Chester Himes

Chester Himes

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Chester Himes, the son of a teacher, was born in Jefferson City, Missouri, on 29th July, 1909. Himes attended Ohio State University but in 1929 he was arrested and found guilty of armed robbery. The following year he witnessed a prison fire that killed 320 convicts.

While in prison he began writing fiction. This included, To What Red Hell? (1934), a story about a prison fire. Over the next few years his stories appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier, Atlanta Daily World, Bronzeman, Esquire and Abbott's Monthly Magazine.

On his release in 1936 Himes joined the Federal Writers' Project and became friendly with the poet, Langston Hughes. Himes first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, appeared in 1945. This was followed by Lonely Crusade, a novel about racism in the trade union movement, and Cast the First Stone (1952).

After the publication of The Third Generation (1954) and The End of a Primitive (1955), Himes moved to Paris where he joined a group of black writers and artists that included James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Ollie Harrington. While living in France he concentrated on writing a series of books about two Harlem detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. This included For Love of Imabelle (1957), The Real Cool Killers (1959), All Shot Up (1960), Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965), The Heat's On (1966) and Blind Man with a Pistol (1969).

Chester Himes, who wrote two volumes of autobiography, The Quality of Hurt (1972) and My Life of Absurdity (1976), died in Moraira, Spain, on 12th November, 1984.

Chester Himes - History

In the second volume of his autobiography, My Life of Absurdity, Himes describes "a painting I had seen in my youth of black soldiers clad in Union Army uniforms down on their hands and knees viciously biting the dogs the Southern rebels had turned on them, their big white dangerous teeth sinking into the dogs&apos throats while the dogs yelped futilely." That painting has always seemed profoundly emblematic of Himes&aposs work. The terrible ambivalence of the black&aposs place in society, Himes&aposs own bitterness and rage, elements of graphic violence and opéra bouffe—this brief description of a painting seen fleetingly in youth describes as well four decades of work from one of America&aposs most neglected and misunderstood major writers.

    In Cakes and Ale, Somerset Maugham summarized the literary vocation thus:

Chester Himes never forgot anything, least of all his pride and anger. At no time during his life did poverty and the world&aposs indifference remove themselves far from his side. Chester Himes was never a free man.

Chester Bomar Himes was born in Jefferson City, Missouri, the state capital, on July 29, 1909, "across the street from the entrance to Lincoln Institute, where my father, Professor Joseph Sandy Himes, taught blacksmithing and wheelwrighting as head of the Mechanical Department." Chester was the youngest of three brothers: Eddie, eight years his senior Joseph Jr., with whom Chester became in youth inseparable, but one. No original birth certificate survives in April of 1942, offering as documentation a family record of birth (most likely a family bible) and WPA employment records, Himes applied for and received a "delayed or special" certificate.

    Part of a network of land-grant Negro schools throughout the South, Lincoln Institute&aposs curriculum was split into two parts, agricultural and mechanical today&aposs A&M colleges retain this nomenclature. Many of these colleges occupied campuses of formerly white schools. Alcorn College in Mississippi, for instance, where Joseph Sandy Himes later taught, moved onto a campus vacated by the state university&aposs relocation to Oxford, where the latter became known as Ole Miss ("made famous by William Faulkner and James Meredith," Himes writes in a typical remark). Other such facilities were ramshackle aggregations of buildings. Most were rurally located. Himes remembered his father quoting Booker T. Washington on the subject of these schools: "Let down your buckets where you are."

    Lincoln Institute, founded in 1866 with $6,000 contributed by regiments of Negro volunteers from the Civil War, by 1914 had an enrollment of 435. Benjamin F. Allen&aposs presidency from 1902 to 1918 brought marked physical improvement, including a central heating system and, in 1908, wiring of all campus buildings for electricity, as well as new emphasis on students&apos cultural development. A portrait of the 1912 faculty shows and lists "Joseph S. Himes, blacksmithing." His annual salary is given as $700. In the Jefferson City Directory this entry appears: "Himes, Joseph S (col Estella B) instructor Lincoln Inst, r 710 Lafayette."

    Jefferson City at that time had a population of around 15,000 and covered an area just under four square miles, with twenty-three miles of paved streets. A 1904 ordinance set the city speed limit at nine miles an hour. The Jefferson City Post in 1908 wrote of an auto trip from Kansas City to Jefferson City in an astonishingly brief fourteen hours.

    Himes, who was to become the chronicler of America&aposs great dispossessed, began not in poverty, then, but in a black middle class that few Americans even suspect existed at the time. Joseph Sandy Himes was, by his own standards and those of the community at large, a man of substantial prospects.

    Son of a slave, Joseph Sandy Himes never knew his father&aposs first name, knew only that he had been bought off the slave block by a man named Heinz or Himes who trained him as a blacksmith. The end of the Civil War found Joseph&aposs father in his mid-twenties and a father of four. With little real choice, he remained on his former master&aposs plantation but after a quarrel with an overseer, whom he almost certainly attacked, perhaps killed, he fled, abandoning his first family.

    Second wife Mary, herself an ex-slave from Georgia, bore him five children before dying of consumption. Joseph Sandy, Himes&aposs father, was the middle child, born in North Carolina, fourteen at the time of Mary&aposs death. Working at a variety of menial jobs, he put himself through South Carolina&aposs Claflin College he may also have attended Boston Mechanical Institute.

    Now he taught metal trades, blacksmithing, and wheelwrighting and was called Professor Himes. At one college he also taught Negro history from texts that Chester wondered about but never saw again. There&aposs something Hephaestian about descriptions of Joseph: short, broad-shouldered and muscular, barrel chest set squarely on bowed legs. He had dark blue eyes, an ellipsoidal skull, and a large hooked nose that both his wife and son Chester referred to as Arabic. Joseph Sandy seems to have been an artisan of great skill. From The Third Generation:

Almost certainly it was Joseph&aposs ambition that attracted Estelle to him. In all other ways, physically, emotionally, in their background, they were markedly unalike. Himes spoke in later years of his father&aposs slave mentality "which accepts the premise that white people knew best," whereas mother Estelle "hated all manner of condescension from white people." This contrast of attitudes was to establish in Himes networks of ambivalence extending to virtually every facet of his life. Initially, though, Estelle admired Joseph for the distance he had traveled his by-the-bootstraps edification echoed her own family&aposs self-elevation through hard work and determination. And, always, Estelle Bomar was a great seer not of what is but of what could be, a woman who, had she read Wallace Stevens, might have adopted "Let be be finale of seem" as her creed. In Joseph Sandy she saw not a simple teacher of practical skills. She saw a future dean, an administrator. Unfortunately Joseph had progressed as far as he was ever likely to go, and Estelle&aposs relentless pushing for his advancement served only to cause him difficulties with superiors and to open marital rifts that with the years became unbreachable, till finally both he and the marriage broke on that wheel.

    Estelle always felt she&aposd married beneath her, and in the last analysis believed the Negro colleges themselves demeaning. She was being held back by circumstance, by Joseph&aposs lack of a resolve to match her own, and if she did not take steps, that same waywardness would claim her sons. Estelle pushed ever harder. "She could make allowances if he were a success." She and Joseph quarreled bitterly again and again, endlessly, as young Chester and his brothers looked on "whimpering and trembling in terror."

With the years, giving up on high expectations she&aposd had for his father, Estelle seems to have transferred those expectations, and ultimately her profound disappointment as well, onto Chester.

    In any account of Himes&aposs life, it&aposs at this point—in family recollections, biographical sketches, in Himes&aposs novel The Third Generation—that Joseph begins to fade away. He moves from one job to another, each a retreat, each a notch or two down on the jack he ends up doing manual labor, waiting tables, janitoring. Ghetto life in St. Louis and Cleveland completes the rift between parents. The children drift away. With Estelle very near madness, the parents are divorced.

    It&aposs difficult to assess to what degree Joseph&aposs defeat arose internally, from lack of willfulness, some failure of will which from his limited background and always tenuous position as a minimally educated black man in white society and which from the pride and caprice of wife Estelle. More than once her refusal to mix with other blacks, her insistence upon being treated as though she were white, her confrontations with neighbors, college peers, and shopkeepers, led to a compromise in Joseph&aposs position, even to loss of a job. Broader social factors were at work here as well. Increased segregation led to fewer opportunities for Negroes to improve their lot, as Estelle&aposs parents had done, as merchants and in general service to whites. Meanwhile, increasing urbanization, industrialization, and rapidly advancing technology were well on the way to rendering trades such as those Joseph taught obsolete.

    With ongoing, ever more outright marital discord, with the dominolike series of retreats, and finally with his inability to support his family by manual work, all he can attain to after the move North, Joseph&aposs spirit falters and fails. He becomes the very image of the black man ground down, unable to care for his family. We know from his early history that Joseph once had great resolve. We know that he was a hard worker, a skilled artisan, a dedicated teacher. We know from Chester&aposs descriptions that Joseph for many years possessed considerable personal dignity and a pride that if not on the gargantuan order of his wife&aposs was equally manifest. ("Only his wife could make him feel inferior.") And with what we know of family dynamics we recognize the emotional balance Joseph must have had, and the emotional expenditures he must have made, continually to counterbalance Estelle&aposs excesses and bring the family back to an even keel. Finally Joseph seems to have exhausted his personal capital—seems to have been used up. To Estelle, this was proof of what she had suspected all along. God knows she&aposd done what she could to help this man make something more of himself. All to no avail.

    An octoroon with hazel or gray eyes, aquiline nose, and straight auburn hair, Estelle Bomar looked "like a white woman who had suffered a long siege of illness." Often Estelle seems, from accounts, a woman comprised entirely of adjectives: genteel, churchgoing, cultured, prideful, proper, driven, ambitious. She spoke constantly of their heritage and drilled her sons in the necessity of living up to it while squeezing the bridges of their noses to keep them from becoming flat. If Joseph&aposs mind shaped itself around coals of accommodation and melioration, then Estelle&aposs danced over flames of indignation and impatience. In some manner, hers was the ultimate Republican dream: to re-create what never existed. In another, or certainly it must have seemed so to her, she was doing what had to be done𠅊t that time, given that history. Estelle, like her son Chester, possessed a talent for living as though events that had not yet occurred, but that should occur, already had. Chester often seemed to catch on to things twenty or thirty years before anyone else did. Speaking of the Watts riots in the sixties, he remarked how surprising it was that they&aposd waited so long to happen.

