Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Black Hand

“The Black Hand,” by Charles Gardner Bowers, appeared in the January, 1931 Amazing Stories. It is a story of an arm transplant, but it is also part and parcel of the execrable history of racial attitudes in America.

A white man, the artist Van Puyster, has gangrene of his right hand. The physician/surgeon, Dr. Evans, has a plan to replace the man’s arm with one from a black man.

The temper of the times in its treatment of the black characters shows how the author felt about them. While the white people in the story have names, the African-Americans who are singled out have no names. They are known as “a condemned criminal,” “a negro [sic] valet,” and “a porter.” In this story, the African-Americans are just props.

Author Bowers’ clunky prose is mostly in the form of dialogue, and some of it sounds pedantic, like an article from a medical journal. In those days of early science fiction the emphasis was on the science, and the literary quality of the fiction was secondary. That didn’t stop some of the writers from over 80 years ago from going on to develop their talents — a young Jack Williamson, called in his later years “The Dean of Science Fiction,” contributed a story to the issue — but none of the authors were ever going to win any awards for fine literature.

What struck me also was the endorsement in the editor’s introduction of “an eminent physician and well-known writer” (Dr. David H. Keller, M.D., perhaps. In Keller’sWikipedia biography, his writing is described as “hostile to feminists and African-Americans”). The “eminent physician” said the story “is a clever conception and a fine piece of work,” and, “the surgery is far better than anything I could have written.” I have even more suspicion of it being Keller, who was a psychiatrist. He adds, “The psychological phases of it tickle me pink.” An interesting choice of words.

A spoiler for the story: Having a black arm drives the white artist crazy, and he commits murders of several black people. That is told off-camera, so to speak, because of the method of the story’s construction.

“The Black Hand” is only noticeable nowadays by the plot device using race, and the blatant bigotry of the writer, the editor, and the physician who endorsed it. It is just another example of the gulf between whites and blacks in that era, and in today’s sensitive racial climate is a curiosity and a reminder from a time of outspoken racism.

Click on the scans to make them larger.

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