the life of chester himes
Chester Himes, (1909–1984), novelist. A prolific writer whose career spans fifty years, Chester Himes is best known for his naturalist and detective fiction. A gambler, hustler, burglar, ex-convict, and expatriate, Himes’s Catholic experiences and peripatetic life provided him abundant material for fiction that portrays the near existential “absurdity” of blackness in America. Focusing on violence—physical, political, and psychic—as a ubiquitous dynamic in American culture, Himes’s fiction ponders the often futile struggle to resist a relentlessly hostile environment.
Himes grew up in a middle-class home in Missouri and in Ohio. While a freshman at Ohio State University, Himes was expelled for a prank, and in late 1928 he was arrested and sentenced to jail and hard labor for 20 to 25 years for armed robbery. Imprisoned in Ohio Penitentiary, he began writing short stories which were published in national magazines. For Himes, writing and publishing was a way to earn respect from guards and fellow inmates, as well as avoid violence.
In 1934 Himes was transferred to LondonPrison Farm and in April 1936 he was released on parole into his mother’s custody. Following his release he did part time jobs and at the same time continued to write. During this period he came in touch with Langston Hughes who facilitated Himes contacts with the world of literature and publishing.
In the 1940s Himes spent time in Los Angeles, working as a screenwriter but also producing two novels, If He Hollers Let Him Go and Lonely Crusade that charted the experiences of the wave of black in-migrants, drawn by the city’s defense industries, and their dealings with the established black community, fellow workers, unions and management.
In City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, Mike Davis cites Himes’ brief career as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers as an example of the ongoing racism of Hollywood: he was terminated when Jack Warner heard about him and said “I don’t want no goddamned niggers on this lot.” (p 43). Himes later wrote in his autobiography:
Up to the age of thirty-one I had been hurt emotionally, spiritually and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear. I had lived in the South, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college, I had served seven and one half years in prison, I had survived the humiliating last five years of Depression in Cleveland; and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate.
By the 1950s Himes had decided to settle in France permanently, a country he liked in part due to his critical popularity there.
Chester Himes was born in Jefferson City, Missouri in 1909 and died in Spain in 1984 from Parkinson’s Disease.
—from wikipedia, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chester_Himes
on violence as the singular American narrative
There is no way that one can evaluate the American scene and avoid violence, because any country that was born in violence and has lived in violence always knows about violence. Anything can be initiated, enforced, contained or destroyed in the American scene through violence; it comes straight from the days of slavery, through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Indian wars, the gunslingers killing one another over fences and sheep and one goddamned thing after another; they grew up in violence …. The only people that the American community has tried to teach that it is Christian to turn the other check and live peacefully are the black people. . .
My French editor says, the Americans have a style of writing detective stories that no one has been able to imitate …. There’s no reason why the black American, like all other Americans, and brought up in this sphere of violence which is the main sphere of American detective stories, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t write them. It’s just plain and simple violence in narrative form …. American violence is public life, it’s a public way of life; it became a form, a detective story form.
—Chester Himes, “My Man Himes” (1976)
If I had wanted to express my revulsion for violence then I would have made the violence even more repellent, really repellent. I am simply creating stories that have a setting I know very well.
—Nova (January 1971), 52
The American black is a new race of man; the only new race of man to come into being in modern time. And for those hackneyed, diehard, outdated, slavery-time racists to keep thinking of him as a primitive is an insult to the intelligence. In fact, intelligence isn’t required to know the black is a new man, complex, intriguing, and not particularly likeable. I find it very difficult to like American blacks myself; but I know there’s nothing primitive about us, as there is about the most sophisticated African.
—Himes, The Quality of Hurt (1972)
on writing (and race)
No matter what I did, or how I lived, I had considered myself a writer since I’d published my first story in Esquire when I was still in prison in 1934. Foremost a writer. Above all a writer. It was my salvation and is. The world can deny me all other employment, and stone me as an ex-convict, as a nigger, as a disagreeable and unpleasant person. But as long as I can write, whether it is published or not, I’m a writer, and no one can take that away. “A fighter fights, a writer writes”, so I must have done my writing . . .
— Himes, The Quality of Hurt
I had the creative urge, but the old, used forms of the black American writer did not fit my creations. I wanted to break through the barrier that labeled me as a “protest writer.” I knew the life of an American black needed another image than just the victim of racism. We were more than just victims. We did not suffer, we were extroverts. We were unique individuals, funny not clowns, solemn but not serious, hurt but not suffering, sexualists but not whores in the usual sense of the word; we had tremendous love of life, a love of sex, a love of ourselves. We were absurd.