    Look how far we&aposve come with our superior blood and breeding, Estelle told her sons in a kind of litany. And it&aposs true that all three went on to great achievements, even if Chester in later years wrote Carl Van Vechten: "As I look back now, I feel that much of my retardation as a writer has been due to a subconscious (and conscious and deliberate) desire to escape my past. All mixed up no doubt with the Negro&aposs desire for respectability. It brought a lot of confusion to my mind." This fundamental conflict within himself—of black versus white values, but just as importantly of patrician versus egalitarian�me perhaps the central theme in Himes&aposs life.

    Estelle&aposs accounts of her background, of that heritage she held so important, changed with time, elaborated and edited in ways reminiscent of her son&aposs later memoirs. Any narrative, after all, whether oral history, memoir, or fiction, takes shape from what, among countless possibilities, is chosen: what foregrounded, what passed over quickly. Memory, too, is a kind of storyteller, often more poet than reporter, selecting and rearranging details to correspond to some image we have of ourselves, or simply to make a better story.

    Estelle&aposs grandmother was born either to an Indian squaw or African princess, depending on when the story was told, and to an Irish overseer. Malinda, Estelle&aposs mother, light-skinned like herself, grew up to become handservant to a Carolina doctor named Cleveland who traced his own heritage back through a Revolutionary War general to British aristocracy. Despite laws forbidding literacy to slaves, Malinda was taught to read, perhaps by her master&aposs daughter. Malinda in turn gave birth to three children, two of them quite likely sired by Dr. Cleveland, the third by an Indian slave. Following the Civil War, Malinda married Chester Bomar, "a tall fair white-looking man with a long blond beard," himself the issue of an octoroon and master John Earl Bomar.

    Chester, Malinda, and Malinda&aposs three children lived in Spartanburg, South Carolina, on land ceded them by Chester&aposs former master. Chester apprenticed as a brick mason while Malinda worked as a wet nurse and took in washing. Selling their land three years later, using money from the Freedman&aposs Bureau for transportation, they moved to Dalton, Georgia, where Chester worked as a stonemason. Within two years they relocated again, this time to Atlanta, hoping for steadier work. Chester there fell ill, and upon his recovery the family returned to Spartanburg, bringing with them three new children, Estelle, the youngest, born in February 1874. Chester and son Tom set up as builders, counting among their achievements the region&aposs first large cotton mills. They worked fiercely, every Bomar pitching in to do his part, pushing past setbacks, persevering, and by 1890 the family was well established in the local Negro bourgeoisie. Chester served his church as deacon, superintendent of the Sunday school and financial adviser.

    This bourgeoisie was a new thing in the world, and like most new things, fragile. Years later Chester Himes would say of fellow black Americans that "The face may be the face of Africa, but the heart has the beat of Wall Street." He would spend much of his life alternately courting and railing against middle-class white values, an exemplar of double consciousness as described by W. E. B. Du Bois,

Lawrence P. Jackson, Chester Himes' Biographer, on the Iconic Harlem Detective Series

Chester Himes is one of the most prolific and underrated Black writers of the 20th century. Himes, who lived from 1909-1984, was the author of 17 novels and numerous short stories. But for crime fiction lovers, he is best known for his Harlem detective series featuring the African American detective team of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. I was first introduced to the duo through the 1970 movie Cotton Comes To Harlem, which was based on the sixth novel in his series.

While Himes published his first novel in 1945, he didn’t enter the hardboiled genre until he was recruited by a French publisher to write crime novels while living in France in the 1950s. The expatriate published his first Harlem detective novel in 1957, For Love of Imabelle (later renamed A Rage in Harlem). The novel won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in 1958, France’s most prestigious award for crime and detective fiction. It also broke into the white male narrative dominated hardboiled genre, providing the perspective of both black law enforcement and black criminals.

In 2017 English and History Professor Lawrence P. Jackson published his biography, Chester B. Himes. It was the winner of the 2018 Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical Work. I interviewed Jackson shortly after he published the book for my radio show KAZI Book Review. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Hopeton Hay: I was a little surprised when I started asking some of my friends and other people if they had heard of Chester Himes and the answer was no. Now they had heard of Invisible Man and Ralph Ellison, they had heard of Richard Wright and Native Son. And Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison are peers of Chester Himes. Would you say that Chester Himes is one of the most underrated African American writers of the 20th century?

Lawrence Jackson: Well, I would say he’s probably right up there. I would also put someone like an Ann Petrie in the category. We just had the centennial for Gwendolyn Brooks this year. She’s probably in that category, too. I suppose that’s an embarrassment of riches. African Americans have produced world class writers from the time that we arrived on the shores of North America and the Western Hemisphere. But we’ve been systematically under acknowledged and I hope to bring Chester Himes back into prominence with the new biography.

Hopeton Hay: When were you first introduced to Chester Himes personally?

Lawrence Jackson: I had the great fortune of having James A. Miller as a professor when I was at Wesleyan University in the 1980s. And Jim Miller, who passed away, was the centerpiece in African American Studies in the northeast. He taught classes on black writers in the 1930s and 1940s. And he would come in with an arm-full of books that no one had ever seen before. I was introduced to Richard Wright, not by reading Native Son, and not by reading Black Boy, but by reading the novel Lawd Today, the strong social realist treatment of black postal workers in the 1930s. And in the same way, I was introduced to Chester Himes, to his novels Lonely Crusade and If He Hollers Let Him Go. I found as I was getting older that I would read a novel like Invisible Man as kind of a fulcrum for understanding my identity as a black man and understanding my identity as an American, and helping me get through tough times. If you look at a novel like Invisible Man, you look at a novel like Native Son, you look at a novel like James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain, you see these protagonists who are post-adolescence, but they’re not really fully developed adult men. It was in the works of Chester Himes that I encountered adult men who are having adult male problems. When I got to the work of Chester Himes I was just sort of like, wow, I can’t believe that somebody is talking about some of the real issues that I’m facing and helping me understand a longer history of the same kinds of grappling throughout the 20th century.

Hopeton Hay: I first became aware of Chester Himes through the 1970 movie Cotton Comes To Harlem, which was based on his 1965 detective novel of the same name. My first impression of Chester Himes was really driven by his detective novels featuring Harlem New York police detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. And as I was reading through your biography, of course, you talk about how his literary success was not accompanied initially by financial success, and it was those mystery novels, that ironically were first published by French publishers, that brought him the financial success he had been searching for his whole life.

Lawrence Jackson: That’s the great irony, but often the accompanying paradox of any artist’s career. You labor alone in obscurity for the majority of your career, and then you get some type of financial recognition either at the conclusion of the career or even posthumously. And in Chester Himes’s case, he actually had considerable prosperity when he was incarcerated in the Ohio State Penitentiary in the 1930s. He always described himself as being the person in his immediate family who was the best-off financially because he had his gambling winnings, and then he would get an occasional payday from a magazine like Esquire. Himes had this interesting up and down career where he had early success that showed him his capacity to compete in the world literary marketplace. And then he was in obscurity for close to 10 years. Then he goes back to the top right at the end of the Second World War, with a very well received novel If He Hollers Let Him Go. He also had a prominent fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald foundation. He went even further in 1947, when he published Lonely Crusade and reached the apex of the American high-class, literary publishers with Alfred A. Knopf. Himes thought he had the world at his feet. And then the way that novel was disparaged (he believed excessively disparaged) began many years of what artists described as woodshedding, leading Himes to leave the United States and to live permanently overseas by the mid 1950s. He leaves in December of 1955 for France and basically has no money when he lands there. And it is in the crisis of the year of 1956 when he described his living circumstances as being forced to go to the horse butchers on the banks of the river Seine for his daily meal, scavenging around with the young German woman he was living with, and that was what led to the creation of Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones. Chester Himes based his two detectives off of African American police officers that he knew who worked in South Central Los Angeles in the 1940s. The Grave Digger character, who was the intellectual of the pair, was based off of a man named Jeff Kimbro, who was actually an active literary man, and was a member of the Communist Party, even though he carried out his duties faithfully as this incredibly rough and violent police officer on the streets of Los Angeles. The other man whom Coffin Ed was based on is a guy named Charles Brody, who was another long standing police officer.

Hopeton Hay: His parents’ tumultuous relationship left Chester, when he was in high school, somewhat unmoored. And despite coming from a middle-class family with two parents as teachers, he ends up getting involved in criminal activities when he’s 17-18 years old.

Lawrence Jackson: This is another element of Himes’s life and background that makes him so relevant for us today. Himes would be the person to inaugurate the literary tradition of the African American prisoner or convict turned major writer or spokesperson. He was followed by Malcolm X, Claude Brown, Nathan McCall, and Eldridge Cleaver. He’s really the person who gets that underway. I think that what his early years emphasize is that throughout the 20th century you have such a very strong narrative of the difficulty of getting a second chance as a black male in urban America. It’s probably true for black women too, but, slightly different relative to going to prison. When Himes went to prison in Ohio, in 1929, black Americans were about five percent of Ohio’s population, and they were more than fifty percent or close to fifty percent of the Ohio State Prison penitentiary population. They were always getting very, very hard penalties. But the collapse of Chester Himes’s family definitely had everything to do with his hanging out in gambling dens and getting high and stealing cars and the life of the demimonde, leading to a robbery, for which he was arrested and sent to prison at the end of 1929.

Hopeton Hay: If you were to look at his coffin and Grave Digger novels, which one would you recommend to the general public?

