“I don’t want no niggers on this lot.” – Jack L. Warner
You would think such racist views as expressed by the head of Warner Brothers in the 1940’s and 1950’s would have radically changed by the 21st century. You would have thought that racism was indeed a thing of the past. Recently, Don Cheadle made a film called ‘Miles Ahead’ featuring the life of musician Miles Davis. The film is set in the seventies with flashbacks to the fifties. There are scenes within the film of violent abuse to Miles Davis just for the simple fact he was black. The producer of the ‘Miles Ahead’ film suggested nothing has changed. I think he is right.
In 1909, being born black in Missouri was not an ideal situation. There were no civil rights. Jim Crow Laws were enforced ensuring racial segregation. This law continued until the 1960’s. Where white Americans were able to better their living standards, black Americans were held in place by laws so unpleasant, so unfair it makes me ashamed to associate with my fellow whites.
Chester’s dad was a peripatetic professor who ranged around teaching industrial trades. His father’s name was Joseph Sandy Himes. Chester’s mom was one Estelle Bomar, a teacher. The family was better of than a lot of other black people and Chester grew up in a Middle-Class home in Jefferson City. In and about 1920 Chester saw a thing that would forever change is life. Having been punished by his mom so that he couldn’t attend a gunpowder demonstration with his brother, Joseph junior, his brother, whilst mixing the chemicals, set off the explosion prematurely so that they blew-up in his face. The boy was rushed to the hospital where he was refused treatment due to Jim Crow’s Law. It was a despicable, vile law which favoured whites over blacks, being black meant you were second class. In fact, less than second class. You simply didn’t qualify as being of the same species.
“I loved my brother. I had never been separated from him and that moment was shocking, shattering, and terrifying…We pulled into the emergency entrance of a white people’s hospital. White-clad doctors and attendants appeared. I remember sitting in the back seat with Joe watching the pantomime being enacted in the car’s bright lights. A white man was refusing; my father was pleading. Dejectedly my father turned away; he was crying like a baby. My mother was fumbling in her handbag for a handkerchief; I hoped it was for a pistol.”
I distrust those who suggest they ‘don’t recognise’ the differences between the races. I find it a preposterous notion. Those differences are what makes us. They should be embraced.
Chester Bomar Himes, whatever his thoughts were on the hypocrisy of white people, was to get on with his life in the best way he could, the only way he knew how. He started by learning. Having moved with his family to Cleveland, Ohio, he attended East High School before going on to Ohio State University. As a university student, he joined the first African American, Inter-Collegiate, Greek-lettered fraternity where he, among many other black pupils, learned literary studies. The group was called Alpha Phi Alpha. It was whilst studying with them, following a relatively innocent prank, Himes was expelled. It was the start of a hellish descent into a personal hell.
In 1928, he was involved in a violent armed crime and was subsequently sentenced to serve 20 to 25 years in prison. He served only 7, being released in 1936. It was whilst in prison that he started to write. There can be no excuses for an armed crime not even if you are black, but the reasons that drive poor blacks into committing a crime even to this day are sufficient to ask what drives anyone to crime? Invariably the answer is equity, that and the re-distribution of wealth. Being a lifelong underdog would make any man capable of things he possibly wouldn’t do if life were a little fairer.
“I grew to manhood in the Ohio State Penitentiary.”
In his introduction to ‘Rage in Harlem’ Luc Sante suggests “it wasn’t a simple question of racism” that prevented Chester Himes novels from being both accepted by a white audience nor the selling of his books in vast amounts. I see his point but cannot agree with it. Being black in an age when white was supreme would have been bad enough but being black in a medium that had denigrated women’s literature for so long would have been intolerable. After all, a woman author was one thing but a black author unthinkable. Make no mistake, even with the rise of Rock and Roll, a thing as black as the recently departed Muhammad Ali’s nuts (God bless him,) being black in a white man’s arena would have had obvious effects on the publisher’s choices.
