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Chester Himes 1909–1984
(Born Chester Bonar Himes) American novelist, short story writer, autobiographer, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Himes's career. See also, Chester Himes Criticism and CLC volumes 2, 4, 7 and 18.
Himes was misunderstood or ignored by American reviewers during the...
(The entire section contains 54580 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Chester Himes 1909–1984
(Born Chester Bonar Himes) American novelist, short story writer, autobiographer, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Himes's career. See also, Chester Himes Criticism and CLC volumes 2, 4, 7 and 18.
Himes was misunderstood or ignored by American reviewers during the time he wrote, and he consequently fled to Europe to seek the acceptance he failed to receive in his own country. Critics are only recently discovering the value of Himes's work and the significance of his contribution to American literature. Originally tagged as a protest writer, Himes overcame the label by tackling an unexpected genre, the detective novel. Although some considered writing in such a popular medium to be selling out, Himes overcame the criticism by infusing his crime novels with the same powerful themes and insights as his more politically oriented work. At the end of his prolific career, Himes turned to the autobiography to put his political and social observations about the absurdity of racism and race relations in a personal context.
Himes was born on July 29, 1909, in Jefferson City, Missouri. His mother came from a middle-class background and had only one black grandparent. Her ancestors were house slaves and white slave owners. His father, on the other hand, was a very dark man whose ancestors had been field slaves. His father worked as a professor of mechanical arts at several black colleges in the Midwest and the South. The intraracial differences caused tension in his parents' marriage and became the basis of his semiautobiographical novel The Third Generation (1954). Himes had a middle-class upbringing marred by tragedy: his older brother was blinded in an accident at school, and the emotional and financial costs put a strain on the family. He himself was hurt in an elevator accident while working in a Cleveland hotel. The injury caused him back trouble for the rest of his life. Himes attended Ohio State University, but was expelled after bringing a group of students to a party at a whorehouse. He returned to his family's home in Cleveland, where he became involved in a criminal lifestyle. He was arrested three times, once for his involvement in a robbery of guns and once for passing bad checks. Both of those convictions resulted in suspended sentences. His third arrest in 1929, for robbing a rich, white couple in their home, resulted in jail time. He was sentenced to twenty to twenty-five years in the Ohio State Penitentiary, and served seven and a half years. Himes first began writing during his time in prison. He published his first stories in African-American periodicals like Crisis and Abbott's Monthly, but his breakthrough came when Esquire published his "Crazy in the Stir" and "To What Red Hell." After getting out of prison, Himes married his first wife, Jean Johnson, an African-American woman whom he had known in Cleveland. After his parole was terminated in the late-1930s, Himes and his wife moved to California where he worked a series of jobs as an unskilled laborer. His first two novels are set in Los Angeles during this time period. From 1947 to 1953 Himes lived in New York City working another series of low-paying jobs. He became disillusioned at the racism and lack of opportunities in America, and at the cold reception he was receiving from American critics. His marriage dissolved and he decided to settle in Paris in 1953, with other African-American expatriates including Richard Wright. He became involved in a series of affairs with white women, finally marrying Lesley Packard, an Anglo-Irish woman. Himes then wrote two more novels focusing on his experiences in America, The Third Generation and The Primitive (1955). In 1956, Marcel Duhamel, the creator of the popular Serie Noire series of crime novels, approached Himes about writing a detective novel set in Harlem. The result was For Love of Imabelle (1957). Himes's crime novels became best sellers in France, and in 1958 he was awarded the Grand Prix de la littérature policière for For Love of Imabelle. Himes suffered strokes in 1963 and 1964, which spurred him on to record the events of his life. He moved to Spain in 1969 and began to work on his autobiography. The result was a two volume work: The Quality of Hurt (1972) and My Life of Absurdity (1977). Himes left an unfinished manuscript which was published posthumously as Plan B (1983).
Himes's career had three phases: his earlier short stories and what has been termed his protest novels; his detective fiction; and his autobiography. Himes's If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1945) tells the story of Bob Jones, a foreman in a shipyard in Los Angeles. Jones is the victim of racism. He is demoted from a position for which he is overqualified to make room for a white man, and he barely escapes lynching when a white woman lures him into a room and accuses him of rape. Himes's Lonely Crusade (1947) is set in 1943 and follows the efforts of Lee Gordon to organize local workers into a union. His efforts are thwarted by the corporation and by Communist forces which have infiltrated the union for their own purposes. Cast the First Stone (1952) is another of Himes's semi-autobiographical novels. The main character, Jim Monroe, is a white man, but seems to represent Himes as is evidenced by their similarities: both attended college, suffered a serious back injury, and were sentenced to 25 years for armed robbery. The novel focuses on the growth that Monroe experiences while in prison, and is notable for its direct treatment of homosexual relationships in prison. The Third Generation is about Charles Taylor, the third son of a third generation African-American family. The novel focuses on intraracial conflict resulting from color differences rather than interracial relations. Professor Taylor, Charles's father, comes from a fieldhand ancestry, and Lillian, his mother, has descended from servants. There is some white ancestry in Lillian's family, but she exaggerates her white heritage and looks down on her husband for his blackness. The novel traces the effects that the Taylors' marital troubles and Lillian's unusual obsession with her son have on Charles. The Primitive was Himes's last semi-autobiographical novel. It tells the story of Jesse Robinson, a struggling African-American novelist who becomes involved in an interracial relationship with a white socialite. The novel traces the stereotypes and tensions which drive such relationships to failure. For Love of Imabelle was the first in his detective series set in a fictional Harlem that was based on the Cleveland of Himes's youth. All of Himes's detective fiction had similar elements, including the recurring characters Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. Unlike their white prototypes, Himes's detectives get hurt for real and the violence portrayed is vivid. Their role in the novels is to mediate between the white world of law enforcement and the African-American community of Harlem. As a result, they are left alienated from both worlds. The detectives' position slowly degenerates throughout the novels until they are prohibited from doing their jobs by the white detectives and their authority is threatened by a Harlem mob in the last book of the series, Blind Man with a Pistol (1969). Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson meet their demise in the novel Plan B, which Himes left incomplete and was published after his death. In his two-volume autobiography, Himes returned to his examination of American racism on his life. Only instead of filtering his observations through the medium of fiction, Himes wrote about the actual events of his life. He traces the effects of Jim Crowe laws and racism on his life, and the absurdity of his situation. The first volume, The Quality of Hurt, covers his life from birth to his departure for Europe. My Life of Absurdity details his experiences in Europe.
Critics have only recently begun to give serious attention to Himes's work. His first novel If He Hollers Let Him Go received positive critical response, but Lonely Crusade was vilified in America. Common complaints with Lonely Crusade included that it was filled with hate, anti-Semitism, and smut. In France, however, Lonely Crusade was extremely popular, as was his detective series. Most critics see a distinct difference in what they term Himes's "serious" writing (his early novels and his autobiography) and his "popular" novels (his detective fiction), but Nora M. Alter disagrees. She asserts that, "despite the superficial genre change … a clear continuity can be seen in all of Himes's writing. His detective fiction does not break with his earlier politically committed works; rather, it channels the same protest in another form." As critics are beginning to re-evaluate the value of Himes's work, several positive assessments have emerged, including Himes's use of dialect and his ability to display complex interior emotions. James A. Miller says that "Himes's rendition of black vernacular is one of the best in the business." One of the most interesting comments about Himes's talent, given the sometimes dark and violent subject matter of his fiction, is his use of humor and satire. Himes's Plan B is generally considered inferior to his other work, and most reviewers posit that the novel is too incomplete to have been published.
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If He Hollers, Let Him Go (novel) 1945
Lonely Crusade (novel) 1947
Cast the First Stone (novel) 1952
The Third Generation (novel) 1954
The Primitive (novel) 1955
For Love of Imabelle [translated by Minnie Danzas] (novel) 1957; expanded as La Reine des pommes, 1958; revised English edition published as A Rage in Harlem, 1965
Il pleut des coup durs (novel) 1958; published as The Real Cool Killers, 1959
Couche dans le pain [translated by J. Herisson and H. Robillot] (novel) 1959; published as The Crazy Kill, 1959
Dare-dare [translated by Pierre Verrier] (novel) 1959; published as Run Man, Run, 1966
Tout pour plaire [translated by Yves Malartic] (novel) 1959; published as The Big Gold Dream, 1960
Imbroglio negro [translated by J. Fillion] (novel) 1960; published as All Shot Up, 1960
Ne nous enervons pas! [translated by Fillion] (novel) 1961; published as The Heat's On, 1966; published as Come Back, Charleston Blue, 1967
Pinktoes (novel) 1961
Une affaire de viol [translated by Mathieu] (novel) 1963; published as A Case of Rape, 1984
Retour en Afrique [translated by Pierre Sergent] (novel) 1964; published as Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1965
Blind Man with a Pistol (novel) 1969; published as Hot Day, Hot Night, 1970; translation by Henri Robillot published as L'Aveugle au pistolet, 1970
The Autobiography of Chester Himes, Volume I: The Quality of Hurt (autobiography) 1972
Black on Black: Baby Sister and Selected Writings (short stories) 1973
The Autobiography of Chester Himes, Volume II: My Life of Absurdity (autobiography) 1977
Plan B (novel) 1983
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3766
SOURCE: "The Use of the Doppelganger or Double in Chester Himes' Lonely Crusade," in CLA Journal, Vol. XX, No. 4, June, 1977, pp. 448-58.
[In the following essay, Reckley analyzes Himes's use of doubles in his Lonely Crusade by looking at three of his black male characters, Lee Gordon, Lester McKinley, and Luther McGregor.]
Chester Himes' second novel Lonely Crusade has not received the critical attention it merits. Critics have praised it for its protest and its naturalistic tendencies, or damned it for its Communistic implications, but so far no one has bothered to study the novel to ascertain how skillfully Himes uses doubles throughout the novel to propound his philosophy of the emasculation of the Black male. This paper, therefore, will be concerned with analyzing three of Himes' Black male characters: Lee Gordon, Lester McKinley and Luther McGregor, so that we can better understand Himes' use of doubles.
Set in Los Angeles during the war year of 1943, Lonely Crusade is concerned with the efforts of Lee Gordon, a college educated Black, to recruit the Black laborers of Comstock Aircraft Corporation and organize them to form a local union. His success as an organizer is impeded on the one hand by Comstock Corporation and its major shareholder-manager, Lewis Foster, who is symbolic of the socio-economic complex which discriminates against Blacks and blocks their social mobility, and on the other by the Communist and Communistic forces that would infiltrate the union for its own purposes.
In addition to Lee there are two other characters, Lester McKinley and Luther McGregor, who, in mental attitudes and social traits, act as doppelgangers or doubles to Lee. Robert Rogers, in his work, A Psychoanalytic Study of the Double in Literature, maintains that doubles and/or multiple characters might exist independently in a work but they are generally "fragments of some other characterological whole." Further, Rogers explains that there is doubling by division which involves "the splitting up of a recognizable, unified psychological entity into separate complementary distinguishable parts represented by seemingly autonomous characters."
Using the terms decomposition, doubling and fragmentation as synonyms (terms which will also be used in this paper as synonyms), Rogers maintains that a doppelganger might be a secret sharer or an opposing self. The secret sharer is a latent decomposition that has been "compounded and fused within the crucible of art by the catalytic heat of creative fire." According to Rogers such a double is difficult to define, not because he may exist as an independent entity, but rather because he is so deeply woven into the structure of the work that he becomes difficult to identify as a double.
The opposing self is the opposite of its double: for example, the bad self and the guardian angel, the normal self and the diabolical self. The opposing self might also symbolize possible alliances and divisions among the Id, Ego, and Super Ego.
Lester McKinley and Luther McGregor embrace Robert Rogers' definitions of doubles because they seem to exist independently of the protagonist. They are fully aware of their environment, and psychologically they function autonomously. However, the doubling motif which girds the novel, the coupling of incidences, both internal and external, the relationship between Lee and the decompositions—their affinities and their antagonism, and the similarities of their names—all suggest that Lee Gordon is a composite character and that Lester McKinley and Luther McGregor are the components that formalize the composition of the protagonist, Lee.
While Lester and Luther are not mirror images of Lee, there is ample evidence in the novel which indicates that these three characters are bound together in more than a haphazard relationship. For example, all three are involved with Foster and Comstock Aircraft Corporation. All three are fighting the socio-economic-industrial complex. All three are boxed in by discrimination.
However, the most obvious doubling technique in the novel, one which indicates that Himes' use of doubles could have been a conscious effort, is the naming of the characters: Lee Gordon, Lester McKinley, and Luther McGregor. At once the similarity strikes the reader as more than coincidental. It becomes obvious that phonetically the names are similar, especially in the persistent use of liquids in the first names—Lee, Lester, Luther. Linguistically, it appears as though the novelist wants us to see these three figures as one composite character. The mystery surrounding McKinely's name also encourages speculation of the doubling motif in the novel. The character changes his name to Lester McKinley after he becomes an adult, an act which might imply that during his formative years he conceived of himself as Lee, for as this essay will indicate, they do have similar experiences.
One finds too, on perusing the novel, that the similitude of names blurs the characters in the reader's mind; as a result, a reader could easily mistake Lester for Luther, or Luther for Lee. This identity crisis is especially true in the case of James Lindquist, who has published recently a critical study of Himes. In his work, Chester Himes, Lindquist makes several references to Lester McKinley, but he accidentally refers to Lester McKinley as Luther McKinley. While Lindquist does not discuss the doubling technique in the novel, subconsciously he sees Luther and Lester as one. The fact that a critic confuses these characters suggests that there is a need to study Himes' use of the double in Lonely Crusade.
It was stated earlier that the minor characters are not mirror images of the protagonist but rather extensions of him. A close analysis of the experiences of the characters, Lester and Luther, in comparison with the experiences of the composite, Lee, will demonstrate their similarities (and apparent differences) by establishing how they help to complete the character of Lee.
As a youngster, Lee was informed by one of his teachers that Blacks were heathens and that many of them were cannibals. Attending a predominantly white school, Lee observed the white males to see if there were any differences between whites and blacks that would make whites superior. Finding no differences between them and him, he hid in the girls' locker room to see if they were different. The Gordons were harried out of town for their son's act.
The family moved from Pasadena to Los Angeles, but one night while Lee's father was coming home from his janitorial job, he was accidentally shot and killed by a police officer who thought that he was a burglar. The city dismissed the killing as a natural mistake, implying that all Blacks were burglars. The traumatic experiences of Lee's youth terrified him. Because of the incidents, Lee suffered from "pure and simple fear of white folks"; further, he came to the conclusion that his destiny would be governed by the whims of whites.
As a college educated adult, Lee could not find employment for which he had been trained. The constant discriminatory practices of prospective employees, despite President Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802, turned Lee Gordon into a neurotic. The protagonist describes his emotional state in this way:
If you have never lain sleepless for seven straight nights, your navel drawing into your spine at the slightest sound, your throat muscles contracting into painful strictures, terrified by the thought of people whom you have never seen and might never see, then you would not understand. Living in the world outnumbered and outpowered by a race whom you think wants to hurt you at every opportunity.
The image presented here is one of a broken man. The sleeplessness, the contracting of the abdominal muscles, the tightness of the throat, and above all, the unknown fear of unknown people—all indicate that Lee is at the breaking point. Where Lee has reached that point Lester, his double, has passed it.
