Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1851
Chester Himes’s short stories, he believed, served as his apprenticeship as a writer. They were the first of his writings to be published, and he continued in the genre intermittently for more than forty years. When an anthology of his short fiction was proposed in 1954, he revealed in his...
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- Critical Essays
Chester Himes’s short stories, he believed, served as his apprenticeship as a writer. They were the first of his writings to be published, and he continued in the genre intermittently for more than forty years. When an anthology of his short fiction was proposed in 1954, he revealed in his autobiography that he could not feel proud of it. The anthology finally published in 1973, Black on Black: Baby Sister and Selected Writings, was highly selective, concentrating on the stories of the first two decades of his career. A 1990 edition, The Collected Stories of Chester Himes, contains sixty-one pieces, ranging from 1933 to 1978, with nine updated. Many are prison stories, and not all are of even quality, but as a whole, they demonstrate Himes’s remarkably versatile range of techniques and the ongoing themes and preoccupations of his longer pieces.
“His Last Day”
Prison life, horrible as it was, gave Himes the subject of several short stories. “His Last Day,” about a condemned man’s last few hours before the electric chair, already shows some of Himes’s trademarks. Spats, a hardened, ruthless criminal who is condemned to death for killing a police officer, reflects wryly that he would not have been identified if the one person left alive during his robbery of a club had not recognized his fawn-colored spats. Even when he manages to hide out for a few days, he is finally trapped—by his past and by a woman. An old sweet heart whom he had abandoned in her pregnancy shoots the man who had provided Spats with refuge, thus attracting the police. Rivetingly grim, this early effort is marred by the dated slang, but even so, Himes’s characteristic grisly humor comes through.
“Her Whole Existence”
James Baldwin wrote of Himes that he was the only black writer to describe male-female relationships in terms other than violence. One of Himes’s earliest love stories, “Her Whole Existence: A Story of True Love,” verges on parody in its clichéd language but also shows Himes’s imaginative skill. Written from the point of view of Mabel Miles, the beautiful daughter of a successful African American politician, the story leaps suddenly from the romanticism of Mabel’s attraction for Richard Riley, an ambitious, successful, and handsome criminal, to an analysis of class conflict. Trapped between the respect for law instilled by her family and her own passion, Mabel first betrays Richard and then helps him to escape. It is the first of Himes’s portrayals of unpredictable but strong women.
“A Nigger” suggests, with its shockingly simple denouement, Himes’s bitter observations about the sexual relationship between blacks and whites. Mr. Shelton, a rich old white man, drops in unexpectedly on Fay, a black prostitute who lives with a light-skinned common-law husband and who is currently involved with another black man, Joe Wolf. Taken by surprise, Fay shoves Joe into the closet to receive her white lover. Joe hears her cajole and flatter Mr. Shelton out of two hundred dollars and, crouched in the dark, recalls other tired, unattractive white men he has known who have turned to black women not in appreciation but in exhaustion. Such men have convinced themselves, he thinks, that it is only black flesh they touch, animal flesh that has no mind or power to judge. When he is ready to leave, Mr. Shelton opens the door of the closet by mistake, looks in, turns away, and leaves. While Fay is jubilant that Joe was not detected, Joe is so furious that he tries to strangle her. He knows that the white man saw him and simply refused to recognize his existence. Back in his own tiny room, he reflects bitterly that he must count himself a “nigger” for allowing his poverty and dependence on a prostitute to rob him of his manhood.
Though many of Himes’s stories—and novels—ram home the pain of being black in the United States, there are other works that portray individuals who can carve a dignified niche in the limited ways available to them. “Headwaiter” presents Dick Small, an African American man in charge of an old-fashioned dining room patronized by a regular white clientele. Imperturbable in this familiar atmosphere, Dick watches over everyone in his care, remembering the personal details of individual customers, waiters, busboys. In his small way, he does what he can for the less fortunate. When the diners are horrified to learn that one of the best waiters is an former convict, Dick stands firmly by his decision to give the man a second chance, and his polite firmness quells the furor. He is unable, however, to save another waiter who acts drunk; when he has to dismiss him, he does so with sympathy and compassion.
