Uncontrollable Blackness

African American Men and Criminality in Jim Crow New York

By Douglas J. Flowe

332 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 9 halftones

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-5573-4
    Published: June 2020
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-5572-7
    Published: June 2020
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-5574-1
    Published: May 2020
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5476-6
    Published: May 2020

Justice, Power, and Politics

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Awards & distinctions

2021 Littleton-Griswold Prize, American Historical Association

Early twentieth-century African American men in northern urban centers like New York faced economic isolation, segregation, a biased criminal justice system, and overt racial attacks by police and citizens. In this book, Douglas J. Flowe interrogates the meaning of crime and violence in the lives of these men, whose lawful conduct itself was often surveilled and criminalized, by focusing on what their actions and behaviors represented to them. He narrates the stories of men who sought profits in underground markets, protected themselves when law enforcement failed to do so, and exerted control over public, commercial, and domestic spaces through force in a city that denied their claims to citizenship and manhood. Flowe furthermore traces how the features of urban Jim Crow and the efforts of civic and progressive leaders to restrict their autonomy ultimately produced the circumstances under which illegality became a form of resistance.

Drawing from voluminous prison and arrest records, trial transcripts, personal letters and documents, and investigative reports, Flowe opens up new ways of understanding the black struggle for freedom in the twentieth century. By uncovering the relationship between the fight for civil rights, black constructions of masculinity, and lawlessness, he offers a stirring account of how working-class black men employed extralegal methods to address racial injustice.

About the Author

Douglas J. Flowe is assistant professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis.
For more information about Douglas J. Flowe, visit the Author Page.


“Deeply researched and compellingly written, Uncontrollable Blackness is a necessary contribution to the growing historiography of urban policing, and a critical intervention in criminology and criminal justice studies. . . . Exactly the kind of historical study our current moment requires.”—Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books

“Timely and reflective, Douglas Flowe’s Uncontrollable Blackness offers an original assessment of Black men’s criminality and criminalization in early twentieth century New York.”—Journal of African American History

"Flowe has written an innovative, provocative, and important study of African American life that reconfigures the way we think about and understand black masculinity, crime, and the carceral state in the early twentieth century." —Cheryl D. Hicks, author of Talk With You Like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York

"This impressive, well-written book brings a fresh perspective to the history of working-class black men, providing intriguing narratives of personal and collective projects of survival in the face of unemployment, racial violence, residential discrimination, and other challenges associated with urban migration." —LaShawn D. Harris, author of Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy

"An incisive blend of tenderness and candor, Uncontrollable Blackness charts black men’s crimes and exploits in late nineteenth-century New York City. Using court records, prison files, and an array of investigative reports, Douglas J. Flowe forwards an evocative study of race, masculinity, and violence that is critical to addressing the legacy of African American men entangled in the U.S. legal system." —Kali Nicole Gross, author of Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love