Lester McKinley's experiences parallel those of Lee's. If anything, they are more dramatic. Growing up in Georgia, Lester suffered from the same kind of racial pressures his other self, Lee, experienced. At the age of twelve he witnessed the lynching of a Black man, and from that day he had an overwhelming compulsion to kill whites. Lester attended Atlanta University and became a brilliant scholar in Latin, but his homicidal tendencies over-powered him. As a result, he left the South and moved to Albany, New York, hoping that his psychopathic inclinations would abate. Finding no respite in the North, he visited a psychiatrist who suggested that he marry a white woman and that such a union would lessen his compulsion to kill white men. Lester married a white woman and settled in California, but Lester, like Lee, could not find employment for which he had been trained. Prejudice and discrimination, combined with his compulsion to kill whites, had warped Lester's personality and rendered him insane. He had reached the stage where he was now
Sitting in his living room, plotting the murder of Lewis Foster. McKinley knew that he was insane, but the knowledge did not terrify him because he was through fighting it. He would kill this white man he resolved, and if that didn't do any good he would kill himself.
Lee's and Lester's experiences are the same, for Lee also believed that he had been "oppressed by white people to the point of criminal compulsion." But where Lee becomes passive and internalizes his fear, Lester becomes aggressive and seeks release in the external world. (It should be noted, however, that while Lester plans murder, he never commits murder.) Lester is Lee driven to extremes by a society which humiliates and degrades him. Lindquist maintains that Lee and Lester share many impulses, but that Lee lacks Lester's craze "only because his [Lee's] despair has not yet become so deep." I contend that Lester's desperation is no greater than Lee's. Lester is Lee, a psychotic Lee who objectifies his psychopathic tendencies.
In addition to Lester's and Lee's traumatic experiences there is other evidence of doubling in their moral traits and in their social stance which yokes the two characters together. For example, both Lester and Lee are college educated, and because of their education, both have a tendency to be contemptuous of Blacks who are not educated. Both are under-employed, both are propositioned by Lewis Foster to betray the union; both refused. Both are embroiled in domestic problems because they cannot meet their obligations. And finally, both are destroyed because they refuse to be less than men in the white man's world. These parallels are not accidental. They are indicative of the doubling technique found throughout the novel.
That Lester is Lee's alter ego is exemplified in yet another manner. Lee sees himself as an honest individual surrounded by unprincipled Communists and industrialists. Lee projects this attribute of honesty to Lester. He conceives of Lester as the only source of truth in a jungle of conspirators. When attacks and counter-attacks are made by both Communists and industrialists and Lee loses his perspective, he turns to Lester. On several occasions he tries to reach McKinley because he believes that McKinley would be sympathetic and honest. He "was positive that Lester knew the truth" and would help him to gain a new perspective of his dilemma. Lee's projecting one of his own character traits on to Lester and his expecting sympathy from Lester suggest that there is a common bond between the two characters.
Luther McGregor is the other component of the character, Lee. Where Lester is an extension of Lee, Luther becomes the opposing self. Where Lee has an affinity for Lester he despises Luther. But Luther has the intestinal fortitude to act—a quality which is lacking in Lee and to some extent in Lester.
Little is known of Luther McGregor except that he is from Mississippi where he has spent time on a chain gang. A former WPA worker, he was sunning himself on a Los Angeles beach when a rich white woman picked him up and took him home as her paramour. Another white woman, Mollie, stole him from his first lover.
McGregor is not only a gigolo, he is a card-carrying Communist and a part-time union organizer. He is neither handsome nor intelligent. Mollie refers to him as her Caliban with a pygmy brain. He is further described by the omnipotent narrator in this manner:
Fully as tall as Lee, his six-foot height was lost in the thickness of his torso and the width of his muscular shoulders that sloped like an ape's from which hung arms a good foot longer than the average man's. His weird, long-fingered hands of enormous size and grotesque shape … hung placidly at his side, and his flat splayed feet seemed planted firmly in the mud. He wore a belted light-tan camel's hair overcoat over a white turtle-neck sweater above which his flat-featured African face seemed blacker than the usual connotation of the word.
Lee and Luther also differ in their racial assumptions. Lee believes his color is a handicap, and as a result, he rejects his Blackness. Luther, on the other hand, accepts himself for what he is. He takes advantage of his racial features. Arriving at the conclusion that all the white world saw in him was a "nigger," Luther becomes a professional Black who insists that whites will have to pay to exploit his Blackness. He informs Lee:
Look, man, as long as I is black and ugly white folks gonna hate my guts. They gonna look at me and see a nigger. All of 'em Foster, and the white folks in the party and the white women in the bed, but I is always gonna make it pay off, man … 'Cause I is gonna be they nigger and they proof and make 'em pay for it.
Luther is also different from Lee in his attitude toward white women. Lee deserted his Black wife, Ruth, for Jackie Folks, a white friend who was really a Communist agent sent to gain his confidence and to sabotage his plans for the union. To Lee, Jackie was a lady, his "immortal woman." Luther, on the other hand, saw no saving grace in the white female. Molly, his paramour, wanted him for one reason and he realized that fact. He was her "air hammer," he "fire and bone" and steel-driving man.
On the narrative level Luther demonstrates all of the character traits Lee detests. Luther is unscrupulous. He is cunning. He is anti-social. He hates society and he doesn't hide his hate. Industry attempts to manipulate him, but he outmaneuvers industry instead. He would brutalize and/or kill anyone who threatens his well-being, and his cynical attitude towards his women borders on hate. On the psychological level, however, all of the traits that Luther exhibits are present in Lee. Although Lee does not verbalize his thoughts, his animosities towards Foster and the industrial complex are just as strong as Luther's. And like Luther, he is always thinking how he could manipulate them to his advantage. While he does not release his aggression on those whites who affront or humiliate him, he releases his hostilities on his wife by beating and raping her. He does not want to admit it, but he realizes, as Luther said, that he is just a stud and a pimp to his white lover. For even Jackie admits to Lee: "I'd be your white whore and make you a hundred thousand dollars and the proudest black man who ever lived." Physically, and on the narrative level, then, Lee and Luther appear to be different, but the psychic similarities suggest that they share, conjointly, the same thoughts, the same emotions. And it is these thoughts and emotions which suggest that Luther is a decomposition. He is Lee's opposing self.
Another suggestion of doubling is found in Luther's behavior towards Lee. Luther's familiarity with the protagonist intimates a foreknowledge of Lee. On their initial meeting Luther presents himself as though the introduction should remind Lee of past experiences. Lee's hesitation causes Luther to insist: "You know me! I'm Luther, man, I'm Luther." Luther further implies that he had known Lee for a long time. He explained that it was he who caused the union to hire Lee. When Luther drives Lee home he continues this behavior. He stalks into Lee's house and pokes around as though he lived there, as though he were Lee. Luther's acts might be attributed to his uncouthness. I suggest, however, that Luther's prescience is an indication of Himes' double motif.
Still another example of doubling is evidenced in Luther's killing of Paul Dixon. Paul and several other deputies, under the aegis of Foster, had brutally beaten Lee when he refused to accept money to betray the union. As a result of this encounter Lee wanted to kill Paul. (Lee's thoughts are conveyed to us through Ruth, his wife.) However, it is Luther who, in their second encounter with Paul, stabbed him to death when he, Luther, suspected Paul of duping them out of their fair share of the loot. In killing Paul, Luther becomes Lee's defense against external aggression in that he acts as a surrogate for Lee.
So far, we have limited our discussion to Lee and his doubles. However, in looking at the protagonist and his components, it becomes obvious that certain parallels exist between them and their creator which suggest that doubling exists between the component character and the novelist, Chester Himes.
For example, all three of the characters are emasculated and eventually destroyed either physically or psychologically. Luther McGregor is shot to death by the police, and when the novel ends policemen are about to shoot Lee Gordon. Lester McKinley, who has reached that state of complete social alienation and mental and emotional instability, literally runs from Los Angeles. Himes had the same experiences in California as his characters did. He maintains that when he went to California he was full of hopes. He had great aspirations, but race prejudice in Los Angeles prevented him from realizing his potential, and not being able to realize his goals he became bitter and frustrated. When he went to California he was emotionally stable. He states, however, that when he left he was shattered.
All three of the characters either conceived of murder or committed murder because of racial oppression. And Himes, like his creations, affirms that he not only believed himself to be capable of murder but that he might be forced to commit murder in order to defend his honor or his life. All three of the characters had stormy affairs with white women. Himes' first autobiography, The Quality of Hurt, seems to be concerned, for the most part, with his disastrous affairs with white women.
In addition to the similarities Himes shares with the characters in general, there are psychic features and/or social experiences that Himes shares with each of the fragmented characters. Luther, for example, is given to bursts of violent temper, a trait demonstrated in his attitude toward his paramour, Mollie, and his killing of Paul Dixon. And Himes said that while he was living in Spain, he suffered from "blind fits of rage in which it seems my brain [had] been demented." Luther spent time on a Mississippi chain gang and Himes spent time in the Ohio State Penitentiary. Like Lester, Himes had attended college, and like his intellectual double, he could not find a job for which he had been trained. (During a period of three years in California Himes says he had twenty-four jobs. Twenty-two of these assignments were as a common laborer or a domestic, and two were semi-professional.) Also like Lester, Himes suffered emotionally because of his inability to find suitable employment.
Himes states that he suffered from periods of blankness, periods during which he could not account for his actions. Lee, the protagonist of Lonely Crusade, suffers from like attacks. Himes was jealous of his wife's success. He says:
It hurt me for my wife to have a better job than I did and be respected and included by her white coworkers, besides rubbing elbows with many well-to-do blacks of the Los Angeles middle-class who would not touch me with a ten-foot pole. That was the beginning of the dissolution of our marriage.
In the novel, Lee, the protagonist, and Ruth, his wife, have the self-same problem. Lee cannot find employment while his wife has a white-collar post. Because of her working with whites, Lee accuses her of conspiring with them to emasculate him. In short, Lee's marriage, like Himes', disintegrates because his spouse has a better job.
All three of the characters, individually and collectively, have experiences that parallel Himes' own experiences. Further, all three display character traits common to their creator. It is fair to conjecture, then, that the characters, individually and as a composite represent aspects of Chester Himes and that they function as surrogates for Himes. Like Richard Wright, Himes felt the need to release his aggression, but not wanting to vent his hostilities on society, he created combative characters and lived vicariously through them.
By using characters as surrogates for himself, Himes probably purged himself of those emotional tensions that plagued him. Within the novel, however, the doubling technique has other values. By creating the composite character, Himes gives us a triple view of the effects of discrimination on the Black male. Robert Rogers stated that one aspect of doubling deals with the alliances and the divisions among the Id, the Ego and the Super Ego. If we conceive of Lee as representing the Ego, the balance between the two extremes, and Luther as the Id, and Lester as the Super Ego, we might conclude that when racial pressures affect us at the primal level we could react violently as Luther McKinley did. When they affect us at the level of the higher self we could attempt to control our aggression, but in so doing, we could become psychotic as Lester McKinley did. When they affect us on the level of the ego, we could become like Lee, spiritually and physically emasculated.
Finally, the doubling technique preserves the integrity of the protagonist, Lee Gordon. Our moral sensibilities would be stunned if Lee behaved as Luther did. On the other hand, Lee would become the object of pity if he behaved as McKinley did. However, through the technique of doubling, the integrity of the protagonist is preserved and Himes still has the opportunity to bring before the reader aspects of Lee's thoughts and actions. The doubling technique results in complexity of structure in the novel. Further, it intensifies Himes' protest theme by giving us not one but three examples of the effects of racism on the Black male.
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SOURCE: "The Oedipal Complex and Intraracial Conflict in Chester Himes' The Third Generation," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXI, No. 2, December, 1977, pp. 275-81.
[In the following essay, Reckley discusses the role of the Oedipal Complex and intraracial conflict in the family relationships of Himes's The Third Generation.]
Chester Himes' novel The Third Generation delineates the detrimental effects of dissension on the third son of a third generation Black family. The family is that of the Taylors. Professor Taylor, a Black man whose ancestors come from the fieldhand tradition marries Lillian Manning Taylor who is descended from the body-servant tradition. The couple have three sons: Thomas, the oldest; William, the second; and Charles, the baby. The oldest son goes away to school; the second son is accidentally blinded, and as a result is placed in a special institution. The brunt of the family's feuds, therefore, falls on Charles who lives with his parents.
As Dr. Arthur P. Davis aptly states, the novel's chief concern is not with interracial protest, but rather with "discord within the Negro family caused by color differences." The intraracial conflict within the novel has its matrix in the Oedipus Complex. This paper will, in a tentative way, demonstrate that it is the Oedipus Complex operating concomitantly with the intraracial conflict that destroys the son and breaks up the family.
In psychoanalytic terms the Oedipus Complex supports the theory that the child desires sexual involvement with the parent of the opposite sex, while at the same time, experiencing a sense of rivalry with the parent of the same sex. Failure to overcome the Oedipal stage results in the child's failure to develop psychosexually into a normal adult. Freud's theory is derived from the mythical King Oedipus who, unknowingly, kills his father and marries his mother. Generally, the Oedipus Complex is associated with boys, and the female analogy is referred to as the "Electra Complex." In keeping with the title of the paper, however, the term Oedipus Complex will be used to refer to both male and female characters.
The first signs of the Oedipus complex appear in Lillian Manning, the sixth child in a family of seven. At the age of ten, Lillian has the responsibilities of nursing her chronically ill father, Charles Manning. Because of this close relationship, she develops a fixation, which, at her father's death turns her into "a lovely lady emersed in sorrow." Even as an adult she has no lovers, no love affairs. Further, while Lillian is fantasizing about her father, she also develops the notion that she is white. In truth, she has white ancestry. Her mother, Lin Manning, is the daughter of an Irish overseer and an Indian slave. Her father, Charles, is the son of his master, Dr. Jessie Manning and a Black slave. But Lillian elaborates on these facts and romanticizes her white ancestry until:
The resulting story was that her father was the son of Dr Manning and a beautiful octoroon, the most beautiful woman in all the state whose own father had been an English nobleman. Her mother was the daughter of a son of a United States President and an Octoroon who was the daughter of a Confederate General.
Lillian's parents punish her for telling this story to her friends and eventually she stops. As an adult, however, she revives the myth and passes it on to her children as a fact.
As an adult Lillian is lonely because young men conceive of her as "cold and unapproachable." "They were uncomfortable in her presence." Even Professor Taylor marries her by default. He goes courting her younger sister, but he becomes infatuated with Lillian's aloofness. Lillian, on the other hand, is drawn to this Black man because of his "condescending manner." She has reached that stage in which she believes she could only give herself to one she considers her inferior, and she could only give of herself "in the manner of bestowing grace."
Lillian's father-fixation and her inability to give herself to a man either physically or psychologically are indicative of her Oedipus Complex. In addition to her attitude towards her father and her belief in her white ancestry, Lillian, as a child, develops a distorted view of sex. The narrator points out:
Once, as a little girl, when cutting through a vulgar street in niggertown, Atlanta, she had heard an obscene reference to her vagina. She had not known then what it had meant, only that it was vulgar and dirty and had filled her with horrible shame. She had never told anyone, but the feeling of shame had lingered in her thoughts like a drop of pus, poisoning her conception of sex. As she had approached womanhood, she had resolved to make her marriage immaculate.
Lillian's Oedipus Complex, her maladjusted views of sex, and her belief in the natural superiority of her white ancestors come to a climax on her wedding night. When the couple are finally left alone to consummate the marriage, Mr. Taylor approaches his bride very gently at first, but she becomes rigid in his embrace. All she could see is a short black man whom she fears as "something inhuman." When her husband persists, Lillian procrastinates. She needs more time; the room is too shabby; she needs a light so she can see him. But Professor Taylor is not to be dissuaded. Unfortunately the defloration of his wife results in the reawakening of her father-fixation and in her hating her husband:
The penetration chilled her body like death. For an instant the vision of her father's kindly white face, with its long silken beard flickered through her consciousness. Then her mind-closed against reality….