Lawrence Jackson: Everybody has their favorite and mine would be The Heat’s On, because it has the most sensational characters, with the albino giant Pinky, and then with the drug dealing, septuagenarian or octogenarian Sister Heavenly. This is about 60-61. So it’s before the era of the expose of the French Connection, and the international drug rings operating out of Marseille. Himes is so far ahead of the curve of the opiate crisis. He’s so far ahead of the curve with the niche in Harlem, the descriptions of the absurd urban violence, the drug crisis and scourge, and the corruption of the police and the ineptitude of the police. I think it’s well done and fascinating. And the most important thing I want people to remember about these detective fictions which have absolutely scintillating social critique, is that they take no prisoners. There are no heroes. There are no people that Himes seeks to burnish their image. Everybody is exposed for who they are at their least desirable or least beautiful moments.

Hopeton Hay: Now, when I was reading about this transition and the growing literary popularity of his Coffin Ed and Grave Digger novels, there’s something that you wrote about Anthony Boucher, the New York Times critic who wrote reviews of mystery novels. Apparently he had not been a fan of Chester Himes, but you write:

“By 1966 Chester’s naturalistic arguments of black bitterness and standard English have pierced white literary circles. Now they began to see Chester as underrated and under publicized and they were willing to understand something else about his work that had been there all along, the point that he tempers anger with humor. So Boucher had espied the new land for Himes when he called Cotton Comes To Harlem the wildest of camps—grotesque macabre, black humor, using black in a quiet nonracial sense.”

The novelist Patricia Highsmith, who became a fan of Chester Himes, wrote a review of Cotton Comes To Harlem. To quote your book:

“‘As an American Negro one can understand why he chose to live in France,’ she allowed while noting that he was no longer wielding the hatred of If He Hollers Let Him Go. Now he was mellowed, making money with the detective stories and poking fun at Harlem high society in Pinktoes, another one of his novels, not a Grave Digger novel. Highsmith felt that he had become an artist.”

So, what is this, that all of a sudden critics who did not necessarily like him began to embrace him when he was in his 50s?

Lawrence Jackson: This is in 1966. Boucher started reviewing him in about 1959. And they just don’t have much use for Chester Himes in the 1950s. He was a very alert critic of this. He told everybody who would listen—and there were only a very few—but he exposed the literary establishment’s kingmaker apparatus. He always maintained that they would only allow one black writer to emerge at any particular moment. He often talked about the way that the celebrity makers pitted Ralph Ellison against Richard Wright and James Baldwin against Richard Wright, and sometimes they would throw him in for good measure. Time Magazine represents not so much the American mainstream, really the American right wing, and at the end of the 1950s they had an article where the centerpiece of it was about Chester Himes. But they used that moment to try to pit a whole group of writers one against the other, because Himes had had success with A Rage In Harlem, published in France, and was the winner of a police detective fiction award. They just couldn’t figure out a way to account for that and they really did try to tear the group down, even though Himes had achieved this major success in France. He always railed against the way that the American publishers, but especially the literary establishment, didn’t want to have anything to do with black writers who would go their own way, or who tried to determine their own careers on their own terms. So then in the middle of the 1960s, the country is on the verge of nonstop rioting, right? 1964 in Harlem, 1965 in Los Angeles, 1966 in Chicago, in Detroit and 1967 in Newark. Then they’re turning to Chester Himes and saying black rage is something that’s real, that we can’t avoid. Chester Himes has been writing about this really, in journalism in France, from the early 1960s. But when he would write something for the American market they would say, this is unreal, or, we don’t have any need for this. It’s an interesting process that by the mid 1960s, but certainly after 1965, you begin to see a reluctant gesture of approval to Chester Himes, and then this acknowledgment that there were other elements in his writing, local color elements, the humor, the deep portraits of black life, that the literary establishment could find something of value in.

How Chester B. Himes Became the Rage in Harlem, and Beyond

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A Biography
By Lawrence P. Jackson
Illustrated. 606 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $35.

In a 1942 essay for Opportunity, the journal of the Urban League, the novelist Chester B. Himes warned his readers, “The character of this writer is vulnerable, open to attack, easy to be smeared.” Lawrence P. Jackson’s captivating biography of Himes confirms this appraisal, as Himes is far from invincible, never a hero and rarely even a sympathetic figure. Though Himes had a penchant for mistreating himself and others, he was also brilliant and courageous in his depiction of the absurdity of black American life and the violence of white supremacy.

Born into an educated family in 1909, Himes demonstrated academic talent early in his life, continuing in the footsteps of his two older brothers. His closest brother, Joseph, overcame a horrific childhood accident and became a prominent sociologist, but Chester was self-destructive. His parents were unhappy, as Himes’s father, a professor, struggled to find steady employment despite his education and impressive teaching record, and the Himes family moved several times during Chester’s childhood before settling in Ohio. Chester turned to prostitutes, drugs and crime to escape family problems and uneasy relationships with peers during his teenage years. He spun himself into a downward spiral, washed out of Ohio State University and landed in prison in 1928 at age 19.

Himes became a writer while incarcerated. Jackson refuses to romanticize Himes’s life or his motivation for becoming an artist. There is no moral redemption in the transformation Himes undergoes while locked away. Rather, Jackson posits that Himes began writing to work through the trauma of a deadly prison fire that amplified the suffering and shame he had felt since childhood. He wrote short stories about criminality and queerness without a blueprint, drawing on the support and encouragement of his first and only same-sex partner, a fellow prisoner named Prince Rico. Himes also briefly concealed his race from editors and wrote only white characters to increase the chance his work would be published.

Himes showed little interest in politics until he was released from prison in 1936 and subsequently seduced by the Communist Party, which gave him the tools to pick apart America’s racialized caste system. He was a starving artist, taking menial jobs to make ends meet as his writing gradually turned toward the material horror and psychological torment of white supremacy. Himes’s sexually charged first novel, “If He Hollers Let Him Go” (1945), earned critical acclaim and placed him in the “protest novel” tradition of writers like Richard Wright. It did not, however, establish Himes as a full-fledged celebrity or stabilize his life. Himes’s second and third novels failed to garner substantial praise from critics, and he followed Wright and other self-exiled black American artists to France in 1953.

Excepting a few brief visits to America, Himes remained in Europe for the rest of his life. Jackson’s depiction of his life in France is riveting. Himes wrote at a furious pace but struggled mightily with finances, squandering fellowships, signing ill-conceived contracts with publishers and reneging on debts. He joined a vibrant artistic community in France, befriending and antagonizing the literary giants of his time, including Wright (his idol, dear friend and sometime rival) and Ralph Ellison.

Jackson establishes early in the biography that intimate partnership fueled Himes’s writing, as evidenced by Prince Rico’s impact on Himes while incarcerated. Several of the characters in Himes’s early fiction are barely disguised versions of people he knew, and Jackson uses these characters in concert with Himes’s personal letters to bring his friends and colleagues to life. Himes held fast to these relationships to maintain order amid the tumult of artistic labor and alcoholism, and he drew heavily on his experiences, especially his partnerships with white women, in his writing about the psychosexual dimensions of racism. He led an entirely straight romantic life after prison, and his relationship history was replete with episodes of abuse and misbehavior that sullied the affection he showed for the women he loved.

Despite Himes’s literary output, wealth and sustained praise eluded him until the final third of his career. Disappointed by his American book sales and haunted by the fact that literary elites did not hold him in the same esteem as Ellison and James Baldwin, Himes took the advice of the French editor Marcel Duhamel and started writing detective novels, beginning with “A Rage in Harlem” (1957). Seemingly overnight, Himes was reborn as a commercial and critical success in France. Himes attributed European interest in his detective novels to his pivoting away from realism and racial protest and toward a more spectacular and cinematic depiction of black life. This is at least partially true, as Himes’s work was eventually developed into the Ossie Davis-directed “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970), arguably the first Blaxploitation film ever produced.

Yet Jackson disputes the notion that Himes’s hard-boiled detective series evades or cheapens racial politics. Instead Jackson argues that Himes’s “sizzling exaggerations … amplified and telescoped” Himes’s political concerns. The gruesome collage of Harlem fashioned by Himes was devoid of love and racial justice, which mirrored his shrewd cynicism about racial progress. But Jackson says that spilling blood, guts and tragedy on the page was not merely entertainment or catharsis, but politics, because it left room for optimism to fill the void left by despair and destruction.

Himes would never conceive of his writing as optimistic, but its rawness, originality and impact are beyond question. The applause from France grew so loud that American critics were compelled to join in, and Himes eventually earned the status he had craved for so long back in the United States. His detective novels and earlier books were elevated to the canon of black American literature, and he became a model and inspiration for black writers in the post-civil rights era. Crippled by multiple strokes and memory loss, Himes died in the care of his second wife and longtime partner, Lesley Himes, in 1984.

Many of the details of Himes’s life appear in other books, but Jackson’s research is unimpeachable. The biography is based on a kaleidoscopic mix of archival materials, close readings of Himes’s published writing and personal letters and conversations with people who knew him. Himes had a mercurial personality and led a thrilling life that might tempt a biographer to conjure a book in the spirit of its subject, but Jackson avoids this pitfall. The book is neatly written and accessible, without cheap tricks to build suspense or sway readers’ opinions.

As for the thorny question of interpretation, Jackson builds measured, straightforward arguments about what Himes believed mostly through close readings of his published work. Carefully chosen excerpts allow Jackson to comment on the techniques, themes and characters most central to Himes’s legacy. The reader senses that Jackson, a professor of English and history at Johns Hopkins University, has even more to say but restrains himself. The biography does not suffer, but one yearns to hear more from Jackson about the social conditions of Himes’s work, literary comparisons between Himes and his contemporaries, and Himes’s impact on writers who followed him. All told, “Chester B. Himes” is a bracing journey through the life of an uncompromising writer who considered himself “an evil, highly sensitive, unsuccessful old man — but … not an American Negro in the usual connotation of the word.”

