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True Crime for Our Times: 'People Wasn't Made to Burn' | The Nation

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True Crime for Our Times: 'People Wasn't Made to Burn'

In Ernest Mandel’s Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story, the esteemed Belgian Marxist argues that the police procedural is, by its very nature, inherently right-wing. The genre, argues Mandel, is an exercise where, “Revolt against private property becomes individualized. With motivation no longer social, the rebel becomes a thief and murderer.” Modern culture has taken the “social bandit”, best exemplified by Robin Hood, and turned them into paragons of evil whose destruction is a precondition to civilization. It’s worth noting that the immensely lucrative “true crime canon” follows these same rules. Best selling books about “true crime” are tributes to single-minded police agents who take down sociopathic villains. Monsters in the countryside are slain and calm is restored.

I wish Mandel were alive so he could read Joe Allen’s astonishing “true crime” book People Wasn’t Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago (Haymarket Books). I hope it would have compelled Mandel to reconsider what the political trajectory and potential of the true crime story can be. I know, as someone who consumes these books like salted cashews, it has for me.

A former Teamster shop steward and Chicago socialist, Allen is no typical true-crime writer. He’s an activist, an advocate and a sort of “people’s detective.” In these unconventional hands, People Wasn’t Made to Burn does nothing less than reinvent the true-crime genre. Instead of being a morality play of good individual vs. evil, Allen, using a raft of primary research, explores a much broader set of crimes. Allen doesn’t indict an individual, inasmuch as he indicts the more shadowed Jim Crow laws that ruled the North. He indicts the horrific housing conditions in post-war Chicago and, finally, a criminal justice system that focuses on individual crimes while systemic ones go unpunished.

The true-crime under exploration is the case of James Hickman. Hickman, a father and laborer, murdered his unarmed landlord, David Coleman, in full view on a Chicago street. On trial and facing the gallows, the reasons for Hickman’s crime spread quickly across the Windy City. Four of Hickman’s children had just burned to death in a fire at Hickman’s building while he was working the night shift. Before this unspeakable tragedy, Coleman had threatened, as was common practice, to force every resident out of the building, even “if it takes fire.” James and his wife Annie Hickman had been complaining about the terrible conditions and Coleman, who was also African-American, said that if they took their grievances to the authorities, “I have a man on the East Side ready to burn the place up.” Allen recounts in painstaking detail, the night of the fire. He takes you inside the subhuman conditions of a rat-infested Chicago “kitchenette apartment.” As the great author of Native Son, Richard Wright, once wrote, “The kitchenette is our prison, our death sentence without a trial.” For the Hickman family, it really was a death sentence, impossible to escape once Coleman decided to smoke them out.

Allen makes you see the fire through the eyes of James Hickman, returning home on a darkened Chicago street amidst the crowds of onlookers, trying to figure out which of his children had escaped and which had died.

As he said to his son a few weeks later, “Paper was made to burn, coal and rags, not people.… People wasn’t made to burn.”

After receiving no justice for the murder of his children, Hickman took matters into his own hands, and jolted an entire city. Prosecutors wanted the high-profile defendant to suffer. Hickman faced a decade behind bars or execution in the electric chair. Black men shooting landlords was not to define post-war America. It looked like James Hickman was on an express train to the gallows. But here is where the second part of Allen’s story kicks into gear. Hickman became a city-wide cause for an angered populace. Their ranks included pastors, trade unionists. socialists, musicians and even movie stars like Tallulah Bankhead. The great artist Ben Shahn did a series of drawings about the case, which appear throughout the book.

On the trial’s first day, local United Auto Workers leader Willoughby Abner told a throng of reporters:

“Although James Hickman stands in the defendant’s dock today, it is society that is really on trial. Society has created the conditions making Hickman cases and Hickman tragedies inevitable. Society is unconcerned about the loss of Hickman’s children; unconcerned about the miserable housing conditions that Hickman and his family of nine had to live under. The same government which failed to heed the need of Hickman and millions of other Hickmans is now trying to convict Hickman for its own crimes, its own failures.”

This was a civil rights movement before civil rights. It’s also a story that upturns the common American narrative that these battles took place first south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s a hidden history that makes the story feel both revelatory and dangerous. This is a “true crime” book where readers are forced to confront the nature of crime. It’s a history that could have been forgotten. Allen has rescued a part of our social history, which on its own is an impressive accomplishment. He has turned the true-crime genre upside down, which also is a fantastic feat. But by the book’s end, Allen relates the Hickman case to our own troubled times. “The new normal” that comprises our own twenty-first-century housing crisis means that our world is producing more David Colemans and, potentially, more James Hickmans. Like all true-crime books, the story serves as a warning; except this time, the warning isn’t directed at the reader.

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