He struggled to … win her. She fought to hold herself back … [and] when she felt her virginity go bleeding to this vile, bestial man, she hated him.
Long after the consummation, Lillian lies hands extended (gripping the sheets) in the posture of the crucifixion. And failing to achieve either of her goals—making love to her father whom she really wants to deflower her or being a perpetual married virgin—she resorts to whipping her husband psychologically because of his blackness. From her wedding night until she divorces him twenty-six years later, Lillian Manning detests her husband. She could not, as she put it, separate his sexuality from his blackness. The two were irrevocably bound together in all her thoughts of him. Professor Taylor believes that the sex act is normal between a man and his wife. But Mrs. Taylor believes her husband's desires are bestial. She refers to him as an animal, a "rapist" who does not know what marriage really is.
Although Lillian's behavior suggests that her husband is animalistic, unrefined, we have to remember that he was overly gentle in the initial stages of their relationship. Instead of revealing weaknesses in her husband, Mrs. Taylor betrays her own defects. In essence, she reveals her Oedipus Complex, for while all of her physical and psychic energy should have been engaged in the love act, she was envisioning her "father's kindly white face" and his "long, silky beard." It is in her fantasy, too, that we see the source of the racial conflict in the family. Not only is Lillian in love with her father, but she is in love with a white father. In physical appearance her husband is the exact opposite, and it seems that she could not forgive him either for his blackness or for his taking her virginity. Lillian never outgrows her father-fixation, and she never really accepts Professor Taylor as her husband.
Freud maintains that girls are generally encouraged to retain their infantile love for their fathers beyond adolescence. He further states: "And it is instructive to find out in their married life these girls are incapable of fulfilling their duties to their husbands. They make cold wives and are sexually anesthetic." Lillian typifies the cold, anesthetic wife who, because of her own sexual maladjustments and through her twisted views of her white ancestry, brings destruction to herself and her family.
Mrs. Taylor embarrasses her husband publicly and humiliates him privately. Because of her vehement quarrels with other members of the faculty and/or with her husband (there are instances when altercations with faculty members result in family feuds), and because she frequents white establishments in small southern towns, she forces her husband to move from one Black college to another. However, her greatest insults—and the reasons for almost all of their quarrels—are made in reference to her husband's color. She believes she is one thirty-second part Negro, and in her mind that is the minimum amount of black blood "a Negro could have and still remain a Negro." On the other hand, she continually reminds her husband of his cabin tradition. To her, he is nothing but a "shanty nigger"; he is from a "black and despicable brood that would never amount to anything." Sometimes she refers to him as a common nigger who is racially incapable of accomplishing great things. She alienates the children from their father by telling them: "Your father's people are black like your father and think different from us."
The strife and dissension that Lillian occasions destroy the normal operations of the Taylors' household. But what is worse than the discord is the sublimation of her affection; the love and passion that should have been devoted to her husband are lavished on her son, Charles, heightening his own Oedipus Complex.
Freud states that between the ages of three and five it is normal for the boy to hate his father and love his mother. Charles is no exception. Undoubtedly his parents' continual bickering heightens his affinity for his mother, for even at the age of six he wants to chop his father's head off. However, beyond Charles' natural affinity for his mother, there grows a deeper feeling between the parent and the child because Lillian induces it. She pets and pampers him. She encourages him to dress her hair, to manicure her nails, and to massage her feet. She even gives him a lock of her hair.
As adults, both Lillian and Charles realize that what is going on between them is not the normal mother-son relationship. Time and time again both mother and son suggest abnormal ties. For example: Lillian's love for Charles is so deep that "she was shocked by her own passionate response to his kisses." Sometimes "her love became so intense she was afraid to look at him." Even though Charles is an adult, his mother feels that the umbilical cord still holds them together. Afraid of her own emotions, Mrs. Taylor becomes unreasonably cruel to Charles:
There was a fury and jealousy and strong frustrations in her punishment of him. It resembled some horrible, silent ritual. At moments in her passion she felt that she would kill him. She received a vicarious pleasure….
But even her punishing Charles becomes a ritual, because in a way, she is trying to punish herself for her guilty feelings.
Charles' feelings for his mother are reciprocal. At seventeen he believes that "the part of his heart which meant most to himself was dedicated to her [Lillian]. He lived for his mother." Becoming overly concerned for his mother, he wants to take her "in his arms and go out beyond the edge of life where it was dark and peaceful and they could be together and free from all the troubles they had ever known." And once when Charles suspects that he might have to marry an "ordinary colored woman," he rejects the idea because "he knew at that moment that he could never leave his mother."
Charles is so protective of his mother that on one occasion when he finds his parents fighting he knocks his father senseless, even though it is his mother who starts the quarrel. He states over and over that he hates his father, and on one occasion he implies that he wish his father were dead. Ironically, it is only at his father's death that Charles fully comprehends that he could never replace his father in his mother's life. After the physician has pronounced Professor Taylor dead, Lillian leans over and kisses her husband's lips. Charles insists that they leave the hospital, but his mother refuses. It is only then he realizes that his mother "had gone back to his father; that she would belong to his father now forever. He felt as if he had been cut in two, as if a part of himself had been severed from himself forever."
The incestuous love that Lillian Taylor lavishes on her son results in his developing a guilt-complex. Moreover, he finds it difficult to form normal relationships with women his own age. Instead, he becomes attracted to matured women, finding sexual release in whores and prostitutes who frequent the red-light district of the city. (Unfortunately his rakishness results in his contracting gonorrhea.) He becomes a compulsive thief and a habitual liar, and because of these negative traits he spends time in jail. He drinks heavily and he smokes marijuana. He harbors a deep subconscious wish to destroy himself.
According to one version of the Oedipus myth, Jocosta was present at the time Oedipus killed his father and made love to him as a reward for his patricidal act. From this account of the myth Jocosta is al least partly responsible for Oedipus' behavior. In like manner Lillian is partly responsible for Charles' maternal fixation. It is true that as a child Charles exemplifies some aspects of the Oedipus Complex, but his strong attachment for his mother becomes abnormal because she encourages it. Because she herself is attracted to her father, and therefore cannot give her love to her husband, she turns to her youngest son, Charles. Not fully conscious of her sublimation or of her hatred for her husband, she emasculates her mate by making him feel inferior because of his blackness, and she destroys her son by developing guilt feeling in him because of his incestuous love for her.
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SOURCE: A review of The Collected Stories of Chester Himes, in The Village Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1991, pp. 8-9.
[In the following review, Miller favorably reviews The Collected Stories of Chester Himes.]
Seven years after his death in Spain, Chester Himes remains as remote from American readers as he was during his lifetime. Celebrated in Europe, particularly in France, where he settled in 1953, Himes has never really been embraced by the U.S. academy, despite the efforts of Hoyt Fuller, John A. Williams, Ishmael Reed, and others. Even with the canon debates and the present ferment in African-American literary studies, Himes continues to be relegated to the periphery. His work gets one line in Houston Baker's Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (though Himes's rendition of black vernacular is one of the best in the business) and but a single mention in Henry Louis Gates's The Signifying Monkey—even though a main character in this collection's centerpiece, "Prison Mass," is called "Signifier."
Why has Himes been so neglected? His work has often been casually lumped with that of Richard Wright as "black protest writing," but Himes simple resists literary and political classification. He always has—as The Collected Stories of Chester Himes makes strikingly clear.
The first such volume since Black on Black—Himes's own 1973 compilation of short stories, essays, and a film scenario—The Collected Stories (61 in all) spans over four decades of his prolific career. It begins with the first piece he published while serving time for armed robbery in the Ohio State Penitentiary during the 1930s, and continues through stories that capture the insurrectionary mood of the late 1960s. Himes seems to have taken his stories wherever he could find them; this collection demonstrates the wide range of his subjects and his extraordinary narrative gifts.
Himes first published in black periodicals like Abbott's Monthly; his "breakthrough" came in 1934, when Esquire printed "Crazy in the Stir" (not included in this collection) and "To What Red Hell," which is based on a 1930 fire at the Ohio state pen that left more than 300 inmates dead and triggered a nine-day riot. In "To What Red Hell," as in Himes's other portraits of prison life, race is often—although not always—subordinate to mood, setting, and character.
Stories like "His Last Day" and "I Don't Want To Die" have the tough, gritty feel of Cagney movies. Others, such as the melodrama of star-crossed lovers in "Her Whole Existence," incorporate some of the worst clichés of popular romance. One has the impression Himes is not only developing his craft, but shrewdly judging the literary marketplace. Esquire did not reveal Himes's racial identity to its readers until 1936. There is certainly a difference between what he published in Esquire and what he wrote for black periodicals like The Crisis, Opportunity, and Negro Story.
After his parole was terminated in the late 1930s, Himes and his wife, like millions of other Americans, were lured to California by the promise of work and high wages. Twenty-three jobs (most of them as an unskilled laborer) and three years later, Himes knew the promise of American democracy was not meant for him. His stories written during this period range from sharply drawn sketches of economic desperation to wild flights of fancy and allegory.
Himes had a wicked gift for satire, a mordant sense of humor, and a highly developed sense of the absurdities of Jim Crow and American racism. In the stories from the late 1930s and early '40s, he gives full vent to his outrage. A terse, two-page tale, "All He Needs Is Feet," sums up Himes's mood: Ward, a black man in Georgia, tries to yield the sidewalk to several whites—including one woman. He is assaulted by the men, the woman screams. A mob quickly forms and decides to teach Ward a lesson. They soak his feet with gasoline and burn them. Ward is subsequently arrested for assault with a deadly weapon and while he is in jail, his feet are amputated. Once released, he learns to walk on crutches and flees to Chicago. One night he goes to see a war movie, Bataan. At the end of the film, the American flag appears on the screen and the national anthem is played. Ward can't get up and is assaulted by a burly white Southerner, who explains to a policeman: "I just couldn't stand seein' that nigger sit there while they played the National Anthem—even if he din have no feet!" This is vintage Himes, the chronicler of a universe where the threat of mindless violence and absurd entrapments lurks just beneath the surface.
In the first volume of his autobiography, The Quality of Hurt, Himes reflected on an anthology of his short fiction planned for publication in the 1950s:
When I read the stories again … they all seemed wrong and there was scarcely one that I felt proud of having written…. I hated the stories. I didn't want my name attached to such a collection. I wrapped them up one morning, and took them down to the bay and threw them into the sea.
The Collected Stories of Chester Himes have been floating around for some time now. I'm glad someone had the good sense to retrieve them.
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SOURCE: "The Chester Himes Mystique," in African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 3, 1992, pp. 521-23.
[In the following review, Roget asserts that "Chester Himes's autobiography offers invaluable literary witness to the multifaceted black experience in America and abroad."]
Chester Himes's decision to write his autobiography was prompted by a number of exigencies, among them the need for self-validation, the need for self-knowledge and the need for self-liberation. The untimely death of his lifelong friend Richard Wright in 1960 caused Himes to become preoccupied with his own mortality. After suffering strokes in 1963 and 1964, he felt impelled to get his life on record, before it was too late. Exhibiting immense candor as well as courage, Himes, in his two-volume autobiography The Quality of Hurt and My Life of Absurdity, reviews the events of his life within the socio-cultural context of his time. He uses his autobiography to chronicle the hurt that he suffered from psychological abuse, racial discrimination, and the rejection he experienced as a writer in America.
In spite of his need to confess, Himes had an uncanny propensity for mystification which he sustains in his autobiography through the effective use of paradox, ambiguities, racial inversions, and inconsistencies. His unique ability to mystify, shock, and raise the consciousness of his reader through the use of satire and "existential contraries" was commented on by Richard Wright, who commended Himes's "rare genius" as a writer "to describe murder as personal redemption, to speak of love in terms of hate, and to use sex as a symbol of race pride." In The Quality of Hurt and My Life of Absurdity, Himes the iconoclast comes through, defiant of society's taboos and restrictions, creating his own rules in both his life and his writings, contradicting himself, and being consistent only in his inconsistency. Although he reveals his feelings and opinions on a broad range of subjects and incidents that shaped his life, the authentic Chester Himes still eludes the reader.
The autobiography's three focal points—women, writing, and racism—are couched in paradox, ambiguities, and contradictions. Himes devoted his life to exposing "the viciousness and demoralizing consequences of racism." His diatribes against racial bigotry spared no particular group. He attacked blacks as well as whites. Although Himes was committed to social change and entente between all people, he confesses that he felt like "a pariah" among Caucasians.
This revelation is puzzling when one considers that the majority of his romantic relationships were with white women. Jean Johnson, Himes's first wife, is the only African-American woman with whom he is amorously linked in the autobiography. In his relationships with women, further contradictions and inconsistencies emerge. In The Quality of Hurt he postulates. "I must have been a puritan all my life…. I consider the sexual act private. I do not want my sexual experience to be made public." Having come to this level of understanding, he then proceeds to recount in bawdy and graphic language his sexual conquests. That the women in his life played a dominant role is substantiated by his decision to center his European experiences in the autobiography on three women in his life.
Painstakingly, Himes retraces every nuance of his feelings about being denigrated as a writer and having his works misunderstood, misinterpreted, and/or rejected in America. No matter what direction his writings took, as A. Robert Lee has astutely observed, Himes was criticized. When he wrote on black themes, as he did in If He Hollers Let Him Go and Lonely Crusade, he was criticized for being "too narrow" or "insufficiently universal." When he put race aside and used whites as his subject, as in Cast The First Stone, he was accused of "turning his back on his heritage." When Himes wrote on the problems facing the black middle class from within, as he did in The Third Generation, he was maligned as "selling out the race." When he wrote Pinktoes and the detective novels, he was vilified as "pandering to the tastes of the depraved." In Europe, where he would emerge as an internationally recognized writer, Himes felt immensely vindicated. Yet, while he exulted over his success and acceptance abroad, he expressed contempt for the American critics who passed over him—only to lament, "It hurt me more than I care to admit to be rejected by the American press."
Himes's journey back through his writings not only highlights the critical response to his works, but also informs readers of the genesis of his writings. He reveals how each of his major books came into being, where he was, and what he was doing during that period of his life. Moreover, the autobiographical volumes fill in the gaps and supply relevant facts about actual people alluded to in Himes's novels and describe how he actually felt during the various crisis situations in his life. In this regard, The Quality of Hurt and My Life of Absurdity are invaluable complements to his semiautobiographical novels The Third Generation, Cast the First Stone, The Primitive, and Une Affaire de Viol.
The Quality of Hurt chronicles Himes's early years, from his birth in 1909 up to 1954 in Europe. My Life of Absurdity picks up the threads of his life in 1954 to follow his transcontinental experiences up to 1972. The unifying themes of the autobiography are hurt and absurdity. Although Himes states in The Quality of Hurt that he does not like to exhibit his wounds, in the three books that make up the volume, and in the twenty-four chapters which comprise volume two, he does just that, as he recalls the hurt of both personal and professional experiences.