A Brief History of the Heroes of Black Pulp

As a child of the 1970s I was surrounded by pulp heroes that included my beloved James Bond films, Batman reruns and The Shadow comic books drawn by Michael Kaluta, but it wasn’t until the release of the Weird Heroes paperback series, which was subtitled “New American Pulp,” that I first saw the word “pulp” in print. Edited by Byron Preiss, the eight WH books were split between anthologies and stand-alone novels written by Philip José Farmer, Ted White, Ron Goulart and others. Further research guided me towards an array of yesteryear radio shows, comic books, novels, short stories and movie serials that highlighted the action packed adventures of Buck Rogers, The Green Hornet, Lone Ranger, Dick Tracy and numerous others now forgotten character that provided cliffhanging entertainment for generations.

The true meaning and application of the word “pulp” has been argued over by purists, especially after Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 classic Pulp Fiction brought the word out of the shadows of another era. For some, “pulp” represents the era when men’s adventure magazines were printed on that type of paper, while for others the word signifies action heroes on earth, in space and on various sides of the law. For others, “pulp” is more about the style of the writing.

“ For me, Pulp is plot based, yet the characters are exciting and fleshed out in an over the top sort of way,” says Tommy Hancock, editor-in-chief of Pro Se Productions, a company publishing “new pulp” since 2010. “Pulp is fast paced, with a few exceptions. And, even those exceptions deliver a wham at the end that make up for the slow build up. Sides are clearly defined typically in Pulp, the good guy and the bad guy, even if the good guy in the story is a serial killer and the bad guy is a cop. As far as the story goes, how it’s structured, there’s still a good and bad presence. Then you throw in creative turn of phrase, intense description when appropriate, and basically an elegant manhandling of the English language. That’s Pulp.”

Over the years, pulp heroes have been explored and reinvented countless times. However, from the early years of the 20th century to 1957, the year Chester Himes’ goofy Harlem pulp For the Love of Imabelle , featuring detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, was published in America, the majority of those pulp characters represented were white men on a mission. Of course, there were exceptions, mostly peripheral characters of color that included Rudolph Fisher’s 1932 detective Perry Dent in the novel The Conjure Man Dies , actor Herb Jeffries “colored” cowboy Bob Blake in The Bronze Buckaroo and Harlem Rides the Range (both 1939) and the lone Negro astronaut in the classic EC comics story Judgement Day, but those stories were only occasional.

Back when I was coming of age, the pulp canon began to diversify. With the inclusion of Chester Himes’ madcap Harlem crime novels, John Ball’s gentleman detective Virgil Tibbs from In the Heat of the Night (1965), the rise of the blaxploitation era that introduced the world of Blax pulp heroes ( Shaft , Cleopatra Jones and Black Caesar ) and brown-skinned comic book superheroes that included The Falcon and Luke Cage. All of those characters bum-rushed my imagination and, years later, inspired more than a few of my own farfetched short stories.

Still, it wasn’t 2012, when my friend and writer extraordinaire Gary Phillips invited me to be part of a collection he was co-editing called Black Pulp that I got a chance to create my own sepia skinned pulp stars Jaguar and Shep as leads in the surreal tale Jaguar and the Jungleland Boogie . Combining my love for the year 1988, Harlem, hip-hop, jazz and abandoned schools, the piece was an offbeat detective story inspired by old school rap, Batman, Grandmaster Flash, The Shadow, Duke Ellington and Howard Chaykin graphic novels. Recalling Fab 5 Freddy, who appeared in the story, telling me about the jazz/hip-hop shows he did with Max Roach at the Mudd Club in the 1980s, the finished piece told the tale of a crazy be-bop lover trying to rid rap music from the streets of Sugar Hill.

Black Pulp was published in 2013 by the then newly-launched indie Pro Se Productions, whose owner Tommy Hancock also co-edited the volume. In addition to my b-boy/be-bop tale, the cool line-up of creators inside included crime novelist and Eazy Rollins creator Walter Mosley, who penned the introductory essay, Derrick Ferguson, Gar Anthony Heywood, Christopher Chambers, Kimberly Richardson, Mel Odom, Joe Lansdale and Gary Phillips.

A respected novelist, comic book writer and TV writer, who most recently worked on the third season of the crack era drama Snowfall , Phillips is a California native who has been into pulp fiction since he was a teenager reading Chester Himes novels. “The idea of the original Black Pulp collection was not about being a gimmick,” Phillips says. “It was and is about fans of pulp and revisionist new pulp digging characters who reflect more than just the white guy playboy millionaire-scientist adventurer prototype. Often in the old pulps, if a person of color did show up, they were portrayed stereotypically (though there were exceptions like Josh and Rosabel Newton, the married aides of the Avenger and Jericho Druke, one of the Shadow’s agents). Black Pulp is not about being PC, but being entertaining and slam-bang, with some reflective attitudes woven in as well.”

Critic Mark Bould wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books , “ Black Pulp is tremendous fun. It shows us how far we have come, and how far we have left to go. It’s straightforward action-adventures conjure a sense of belatedness, of fiction oddly disentimed, while its insertion of black characters into pulp scenarios suggests an alternative history. One cannot help but wonder how different the world would have had to be for these stories to have been published in the old pulp era.”

This summer, six years later, Pro Se plans to publish the much anticipated Black Pulp II , with Gary Phillips and Tommy Hancock again at the editorial helm. Phillips says, “When Black Pulp first hit the scene there was blowback about it being an effort to be all SJW, Social Justice Warrior, a derogatory term. But, in fact Black folks, Asians, Latinx and so on have been around a long damn time and didn’t just come on the scene in the ‘50s, as some seem to think. Still, the work in that first collection spoke for itself and the book was a solid seller. We hope Black Pulp II does the same.”

When I was offered the opportunity to expand the Jaguar and Shep mythology with a new story (“Time’s Up,” named after a Living Colour album and single), I began revisiting, for inspiration purposes, various African-American pulp heroes as well introducing myself to new ones. Below are the soulful seven favorites that were an inspiration during the writing process.

In 1970 newspaper man Ernest Tidyman changed his life with the publication of his debut novel Shaft , a Black private detective in the tradition of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. He had an office in Times Square, but worked the mean streets of Harlem as he walked with a fearless bop in the hood and in Greenwich Village, drinking espresso at Caffe Reggio. While Tidyman’s book was popular, it wasn’t until Shaft was adapted by director Gordo Parks and screenwriter John D.F. Black, the following year that this action hero, as played by Richard Roundtree and musically celebrated in the Oscar winning theme song from Isaac Hayes, became a household name.

However, as novelist Nelson George says in the upcoming Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980 edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre , “Richard Roundtree was charming on screen, but the Shaft in Tidyman’s novel is a richer character in many ways. In the book, the character is meaner. We find out his back-story as an orphan and Vietnam vet. None of that is even mentioned in the film.” Although the movie has stirred me since childhood, reading the novels, there were seven total, brought me closer to the character.

While the recent incarnation of the bad mutha was a mis-directed comedy also titled Shaft , in 2014 writer David Walker adapted the character to a short-lived comic book series collected in A Complicated Man and, two years later, the paperback original Shaft’s Revenge .

Written and illustrated by Afro-Futurist comic book artist Tim Fielder, the 2017 graphic novel Matty’s Rocket introduces us to Black woman astronaut named Matty Watty, who pridefully escapes the brutal Jim Crow south and relocates to Paris to become the person she was meant to be. Fielder, who has done comics, animation and illustration work for over thirty-years, combines his love for the red-dirt narratives of Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright with the future shock space-age adventures inspired by Dan Dare co-creator and artist Frank Hampson.

“Hampson had such a huge influence,” Fielder told writer Alex Dueben in 2018. “Dan Dare was ahead of its time. It was done during the fifties. Frank Hampson worked for Eagle Comics and he was the absolute truth. He was a man who knew how to use reference. He was a man that had no fear of putting his blood, sweat, and tears in his work and it showed.”

Personally, I loved how Fielder mixed the love and brutality of Matty’s life with the fantastic sci-fi possibilities of space travel and alien encounters. While this collection sets up the origin story of expat Matty as a star explorer, alien fighting pulp hero, I look forward to her further adventures. Best-selling author Joyce Brabner called the book, “joyful, encouraging and brave,” Much like director/producer George Lucas’ iconic Star Wars saga, Fielder boldly flaunts his influences while creating something fresh in the process.

In the 1970s, in the wake of James Bond’s popularity, there was an explosion of action hero books that included the popular series The Executioner that debuted in 1969. Five years later, author Marc Olden, a former Broadway press agent turned pulp writer who began his publishing career writing a non-fiction book about Angela Davis, turned his talents to writing the Black Samurai series.

In the seven books that comprise the series, Olden told the tale of an Afro-American serviceman Robert Sand who, while on-leave in Japan, tries to help an old native he witnessed being attacked. When Sand passes out, the elderly man is revealed to be samurai Master Konuma, who beats his tormentors and takes the Black GI back to his home to train him. Of course, after Konuma is killed Sand’s vows revenge and sets out to kick ass. In addition to Olden’s fine writing, the covers were stunning images that reminded me of James Bama’s equally beautiful Doc Savage paintings.

According to Glorious Trash blogger Joe Kenney, “Marc Olden churned out this entire series within one year a staggering feat by any means, but even more staggering when you realize that Olden’s writing is heads and tails better than just about any other writing you will encounter in this genre. I mean, there’s character development, there’s good dialog, there’s inventive setpieces.”

In 1977, martial artist turned actor Jim Kelly starred in a film of Olden’s creation that wasn’t very good. Forty years later, Common announced that he was going to play the character in a Starz television series produced by RZA and Jerry Bruckheimer, but, three years later, there has been nothing.