“Lunching at the Ritzmore”
The complementary story “Lunching at the Ritzmore” differs in tone. A satiric view of the laws that required separate public establishments for blacks and whites, this story suggests, lightheartedly, what Himes was seriously to advocate later: the power that lies in a large crowd to hurl down racist barriers. In “the mecca of the motley” in Pershing Square, Los Angeles, a young college student from Vermont argues that there is no discrimination against Negroes. A drifter in the crowd bets him the price of dinner that a young brown-skinned Negro, an unemployed mechanic, will be refused service if the three eat at a restaurant. As the three set off in search of a suitably challenging place to eat, the crowd around them grows and grows because people think that a free giveaway must be the goal of such a gathering. A policeman follows them, wanting to arrest them but not being able to think of a good reason to do so. Finally, an enormous crowd halts outside the very fancy Ritzmore Hotel; there, the debate shifts slightly from race to class, as none of the three is dressed well enough. The diners, the waiters, and the cooks, however, are so stunned by the crowd that the three men are immediately served the only item that they can read on the French menu—ironically enough, it is apple pie. The student wins his bet but has to pay because the drifter is broke.
“All He Needs Is Feet”
Few other stories exhibit such lighthearted irony in the face of racial discrimination. “All He Needs Is Feet” is ironic, in the horrifying, brutal way that shocks the reader into realizing why Himes later saw violence as the only solution for African Americans, because they are mistreated so violently by a violent society. Ward, a black man, walking down the sidewalk in Rome, Georgia, steps off to let a white woman and two white men pass. One white man bumps into Ward anyway and provokes him to fight. A crowd that gathers, thinking a lynching is too severe, pours gasoline on Ward’s feet and sets him on fire. In jail for assault with a deadly weapon, Ward has his feet amputated. He goes to Chicago with money sent by his family and learns to use crutches and knee pads to work at shining shoes, saving enough money to buy war bonds. In a theater, his crutches tucked out of everyone’s way under the seats, Ward cannot stand up for the national anthem at the end of the film. A big, burly man from Arkansas hits him for disrespect to the flag. The ultimate cruelty of the story come as a punch line, when a policeman arrests the white man: The man from Arkansas blubbers that he could not stand a “nigger” sitting through the national anthem, even if he did not have feet.
The issue of patriotism became very complex for African Americans during World War II, especially for those who fought for democracy against Adolf Hitler and his blatantly racist and fascist goals of a super race and then had to reflect on the racism in their own democracy. Several of Himes’s war stories, such as “Two Soldiers,” reveal a man struggling to remain patriotic and optimistic. The most effective of these, “So Softly Smiling,” springs from the war atmosphere but is really a beautiful love story. Roy Jonny Squires, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, returns to Harlem for thirty days. Exhausted by the warfare in North Africa, he heads for a bar late at night and meets Mona Morrison, a successful poet. Her “tawny skin like an African veld at sunset” exactly fulfills the ache for love that fiery raids at dawn have brought upon him. This delicate love story is punctuated throughout with dramatic reminders that the lovers’ time together is very short, and their courtship and married life proceed at breakneck speed. It is in this story that Himes touches on the race issue during war, lightly, positively; Roy says that he finally enlisted because he heard someone say that the United States belonged to the Negro as much as it did to anyone.
More than two decades later, Himes seemed to have lost such patriotic optimism. In “Tang,” a tired, hungry couple sit watching television in their cold-water slum flat in Harlem, when a long cardboard box with a florist’s label is delivered to them. They discover inside it an M-14 army gun and a typewritten sheet warning them to learn how to use their weapon and wait for instructions, for freedom is near. The man, T-bone Smith, who had used such a weapon in the Korean War, is absolutely terrified and wants to report the gun to the police. The woman, Tang, once a beautiful, softly rounded woman who has become hard and angular from her life as a poor prostitute, is ecstatic. She hugs the gun as if it were a lover and cherishes the thought that the gun could chop up a white policeman. She is ready to fight for freedom, even pointing the gun at T-bone to stop him from calling the police. Her defiance enrages him; he whips out a spring-blade knife and slashes her to death, crying that he might not be free of whitey, but he is now free of her.
Writing twenty years before Himes’s death, the critic Edward Margolies noted that Himes’s characters tend to be reflective, interested in ideas and in intellectualizing the predicaments in which they find themselves. As such, they are quite different from such characters as Bigger Thomas, with whom Richard Wright shocked the United States in his Native Son (1940). Wright’s success trapped other African American writers whom the literary establishment then automatically described as, or expected to be, “protest” writers. Certainly, the range of Himes’s short fiction is so vast that it includes stories of strong protest. He wrote, however, stories of individuals caught up in a web of many circumstances. Race is clearly an issue in his fiction, but so are love, sex, poverty, class, war, prison, violence, success, failure, and humor. His short fiction is not only a prelude to his better known novels but also a rewarding world in itself.