Chester Himes's autobiography offers invaluable literary witness to the multi-faceted black experience in America and abroad. As long as he was physically able to do so, Himes continued to write. The Quality of Hurt and My Life of Absurdity help validate the author's self-image as an author first and foremost. His prolific output bears witness to the fact that he mastered the craft of writing. His one self-imposed exigency was that his novels should "swing." He liked to write, he said, "the way a bird sings." Yet even his style of writing was marked by his contrary personality. He could ascend to the heights of nobility, and sink to an abyss of baseness. His writing could be fastidiously rigorous or trippingly clumsy. With the stroke of a pen, he could alter his tone from lyrical to acerbic. He could reason with the cold, discerning eye of a realist, and yet emote with the maudlin sensitivity of a romantic.
Although he was outspoken on the subject of African-Americans, he took umbrage at being called a "race spokesman." In a 1972 interview with journalist Michael Mok, Himes commented that African-Americans "aren't looking for any spokesman. They can speak for themselves. The best a black writer can do is deal with subjects which are personal; so he can tell how it was for him." In his autobiography, Himes followed his own advice. His narrative continues the excellent tradition of African-American autobiography that had its inception with the slave narratives. The Quality of Hurt and My Life of Absurdity are testament to Himes's re-telling his life "in his own way." In the final lines of the autobiography he exultantly states, "For all its inconsistencies, its contradictions, its humiliations, its triumphs, its failures, its tragedies, its hurts, its ecstasies and its absurdities; that's my life—the third generation out of slavery." It is incumbent upon this generation to establish Chester Himes in his rightful place as a member of the pantheon of great writers. The recently released Paragon House paperback edition of Himes's The Quality of Hurt and My Life Of Absurdity, by making available his autobiography once again to the American public, is a step in that direction.
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SOURCE: "An American Abroad," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1 and 2, January 16, 1992, pp. 8-12.
[In the following essay, Sante discuses the effects of exile, translation, and genre on Himes's work.]
There is a peculiar purgatory of esteem reserved for those American artists who have been lionized in Europe while enduring neglect at home. The obligatory jokes about Jerry Lewis aside, the history of this ambiguity stretches back to Poe and forward to such disparate figures as Nicholas Ray, David Goodis, Sidney Bechet, Samuel Fuller, Memphis Slim, Jim Thompson, Joseph Losey, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. These writers, musicians, and film makers failed to be prophets in their own country, were recognized too late or too little, in part because they worked the side of the street deemed "popular" (although not sufficiently popular), ever a focus of American cultural insecurities. Some of them became exiles, some, like the blacklisted Losey, for explicitly political reasons.
The black jazz musicians faced these constraints in addition to a blunt racial obstruction to their careers at home, and even if their reception in France carried a hint of an exotica fetish that is merely the reverse of the racist coin, Europe at least gave them relative comfort and steadier work and an absence of Jim Crow laws. Sidney Bechet even lived to see a statue of himself erected in Nice. But for both the voluntary exiles and for those who labored in obscurity at home, the final irony of their relative success abroad was that it seemed to delay their recognition in the United States even further.
The case of Chester Himes overflows with such ironies. After his complex realist novels of race relations were met with indifference and scorn in America, he moved to France. There, his obscurity seemed total until a publisher of detective paperbacks persuaded him to attempt a crime novel set in Harlem, a milieu he, as a Midwesterner, knew only glancingly. This first effort was striking and original, and it was a roaring success in French translation. Soon he found himself famous in Europe, although inconsistently solvent. His novels did not really make him much money until two of them were used as bases for Hollywood movies, by which time he had ceased to write them. Even the success of the movies failed to make the books catch on in the United States and, by the time Himes died, all of his work was out of print in English. It is only now, seven years after his death, that a majority of his books are again available in America, and then only after having been reprinted in England, so that some of the present American editions sport British spellings and vocabulary. Thus Himes, an important and singular African American writer, remains even posthumously an exile.
Such a fate seems all too symmetrical for Himes, whose life, professional and otherwise, was one long process of exclusion, external and internal, in which he was both subject and object. He would undoubtedly take some bitter satisfaction in this result, since the alienation that was inflicted upon him he turned into a point of pride, a weapon, and something like a cause. His work bristles with it like the quills of a porcupine.
I was trying to say [he wrote of his novel The End of a Primitive] that white people who still regarded the American black, burdened with all the vices, sophistries, and shams of their white enslavers, as primitives with greater morality than themselves, were themselves idiots…. Obviously and unavoidably, the American black man is the most neurotic, complicated, schizophrenic, unanalyzed, anthropologically advanced specimen of mankind in the history of the world…. I find it very difficult to like American blacks myself; but I know there's nothing primitive about us.
His work is a rebuke to sympathy, let alone pity. His crime novels, for that matter, are anything but formulaic; they are teeming canvases of black society in which the characters are almost by definition on the wrong side of the law, all except the two black detectives whose actions are as brusque as their moral distinctions are subtle. The setting and the genre might have propelled Himes toward some far frontier of cynicism. Instead, the very inevitability of the form and the grimness of its preoccupation seemed to free him and allow him to find life and humor in every detail.
His training in division and paradox came early. A bitter racial line was present within his own family. His mother came of genteel stock and boasted of having had only one black grandparent; Himes described her as looking "like a white woman who had suffered a long siege of illness." His father was a very dark man whose parents had been slaves and who worked his way up to a position as professor of mechanical arts at various black colleges in the Midwest and South. Their marriage only barely managed to survive a continual exchange of humiliations large and small. In Himes's autobiographical novel The Third Generation, he imagines their wedding night: the dinginess of the "colored hotel" and the sight of his naked black body arouse her sexual terror; she rebuffs him and goes rigid; he rapes her. The hatred born that night can do nothing but escalate.
Nevertheless, Himes's upbringing was careful and middle class, although shadowed by tragedy (an older brother was blinded by an explosion during a chemistry demonstration at school; the financial and emotional costs afterward brought the family down in the world). It was not until college that his wild streak burst out. As a freshman at Ohio State, he cut classes and hung around the poolrooms in the black part of town, and was eventually expelled for bringing a mixed-sex group of more upright students to a party in a whorehouse that turned into a brawl. He returned to Cleveland, where his family lived, and gravitated to the gambling houses and brothels along Scovil Avenue, known as the Bucket of Blood. It was there that he got his sentimental education, meeting the people, observing the capers, and absorbing the attitudes that would later turn up in his crime novels.
He was no mere onlooker, however. He went along on a robbery of guns and ammunition from a Negro YMCA and got himself arrested; a bit later he was arrested again, for passing bad checks. Both convictions resulted in suspended sentences. Himes ended the thinly fictionalized Third Generation at this point in the story, only he provided a climax, a melodramatic struggle for his soul in which his father is killed and the gambler and pimp who has served as his mentor meets an ambiguous fate, while his mother looks on in horror. In reality, Himes was caught after robbing a rich white couple in their home and then trying to sell the jewelry.
This time he was sentenced to twenty to twenty-five in the Ohio State Penitentiary (because, the judge charged, he had taken ten years from the lives of each of his victims). He wound up doing seven and a half, beginning in 1929, when he was nineteen years old. It was in jail that he began to write, sending his stories at first to the black newspapers and by and by to white magazines. In 1934 Esquire published "To What Red Hell," his account of the Easter Monday Ohio State Prison fire of 1930 in which more than 330 inmates died. It remains impressive today, a sophisticated mix of reportage and impressionism:
A variegated color pattern formed before his eyes: black smokemantled night, yellow light, red flames, gray death, crisscrossing into maggoty confusion. He ploughed through the sense of confusion, feeling that each step he took was on a different color. To his left was the white glare of the hospital corridor; gray bodies lay on the floor and white-clad convict nurses bent over them. To his right was the black confusion of the yard with bodies lying in the semi-gloom amid the rushing, cursing convicts. At the fringe of the light smoke was a thick gray wall.
He reworked the story a bit when he incorporated it into the prison novel he wrote after his release. That the book was not published until 1952 (as Cast the First Stone) is to some extent a result of its low-keyed honesty; its depiction of homosexuality as pervasive, a central and unalterable fact of prison life about which his protagonist has to shed his prejudices, is as nearly nonjudgmental as was possible for its time. It was also the only thing Himes ever published that did not focus on the subject of race. The main character, Jim Monroe, is white, although he is obviously Himes in every other respect.
Himes was obsessively autobiographical. He traced the chain of his life through his novels and stories, and then recapitulated the whole thing in the two volumes of memoirs he published at the end of his writing life. His first two published novels. If He Hollers Let Him Go and Lonely Crusade, emerged from his wartime work, mostly in shipyards, in Los Angeles. The West held the promise of a new land, untainted by the racism endemic in the older states, but it actually proved worse in many ways. An unspoken but emphatic Jim Crow code was served up with a smile, governing employment, housing, hotels, restaurants, the military, and was only partly the work of the white southerners who had migrated west during the Depression.
In the first novel, Bob Jones is a gang foreman in a shipyard, a man too intelligent for his work who nevertheless gets knocked down in position to make way for a white man, a fascist crank. He is then teased and lured by a southern white woman who eventually maneuvers him into a room and cries rape. He narrowly avoids getting lynched. In the second book he is called Lee Gordon, and he is a union organizer at an aviation plant who has been hired for the specific task of enlisting black workers, who are suspicious or apathetic or frightened. Already embittered at the start, Gordon is further disillusioned by what he sees—not just the expected tyranny of the bosses, but the treachery within the union, particularly as practiced by the Communists. The first book is hard and fast and sure; the second sometimes drags under the weight of arguments, but the pains Himes takes with its complexities pay off. The book's melodramatic ending—the union banner is kept aloft as bodies around it fall—is fully earned. On the other hand, while If He Hollers Let Him Go received good reviews, and sold modestly well, Lonely Crusade was reviled. "Hate runs through this book like a streak of yellow bile," said The Atlantic; Ebony declared that Himes was psychotic; Commentary compared the book to a "graffito on the walls of public toilets." Read today, the novel seems scrupulously fair; even poignantly idealistic:
Being a Negro was a cause—yes. Thus far Luther [an amoral black Communist] had been right. But it was never a justification—never!—which was what Luther had found out in the end. Because being a Negro was, first of all, a fact. A Negro is a Negro, as a pine tree is a pine tree and a bulldog is a bulldog—a Negro is a Negro as he is an American—because he was born a Negro. He had no cause for apology or shame.
And if because of this fact his rights were abridged, his privileges denied, and his duties rescinded, he was the object of oppression and the victim of injustice. A crime had been committed against him by sundry white people. But this did not prove that all white hands were raised against him, because he still retained the right to protest and appeal, to defend his person and his citizenship courageously, and to unceasingly demand that justice be accorded him.
Himes assumed that the attacks on his book were the work of a conspiracy led by Communists, but in fact their sources ran the ideological gamut. Their consistency in ignoring the book's claim as literature and in advancing a view of it as hate-mongering would certainly encourage conspiratorial suspicions. Himes felt as if his allotment of hope had been abruptly cut off without explanation.
For the next six years he worked at odd jobs—as estate caretaker, porter, janitor, bellhop—and in his free time reworked Cast the First Stone and wrote The Third Generation, as well as stories that used those odd jobs and their settings as material. In 1953, at the end of his rope, he sailed to France, where he took up with Richard Wright and the rest of the African American colony in Paris. Himes, never much of a joiner, soon felt alienated from his crowd. With one woman, and then another, and then a third, he moved to various European locales—the French southwest, London, Mallorca, Denmark, Holland—living in conditions seldom very much above the poverty line, even in the meagerness of postwar Europe, when the dollar was all-powerful.
Himes's response to Europe was characteristically ambivalent. In From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840–1980, the French literary scholar Michel Fabre points out that Himes's accounts of Europe in the 1950s and 1960s—in letters to friends, or published in American magazines like Ebony—are lyrical, even rhapsodic. By the time he wrote his memoirs in the 1970s, however, he had retrospectively salted his experiences in bitterness. (Then again, as Fabre also notes, an evening spent in Paris with Richard Wright and James Baldwin was remembered by Baldwin as a benevolent meeting of minds, while Himes remembered it as an angry argument.)
Himes's relations with women were even more riddled with complication. His first marriage, to a black American woman whom he had met on Scovil Avenue in Cleveland in the 1920s and wed upon his release from prison, had dissolved before he left the United States. In Paris he took up with a woman from an old New England family fleeing a bad marriage to a Dutchman, and then with a troubled young German girl; both liaisons were tortured, steeped in separate and collective misery. When Himes married again, for the second and last time, it was to Lesley Packard, an educated Anglo-Irish woman about whom little can be learned from his writings, which is perhaps, in a backhanded way, testimony to the solidity of their relationship.
In Mallorca he wrote The End of a Primitive, a corrosive depiction of an earlier interracial relationship (one he had, of course, and here characteristically resolved in melodramatic violence), which was published in the United States (as The Primitive, a telling change by his publishers) in an abridged, not to say censored, version; it has not been reprinted in America since 1971. The book was meant to be squirm-inducing, and it succeeds, for reasons that have far less to do with race than with sex. It was as if Himes had set out to write a book that would earn him the epithets that Lonely Crusade had undeservedly drawn; it actually is filled with bile, directed at women, or at least one in particular, Vandi Haygood, who had been acting director of the Rosenwald Foundation, which had given Himes a grant to finish his first book. She was at least as troubled as Himes was, and their affair brought out the worst in them both, leaving him to conclude that "the final answer of any black to a white woman with whom he lives in a white society is violence." By the time he wrote the book she had committed suicide. The book, he wrote, "is rather exact except that I didn't kill her. I left that for her own race to do." The End of a Primitive also represents Himes's most sustained attempt at literary modernism; although most of its affectations do not succeed, it does convincingly replicate the fractures and lapses caused by alcoholic blackout. Needless to say, it made him no money to speak of.
In 1956 Himes was approached by Marcel Duhamel, a former Surrealist who had created the enormously influential Série Noire, a regular issue of crime novels, mostly translations "de l'Américain," in a uniform edition of white-bordered black covers. Duhamel's instructions were succinct. "Make pictures," he said. "We don't give a damn who's thinking what—only what they're doing." He also gave Himes the equivalent of a thousand dollars as an advance, a larger sum than he had ever received. Soon Himes was off and running with the story. As he later recalled:
I would sit in my room and become hysterical thinking about the wild, incredible story I was writing. But it was only for the French, I thought, and they would believe anything about Americans, black or white, if it was bad enough. And I thought I was writing realism. It never occurred to me that I was writing absurdity. Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference.
The resulting book, called La Reine des Pommes in French and in America published first as For Love of Imabelle and then as A Rage in Harlem (he wanted to call it The Five-Cornered Square, the best title of them all), fully proves his point. It is a tall tale, set in a Harlem that is largely imaginary and couched in images of 1920s Cleveland, with a slang that is likewise partly dated and partly made up, and yet it is three-dimensional and ungainsayable in its poetic truth. "The Harlem of my books was never meant to be real," Himes wrote. "I never called it real; I just wanted to take it away from the white man if only in my books." The language and riotous imagination that had often been cramped by or subordinated to a mission in Himes's mainstream efforts were set free in his crime novels.
One joker slashed the other's arm. A big-lipped wound opened in the tight leather jacket, but nothing came out but old clothes—two sweaters, three shirts, a pair of winter underwear. The second joker slashed back, opened a wound in the front of his foe's canvas jacket. But all that came out of the wound was dried printer's ink from the layers of old newspapers the joker had wrapped around him to keep warm. They kept slashing away in buck-dancing fury, spilling old clothes and last week's newsprint instead of blood.