How I missed the b-movie gem when it came out in my favorite year, 1988, I don’t know, but thirty-one years later this movie made my day. While the late singer/actress Vanity played the finest junkie ever depicted on screen, shooting-up H with her pretty silver syringes, Carl Weathers played the title character, a Detroit cop who, like James Brown’s poppa, don’t take no mess from villain Craig T. Nelson. In addition, burly Bill Duke played the cliched grumpy police captain to perfection. Of course, this movie is filled with bad one-liners, tacky ‘80s wardrobe choices and bad acting, but any joint that ends with the good guy driving his car through the front door of the bad guy’s house and up the stairs to the master bedroom is alright with me.

As a kid I grew out of superhero comics pretty quickly, though I did buy Captain America because of his Black sidekick the Falcon. Besides being one of the few superheroes of color who didn’t have the word “Black” in front of their name (props to Luke Cage too), the Falcon was a cool Harlem cat I would have liked to hang-out with on 125th Street. However, in 1990 I stumbled into St. Mark’s Comics (recently closed) and discovered the indie book. Produced by the brotherly duo David Sims, the artist who today goes by the name Dawud Anyabwile, and writer Guy Sims, the magazine sized comic featured Antonio Valor as a public defender for Big City who decides to become a costumed crusader when his community becomes too much.

“Antonio Valor was to embody the concept of the man who is upright and about his word,” Anyabwile told writer Victoria Comella in 2017. “He personified in our minds the black men in our communities who were disciplined, caring and protectors of their families and communities, yet go to their grave with no songs written about them. We wanted to celebrate those who deserved it in mythology.”

Although Brotherman wasn’t done on a strict schedule, publishing only eleven issues in ten years, each edition was better than the last. The Sims brothers followed their own artistic path that was inspired by painter Ernie Barnes, funk illustrator Overton Llyod and both the wordplay and sonic science of hip-hop. With each new issue, Anyabwile’s work got wilder, looser and better.

“The Brotherman comic was unbelievable,” says writer and popular culture scholar Shawn Taylor. “It was undeniably Black from the art aesthetic to the storytelling. We talk about representation now, but back then they did it without it being some kind of representation project. It was a fact and a factor of the contemporary comic landscape. For me, it showed that you didn’t have to jock the big three (DC, Marvel, Image). The DIY ethos was a marriage of hip-hop and what is considered ‘fine art.’ Brotherman was an invitation to be artistically brave and uncompromising.”

I can still remember seeing this haunting flick in Times Square on the first day it opened, twenty-years ago. A mashup of blaxploitation and samurai films, Ghost Dog was a ghetto arthouse picture that was simultaneously gritty and beautiful. As the homeboy samurai sleeping on a Brooklyn rooftop, caring for carrier pigeons and working as an assassin for the mob, actor Forest Whitaker put his heart into a role that was as Oscar worthy as his portrayal of Idi Amin would be seven years later. Directed by Jim Jarmusch, one of my favorite New York City filmmakers since his early Stranger Than Paradise , this moody movie was an inspired love letter to genre cinema and the New Wave cool assassin in Jean-Pierre Melville’s brilliant Le Samouraï. While writing the script, Jarmusch used the aural eeriness of the Wu-Tang Clan albums.

“Of course it’s only right that he got (Wu Tang producer/conceptist) RZA to do the score, which for the most part fits the muted atmosphere,” says writer S.H. Fernando, who is currently working on a book about the Wu. “The Ghost Dog soundtrack is inextricably linked to the film in that the music makes continual references to the film, including actual snippets of Forest Whitaker’s dialogue (or in this case monologue). Of course, this comes as no surprise considering that The RZA was well-versed in the genre and even sampled many blaxploitation classics in his own productions.”

Twenty years later, Ghost Dog has aged well, and really captures that late 90s zeitgeist of the ghetto mystic/urban warrior.

Living in Harlem in the 1970s, there was no escaping Holloway House publications. In addition to publishing the black Playboy inspired Players , which once featured a spread with blax-action queen Pam Grier, Holloway also produced a slew of hood adventure and crime paperbacks that were sold in record stores, head shops and newsstands. Perhaps the only place you would not have found them were in bookstores. Still, with a stable of writers that included Iceberg Slim, Robert H. deCoy, Jerome Dyson Wright and Donald Goines, they were the kings of “street lit” years before the genre was given a name

Inspired by Slim’s seminal Pimp, junkie scribe Goines started writing while he was in prison and kept at it steady until his murder in 1974. Having authored fifteen books in three years, the four books in the Kenyatta series were written in 1974 under the pseudonym of Al C. Clark. Beginning with Crime Partners , the Kenyatta books are both political in a revolutionary sense and fantastical in the James Bond sense, with the main protagonist running a crew of revolutionaries that reminds most readers of the Black Panthers.

“Kenyan president and anticolonial freedom fighter Jomo Kenyatta is at least the symbolic inspiration for the Kenyatta character,” says author/professor Kinohi Nishikawa, whose book Street Players documents the Los Angeles based Holloway House. “Early on there’s brief mention of anti colonial/Third Worldist propaganda in one of Kenyatta’s rooms. But, a more ineffable inspiration for Kenyatta’s group may be Chicago’s Blackstone Rangers, the street gang-cum-revolutionary cadre, about whom Gwendolyn Brooks also writes. The Kenyatta series could be read as an extension of his thinking about what it means for gangs to collectivize and radicalize.”

Goines biographer Eddie Stone wrote that Kenyatta was the writer’s most “interesting character.” While I would agree, I also found it compelling that Goines used a pen name on these books. “The real Al C. Clark was Goines’s childhood friend from Detroit,” says Nishikawa. “Holloway House co-publisher Bentley Morriss was ostensibly the one who recommended the switch: ‘We want to publish the books, but if you put out too many books of an author within a given period of time it has a sham about it. Would you consider putting a book out under a pseudonym?’ As a pen name, Al C. Clark gave Goines the cover he needed to publish a rip-roaring action serial—something he hadn’t done before. Goines’s previous books were standalone titles—self-contained narratives, usually about inner-city violence and vice. By contrast, the Kenyatta story was to be an action serial, with the plot extending over as many books as could handle it. As Clark, Goines would be able to ‘start fresh,’ as it were, and take his writing to a new place.”


HIMES, CHESTER B. (29 July 1909 - 12 Nov. 1984) was an internationally acclaimed author who wrote detective novels, protest literature and short stories. He was born in Jefferson City, MO to Estelle (Bomar) and Joseph Himes, who was a professor in the mechanical department of a local college. When Himes was eight, his family moved to Cleveland's GLENVILLE neighborhood after his father lost a job teaching. Himes graduated from East High School. For two years he attended Ohio State University prior to being expelled for associating with pimps and prostitues. He returned to Cleveland and worked for a professional gambler and as a bellhop at the Hotel Gilsy where he procured clients for prostitutes and sold bootleg liquor. In 1928, Himes robbed Samuel Miller, president of Independent Towel Supply, and his wife at gunpoint at their mansion in CLEVELAND HEIGHTS. While attempting to pawn the stolen jewelry in Chicago, Himes was arrested. He confessed to the robbery and was sent back to Cleveland where he was sentenced to the maximum 25 years at the Ohio State penitentiary in Columbus.

While serving time, Himes turned to writing. Following a gruesome fire on Easter Sunday 1930, which took the lives of 332 inmates, Himes wrote an account of the event that was published in the CLEVELAND NEWS. By 1934, he published two short stories in Esquire magazine, including one about the fire, "To What Red Hell." These literary forays helped Himes win an early release from prison in 1935. Himes returned to Cleveland and married his girlfriend, Jean L. Johnson and worked for the Works Project Administration through its Ohio Writer's Project. In 1940 Himes got a job as a cook and a butler at Malabar Farm, the Mansfield area estate of Pulitzer Prize winning writer Louis Bromfield. Bromfield liked Himes' work but failed in his efforts to get his novel Black Sheep published. Himes and his wife followed Bromfield to Los Angeles in 1941, where Himes worked in the shipyards and encountered new degrees of racism that would fuel his protest novels later that decade. He based his first novel, If He Hollers, Let Him Go, on these experiences. On April 3, 1953, Himes left the country for Paris following the collapse of his marriage and the death of his parents. In 1957, Himes entered into a contract to write the detective novel, The Five Cornered Square (later renamed A Rage in Harlem). In the book, Himes introduced his characters, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, two detectives who were the principal characters of an eight book series. Himes, who only briefly visited Harlem, based his characters on people he met in Cleveland's underworld and in the penitentiary. The first of the series won France's prestigious "Grand Prix de la literature" award in 1958. That same year, he met his second wife Lesley Packard, a 30-year-old British woman. In the mid-sixties, Himes sold many of his books to American publishers. Samuel Goldwyn Jr. bought "Cotton Goes to Harlem," the second of the series, which was made into a 1970 film co-directed by Ossie Davis. A sequel, "Come Back Charleston Blue," based on his novel, The Heat's On, was filmed in 1972. A Rage in Harlem was filmed in 1991. Himes short story, "Marihuana and a Pistol" was included in the Anthology of Western Reserve Literature published in 1992. In total, he had twenty-one books published. Himes died in his home in Moraira, Spain and is buried in Benissa, a nearby village.

In Black and White

I think the only function of the black writer in America now is just to produce works of literature about whatever he wants to write about. . . . At least the world will be more informed about the black Americans’ subconscious.—Chester Himes, 1970.

Paris, 1953. Three black American writers—Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes—are sitting on the terrace of Les Deux Magots, drinking. All three have left home for France, where the dollar is strong and there is no apparent Jim Crow. The two older writers, Himes and Wright, have been summoned to Les Deux by the twenty-nine-year-old Baldwin he has asked Wright to lend him a little cash, despite the fact that his renown is based, in part, on his savage public dissection of Wright’s work. Baldwin has been almost as critical of Himes (“probably the most uninteresting and awkward prose I have read in recent years,” he wrote of one Himes novel), but this is their first face-to-face encounter. Himes, in his autobiography, “The Quality of Hurt” (1972), recalls that, on arriving at the café, Wright “started right off needling Baldwin.” He goes on, “Dick accused Baldwin of showing his gratitude for all he had done for him by his scurrilous attacks. Baldwin defended himself by saying that Dick had written his story and hadn’t left him, or any other American black writer, anything to write about. I confess at this point they lost me.”

