailors, that are the most ridiculous things in this book.
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his most recent novel is Horrorstör, about a haunted Ikea, while My Best Friend’s Exorcism (which is like Beaches meets The Exorcist) will be out from Quirk Books on May 17th.