The story—a convoluted series of con games and chases—is a toy, yet it simultaneously manages to act as a natural correlative to its setting and Himes's theme. All mystery novels are artificial. Even the best require a powerful engine of plot to get the reader over the chasms of disbelief and irrelevance. Very few succeed at making the mystery itself part of a thematic point—Hammett's Red Harvest, although an imperfect book, comes to mind—and even fewer incorporate their decorative excesses into a fabric of meaning. All but one or two of Himes's crime novels pull off this remarkable feat.
The French, whether for reasons of disinterested appreciation or ignoble voyeurism, made the books best sellers and Himes a celebrity, even if they failed to make him rich. It is doubtful whether such an opportunity would have been presented to Himes in America, where the idea of a black writer producing anything but "protest novels" would probably not have occurred to many publishers at the time. For Himes, being in Europe had several creative functions. Instead of being shut out by white American society he could be actively and defiantly alienated; indeed, he seemed to take a perverse pride in having lived in France for decades without learning more than the barest rudiments of the language. Exile also seems to have affected him in a way reminiscent of what Gertrude Stein meant when she insisted that being abroad purified her language: it freed his imagination from the detritus of daily contact with his subject, and allowed him to see it in a new way.
His native country repaid him by neglecting his work; even in paperback racks in black ghetto drugstores his books were outranked by the artless and viscerally potent works of Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim, a literature that now finds its echo in the rhymes of the "gangsta" rappers. Himes's work was perhaps too detached for this audience. But the detachment is as illusory as the literary quality is real. The narrative conventions of the genre forced Himes to channel all his preoccupations without betraying them, to proceed by stealth and indirection, to mask his rage as humor, to transfer his focus from himself to the diverse and particularized inhabitants of an entire teeming world, to trade his defensiveness for a gleeful assault on all fronts, and to treat social issues with an apparent insouciance that would penetrate the defenses of his readers. Popular fiction, popularly thought of as narrow, broadened Himes as a writer.
Duhamel had to talk Himes into putting some cops into his book, not surprisingly since Himes had suffered at the hands of the police and was not inclined to be sympathetic. His resulting invention, however, was memorable: the inter-changeable team of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones.
Both were tall, loose-jointed, sloppily dressed, ordinary-looking dark-brown colored men…. They had to be tough to work in Harlem. Colored folks didn't respect colored cops. But they respected big shiny pistols and sudden death. It was said in Harlem that Coffin Ed's pistol would kill a rock and that Grave Digger's would bury it.
They took their tribute, like all real cops, from the established underworld catering to the essential needs of the people—gamekeepers, madams, streetwalkers, numbers writers, numbers bankers. But they were rough on purse snatchers, muggers, burglars, con men, and all strangers working any racket. And they didn't like rough stuff from anybody else but themselves. "Keep it cool," they warned. "Don't make graves."
They are anything but flamboyant; they are mostly tired and often angry. Both are natives of Harlem—a place which at the time the books were written was still filling up with migrants from the South—but they are now attempting to raise their families in the quiet of suburban Queens, where they live on the same street. In Harlem everybody ducks the cops, even the pious, and everybody is scratching for money, and almost everybody is prone to violence from the strain.
He leafed through the reports, reading charges: "Man kills his wife with an axe for burning his breakfast pork chop … man shoots another man demonstrating a recent shooting he had witnessed … man stabs another man for spilling beer on his new suit … man kills self in a bar playing Russian roulette with a .32 revolver … woman stabs man in stomach fourteen times, no reason given … woman scalds neighboring woman with pot of boiling water for speaking to her husband … man arrested for threatening to blow up subway train because he entered wrong station and couldn't get his token back…. Man sees stranger wearing his own new suit, slashes him with a razor…. Man dressed as Cherokee Indian splits white bartender's skull with homemade tomahawk … man arrested on Seventh Avenue for hunting cats with hound dog and shotgun … twenty-five men arrested for trying to chase all the white people out of Harlem—"
"It's Independence Day," Grave Digger interrupted.
The books are all set either in vicious winter or in blazing summer. The action shifts from street to bar to poolroom to whorehouse to church to temple to undertaking parlor to barbecue restaurant to waterfront shack to Sugar Hill high-rise to rotting tenement to back alley to junkyard. The players come from every walk of Harlem life and stand in every degree of distance from the law. The few white people to be seen are usually either hustlers or corpses, with the exception of the detectives' maladroit but well-meaning superior.
As the series proceeded, Himes's imagination became increasingly apocalyptic. Cotton Comes to Harlem features a farcical recasting of Marcus Garvey's Back to Africa movement, cross-cut with an equally grandiose white racist scheme to lure black people back to the South; The Heat's On makes grim sport of the drug trade, with a rapidly proliferating cast of characters racing around in search of an elusive $3 million worth of heroin.
The last finished book in the series, Blind Man With a Pistol, is also the most profound. It has no plot, as such, and no center, beyond the two detectives, who for once are nearly defeated by what they face, as two criminal cases, neither of which gets solved, thread through the chaos of a summer week lit up by riots. A friend had told Himes a story about a blind man on a subway train who had gotten slapped; trying to shoot his assailant, he wound up killing a bystander. "And then I thought of some of our loudmouthed leaders urging our vulnerable soul brothers on to getting themselves killed, and thought further that all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol."
What is implicit in the other books is made explicit here: Harlem itself is the main character. On 125th Street a brotherhood march, a Black Power march, and a Black Jesus ("They lynched me") march converge and then collide. The riots illustrate why the crimes are not solved: because there is no single criminal. They are the work of a system, of institutional racism that creates ghettos where crime is incubated. The series thus comes to a sweeping and appropriate conclusion, as the scope becomes panoramic. The earlier books had revolved around single cases—good stories as well as often apposite metaphors. In Blind Man With a Pistol, however, Himes draws back to show the interrelation of cases and conditions; they are parallel and overlapping and linked. No single story can stand alone, and no case can be wrapped up.
Still, Himes wanted to take the cycle further. In Plan B, which exists only in fragmentary form and has only been published in its entirety in French, he tried to depict a black revolution; one of its alternate endings has Grave Digger killing Coffin Ed, while in another they participate in kidnapping the president and vice-president. The two excerpts from Plan B contained in the recently published Collected Stories ("Tang" and "Prediction") show Himes's usual flair and caustic humor all but undone by unmediated rage. They are the product not of imagination but of powerlessness and frustration; they are, in fact, the work of that blind man with the pistol.
In between the installments of his crime series Himes published Pinktoes, a comedy of manners of Harlem society that has many splendid touches ("It was all for the Negro Problem. Julius was a Negro, wasn't he: and being underfoot all the time he was certainly a problem") but is just as often overemphatic and overbearing. It was originally published by the Olympia Press, the Paris-based English-language publisher of books too risqué for the standards of the US Post Office. My copy of the 1966 American paperback edition duly features quaintly leering blurbs: "A Sinerama in glorious black and white … Rabelaisian … balloon-bursting." The titillation factor seems rather mild after thirty years: the contemporary reader is more likely to notice the strenuous nature of the fun, both the characters' and the author's.
Run Man Run (written in 1961, published in 1966) is a crime novel not featuring his two detectives. If the series shows Himes making triumphant use of the crime genre to explore major themes while pretending to be at play, Run Man Run demonstrates that he could be undermined by the constraints of formula as well. In the book, Jimmy Johnson, a porter at a Schmidt and Schindler luncheonette in midtown (Himes briefly held such a job at a Horn and Hardart), survives a wanton attack by a white detective named Walker, who, crazed by fear and whiskey, has killed two other porters. The action follows Walker and Johnson alternately as one stalks the other. Walker is the perfect white monster, the pacing is relentless, the details are telling, and the premise is obviously deeply felt. However, Himes could think of no way to end the book but by resorting to a series of utterly phony plot twists. There is, in fact, no logical ending to this traintrack of inevitability other than Johnson's death at Walker's hands. The book is an interesting case of artificiality as the result of the author's emotional involvement, rather than of hackwork or expediency.
Himes's last two books were The Quality of Hurt and My Life of Absurdity, his autobiography, volumes one and two. They are sprawling, maddening books dense with pain, anger, self-contradiction, and trivia. Himes had already worked over his childhood and troubled youth pretty well in his novels, so the reiteration as fact of those slices of his life are inevitably thin and perfunctory. The rest is mostly a writer's life, seldom good material under the best of circumstances, although Himes's has somewhat more power than most as a chronicle of racism, frustration, poverty, and thieving publishers. His relations with women are presented in claustrophobic detail, and nobody, least of all Himes himself, comes out well (with the possible exception of his second wife, who seems translucent, nearly invisible).
The first volume is painful to read, but that is in part because of the painful events Himes relates; it nevertheless conveys his wit, insight, and descriptive skill. Volume two, however, is a disaster. Evidently written when he was in failing health, it appears to be an indiscriminate regurgitation of diary material, with directions to friends' houses in the French countryside and the exact prices paid for articles of clothing given the same weight and measure as accounts of how he came to write his books or reflections on the political situation in America. It is, in addition, rife with typographical errors, errors of fact, and a variety of highly uncharacteristic misuses of language, including literal translations of French idiom that are obviously not intentional. None of this can be laid at the door of the elderly Himes, who was by then suffering from weakened eyesight and multiple sclerosis, and probably dictated the book. Rather, it seems a final indignity imposed on him by publishers, who in one guise or another had been tormenting him for more than thirty years, and at the twilight of his career chose not to assign him an editor.
But maybe Himes didn't care by then, or maybe he wanted all the raw material published without interference, displaying every wart and blotch. He had never attempted to protect his image or to present a polished front to the world, even if such had been possible, and as he got older he seemed to relish describing his worst qualities and least creditable actions. Himes often complained that white people could only appreciate books by black writers if the books contained the appropriate amount of suffering; after the early works he'd be damned if he'd give them the satisfaction, although his own suffering was indisputable. He was an original, with a prickly and ungovernable disposition, saddled with the African American writer's curse of having to be representative without having been elected. He never shirked this task, but it is significant that he did his best work under the triple cover of exile, translation, and genre.
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SOURCE: A review of The Collected Stories, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 4, Autumn, 1992, pp. 722-23.
[In the following review, Payne asserts that "The generously conceived and readable Collected Stories will facilitate fuller critical response to Himes, and it should enhance his appeal to general readers."]
After attending Ohio State University, Chester Himes involved himself with gang activity until his eight-year imprisonment. His first publication, a piece about a prison fire, appeared in Esquire in 1932, when the gifted African-American prose stylist and poet was in his early twenties. Like many creators of American culture, Himes has achieved substantially greater critical recognition in France than in his own country. He emigrated to France in 1953. Although Himes's best work has been stylistically compared with Hemingway, and compared with Baldwin, Hurston, and Welty for its insight, his fiction has still not received the extensive critical attention it merits. I think, however, that we are now on the verge of a clearer and fairer recognition of his achievements.
American critics and scholars are at present learning to read better and respond more sensitively to our varied texts representing the drama and ironies of race, class, and gender. Himes's fiction, effectively focused from the beginning to the end of his prolific career on race, class, and gender themes, should prove irresistibly attractive to many scholars attuned to the newer approaches. General readers, now more and more drawn to black artistry through the work of such writers as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Charles Johnson, will, I believe, continue to turn to Himes, a popular writer of the previous generation whose fiction has undergone successful film adaptation since the early 1970s. The generously conceived and readable Collected Stories will facilitate fuller critical response to Himes, and it should enhance his appeal to general readers.
The collection opens with a brief but helpful foreword by Calvin Hernton and a very useful chronology of Himes's short fiction. It presents both his previously published works and a number of very interesting hitherto unpublished pieces, for an overall total of sixty short stories. Though a few of the stories are marked by a sketchy, inadequate development that suggests hasty composition, riches and pleasures abound.
Pleasures of course will vary from reader to reader. By having the chance to read it in the full context of his other late-1930s-to-early-1940s short fiction, I especially enjoyed an increased understanding of Himes's classic 1937 story "Headwaiter" (originally published as "Salute to the Passing"), a work which epitomizes Himes's superb mastery of nuances of class and race among black men. With stories like "Strictly Business" and "Tang" the collection allows us to see, in retrospect, how Himes rivals Nelson Algren as a fictionist of the great American urban underclass, black and white. Lone respected for his fiction of prison life, crime, and detection, Himes also demonstrates considerable power as a fictionist of black military experience, in which antagonists, as in the painful "Christmas Gift" and "All He Needs Is Feet," tend not to be foreign enemies but rather fellow Americans. Stories such as "A Nigger" reveal impressive insights on male-female relationships across the color line and are especially notable for their candid and sensitive representation of complex feelings of black men. Most of Himes's stories are in a straightforward, realist-naturalist mode, with some exceptions, including the somewhat technically innovative "Prison Mass." The Collected Stories is graced with fine cover art, a portrait of Himes by Denese Morden.
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SOURCE: "Chester Himes: Black Guns and Words," in Alteratives, edited by Warren Motte and Gerald Prince, French Forum Publishers, 1993, pp. 11-24.
[In the following essay, Alter analyzes the role of Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed as mediators between the white world of the law and the black world of the streets in Himes's detective fiction.]
Chester Himes's literary career has traditionally been divided into three distinct parts, corresponding to, and partly influenced by, the three different countries of his residence. His first writings date from between 1933 and 1953, while he was living in the United States. They include short stories, written while in prison, and, after his release, longer fictions that have been termed "protest novels." These novels offer sharp and often violent political commentaries about black life in a deeply racist white America. Though he received immediate success and publicity after his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, his later works from this period proved too harsh for the American public and his popularity abated. When they were translated into French, however, they were received in a more positive way; in fact, The Lonely Crusade was chosen as one of the top five American books in France in 1952. It was in part this recognition that induced Himes to move to France in 1953. While in France, he launched the second phase of his writings, the detective fiction. Perhaps because they belong to a "popular" genre, these novels are perceived to have been motivated by the need to make money rather than by a will to make serious political statements. They were inspired in 1956 by Marcel Duhamel, editor of Gallimard's Série Noire, the prestigious French collection of hard-boiled mysteries. Under his guidance, during the next twelve years, Himes wrote eight detective novels set in Harlem. In 1958, he was awarded the Grand Prix de la littérature policière. Though achieving considerable success as a writer of polars, both in France and in the United States, Himes abandoned the series in 1969, moved to Spain and resumed "serious" writing, this time in the form of an autobiography. It is my contention that, despite the superficial genre change, and contrary to the prevailing opinion, a clear continuity can be seen in all of Himes's writing. His detective fiction does not break with his earlier politically committed works; rather, it channels the same protest in another form. In fact, as I shall try to show, it is this overall perspective that accounts not only for the main structural tension in the eight mysteries but also for a dramatic transformation of that tension.
There are two reasons why Himes's Série Noire stories are viewed as the first black detective fiction. First, their two detectives are indeed black policemen. Second, all the novels are set within the boundaries of black Harlem during the late nineteen fifties and sixties, where "anything can happen." They explore social relations of blacks and offer a vivid portrayal of racial conflict and shocking violence of power at play. Himes's Harlem, a space inhabited primarily by blacks, represents an extreme form of a society gone crazy because of racial madness: "This is Harlem…. Ain't no other place like it in the world. You've got to start from scratch here, because these folks in Harlem do things for reasons nobody else in the world would think of." Particularly striking in this special place is its "otherness" of language as well as the subversion of gender and race identity by transvestites, transsexuals, albino blacks, and people who play on various gradations of "blackness" which determine social and cultural status.