This is hardly surprising. Unlike Baldwin, Himes had not felt personally threatened by Wright’s novel “Native Son.” Nor had he been much influenced by Baldwin’s work. Those writers’ somewhat sentimental depictions of sensitive men choking on their alienation were far removed from the version of black American maleness that Himes documented in seventeen novels and numerous short stories (many of which have been kept in print by Thunder’s Mouth Press and Norton). “At times my soul brothers embarrassed me, bragging about their scars, their poor upbringing, and their unhappy childhood, to get some sympathy and some white pussy and money, too, if they could,” Himes wrote. “It was a new variety of Uncle-Toming.” The archetypal Himes hero is still one of the few literary images we have of the distinctly urban black male who has little, if any, relationship to the Deep South and its legacy of violence, injustice, and forced segregation. Himes produced male characters who really were noir—in fact and in sensibility. Unapologetic and testosterone-driven, they weren’t hard-done-by they were in love with having been done wrong. Turned on by their own bravado, they claimed entitlement and viewed sex as a struggle for power—the only form of intimacy that engaged them. “Race was a handicap, sure . . . but, hell, I didn’t have to marry it,” says Bob Jones, one of Himes’s narrators, before describing how he has used his skin color for financial gain. These are hardly the words of a Bigger Thomas. (When Jones is asked whether Bigger, the hero of “Native Son,” is the appropriate symbol of Negro oppression, he responds, “Well, you couldn’t pick a better person than Bigger Thomas to prove the point. But after you prove it, then what?”)

Undoubtedly, Himes’s detachment from the forces that shaped his fellow-writers had much to do with his own social entitlement. Unlike Wright or Baldwin, he was a child of the middle class. Privilege doesn’t always cushion you from the sting of the lash, but it can act as a balm. Still, Himes was in constant rebellion against his background. He didn’t want to become an academic, as one of his brothers had. He wanted to be a “real man,” which is to say his idea of a real black man—one who, instead of living pressed up against the glass wall that separates him from everything he desires (white women, fast times, fast cars, a big slice of the American pie), shatters it. In a sense, Himes’s entire oeuvre can be read as an attempt to prove how black he really was, and to authenticate, de facto, that abstraction. Like Huey P. Newton, who threw a leather jacket over his cap and gown as he left the confines of Howard University, Himes was a romantic, a child of the bourgeoisie in love with the stars in the gutter—the “real life” on the other side of achievement.

Himes did not receive anything approaching recognition until he was past fifty and had embarked on the work for which he is still best known—the Harlem Cycle, a series of detective novels featuring two policemen called Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. He was not a skilled literary politician, nor was he as adept as Baldwin and Wright at self-promotion. He had never been hungry enough or insecure enough to learn the game. So, on that Paris evening, he failed to recognize that his compatriots weren’t discussing the finer points of literature—that, unlike the former college boy sharing their table, Wright and Baldwin were gladiators by necessity, fighting, at Les Deux and in parlors around the Faubourg Saint-Germain, to establish whose spear was long enough to pierce their largely white audience’s consciousness, and anoint its wielder head literary Negro. Without those readers, Baldwin and Wright would be writing in the dark, with no hope of being admitted to the canon or the cocktail parties that mattered. They’d be out of it. They’d be Chester Himes.

Himes called the black American “the most neurotic, complicated, schizophrenic, unanalyzed, anthropologically advanced specimen of mankind in the history of the world,” and his exploration of that complicated character, in prose that is devoid of obvious lyricism and unencumbered by ideas that are not naturally woven into the fabric of the roiling narratives, accounts for his best work. He was writing about blacks’ relationship to whiteness some twenty years before Jean Genet gave us “Les Nègres,” before Baldwin gave us Rufus and his long-suffering white girlfriend in “Another Country,” and before John Cassavetes explored a “high yellow” woman’s psyche in the film “Shadows.” Himes’s most compelling books—“If He Hollers Let Him Go” (1945), “Lonely Crusade” (1946), “Cast the First Stone” (1953, later published in an unexpurgated version as “Yesterday Will Make You Cry”), and “The Third Generation” (1954)—posed questions that few of his contemporaries dared to raise: What defines an “authentic” black voice? How can one create a literature about blackness without identifying with the underclass? Should one feel compelled to portray an experience that is not one’s own? Should the black novelist promulgate a personal or a general politics? And, more important, maybe, what is the black man’s relationship to that other marginalized class—white women? Himes loved, reviled, and tried to control a great many white women, on and off the page, perhaps because he regarded them as extensions of himself: a species of white nigger, or “wigger.” It is Himes’s attempt to record his thorny relationship to an oppression other than his own that accounts for some of his most troubled and troubling writing.

He came by it natural, as the elders used to say. Himes was born on July 29, 1909, in Jefferson City, Missouri, the youngest of three sons, to a mother, Estelle Bomar Himes, whom he described as a strong-willed, class-conscious “octoroon, or perhaps whiter.” “I remember her as looking like a white woman who had suffered a long siege of illness,” Himes wrote in “The Quality of Hurt,” which remains the best source of information on his life. James Sallis’s recently published study, “Chester Himes: A Life” (Walker $28), is disorganized and convoluted, and not the Himes biography we need. Estelle encouraged her sons to pinch their noses so that they wouldn’t grow flat, and until they were adolescents she taught them at home, to spare them the effects of a substandard, segregated education and to keep them from socializing with other black children. She felt what amounted to a kind of physical disgust for her big-nosed, dark-skinned husband, the gentle and tolerant Joseph Sandy Himes, who was the head of the Mechanical Department at the all-black Lincoln Institute. Professor Himes was only one generation removed from slavery. (The name Himes likely derived from Heinz—Chester’s grandfather had been a blacksmith for a Jewish slaveholder.) Estelle was only a couple of generations removed from her white English ancestry, which she lorded over her boys. She was someone, she implied, and her husband and progeny could be, too, if only they would work hard enough, and work to minimize their difference from her.

Professor Himes did work hard, relocating whenever and wherever there was a chance of professional advancement. By the time Chester graduated from East High School, in Cleveland, where his parents had finally settled, he had lived in Alcorn, Mississippi St. Louis, Missouri and Pine Bluff, Arkansas (where Himes’s favorite brother, Joe, was blinded in a science experiment), with a stopover in Augusta, Georgia. Much has been made of the price that the black middle class pays for its climb out of economic and political obscurity: segregation from lower-income blacks, frustration at not being able to assimilate into white society. In his seminal study “Black Bourgeoisie,” E. Franklin Frazier examines the force that binds black strivers together—and how that glue can eventually stick to their children. Part of Himes’s strength as an artist—and what further separated him from Wright, Baldwin, et al.—was the way in which he tried to catapult himself out of that particular conundrum. He did not write reverently about his class he did not glorify blacks as persecuted underdogs. He painted a picture that was messy and often ugly, and that was lit from within by his own sense of truth. He wrote from the viewpoint of the “third generation”—not slaves, not strivers, but witnesses to the literal and figurative union of the Americas, city and country, white and black, despot and victim, thrashing it out on a marriage bed whose pillows are filled with reproach and recrimination.

“These aren’t things that white people want to hear about,” a friend who had read Himes’s first novel told him. “Things like this need to be kept quiet, between colored people.” In “Lonely Crusade,” for instance, Luther, a Negro Communist organizer, invites Lee, the novel’s black protagonist, home to meet his white girlfriend, and Himes exposes the domestic nastiness of the couple’s alliance of race and class:

Sitting erect, she took the pins from her hair, plied her fingers through it, and let it cascade down about her neck and shoulders. Then she cooed: “Come to me, my intellectual Caliban, my strong, black apostle with the pygmy brain come to me and make love to me, my dark, designing commissar.”

“Body Marxist!” Luther said, turning his back to her.

“Then be an American Negro,” she said laughingly, “and refill our glasses while I talk to Lee.”


Novels and stories

If He Hollers Let Him Go, 1945
Lonely Crusade, 1947
Cast the First Stone, 1952
The Third Generation, 1954
The End of a Primitive, 1955
For Love of Imabelle, (1957 revised as A Rage in Harlem, 1965)
The Real Cool Killers, 1959
The Crazy Kill, 1959
The Big Gold Dream, 1960
All Shot Up, 1960
Run Man Run, 1960
Pinktoes, 1961
Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1965
The Heat’s On, 1966
Blind Man with a Pistol, 1969
Black on Black, 1973
A Case of Rape, 1980
The Collected Stories of Chester Himes, 1990
Plan B, 1993
Yesterday Will Make You Cry, 1998

Race, Sexuality, and Noir in Chester Himes’ Wartime Los Angeles

Recently, UHA member, historian and social media personality extraordinaire Kevin Kruse tweeted out a thread of advice on writing in which the Princeton professor noted that historians, young and old alike, would do well to read outside of the field. Though the thread covered a great deal of territory, Kruse emphasized the need for historians to engage works of fiction as a means to improve their writing and that of the larger discipline.


The best way to improve your own writing is to read as much as you can from other authors. Not just the great books, either. You can pick up good habits in reaction to bad writing, too.

&mdash Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) November 21, 2017

And don't just read narrowly in your own sub field, or even in your own discipline.

Historians should read novelists, not just for prose but for plotting and pacing.

&mdash Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) November 21, 2017

Maybe this section works as a mystery, with slow build up and then a reveal?

Maybe that chapter needs the tension of an upstairs-downstairs plot?

Does this political tale need the grandeur of a heroic battle, or the intimacy of a flawed character study?

&mdash Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) November 21, 2017

While much of Kruse’s advice focused on style, pacing, and plot, one might add that works of fiction can provide emotional and contextual insights regarding various historical subjects, eras, geographies, and cities that sometimes elude traditional history.