—Himes, My Life of Absurdity
from his novels
In Lonely Crusade (1947), the protagonist Lee Gordon is a man pushed to the edge. At the start of the novel the omniscient narrator observes that “Fear was the price for living”; nevertheless, after a run of unemployment, Gordon manages to become a union organizer. However, his happiness soon turns to a kind of self-fuelling fear:
… when he boarded the streetcar with white Southern war-workers that war spring of 1943, being a Negro imposed a sense of handicap that Lee Gordon could not overcome. He lost his brief happiness in the seas of white faces … he had once again crossed into the competitive white world where he would be subjected to every abuse concocted in the minds of white people to harass and intimidate Negroes …. and to be afraid, and hate his fear himself for fearing it, and hate himself for feeling it. The fear in him was something a dog could smell … he could see the hostile faces of the white workers, their hot, hating stares; he could feel their antagonisms hard as a physical blow; hear their vile asides and abusive epithets with a reality that cut like a knife.
Of his novel The End of the Primitive (1955), Himes stated that “I put a sexually frustrated American woman and a racially-frustrated black American male together for a weekend in a New York apartment, and allowed them to soak in American bourbon. I got the result I was looking for: a nightmare of drunkenness, unbridled sexuality, and in the end, tragedy.” the doomed Jesse’s dream life is conveyed with an hallucinatory absurdity worthy of De Quincey:
He dreamed he was in a house with a thousand rooms of different sizes made entirely of distorted mirrors. There were others besides himself but he could not tell how many because their reflections went on into an infinity in the distorted mirrors. Nor could he see their true shape because in one mirror they all appeared to be obese dwarfs and in another tall, thin, cadaverous skeletons. He ran panic-stricken from room to room trying to find a familiar human shape, but he saw only the grotesque reflections, the brutal faces that leered from some distortions, the sweet smiles from others, the sad eyes, the gentle mouths, the sinister stares, the treacherous grins, the threatening scowls, hating and bestial, suffering and saintly, gracious and kind, and he knew that none of them was the true face and he continued to run in frantic terror until he found a door and escaped.
Thus America as a deranged fun-house. When Jesse kills the white girl Kriss, he believes, paradoxically, that he has now joined the ranks of humanity:
You finally did it …. End product of Americanism on one Jesse Robinson – black man. Your answer, son. You’ve been searching for it. BLACK MAN KILLS WHITE WOMAN …. Human beings only species of animal life where males are known to kill their females. Proof beyond all doubt. Jesse Robinson joins the human race. “I’m a nigger and I’ve just killed a white woman,” Jesse said, giving the address on 21st Street and hung up. “That’ll get the lead out of his ass,” he thought half-amused.
the detectives Grave Digger and Coffin Ed
An inconspicuous black sedan pulled out from the kerb and parked at the end of the block unnoticed, and the two tall, lanky colored men dressed in black mohair suits that looked as though they’d been slept in got out and walked towards the scene. Their wrinkled coals bulged beneath their left shoulders. The shiny straps of shoulder holsters showed across the fronts of their blue cotton shirts. The one with the burnt face went to the far side of the crowd; the other remained on the near side. Suddenly a loud voice shouted, “Straighten up!” An equally loud voice echoes, “Count off!”
—The Crazy Kill (1959)
As set out in A Rage in Harlem (1965):
Grave Digger and Coffin Ed weren’t crooked detectives, but they were tough. They had to be tough to work in Harlem. Colored folks didn’t respect colored cops. But they respected big shiny pistols and sudden death. It was said in Harlem that Coffin Ed’s pistol would kill a rock and that Gravedigger’s would bury it. They took their tribute, like all real cops, from the established underworld catering for the essential needs of the people – gamekeepers, madams, streetwalkers, numbers writers, numbers bankers. But they were rough on purse snatchers, muggers, burglars, con men, and all strangers working any racket. And they didn’t like rough stuff from anybody but themselves. “Keep it cool,” they warned, “Don’t make graves.”
Harlem, their patrol grounds:
Unwed young mothers, suckling their infants, living on a prayer; fat black racketeers coasting past in big bright-colored convertibles with their solid gold babes, carrying huge sums of money on their person; hardworking men, holding up buildings with their shoulders, talking in loud voices up there in Harlem where the white bosses couldn’t hear them; teen-age gangsters grouping for a gang-fight, smoking marijuana weed to get up their courage; everybody escaping the hot-box rooms they lived in, seeking respite in a street made hotter by the automobile exhaust and the heat released by the concrete walls and walks.
—The Crazy Kill
on violence as the singular American narrative