To this "crazy" world, Himes brings his two hard-boiled black detectives, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones (Ed Cercueil and Fossoyeur), and that insertion creates the basic structural tension in all the novels. Because of their profession, Jones and Ed are forced to mediate between the white world of law and the black world of the streets. While at the police precincts, their language is generally conventional and nonviolent, conforming to the rules of social discourse necessary for their acceptance by the white society; but once on the streets, their language and code of conduct follow a diversity of other rules prevailing in mad Harlem. Eventually, their participation in the two worlds leads to their rejection by both blacks and whites. As Coffin Ed puts it at the end of The Heat's On:
What hurts me most about this business is the attitude of the public toward cops like me and Digger. Folks just don't want to believe that what we're trying to do is make a decent peaceful city for people to live in, and we're going about it the best way we know how.
But that ultimate failure only caps a dramatic evolution of their mediating function and the various strategies they adopt to fulfil it.
Initially two main strategies appear to be at their disposal for their constant move across the racial (and social) border: they can adjust their language in order to deal effectively with each group, and they can disguise their appearance in order to blend with the group or to manipulate it. But neither Coffin Ed nor Gravedigger Jones is given to disguise. Their blending ability rather stems from their indistinguishable appearance: except for Ed's scarred face (from an acid burn which melted it), they appear alike both to whites and blacks: "tall, loose-jointed, sloppily dressed, ordinary-looking dark-brown colored men." They do not play any role beyond their functional role, that of black cops. By the same token, however, they set a contrast with the other inhabitants of Harlem, who seem obsessed by disguises. A Rage in Harlem was originally titled The Five Cornered Square after a particularly gullible character who is conned by everyone and hence so square that he seems to have five corners. This Jackson is also a failure at disguises; when he tries to disguise his voice over the phone when calling his landlady, she has no trouble hearing right through his muffled voice: "I know who you is Jackson. You ain't fooling me." In contrast, Jackson's identical twin brother, Goldy, is a master at disguises and fools everybody. Goldy spends his days dressed as Sister Gabriel, much to the indignation of Jackson: "There's a law against impersonating a female." Goldy's costume allows him to move about freely and to carry out his secret activities without arousing suspicion. He lives by his "wits" not only in the world of the streets but also in the world of the cops. For Goldy, like Ed and Jones, also straddles two worlds: a criminal among Harlem blacks, he is an informer for the police. His disguise works for both roles, but, in his dealings with the detectives, he also has recourse to the second strategy: a special language adjusted to that of his interlocutors. When Jones greets him with "What's the word, Sister?" he responds with "And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon," that the black detective understands readily. In a later passage, he uses this same biblical talk to evade a white policeman for "he knew the best way to confuse a white cop in Harlem was to quote foolishly from the Bible." Eventually, it is Goldy's language that kills him and restores the social order: he "Talked himself into the grave."
No such dangers are faced by the two detectives. While indifferent to disguises, they are masters at language strategy. Though they do not yet play as central a role as they will in later novels (no doubt because Himes brought them into A Rage in Harlem at Duhamel's request), Ed and Jones demonstrate from the start their linguistic versatility. Jones has no problems understanding Sister Gabriel, and he controls a potentially explosive situation with a simple voice imitation trick: "'Straighten up,' he shouted in a big loud voice. And then, as if echoing his own voice, he mimicked Coffin Ed, 'Count off.'" Rather than highlighting rational deductive power as the essential function of the detective, Himes shows that rationality is itself a function of language and that it is language which determines the exercise of authority and power. As James Baldwin writes, "A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey." The power of the two detectives derives from their mastery of communication rather than from a display of brutal force. In fact, Ed and Jones are not very violent in A Rage in Harlem: they put their trust in words, when dealing with blacks or with whites.
To that extent, and despite its title, this first novel written in France is rather optimistic. Perhaps Himes identified his second career (a black American writer's mediation between a French white audience and a black Harlem) with the mission of his two black detectives who must similarly mediate between a white American society as represented by the police and the same black Harlem. Himes's earlier "serious" novels failed to communicate the urgency of the black problem in his own society; he might have now entertained the hope that, in France, his skills at a different form of communication, adjusted to the norms of the Série Noire's readers, would succeed to bridge the racial and social gap. For Himes, as for many others, writing fiction and detecting may have seemed to be a similar verbal attempt to bring out a believable truth; a hopeful double undertaking.
But violence and frustration return in The Real Cool Killers. It opens when a white man is attacked by a black man in a bar in Harlem, then shot apparently by a group of Muslims. But Digger manages to see through their costumes and identifies them as black youths (while the white policemen remain confused and ignorant). A series of interrogations make it clear that the two black detectives have the potential to extract more information from the inhabitants of Harlem than the white authorities. Digger and Ed command respect and fear because their police badge symbolizes a white man's law, but it is only their dark color of skin that enables them to overcome suspicion and to gain some trust among the blacks. Yet, at the same time, they also generate among them a good deal of contempt and resentment. In contrast, their status as officers of the law encourages communication with white people who approve their role of protecting white society: "Maybe I can help you, the white man with the blond crew cut said to Grave Digger. 'You're a detective, aren't you?'" The Real Cool Killers also suggests that the two detectives are not as indistinguishable as is generally believed. In fact, Digger proves to be a better problem solver and language master, while Ed is more prone to violence: he loses his cool and shoots one of the punks. This episode provides the first instance of the blind violence that will occur with increasing frequency in Himes's detective novels, eventually dominating them. The solution of crimes will result less from deductive reasoning and language skill than from their own brutality and violence. Even Digger abandons his language skills and partakes in violence, as if contaminated by the madness of his partner and the general crazy fatality of Harlem.
This turn toward increasing violence has however a more specific reason. It is not Harlem that is changing, but Himes's vision of Harlem. And this evolution cannot be explained by the influence of changes in the detective genre. True, other contributors to the Série Noire, such as Chandler and Hammett, featured strong and hard-boiled detectives. But Marlowe and Sam Spade, however coarse, solve their problems through intellect and deductive reasoning. I rather believe that, on the level of the plot, the violence of Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones is a direct consequence of their difficult role as black detectives maintaining a white law in the black world of Harlem. As Digger explains, "colored hoodlums had no respect for colored cops unless you beat it into them or blew them away." In contrast to A Rage in Harlem, where they still commanded respect, in the last novel of the series, Blind Man with a Pistol, Jones and Ed will almost completely lose their authority among the blacks. In fact, they are threatened and attacked by a group of teenagers with a racial agenda: "'We're the law,' Coffin Ed said…. 'Then you're on whitey's side.'" The two detectives justify their violence against blacks—men and women—by a paradoxical double argument: their brutality is necessary to curb crime, but it is also excusable because they belong themselves to the very people they brutalize. They think that it is the only way for them to gain respect because their official title no longer holds any weight and the traditional means of questioning are no longer effective. For them, violence is an "innocent" feature of their profession as detectives in contrast to "the white men on the force who commit the pointless brutality." Yet, by the end of the series, they fail not only the citizens of Harlem who reject them, but also the white world of the police precincts which also rejects them:
Now after twelve years as first-grade detectives they hadn't been promoted. Their raises in salaries hadn't kept up with the cost of living … when they weren't taking lumps from the thugs, they were taking lumps from the commissioners.
The direct cause of their failure seems to be a double alienation, from both blacks and whites. Which means that they experience a growing double gap in communication or, more generally, a double collapse of their mediating function between the two worlds.
The question is: what motivated Himes, from novel to novel, to undermine and finally negate his early trust in mediation? Was it because his own mediating function as a novelist was also progressively collapsing? A distinction must be made here between the process of mediation and its content. On the one hand, over the twelve years, Himes's novels remained successful, and the faithful French readers continued to enrich their image of Harlem. On the other hand, however, it is quite likely that Himes himself was increasingly moving away from his earlier light vision of Harlem, and his somewhat hopeful perspective on the solution of the problems of blacks in America. In other terms, I think that Himes was coming to doubt any possibility of navigating between the two incompatible worlds of white and black. The solution to divisive racism could not be found in mediating the white man's law. The strained atmosphere culminating in Blind Man with a Pistol testifies in that sense to Himes's growing impatience with the mounting racial tension in America and its echoes in Europe. His novels illustrate, one after another, the progression of that tension among the characters of his fictional Harlem.
A Rage in Harlem concerned itself exclusively with the lives of blacks, barely alluding to the white outside world. Then, already in The Real Cool Killers, racial tension becomes a mainspring of the plot. When a white man in a black bar in Harlem is believed to be murdered by a group of black punks, the white police chief is mainly afraid of racial comments; he tells Jones and Ed: "You want it said the New York City police stood by helpless while a white man got himself killed in the middle of a crowded nigger street?" Jones and Ed must solve the crime in order to preserve the face of the white police force. They are frustrated by this policy but, as Digger explains, still willing to accept it: "If you white people insist on coming up to Harlem where you force colored people to live in vice-and-crime-ridden slums, it's my job to see that you are safe." And why is this mission reserved for Jones and Ed? Because the white detectives, with a white perspective, cannot distinguish between different members of the black population: to them all blacks look, act, and think alike:
Do I think we'll find him? Do you know who we're looking for?… [they are] just like eighteen thousand or one hundred and eighty thousand other colored men, all looking alike. Have you ever stopped to think there are five hundred thousand colored people in Harlem—one half of a million people with black skin. All looking alike.
They appear to them as an indistinguishable mass of blackness, invisible as individuals. To make this point clear, Himes's portrayal of Harlem characters stresses, in contrast, the gradations of skin color, clothing, body type, and other distinguishing signs that mark individual identities: "brownskin," "olivebrown," "high-yellow," and their variations. These classifications by degree of color further serve, in all of Himes's novels, to make subtle distinctions between social classes among the blacks.
In The Crazy Kill, the third novel of the series, the main players remain black, but a new outsider appears as the "Chink." Also, more scenes take place at the police precinct, where Ed and Digger act as mediators between blacks and whites. Only they have the authority and the ability to bring in the black mob leader Johnny and his wife, since Johnny will trust them because of their common bond of skin. In contrast, when the old black dame Mami shakes hands with the white sergeant, the latter is at a loss: "Sergeant Brody wasn't used to it. He was the law." Later, "Grave Digger saw that Brody didn't get it, so he explained." The same Brody then insults the black mobster by telling him: "'Okay, boy, you can go now.' 'Fine,' Johnny said, getting to his feet. 'Just don't call me boy.'" For Brody any black is an "other." For Ed and Jones blacks are "us": they know and understand them. Like in A Rage in Harlem, they have black stool pigeons, including a drug addict whom Jones and Ed manipulate by controlling when and where he will get a fix.
In The Heat's On, as implied in the title, racial tension is getting hotter, reaching the boiling point. The value of skin color and the mobility it affords are openly discussed. Sister Heavenly has been dyeing her skin for years to try to become white and gain respect; conversely, and more grimly, the albino Pinky is too white to be allowed to go to Africa, and, in frustration, murders his stepfather: "He said I was too white. He said all them black Africans wouldn't like colored people white as I is, and they'd kill me." Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are losing their patience with the prejudices of white society and bring up the matter of skin color to the white sergeant in the form of an innocent nursery rhyme: "'If you're white, all right,' he recited in the voice of a school boy. Coffin Ed took it up, 'If you're brown, stick around….' Grave Digger capped it, 'If you're black, stand back….'" Eventually, unable to control their violence, they punch a white drug dealer who has come into Harlem, cause his death, and are suspended from the force because, as they claim, "It's all right to kill a few colored people for trying to get their children an education, but don't hurt a mother-raping white punk for selling dope."
The message becomes even clearer in Cotton Comes to Harlem. The story now centers on an outside white man who tries to penetrate the black world of Harlem. Unlike the secret and personal motives of the Greek in The Heat's On, who cruised Harlem bars in order to find young black girls he wanted to beat up, Colonel Calhoun's intentions are openly social and economic from the start. He chooses Harlem as the best place from which to draw black workers and to sign them up as slaves for his cotton plantation in the South. On a parallel track, the black Reverend Deke O'Malley also plays on Harlem's poverty to try to con black families with a "Back to Africa scheme." Both O'Malley and Calhoun have chosen Harlem as the ideal hunting grounds because of the total despair of its population, cut off from any future by the whites:
They had not found a home in America. So they looked across the sea to Africa, where other black people were both the ruled and the rulers…. Everyone has to believe in something; and the white people of America had left them nothing to believe in.
The rhetoric grows in speeches and impassioned pleas from all sides. Whereas the dialogue was minimal in A Rage in Harlem, with a focus on fast-paced action, Cotton Comes to Harlem subordinates the action to philosophy and commentary. The opening scene has a spokesperson for the Back to Africa movement trying to gather mass support: "These damn southern white folks have worked us like dogs for four hundred years and when we ask them to pay off, they ship us up to the North…. And these damn northern white folks don't want us." At which point he is silenced with machine-gun shots. Violence takes over the function of words. Yet, the attempts at communication multiply, both among the novel's characters and from the novel to the reader. Thus Digger, departing from his role as a neutral upholder of the law, offers social commentary that expresses frustration with purely legal solutions to crimes. He tells the police sergeant, as well as the readers, that:
We got the highest crime rate on earth among the colored people of Harlem. And there ain't but three things to do about it: Make the criminals pay for it—you don't want to do that; pay the people enough to live decently—you ain't going to do that; so all that's left is let 'em eat one another up.
Echoing Digger's inability to remain silent are the black masses who give vent to their frustrations by calling for racial violence. Passive resistance is no longer satisfactory and immediate solutions are sought. For, as Himes points out, a black man will never be able to change the color of his skin unlike a "Puerto Rican [who] becomes white enough he's accepted as white, but no matter how white a spook might become he's still a nigger."
Furthermore, it is not only in the world of Harlem that the situation is heating up. In the white world of the police precinct, intolerance has increased. Earlier efforts at masking racial prejudice or sparing the feelings of Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are given up. The atmosphere is almost as tense as that on the streets. Captain Brice blames all black men for the problem of racism and threatens: "I'll arrest every black son of a bitch in Harlem," and Coffin Ed responds: "Including me and Digger?" Brice then sends his two "ace" detectives on a virtually hopeless and fatal mission: in his mind, they have become expendable. He thus fulfills Digger's earlier prophecy that the people in Harlem "will eat one another up," including him and Ed. Because they are black, Ed and Jones are now locked outside the white police precincts and only called in when their skin color may be useful. And while they agree to stay on their jobs, it is only because of a higher duty to their own race, not because of the duty of law enforcement: "I wouldn't do this for nobody but my own black people." At the end, when Digger and Ed finally catch Calhoun, they let him go free, instead of arresting him, in return for the money he stole from the black families. For, had he been turned over to the law, the families would never have seen that money again. This illegal action is justified by the ironic ending which shows that, once back in the South, Calhoun is protected by the law from extradition since in Alabama "killing a Negro did not constitute murder."
In the last novel in the series, Blind Man with a Pistol, Himes's frustration leads him to innovations in structure and in content. He adds both a preface and a foreword that refer directly to violence and chaos in the entire world. Furthermore, within the body of the text, there are several authorial asides or "interludes," one of which discusses the geographical, social, economic and political features of Harlem which, though populated by blacks, is actually still owned by whites. This interlude also evokes historical figures of the Harlem Renaissance: black political leaders, intellectuals and artists. In addition, Blind Man with a Pistol also comments on the Detroit race riot of 1943, World War II, Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, represented in the novel by a Black Muslim character named Michael X. These insertions of fragments of History were surely intended by Himes, as a literary device, to impress on the readers that the fiction they are reading is grounded in reality and that the problems it depicts are real and urgent problems. Indeed, in a Brechtian spirit, Himes moves the readers to distance themselves from the illusion of fiction, to take over from the now ineffective detectives the function of solving problems, to realize that these problems are not simply criminal but racial and social. It is not surprising then that, after Blind Man with a Pistol, Himes abandons fiction writing altogether and concentrates on writing his autobiography.