Taking Professor Kruse’s advice, The Metropole sat down with a classic but arguably under-read work from the 1940s: Chester Hime’s If He Hollers Let Him Go. An admittedly imperfect novel, in If He Hollers Himes captures the existential tension of World War II-era Los Angeles for its black population while delving unflinchingly into the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality. A contemporary of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Himes remains less familiar to the larger public than his two aforementioned peers. Though during his Los Angeles sojourn he only wrote two novels and several essays and short stories, Himes made an indelible mark. Literary critic John N. Swift places him in the company of Joan Didion, Nathaniel West, and Thomas Pychon as one of the “city’s great mythographers.”[1]

[Portrait of Chester Himes], Carl Van Vechten photographer, March 9, 1946, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress Himes offers a dark vision of American racial relations in If He Hollers while also charging headlong into the fraught dynamics of interracial sexuality—all under a sun-drenched Southern California sky that casts brighter light on Black Los Angeles.

In his 1971 autobiography, Himes wrote that despite the city’s welcoming climate and racial and ethnic diversity, Los Angeles had harmed him: “Los Angeles hurt me racially as any city I have ever known – much more than any city in the South … The difference was that the white people of Los Angeles seemed to be saying, ‘Nigger ain’t we good to you?’”[2] The protagonist of If He Hollers Let Him Go, Bob Jones, encapsulates the contradictions and tragedies of mid-century Los Angeles but also the nation’s grim history of sexual violence, or, perhaps more accurately in this discussion, violence related to sexuality. Jones shares Himes’ grim view of the city. “’Just between you and me,’” he confides to another character, “Los Angeles is the most overrated, lousiest, countriest, phoniest city I’ve ever been in.”[3]

During World War II Los Angeles drew 70,000 African Americans to the metropolis, growing from a population of 63,774 in 1940 to 133,082 in 1947. “Most new arrivals found atrocious housing and poor jobs,” points out historian Daniel Widener. Many came for work in the war industry, including Jones, who had also migrated from the Midwest.

Though multicultural for decades, the city placed definite boundaries on its populations: Jews, Mexicans, Asians, African Americans and non- white immigrants (sometimes even European ones in certain cases) were relegated to specific neighborhoods. “Housing restrictions consigned nonwhites to less than a tenth of available housing stock, and the homes of recently interned Japanese and Japanese Americans often constituted the only residences open to African Americans,” writes Widener.[4] While whites might visit minority neighborhoods, blacks and others found themselves less welcome in white communities.

Racism in Los Angeles depended more on custom than law. As evidenced by internment, the Zoot Suit Riots in the 1940s, and bombings and house burnings that occurred in some L.A. neighborhoods during the 1950s and 1960s, violence did occur. In comparison to the South or even Midwestern cities like Chicago, however, racism in the city of Angels was shrouded by a false veneer of respectability.

Construction of the liberty ship “Booker T. Washington.” Black skilled workers in many crafts participated in the construction of the “Booker T. Washington,” first liberty ship named for an African American. James Kermit Lucas, welder, is shown working on the top deck of the vessel which bears the name of the noted African American educator, Alfred T. Palmer photographer, September 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Economic segregation proved especially pervasive—so much so that in 1941 Los Angeles hosted the first hearings of the Fair Employment Act Commission to be held outside of the nation’s capital. However, due in part to the bonanza of military spending that cascaded over the state as a result of the war, federal scrutiny of employment discrimination increased. By 1945, one estimate suggested that 85 percent of the city’s black laborers worked in connection to the manufacture of military equipment.[5]

Though the war had raged for two years before the U.S. entered following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Himes’ protagonist initially thinks little of the growing international conflict. “I’d never given a damn, one way or the other about the war excepting wanting to keep out of it and at first when I wanted the Japanese to win,” Jones narrates. However, wartime employment provides opportunity and even briefly reshapes Jones’ conception of his place in America. “I was stirred as I had been when I was a little boy watching a parade watching the flag go by. That filled up feeling of my country. I felt included in it all. I had never felt included before. It was a wonderful feeling.”[6]

Unfortunately, such emotions proved transitory. Jones had arrived in L.A with the mindset that while the color of his skin might be an obstacle, it was not wholly limiting. “Race was a handicap, sure, I’d reasoned. But hell, I didn’t have to marry it. I went where I wanted and felt good about it,” he tells the reader. For a moment or two, such beliefs even rang true. Jones ascends to the rank of Leaderman, a working class middle management position at an L.A. Navy Yard devoted to wartime production. He dates Alice, a social worker and the daughter of prominent Black Los Angeles elite. Things appear to be on the rise.

Los Angeles, California. Japanese-American evacuation from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency order. Japanese-American child who will go with his parents to Owens Valley, Lee Russell photographer, April 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Events, unfortunately, conspire to disabuse Jones of such ideas. His optimism sours as Japanese internment unfolds, thereby wiping away any feeling of belonging: “It was taking a man up by the roots and locking him up without a chance. Without a trial. Without a charge. Without even giving him a chance to say one word.”[7] Jones understood the same fate could befall him. “And since I’d begun earning enough money to live my own life, I hadn’t felt my life belonged to me. Any moment the white folks might ask me to check it in.”[8]

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had unleashed something in L.A’s white population. “It was the look in the white people’s faces when I walk down the streets,” he notes. “It was that crazy wide-eyed, unleashed hatred … All that tight, crazy feeling of race as thick in the street as gas fumes.”[9] Throughout, Jones expresses unease at whites’ ability to demonize the other. “I was the same colour as the Japanese and I couldn’t tell the difference. ‘A yeller-bellied Jap’ coulda meant me too.”[10] Himes’ awareness of this particular inequality may have been heightened by the fact he wrote the novel while living in a Boyle Heights home that had been abandoned by an interned Japanese American family.[11]

Police check draft cards on explosive Central Ave.–Tempers tense as officers patrol area to curb battles, 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

As in any good L.A. novel, cars play a critical role. Jones drives a 1942 Buick Roadmaster it “gives Bob the illusion of freedom and equality as he challenges even white drivers to race him on Los Angles streets” knowing that even the toniest resident of Beverly Hills could not get a Roadmaster amidst wartime rationing. Yet it also brands him “an arrogant, uppity Negro” argues literature professor Charles Scruggs.

Indeed, though it provides his mode of transportation throughout the novel, it hardly sets him free: “It was a bright June morning. The sun was already high. If I’d been a white boy I might have enjoyed the scramble in the early morning sun, the tight competition for a twenty-foot lead on a thirty mile highway. But to me it was racial.” Even the scenic “snowcapped mountains” fail to win his attention. “I didn’t even see them all I wanted in the world was to push my Buick Roadmaster over some peckerwood’s face.”[12] Revenge fantasies rather than escapism dominates his thoughts, notes Scruggs.[13] Doom hangs over Jones, observes novelist, literary critic, and Himes expert Robert Skinner. His “relentless travel” throughout the novel “serves only to bring [Jones] closer” to his tragic end.[14]

Policemen and wounded African American man inside police ambulance, during Los Angeles “Zoot Suit” riot of 1943, 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Between revenge fantasies, employment discrimination at the Navy Yard and housing segregation, Jones vibrates knowing the all-encompassing nature of American racism. Minorities stood subject to the racial law of L.A. Sure, Japanese Americans experienced the most blatant form of internment, but as Lynn M. Itagaki points out, in Los Angeles racial groups of all kinds were interned in some fashion: “the Japanese Americans in desert prisons, the African Americans in neighborhoods constrained by residential ordinances and segregation.”[15]

The fate of Japanese American Angelenos struck an admitted fear into Jones that pervades much of the novel and drives him to act out in ways indicative of an individual living under a kafkaesque racial regime. “Do you ever wake up scared?” he asks his roommate and occasional paramour Ella Mae one morning.

When a white co-worker knocks Jones unconscious and robs him of his gambling winnings, Jones stalks and nearly kills the man. A desire to turn the tables on his antagonist and escape his feelings of confinement motivates his actions: “I wanted him to feel as scared and powerless and unprotected as I felt every goddamned morning I woke up.“[16] The idea of striking back mattered as much as the act itself. “As long as I knew I was going to kill him, nothing could bother me … they couldn’t hurt me no matter what they did. I had a peckerwood’s life in the palm of my hand and that made all the difference.”[17]

Nine huge Liberty cargo ships at outfitting docks of California Shipbuilding Corporation’s Los Angeles yards, nearly ready to be delivered to the U.S. Maritime Commission, December 4, 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Nonetheless Los Angeles’s structural racism, even amidst wartime emergencies, does damage Jones—be it in his troubled relationship with his girlfriend/fiancé, the distinctly upper middle class Alice, or in his interactions with his white co-workers at the Navy Yard. The former encourages accommodation while the latter reveals that the Midwestern and Southern whites that migrated to L.A. brought with them the racial beliefs that governed their hometowns. Even before penning If He Hollers, Himes acknowledged this reality in a 1943 article for The Crisis, concluding “the outcome is simply that the South has won Los Angeles.”[18]

“Women aircraft workers. Perched high on the wing of a giant bomber, women of a large West Coast aircraft factory are speeding the installation of electrical units contolling the engine.” David Bransby photographer, May 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

L.A. Sexuality

Himes was not without his own overdriven masculinity. Many of his characters, including Jones, drew upon noir traditions of the “unapologetic and testosterone driven” male. “Turned on by their own bravado, they claimed entitlement and viewed sex as a struggle for power – the only form of intimacy that engaged them,” wrote the New Yorker’s Hilton Als in 2002.[19] Himes admitted as much. He treated his wife Jean Johnson in “the most casual of manner sometimes I would leave her standing on a corner waiting for me for hours on end.” Moving to New York in 1944, he confessed to a philandering lifestyle that had wronged his wife, writing “I lost myself in sex and drunkenness … And I almost lost my wife too … and when I came to” If He Hollers had been published to general acclaim.[20]

The black female characters in If He Hollers reflect this sort of ambivalence. Alice, his girlfriend and fiancé, is depicted as a middle-class accomodationist more interested in fading ideas of the “talented tenth” than general racial uplift or protest. “I’m ambitious and demanding. I want to be important in the world. I want a husband who is important and respected and wealthy enough so that I can avoid a major part of discriminatory practices which I am sensible enough to know I can’t change,” she tells Jones during one of their many arguments. “I don’t want to be pulled down by a person who can’t adjust himself to the limitations of his race.”[21] Jones does not stick to only one woman with Ella Mae’s husband off at war, she and Jones sometimes sleep together and he pursues Madge while dating Alice.