Although Himes struggled for many a year getting the recognition he deserved from his home nation, he didn’t go without any. He was first published in 1934 whilst still in prison. Esquire published his account of the Easter Monday prison fire that occurred in 1930. This, of course, was just, as good and worthy as it was an article; Chester Himes had a whole series of novels floating around his head. His first novel was ‘If He Hollers Let Him Go,’ published in 1945 narrating black dock workers’ time employed on the shipyards of Los Angeles. It shows how racism conflicted with the need to wage war with Germany; black men were needed as both workers and soldiers. A hypocrisy in that racism is overlooked for the duration of the war only to resurface again at its conclusion. This book granted him temporary status within literary circles but was short lived.
His next book was less favourably received. ‘Lonely Crusade’ was in many ways the polar opposite of the previous work in that where one was seen as of being on the left of politics, broadly speaking socialist, this took on the Communist Party and condemned them as being a betrayal of all things Marxist. The critics slated it. Suddenly, from being praised Himes was being vilified. Oddly so when you consider America is such a conservative society.
With yet another slap in the face, perhaps the ‘straw the broke the camel’s back,’ Chester left the USA and set sail to France. At that period in time, France was a place, a haven if you will, for all those who were considered either ‘outsiders’ or artists, this included Black American’s. Anyone remotely intellectual was revered following two global wars and no radical changes to the world to speak of. Unfortunately, for Himes, he was the ‘outsiders’ outsider. He didn’t fit. His view of life was not shared by those intellectuals he had sought to be part of. He took to travelling over Europe taking in a multitude of regions along with their cities. From the French southwest to London to Majorca to Scandinavian countries such as Denmark and then onto Holland.
He had not considered at this point writing crime fiction. He was not a native of Harlem and knew little about it but when offered the chance to be published should he undertake such a task, then he accepted. It was Marcel Duhamel that encouraged him to make this bold move, his motivational tool a one-thousand-dollar advance. In those days, one thousand dollars was a lot of money.
Chester Himes strength was in his ability to write with such a strong voice. It was ethnic, it was black, it was (forgive the use of the word) colourful. The music of his text, the cadences, the way in which he goes from adagio to accelerando forces the narrative along at a number of ever changing paces yet the turn in pace adds to the overall effect, to the tension and the flavour. If a white man had tried to write in Himes style it would have turned hard-boiled fiction into vaudeville. The tone would have been wrong, false. But it was no sellout. Himes took this opportunity to write ‘hard-boiled crime’ yet managed to incorporate his rage against racism into his humour.
The characters that inhabit Himes fictions are in many ways the products of the society they sprung from as much as they of themselves. Reading Himes’ work now I can imagine the likes of Richard Pryor, Samuel L. Jackson, Eddie Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover inhabiting the characters from the books in a film. The same characters they often portray, the black witticisms and mannerisms, and the way black identity is presented both positively and ironically in a send-up of black stereotyping.
Walter Mosley is no slouch when it comes to writing crime fiction. He has created some of the most memorable characters in the genre. Individuals such as Easy Rawlins, Fearless Jones, and Leonard McGill. As one of the world’s foremost authors of gritty thrillers, his praise of Chester Himes is anything but faint.
“To me, Chester Himes is a better writer than Ellison, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright. Sentence by sentence, scene by scene, his work is complex and the characters are never what we expect. Himes presented antiheroes and set these people loose in a universe of crafted moods, tastes, smells, violence, saintly sluts and dangerous virgins,” Chambers said. “These antiheroes had one job: put things back in balance, rather than save the world. Walter doesn’t write characters like that. Easy Rawlings often looks like a cork on an ocean wave, bobbing no matter how hard he swims.”
Of all the classic crime novels I have read, most pertinently Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of them. Where he goes one better is with his passages of humour mixed with brute ugly violence and uncompromising attention to detail that he makes him stand out as one hell-of-a unique and inventive writer.