The main plot illustrates the mounting tension. Following the pattern set in earlier works, violence again comes to Harlem in the form of a white man entering a black space. In this instance, he is a homosexual looking for black men to satisfy his needs. He is brutally murdered during the sexual act, though for no apparent reason. And, unlike what happened in the preceding works, this crime is never fully clarified. For finally no one really cares. An inversion of goals has occurred: instead of Harlem being a backdrop for a fictional detective story, the detective story becomes the backdrop for the real racial problems in Harlem.
Blind Man with a Pistol does suggest several solutions to the "Negro Problem," but none are very satisfactory. One is embodied by Reverend Sam, who has twelve wives and is trying to have as many children as possible in order to combat racism by increasing the black population of the earth. Another character, Dr. Mubuta, invents a longevity tonic because his "solution for the Negro problem was for Negroes to outlive the white people." For Marcus Mackenzie, the solution lies in brotherhood and interracial marriage, while for Michael X it is only through violence that white racism can be overcome. All are presented as dreamers.
Racism thus becomes the basic topic of the novel. It is dramatized in many ways. In the twelfth chapter, a racial demonstration culminates in a riot when supporters of peaceful brotherhood, very white and very black men marching arm in arm, come up against the militant separatists of Michael X. Meantime, within the police precincts the peaceful coexistence of black and white policemen has come to an end: "Yes, these black sons of bitches were going to take a lot of getting along with, the sergeant thought." No longer complacent, Ed and Digger can no longer operate successfully as detectives. And their lieutenant states, "Once upon a time you guys were cops—and maybe friends: now you're black racists." Grave Digger has a different but also militant view:
But the difference is that by the time we'd fought in a jim-crow army to whip the Nazis and had come home to our native racism, we didn't believe any of that shit … we had learned the only difference between the homegrown racist and the foreign racist was who had the nigger.
Blind Man with a Pistol ends with a cynical dialogue between Lieutenant Anderson and Grave Digger, between white and black: "'That don't make any sense.' 'Sure don't.'" The situation has become absurd with no solution in sight.
Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed ultimately fail in their function as mediators. Introduced reluctantly in the first story, though with some timid optimism, they progressively realize that the black and white worlds cannot be reconciled through communication, that a hopeless violence always prevails. And they disappear. Himes himself leaves France for Spain. Tired of fiction, or as disappointed with its impact as when he left the United States for France, he turns to autobiography to tell his story: a story of frustrations. A story of his hopes and failures to write mediating fiction, to try to communicate with words the need to understand the "other" and to resist violence. He finally acknowledges that his fiction accomplished nothing against the reality of racism. Not only in Harlem, and racist America, but also, with an increasing urgency, all over the globe, including France—in short in the world transformed into a violent blind man with a pistol:
I thought, damn right, sounds just like today's news, riots in the ghettos, war in Vietnam, masochistic doings in the Middle East. And then I thought of some of our loudmouthed leaders urging our vulnerable soul brothers on to getting themselves killed, and thought further that all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1103
SOURCE: "Himes and self-hatred," in TLS, No. 4734, December 24, 1993, p. 17.
[In the following review, Campbell discusses Himes's The Collected Stories and Plan B.]
Chester Himes lived a life of almost constant agitation—Harlem, Paris, Spain—settling only once: to serve seven years of a twenty to twenty-five-year sentence in the Ohio State Penitentiary, the outcome of an armed robbery staged single-handed in a prosperous white neighbourhood in Cleveland. Nineteen when he entered prison in 1929, Himes had already been a thief, a pimp, a bootlegger, and a student at the [Ohio State University]. In prison, he switched to writing fiction, publishing his first short stories in Esquire and the black journal, Crisis.
The beginning and end of Himes's fifty-year literary career (he gave up the other one) are marked out by these two books: The Collected Stories contains sixty stories, probably all the short pieces he ever wrote, including previously unpublished and undated material; while Plan B is the "unfinished masterpiece" he supposedly left behind after his death. Unfinished the novel certainly is—there could be no other explanation for its dire quality—but the publishers present it as more of an enigma than is actually the case: "After his death in 1984, a rumor persisted that [Himes] had left a final unfinished Harlem story…. Plan B is that novel." The very same Plan B, as it happens, which was published in Paris, in translation, a year before Himes died, an event described in the informative introduction by Michel Fabre and Robert Skinner. Too ill to complete the work, Himes apparently went ahead and sanctioned publication in the country where he enjoyed his greatest popularity.
Confusion over Himes's publishing history is excusable. He wrote about twenty books, including two volumes of autobiography, but his novels have come out at different times under different titles, and during the 1950s and 60s most of them were published first in France, where Himes wrote detective novels for Gallimard's list of thrillers, Série Noire (as in "film noir", of course—nothing to do with les noirs). In 1958, he became the first non-French author to be awarded the Grand Prix de la littérature policière (for a novel known variously as For Love of Imabelle, A Rage in Harlem, The Five-Cornered Square and, in French, La Reine des Pommes). Himes went on to write eight more thrillers, none of which enjoyed much success, at least until recently, in his own country. Although he lived in France for many years, arriving in 1953, Himes never used it as a backdrop for his longer fiction. There is a tantalizing sketch in the Collected, set in the Latin Quarter in Paris, but for full-length thrills Himes always moved his imagination back to Harlem.
Virtually all Himes's writing, especially the early and late work, is characterized by brutality, anger and self-hatred. But the honesty with which he confronts this personal turbulence makes him, at times, an engaging writer. It grew out of what Himes called a "life of absurdity" (though it was not absurdity in the sense that Camus or Beckett would have recognized). "Given my disposition", he wrote in the second volume of his autobiography—which he actually called My Life of Absurdity—"my sensitivity toward race, along with my appetites and physical reactions and sex stimulations, my normal life was absurd." In describing his own reactions—typically to someone whom he suspects of having put him down for being black—Himes uses phrases such as "My head was throbbing like a mashed thumb …"; or "I'd feel my brain lurch". When a friend wrote to him from home about "the most popular of the colored writers", Himes noted his response to this simple information as "What motherfucking color are writers supposed to be?" His two volume autobiography (the first instalment is The Quality of Hurt) is at times a catalogue of misogyny, grievance and self-aggrandizement
Her eyes filled with conflicting emotions as she watched me go. Black pimps had taken thousands of white girls like her from the coal-mine towns of West Virginia and the little steel-mill towns of Ohio and put them to work as prostitutes in the ghettos. They liked it; they made the best whores.
Plan B has many similar passages (the introduction calls them "titillating"). The novel describes a plot by one Tomsson Black to instigate racial turmoil in America by supplying arms to blacks. Characters pop up and then disappear; plot-lines are left undeveloped; historical sketches are interleaved with contemporary events to no great effect. Even the two detectives who served Himes faithfully throughout his Série Noire productions, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, are sacrificed by their creator: Coffin Ed is shot by his partner, who in turn is killed by Tomsson Black.
By contrast, the very first (though not quite the earliest) story in the Collected Stories shows what a subtle writer Himes could be. In "Headwaiter", written in prison in 1937, Dick Small performs his nightly duties in the dining-room of the Park Manor Hotel with relentless courtesy and unstoppable efficiency. With the skill of a safecracker, Himes unpicks the headwaiter's mask—applied through years of fixed smiles—to reveal not bitterness, just the desire not to emulate the cruelty of some of his customers, and the need to maintain a balancing act between genuine humanity and the humility expected of him. More than a mask, humbleness has become the man. On hearing of the death of an elderly regular,
Dick went rigid. The brown of his face tinged ashily. Then he noticed that Mrs Miller's eyes were red and swollen from crying and he upbraided himself for not having noticed immediately.
He could find no suitable words for the moment. He pitied her in a sincere, personal way, for he knew that the countess was the one person in all the world whom she considered as a friend. But he could not express his pity. He was only a head waiter.
There are many other good stories in this edition, which lacks only an editor to provide something more than the rudimentary bibliographical information given here, and to arrange the material in a way that would show the writer in the act of discovering his voice and range of techniques. By 1970, Himes's fiction-writing was tailing off, and Plan B seems to have been the outcome of a burst of racial fury around that date: "the most violent story I have ever attempted", he called it, suggesting that craft—together with the irony and wit and tenderness which informs Himes's best work—was not enough to give shaping sense to a life of absurdity.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9700
SOURCE: "Limited Options: Strategic Maneuverings in Himes's Harlem," African American Review, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 615-31.
[In the following essay, Walters traces Himes's representation of "the absurdity of U.S. race relations" in his fiction.]
Chester Himes, an American author who in his lifetime never found a "place" in the American literary scene, set his novels written during French expatriation in the nostalgic milieu of a Harlem he half-created in his imagination. In fiction he was able to exercise a control over U.S. racial politics which he (like most people) could never exercise in life. Himes explained the pleasure of his nostalgic literary act to John A. Williams:
I was very happy writing these detective stories, especially the first one, when I began it. I wrote those stories with more pleasure than I wrote any of the other stories. And then when I got to the end and started my detectives shooting at some white people, I was the happiest.
Himes's detective novels allow him to control the site of nostalgia, briefly to imagine refashioning U.S. race relations and law enforcement practices. His own experiences as a black convict in Ohio State Prison inform his authorial imagination in these novels. An emphasis present in the detective fiction, and Himes's other writings as well, is the necessity of physical safety for African Americans. Himes's two detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, emerge as "the cops who should have been," the cops who could offer protection to the African American urban community. By analyzing two of Himes's detective novels, published in 1959 and 1969, we can chart the progress of these proposed heroes. In 1959 in The Real Cool Killers Himes constructs Coffin Ed and Grave Digger as viable folk heroes for the urban community. But by Blind Man with a Pistol their effectiveness as heroes is undercut by the altered socio-political landscape of U.S. race relations.
Himes's second detective novel, The Real Cool Killers, opens with the blues lines "I'm gwine down to de river, / Set down on de ground. / If de blues overtake me, / I'll jump overboard and drown." As a vernacular inscription, this epigram is well-suited to the themes of Himes's novel, which can be read as the ghetto's answer to white power. But the words of the blues lines imply a different and more pessimistic response to life in a racist society than the response suggested by the novel. My contention is that the characters in The Real Cool Killers employ specifically community-based, folk-heroic strategies of self-defense and solidarity in the face of intrusive, dominating power structures embodied by white cops. In all of his detective novels, Himes sets up Harlem as particularly unreadable and mystifying, not only to white "visitors" and cops, but also to his two heroes, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, and even local inhabitants. What varies is the degree to which Harlem mystifies the various characters, and it is the community insiders' special skill both in reading Harlem and in manipulating its unreadability which allows for their self-protecting solidarity. Most governmental systems of ordering and labeling urban reality are not applicable in Himes's Harlem. When Grave Digger questions a suspect to find out an address, the evasive response he gets is, "'You don't never think 'bout where a gal lives in Harlem, 'les you goin' home with her. What do anybody's address mean up here?'" The breakdown of the ability to rely on official locating practices functions in several ways in the novel. First, it completely baffles the white cops (especially chiefs and lieutenants) and renders them ineffectual. It allows Himes to project Coffin Ed and Grave Digger as powerful inside readers of an otherwise inscrutable milieu. And it enables the residents of Harlem to manipulate the particular codes which confound white cops, in the interest of self-protection. In The Real Cool Killers the white cops continually express their frustration in being unable to pin down a systematic way to decipher their surroundings. Their inability to make sense of their environment is directly linked to their preconceived racist stereotypes, as is seen in the exasperated statement of one white cop to another: "'What's a name to these coons? They're always changing about.'"
The context which makes strategies of manipulation both necessary and successful is the historical presence of white law enforcement in black urban communities and the way this white presence has been seen by the residents of these communities. John W. Roberts explains that "the tremendous amount of power vested in white law enforcement officers in the late nineteenth century caused many African Americans to view them as the embodiment of the 'law' and, by extension, white power." Because these law officers were not community insiders, and only entered black neighborhoods for work, their knowledge of the territory was limited, and African Americans soon developed strategies for exploiting this white ignorance, ways of manipulating codes.
These strategies of evasion should be seen as subversive power exercised by the black Harlem residents of Himes's novels, in their manipulation of codes. This relative power is based in the underclass's superior knowledge of the minds of their oppressors. It should be readily apparent that this knowledge, coupled with behavior subversive of dominant power, calls to mind the qualities of the trickster hero of black folklore. Roberts explains that the trickster has the ability to step adeptly "inside his dupe's sense of reality and manipulate it through wit, guile, and deception to secure material rewards." It is possible in a more current context to replace material rewards with personal safety. In the context of the black ghetto, safety from abusive white law enforcement becomes a most valued commodity. Sheikh, the leader of the teenage gang The Real Cool Moslems, becomes the trickster turned badman, outlaw hero. Sheikh's skill in reading white stereotypical assumptions about black behavior enables him to baffle the cops. When his gang members question the believability of the behavioral disguise Sheikh tells them to adopt, he answers,
"Hell, these is white cops. They believe spooks are crazy anyway. You and Sonny just act kind of simpleminded. They gonna swallow it like it's chocolate ice cream. They ain't going to do nothing but kick you in the ass and laugh like hell about how crazy spooks are. They gonna go home and tell their old ladies and everybody they see about two simpleminded spooks up on the roof teaching pigeons how to fly at night all during the biggest dragnet they ever had in Harlem. You see if they don't."
Sheikh banks on white inability to understand black behavior in addition to white racist assumptions about black intelligence. In this analysis he shows himself to be the more skilled reader of minds. In fact the cops who do confront the gang members on the roof are immediately unable to decipher even the physical scene, see only blackness and two "tarbabies," and the sergeant even reads the scene as a "voodoo" rite in a way that specifically emphasizes an intensely mystified othering of the African American subject. It is probably not irrelevant, however, that voodoo has been seen historically by the white community not only as mystifying or inexplicable but, by extension, powerful. Roberts adds conjure to the trickster repertoire of means of deceiving and fooling those in power. The subversive power of this behavior can be seen in the white cops' baffled reaction and (correct) fear that they're being duped:
"Do you think all these colored people in this neighborhood know who Pickens and the Moslems are?"
"Sure they know. Every last one of them. Unless some other colored person turns Pickens in he'll never be found. They're laughing at us."
Recalling the novel's epigram, the blues emerge again in an analogue with roots in folk sayings: "Got one mind for the white folks see, another mind I know is me."
If Sheikh and his quasi-criminal teenage gang of Real Cool Moslems are the trickster heroes of the novel's milieu, what role is played by Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, the two black police detectives on the Harlem beat? Indeed their position as black enforcers of white police domination has caused them to be misread as excessively violent towards "their own people" and in many ways more unapologetically complicit with the white power structure than I see them as being.