To be fair, the noir genre has long been riddled with misogyny apart from racism. As a result, recent work like the 2014 film “Man from Reno,” which features a Japanese female protagonist in the usual role of the hardboiled male detective, easily distinguishes itself as a result of breaking with genre traditions. Whatever his problematic stances on race and gender, in terms of sexuality, Himes writes squarely within this noir structure.

Still, with such caveats noted, Himes understood the deadly intersection of race and sexuality for minorities. In the aforementioned 1943 essay on the Zoot Riots, he argues that one of the precipitating factors of the violence hinged on white men’s perception that Mexican Americans had been harassing “their women.” Himes refuted the idea that black and Latino men pined for white women. “Mexicans do not desire” white women “They do not even look at them.” Black men he argued will “crack at anyone of any race who is nice looking … But they will never go as far as white men toward a Negro woman in a white district.” Himes wades into a very problematic and patriarchal view of sexuality, but it’s one that, whatever we think of it today, defined sexual and racial relations at mid-century.

“The six plane factories of the Douglas Aircraft Company have been termed an industrial melting pot, since men and women of fifty-eight national origins work side by side in pushing Americas’s plane output“, circa 1940s, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

When involving white women, interracial sex led to violence or at the very least, the distinct threat of it. Americans “are strictly a gang minded people,” Himes argued, “we lynch Negroes, rob banks, kidnap babies, extort merchants, beat strikers, etc.”[22] Jones himself is both titillated and horrified when his antagonistic co-worker, the relocated Texan Madge, tells him sex with her would “get him lynched” in her home state.[23]

Himes depicts a white Los Angeles obsessed with interracial encounters its black counterpart less so. When two white soldiers walk into a black bar with a young white woman interested in the male patrons, the tension builds. Though the two soldiers, apparently tired of her behavior, attempt to leave the girl behind, the black manager immediately intervenes “She came in with you, she’s got to go out with you,” he tells them. Jones conveys the dangers succinctly, “She could take those two black chumps flirting with her outside and get them thirty years a piece in San Quentin in Alabama she could get them hung.”[24]

Despite his own knowledge of these dangers, Jones pursues his white female co-worker, Madge. A recent arrival from Texas, Madge carries with her the kind of racist thoughts common to white Americans of the day. She refuses to take orders from Jones, freely throws racial epitaphs in his direction, and more or less gets him demoted.

Yet like Jones, she seems excited, arguably for different reasons, at the prospect of interracial sex. Even after his demotion, Jones pursues her. Madge proves a willing participant, though she throws around the word rape to remind Jones, and perhaps herself, the taboo nature of their potential coupling. Jones eventually decides against it, yet even his contemplation of sex with her proves worthy of punishment under the racial logic of Los Angeles. His decision to pursue Madge puts into motion a series of events that don’t quite end tragically but also do not result in anything remotely triumphant. “She pretends to be terrified of him, and he wants nothing to do with her, but as in a nightmare he lives out Freud’s repetition-compulsion cycle,” observes Scruggs.[25]

To their credit historians like Josh Sides and Daniel Widener have acknowledged Himes’s contributions to L.A. culture and history. Sides describes his L.A. works, If He Hollers and The Lonely Crusade, as “searing indictments of racism, unemployment, and the emasculation of African American men in the 1940s.” Widener notes Himes’ “incisive and dystopian” outlook, and the two books as “exemplary examples of California noir, as pioneering examples of interethnic, cross-racial politics linking disaffected black, Asian American, and ethnic Mexican communities and as a challenging … effort to write seriously about the problematic boundary between race, sex, and violence in Jim Crow America.”[26] Reading fiction serves many purposes, as Kevin Kruse aptly detailed in his tweet thread, but one of the more enjoyable and insightful is when it tells us a story about history with pathos, tragedy and emotion. Whatever his flaws, Chester Himes captured the despair and hurt of mid-century Black Los Angeles.

[1] John N. Swift in Lynn M. Itagaki, “Transgressing Race and Community in Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go, African American Review, Vol. 37 No. 1: 78.

[2] Chester Himes, The Quality of Hurt: The Early Years, The Autobiography of Chester Himes (Paragon, 1972), 73-74.

[3] Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go (Da Capo, 2002), 41.

[4] Daniel Widener, Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (Duke University Press, 2010), 32.

[5] Widener, Black Arts West, 32.

[6] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 38.

[7] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 3.

[8] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 163.

[9] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 4.

[10] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 4.

[11] Edward Margolies and Michel Fabre, The Several Lives of Chester Himes, (University Press of Mississippi, 1994), 50.

[12] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 14.

[13] Charles Scruggs, “Los Angeles and the African American Literary Imagination”, in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, Ed. Kevin McNamara, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 77.

[14] Robert E. Skinner, “Streets of Fear: The Los Angeles Novels of Chester Himes” in … 229.

[15] Lynn M. Itagaki, “Transgressing Race and Community in Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go, African American Review, Vol. 37 No. 1: 68.

[16] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 35.

[17] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 45.

[18] Chester Himes, “Zoot Riots are Race Riots” in Black on Black, 225.

[19] Hilton Als, “In Black and White” in If He Hollers Let Him Go, (Da Capo, 2002), xiv.

[20] Als, “In Black and White”, xv.

[21] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 97.

[22] Chester Himes, “Zoot Riots are Race Riots” in Black on Black, 220-225.

[23] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 147.

[24] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 76.

[25] Charles Scruggs, “Los Angeles and the African American Literary Imagination”, in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, Ed. Kevin McNamara, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 76.

Detecting Chester Himes / Absorbing biography of a misfit writer who reinvented the mystery genre

Chester Himes' Harlem police procedurals featured Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones.


Chester Himes often seemed an odd man out.

Born in Missouri in 1909, he died in Spain in 1984, having spent much of his life in Europe writing books set in a mostly metaphorical Harlem. "I never found a place," Himes once said, "where I even began to fit."

Now poet and novelist James Sallis tells Chester Himes' story in a compelling and impressive way, through a biography that treats Himes' works and deeds with great respect and sympathy while acknowledging major shortcomings in a man who, composing his autobiography, admitted: "I was such a detestable person it makes me sick to write about myself."

Grandson of a slave, Chester Himes was raised by squabbling parents whose contrasting attitudes toward race and life ("black versus white values," "patrician versus egalitarian") helped make their son introverted and belligerent. As a young man, Himes was almost passively self-destructive. In maturity he was (in the words of his friend the filmmaker Melvin van Peebles) "a mind-boggling mixture of frail and ferocious."

Imprisoned in the Ohio State Penitentiary for burglary at the age of 19, Himes came out of prison seven years later a published writer, having sold stories to Esquire. By the 1950s, Himes had produced several novels in more or less the social-protest mode, including the L.A. classic "If He Hollers Let Him Go," recently excerpted in the UC Press anthology "The Literature of California." Among his contemporaries or friends were Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, all of whom appear in Sallis' book.

But Himes' early fiction, while earning notice, did not please conventional readers of any stripe. One Himes book, Sallis writes, was "assaulted by communists, fascists, white racists, black racists, and practically every reviewer within those extremes." Himes, "never had much luck fitting his work to others' standards. . . . He'd aim his ship for India and hit America every time."

One of the sins supposedly committed by Himes' first books was that they "aired black sentiments largely unspoken in public, any public, at the time." Later revered as a sage and a prophet, the young Himes seemed out of step and out of line -- "always there at the station too early, taking the train alone."

His salvation as a writer came in France, where a publisher commissioned him in 1956 to write detective fiction in the hardboiled manner of Dashiell Hammett. ("Don't worry about it making sense," the publisher counseled him on creating a mystery. "That's for the end.") Himes looked to William Faulkner's "ripe violence and absurdist view of life" to complement his own perceptions and memories of America.

The detective form did for this sensitive and self-conscious author, Sallis says, what it did for Ross Macdonald and many other fiction writers: It "freed Himes from autobiography," paradoxically allowing him to forge his most personal vision.

The result was a series of "ferociously idiosyncratic" novels involving New York police detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, books unlike any detective stories written before them and influential on most written after. Himes' semi-surrealistic "Harlem cycle" (including "A Rage in Harlem," "The Crazy Kill," "Cotton Comes to Harlem" and "Blind Man With a Pistol") blended horror and comedy in ways one critic thought constituted "an unraveling of the mystery genre."

The books were French best-sellers and prize-winners. In America they proved greatly important for a new generation of mainstream and crime-fiction authors including Ishamel Reed, Walter Moseley and Gary Phillips. Late in life,

Himes claimed, "The only time I was happy was while writing these strange, violent, unreal stories."

Sallis, whose own series of detective novels, he says, "began in part as homage" to Himes (who is a character in one of them), richly conveys the texture of Himes' fictional world, where "Aristotelian logic holds no purchase" and "neither characters nor readers may rely on cause and effect" an unreal place where "handholds . . . turned to razors, cups of wine to blood. "

Occasionally Sallis' word choices ("immiscible," "epimethean") may stop a reader in his tracks. Some of his references (T.S. Eliot, Georg Lukacs, Tzvetan Todorov) seem obtrusive, and, while many apt images illuminate this poet-novelist's text, not all his lines are instantly felicitous. ("Self- knowledge is a bitter vegetable one doesn't plan on eating," for instance.)

That said, Sallis has done a remarkable job of weaving social history and literary explication into a fascinating, often gripping narrative about a writer and person who all his life stood "at a hard right angle to the world."

Watch the video: Chester Himes: une affaire de viol