Sometimes reading a book is like being immersed in a floating tank, solely existing in the words and story of the writer. Danny Gardner’s A Negro and an Ofay (Down & Out Books) is one of these books. Gardner creates a world that most readers are only vaguely familiar with, letting us live in another time, with another people. The story is ostensibly about Elliott Caprice, seemingly a ne’er-do-well, returning home to help his uncle get back his farm. Gardner’s setting — Chicago and its environs during the 1950s — is a time as Gardner writes, “In the south, it was Jim Crow. In the north, an understanding.”
We first meet Caprice waking up in jail and his head pounds as he slowly comes back to life, one sense at a time. We learn that Caprice was in a tank with the 761st Tank Battalion, the Black Panthers, who fought with Patton’s Third Army in the Battle of the Bulge. Afterward, he became a cop in Chicago. But today, he is a man on the run from the Chicago law, stuck in a holding cell in St. Louis, and has serious anger issues.
He wasn’t the first colored man back from overseas to find himself locked out of post-war opportunity. He may have been the angriest. Now he was fresh out of jail after being on the skids. It was bad enough he was broke. Now he owed three people favors. He may have been clean, but it was no triumph.
I believe and I could be very wrong that Caprice is both the negro and the ofay in Gardner’s debut novel. Born of a black father and a white mother, Caprice sometimes used his near-whiteness to an advantage, but always, in white America, it is his black half that whites inevitably turn on.
Just as Caprice is two-sides of one coin, Gardner’s A Negro and an Ofay is two stories of one book. First is the mystery, reminiscent of the best of Hammett or Chandler, and the second is a clear statement on race in America today using our collective past as a mirror. Many crime writers talk about how crime fiction is used to examine the wrongs of society, but Gardner actually uses his pen to remind us that our “past” racism lives and breathes in us today.