Form and Content
Chester Himes’s autobiographies are at once a record of his life as a black, radical, expatriate writer and a social document disclosing the sufferings of African Americans throughout most of the twentieth century. His life story is central to a study of African American literature, because it explores the pain inflicted upon Himes, pain he was able to convert into powerful literature; because it dramatizes the problems an African American artist, especially a political radical such as Himes, must face in the white publishing world; and because it exposes the intraracial conflicts of other important African American writers of the period, specifically between Richard Wright (Himes’s sometimes reluctant mentor) and James Baldwin. A writer who was initially spurned by both white and black American readers, Himes throughout his life craved recognition and respect for his innovative literature, and these two volumes should help secure his position in American literary history.
His first volume, The Quality of Hurt, begins with Himes’s credo, which unifies both volumes: “Human beings—all human beings, of whatever race or nationality or religious belief or ideology—will do anything and everything.” His conviction of the enormous potentiality of human beings for evil, however, comes directly from his chaotic and violent youth. Born on July 29, 1909, to a middle-class black family in Jefferson, Missouri, Himes had to deal immediately with the marital strife of his parents, a direct consequence, he presumed, of racial injustice in America. His dark-skinned father was a professor of mechanical arts at various southern “Negro A & M Colleges”; his light-skinned mother felt strong antipathy to prominently African features, especially her husband’s. Himes, light-skinned himself, felt emotionally close to his mother, and he felt increasingly contemptuous of his father’s servility before whites. His mother took the opposite approach toward racism; once, when traveling, she drew a gun on whites who threatened her. When the couple finally divorces in Chester’s adulthood, he is somewhat relieved.
A crucial event in Himes’s youth changes his life forever. Chester and his older brother, Joseph, Jr., are planning to enter a science contest, and their entry is to be a “torpedo” composed of chemicals and ground glass. As punishment for earlier misbehavior, however, Mrs. Himes forbids Chester to participate, though his help is essential for the success of the experiment. Joseph, alone on the stage, attempts to complete the experiment himself, but it explodes prematurely, sending ground glass particles into his eyes. Horrified, the Himes family rushes Joseph to a white hospital, where he is refused medical treatment; when he finally receives treatment, he has lost his vision forever. Although Joseph, Jr., accepts his personal loss courageously, eventually earning a Ph.D. and becoming a renowned sociologist, Chester discovers in Joseph’s tragedy the themes that will later shape his literature: the abject humiliation of African Americans in the face of racism, and the inner rage that is its concealed effect; the futility—even absurdity—of harsh punishment, which will inevitably have unintended consequences for both the victim and the accuser; and the chaotic, accidental, unpredictable nature of existence.
Himes’s experience throughout his adolescence confirms his sense of life’s absurdity. His early life is a series of contradictions and inexplicable accidents. Although he is shown to be brilliant by standardized testing, his high school career is marked by academic failure; he manages to graduate only because of a teacher’s grading error. He gets a job in a hotel, then accidentally falls several floors down a broken elevator shaft; severely injured, he unknowingly signs away his legal rights because of the hotel’s chicanery and his father’s eagerness to placate white authority figures. He enters Ohio State University, but he is so disgusted with Jim Crow policies in this supposedly liberal institution that he cannot concentrate and is expelled. Event after event brings home to readers the absurdity and sense of contradiction that mark Himes’s life.
In 1928, when Himes is nineteen, his life takes another definitive transformation. Himes is arrested for armed burglary, and he receives the maximum sentence of twenty to twenty-five years in the Ohio State Penitentiary. Writing about the judge, Himes says, “[he] had hurt me as much as I could ever be hurt if I lived a hundred thousand years; he had hurt me in a way I would never get over.” Himes serves seven and a half years of his sentence; his description of prison life—and his short stories based on his experience—are harrowing visions of the life of the...
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