Chester Himes and the burden of being an African-American author

February 25, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

By the time he was 35 years old, Chester Himes had experienced enough tragedy and hardship for the lives of several people.

He had grown up in a middle-class black family that valued books and education, but that family was disrupted by the sudden blinding of a brother who was refused medical treatment because of his race. Himes had been expelled from Ohio State University for a prank, and he had served seven and a half years in prison for armed robbery. It was in prison that he began writing, and he managed to sell some short stories and work on his first novel.

Himes was paroled in 1936 and went to Los Angeles where he worked for a short time as a screenwriter. But he was fired from that job when the studio owner, Jack Warner, discovered that he was black.

Himes’ experience in Los Angeles, he wrote in his biography, was what finally pushed him into a bitterness that clouded the rest of his life:

Up to the age of thirty-one I had been hurt emotionally, spiritually and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear. I had lived in the South, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college, I had served seven and one half years in prison, I had survived the humiliating last five years of Depression in Cleveland; and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate.

Himes continued to write and had some success in getting published, but the racism he encountered in America was spirit-crushing. His work was much better received in Europe than in America. Finally, in the mid-1950s, he moved to France joining other black ex-patriates such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Oliver Harrington.

France gave Himes a measure of peace and relief from the racism of America and a circle of friends with sympathetic ears and shared experiences. It also eventually provided him with a life-long companion. Lesley Packard, an Irish-English reporter for the International Herald Tribune, came to interview him a couple of years after he had arrived in Paris. They fell in love and were eventually married. Lesley became not only his wife and best friend but also his editor and closest adviser.

Another meeting with Marcel Duhamel in 1957 sparked the main portion of Himes’ modern legacy. Duhamel had translated and published an earlier novel of Himes and understood how much the French and Europeans liked detective stories. If Himes could create a black detective character, his writing would likely find a welcomed place in the market.

It took some doing, but Himes finally came up with Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, two black detectives in Harlem, both prone to violence against anyone — always against black people — who get in their own way as they stumble and bumble through police investigations. The first title, A Rage in Harlem, was a critical success and put Himes on the road to a full development of the characters. That book was followed by numerous titles, the most famous of which was Cotton Comes to Harlem in 1964, which was made into a movie in 1970.

Himes had indeed found a unique place in the genre of detective fiction and had brought with it a special voice.

Despite failing health, Himes continued to write through the 1960s. He and Lesley moved from Paris to the south of France late in the decade and then to Spain where they lived until he died in 1984. Himes’ work has been compared to that of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but Himes had a style and a point of view that were uniquely his.

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