I would contest a common, and reductive, view of Grave Digger and Coffin Ed as expressed by Jay R. Berry in "Chester Himes and the Hard-Boiled Tradition": "Their cultural antecedents give them the moral authority that they exercise—from folk culture they are the 'bad niggers' in the tradition of Stackalee." Central to any consideration of whether this is an accurate description of Coffin Ed and Grave Digger would be a study of the particular socio-cultural bases of the uses of the term bad nigger. Robert's chapter "The Badman as Outlaw Hero" is a thorough, Afrocentric revision of previous folklore scholarship on black heroic figures, and Roberts criticizes the faulty equation made by many scholars between bad nigger and badman. During slavery, "bad niggers," originally a label given by whites, "sought through open defiance, violence, and confrontation to improve their lot in slavery regardless of the consequences of their actions for the own or the slave community's welfare." The "bad nigger" does not have moral authority either from the black community or the white power structure; he is viewed by both as dangerous. Roberts explains the Afrocentric view of the "bad nigger": "To African Americans, individuals who acted as 'bad niggers' in their communities were not heroes, but rather individuals whose characteristic behavior threatened their abilities to maintain the value that they placed on harmony and solidarity as a form of protection against the power of the law." Coffin Ed and Grave Digger clearly do not fit this characterization, both because they care not for personal acquisitiveness and because their ultimate motivating force is based in community self-protection from an invading, threatening outside force—namely, white law enforcement. Contrary to the "bad nigger" stereotype, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger see the values of the black community as binding. In fact, Stackolee is a badman, celebrated by African American folk heroic balladry, not a bad nigger, which Roberts points out was not the focus for heroic folktales. Roberts explains that the badmen celebrated by balladry were outlaw folk heroes "whose characteristic behaviors were perceived as justifiable retaliatory actions" against the white power structure. While Coffin Ed and Grave Digger possess some similarities to badmen heroes of legend, they are ultimately a different modern figuration of heroism in Himes's conceptualization of their role in The Real Cool Killers.
Grave Digger and Coffin Ed possess some badmen-like qualities, such as their often violent and unpredictable behavior. Their guns, like those of many badmen heroes, are extremely formidable symbolic images and very real instruments of destruction known by the whole community. At least one scene in each of Himes's detective novels introduces these guns. Here is a representative example from The Real Cool Killers:
Coffin Ed drew his pistol from its shoulder sling and spun the cylinder. Passing street light glinted from the long nickel-plated barrel of the special .38 revolver, and the five brass-jacketed bullets looked deadly in the six chambers.
Here the gun literally reflects the street, the life of the ghetto, and the gun's image repeats its power in the ghetto imagination when Choo-Choo, one of Sheikh's gang members, fantasizes, "'What I'd rather have me is one of those hard-shooting long-barreled thirty-eights like Grave Digger and Coffin Ed have got. Them heaters can kill a rock.'" Choo-Choo's hyperbolic description of the guns' power is tied to similarly legend-infused tales of Coffin Ed's and Grave Digger's own power, based on their quickness to use these infamous weapons. But Coffin Ed and Grave Digger play a very complex and multi-layered role in their negotiation of the city's white power structure and their relationship to the black community, and there is less ambivalence in their behavior than there is conscious manipulation and folk heroic maneuvering in a very tight space of operation. Traditional badmen are outlaws, and Coffin Ed and Grave Digger operate within the law and attempt to control outlaws. Thus, they cannot correctly be seen only as badmen heroes.
It is necessary to acknowledge their brutality, but not without also seeing it as a "natural" part of the general, cartoon-like excessive violence of Himes's detective fiction as a whole. For Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, violence, or its threat (which is effective due to community knowledge of the pair's capacity to do actual violence), is what enables them to get informants to talk. As cops, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger have official sanction from the white police department to be excessively brutal. This caveat removes the traditional prohibition against police brutality, which in many cases is only nominal anyway. But this particular nod from their white superiors functions differently for the white cops than it does for Coffin Ed and Grave Digger. For as the chief says to Grave Digger, "'You know Harlem, you know where you have to go, who to see…. I don't give a goddamn how many heads you crack; I'll back you up.'" Thus, their license for brutality is based on the police department's utter reliance on them as skilled readers of Harlem's behavioral and linguistic codes.
This reliance is very much like that placed on black slave drivers during slavery. Roberts tells us that, "in the black slave driver, the masters, from their point of view, had an individual who could be held responsible when enslaved Africans violated the rules of the system and whose loyalty could be counted on" (italics added). While this is what plantation owners (and the white police force) think they are getting in a black slave driver, the actual allegiance of the black cops is elsewhere. Hence, during slavery a body of folklore emerged celebrating the driver as trickster hero, portraying "John as a talented and skillful exploiter of his exploitation by Old Master, his dupe or foil in most of the tales." The split between white perceptions of black behavior and black loyalty and the realities of that behavior and loyalty is central to an understanding of the ways that Coffin Ed and Grave Digger function as protectors within their community. I draw these parallels to folk culture both to locate Coffin Ed and Grave Digger within this tradition of African American folk-heroic creation, and to mark out their differences from existing or previous heroes. I see them as neither the bad niggers nor the badmen of folklore, but instead embodiments of a complex yet idealistic image of protection in the ghetto.
The Real Cool Killers opens with the murder of a white man, a "visitor" to Harlem. This fact brings the white cops to Harlem in full racist force: "'Rope off this whole goddamned area,' the sergeant said. 'Don't let anybody out. We want a Harlem-dressed Zulu. Killed a white man…. Pick up all suspicious persons.'" When white power in the form of armed white police officers invades the ghetto, every black person becomes a potential suspect, a potential scapegoat. And because the crime is the murder of a white man, every black person becomes a potential victim of lynching by the white mob. Himes specifically suggests this potential, again in his return to the blues, when he describes the white cops' intrusive presence swarming over the neighborhood:
[The white chief of police] turned and pointed toward a tenement building across the street. It looked indescribably ugly in the glare of a dozen powerful spotlights. Uniformed police stood on the roof, others were coming and going through the entrance; still others stuck their heads out of front windows to shout to other cops in the street. The other front windows were jammed with colored faces, looking like clusters of strange purple fruit in the stark white light.
It is essential here to relate Himes's imagery of "colored faces" to its vernacular and literary black antecedents, specifically Billie Holiday and Jean Toomer, in contrast to previous critical interpretations which have aligned Himes's imagery with European painters and writers. When we look to Jean Toomer's "Song of the Son" as a precursor for Himes's language we open up Himes's writing to the powerful allusions to slavery which enrich his meaning. The last two stanzas of Toomer's poem from Cane read:
O Negro slaves, dark purple ripened plums
Squeezed, and bursting in the pinewood air,
Passing, before they stripped the old tree bare
One plum was saved for me, one seed becomes
An everlasting song, a singing tree,
Caroling softly souls of slavery,
What they were, and what they are to me,
Caroling softly souls of slavery.
The words of Toomer's poem—"squeezed, and bursting"—suggest the violence of slavery, the pressure of exploitation; and these images resonate with the condition of impoverished blacks in modern U.S. urban ghettos.
Billie Holiday's famous blues song "Strange Fruit" articulates the image of lynching even more overtly, in a way that is crucial to Himes's own description of the relationship of white law enforcement to the black community. Her musical version of a poem by Lewis Allan, recorded 20 April 1939, has potent resonance in black culture:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit:
Blood on the leaves, and blood at the root.
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze;
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South:
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh;
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck;
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck;
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop.
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
When seen in the context of politicized African American poetic antecedents, Himes's linguistic imagery is allowed to signify upon this verbal tradition. Singing to an urban New York audience at Cafe Society in Greenwich Village in 1939 Billie Holiday contextualizes Southern racism and oppression for the Northern audience as relevant to them. Himes uses the same metaphors for lynching as the pine-scented, squeezed-plum imagery of "Song of the Son," but substitutes for the pastoral vision of "Strange Fruit" the modern, signally urban, decaying tenement flooded with police spotlights and surrounded by uniformed white cops—perhaps urban equivalents of hooded Southern embodiments of white power. Allowing Himes's voice to resonate among Holiday's and Toomer's historicizes a critique of Southern racism by bringing it to a Northern urban context and showing the way that lynch mob "law enforcement" is replicated in the modern ghetto when a white is presumed murdered by a black.
True to the lynch mob mentality, the white cops are looking for any "Harlem-dressed Zulu" who can "hang" for the crime. But no criminal appears apprehendable, and the police chief is in danger of losing face before the white press. The master has been duped; he's caught unable to read the signs, solve the mystery, and appease the mob with a lynching. So he must get his hands on a black body quickly. Sonny Pickens becomes the scapegoat for the chief, who says, "'We haven't got anybody to work on but him and it's just his black ass.'" Obviously here Pickens's black ass is much less valuable in the cops' mentality than the white ass of Galen, the murdered man. And this essential unequivalence cannot be balanced. In the racial economy of 1959 one dead black ass does not equal one dead white ass—an unequal economy of bodies that becomes the central issue of Himes's detective fiction.
The Harlem milieu in which Coffin Ed and Grave Digger operate as detectives is one marked by the proliferation of (what they consider) minor vices like prostitution, the numbers racket, other forms of gambling, and small-scale robbery. For the most part Coffin Ed and Grave Digger allow these activities to flourish, and even develop a somewhat symbiotic relationship with their participants, who become key informers for them, people who will talk because they desire to continue operating without hassles from the law. In this way Harlem's underworld becomes part of the inner network which enables Ed's and Digger's investigative work. Historically, as institutionalized economic oppression became a more dominant factor of impoverished black urban life, such illegal activities were often a necessary part of the system by which the ghetto could continue to exist (in both the positive and the negative senses implied by such an existence). Roberts explains that
… the relative absence of the [white] "law" in black neighborhoods allowed for the creation of a socio-cultural environment in which certain types of illegal activities involved relatively little risk to personal well-being from the "law" while enhancing the potential for extraordinary economic gain at its expense. In addition the pervasiveness of destructive material and physical conditions in the black community attributed to the power of the "law" over the lives of African Americans created an atmosphere in which social restraints against certain types of actions which violated the law were greatly diminished.
But Roberts also importantly acknowledges that such behaviors were only accepted until they "threatened the solidarity and harmony of communal life in ways that created the potential of external intervention" (italics added). The danger of external intervention is the propelling force behind Coffin Ed's and Grave Digger's protective strategies.
The two detectives' roles are made complex when white people come to Harlem to support its vices, buy its citizens' bodies. When some white people in a Harlem bar question Grave Digger's "tough" police language, his response is, "I'm just a cop, if you white people insist on coming up to Harlem where you force colored people to live in vice-and-crime ridden slums, it's my job to see that you are safe.'" Digger's comment here is essential in several ways, the most obvious of which being that it names the invidious complicity of white socio-economic oppression and white participation in exploitative vice. Additionally, his comment, and others like it throughout the detective novels, implies that his job is to protect white people. But Digger and Ed are much more skillful readers of the particular politics of violence and law enforcement in the black ghetto, and their ultimate aim is the protection of black people, and especially black community security. In fact, their success in meeting this goal can be measured in part by the fact that their deeper motives are not recognized by the police force. They know that the best way to ensure the security of black bodies is by keeping the lynch mobs at bay, a goal they seek to accomplish by what may seem like a circuitous means—protecting the singular white body in Harlem. As we have seen, one white death in Harlem brings the cops en masse to the area, with unquenchable lynching fervor; one white stiff ends up equaling four black corpses and one maimed black body.
If Coffin Ed and Grave Digger use violence in their questioning procedures, their goal is to solve crimes so that white cops stay out. The complexity of Coffin Ed and Grave Digger as heroes rests in this double-edged quality of their behavior: Their violence is both directed at members of their community and used as a force to prevent the more uncontrollable violence of lynch mobs. John Cawelti, writing on "hard-boiled" detective fiction, considers that "the action of legitimized violence … resolves tensions between the anarchy of individualistic impulses and the communal ideas of law and order by making the individual's violent action an ultimate defense of the community against the threat of anarchy." In their protection of the community against the anarchic forces of white law enforcement, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger are complex black heroic figures. Possessing some of the traits of the trickster, badman, and slave driver, they stand apart from all these.
Asked in a 1970 interview in Le Monde by Michel Fabre whether his black detectives are traitors to their race, Himes brought out an important issue which has special bearing on The Real Cool Killers:
Cerceuil et Fossoyeur seraient des traîtres à leur race s'ils étaient les personnages réalistes. Ce qui n'est pas le cas: ils représentent le type de policier qui devrait exister, celui qui vit dans la communauté, la connait bien et fait respecter la loi de façon humaine. Je crois en eux. Je les ai créés: deux personnages qui seraient les ennemis des Noirs dans la réalité, mais que j'ai voulu sympathique.
(Coffin Ed and Grave Digger would be traitors to their race if they were realistic characters. This is not the case: They represent the type of cop who should exist, who lives in the community, knows it well, and enforces respect for the law in a humane way. I believe in them. I created them: two people who would be enemies of Blacks in reality, but whom I intended to be sympathetic.)
Himes's statement is confusing in that it champions yet denies realism. When Fabre asks whether Coffin Ed and Grave Digger are traitors, he is speaking of their characters, not "real" black cops in general. Yet Himes does not respond directly to this question to discuss his portrayal of the cops, but instead hypothesizes that "real" black cops would be traitors. I take Himes to mean that Coffin Ed and Grave Digger are ideal types, that "real" cops who are black are necessarily traitors to their race, but that these two are sympathetic, that their allegiance is above all to their community.
In his 1963 article written for Présence Africaine entitled "Harlem ou le cancer de l'Amérique," Himes identifies the social milieu which grounds the necessity for heroes like Coffin Ed and Grave Digger. He outlines the series of American race riots in ghettos around the country, especially Harlem and Detroit. The result of a Detroit riot in which many blacks are killed by white police is that, "en consequence, Harlem fut submergée de policiers blancs qui portaient de lourdes matraques et patrouillaient dans les rues à cheval ou à motocyclette. Les incidents succédèrent aux incidents." ("Consequently, Harlem was flooded with white policemen who carried heavy bludgeons and patrolled the streets on horseback or motorcycles. There was one incident after another.") Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, then, are created in the hope of preventing this abusive presence from invading black neighborhoods. They can be seen as artful strategizers of legal politics whose perhaps imperfect methodology of protecting one white body (their overt, white-perceived purpose) has as its goal the effective prevention of a general lynching of black bodies. While such a goal was possible to articulate in the U.S. racial environment of 1959, it was not possible to realize. Coffin Ed and Grave Digger cannot fully prevent the lynching, and innocent black citizens are killed. Ten years later, with the publication of Blind Man With a Pistol, Coffin Ed's and Grave Digger's strategic methodology is much less plausible even to articulate and becomes, in fact, absurd.
A friend of mine, Phil Lomax, told me this story about a blind man with a pistol shooting at a man who had slapped him on a subway train and killing an innocent bystander peacefully reading his newspaper across the aisle and I thought, damn right, sounds just like today's news, riots in the ghettos, war in Vietnam, masochistic doings in the Middle East. And then I thought of some of our loud-mouthed leaders urging our vulnerable soul brothers on to getting themselves killed, and thought further that all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol.
In the ten-year span between the publication of The Real Cool Killers and Blind Man With a Pistol race relations in the U.S. had become even more volatile as white power cemented itself further. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X had violently demonstrated U.S. institutional response to powerful black heroes. In his chapter "Sixties' Social Movements, the Literary Establishment, and the Production of the Afro-American Text," W. Lawrence Hogue explains that the increasing economic disparity between blacks and whites led to riots and rebellions across the nation, and the civil rights and black power struggles which "continued to undermine and bring into question the authority and legitimacy of the dominant ideological apparatus." Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, by virtue (or fault) of their connection to this apparatus, would also meet with challenges to their previously unquestioned authority. The nationalist impulse in the black community in the 1960s saw white power as centralized and therefore fightable. Thus, in any conceptualization of two distinct sides, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger were now seen as on the wrong one.
As his preface shows, during his expatriation in Europe, Himes remained closely aware of both internal and international U.S. politics and ideology. Given the social circumstances outlined by Hogue, the creation and function of Coffin Ed and Grave Digger as ideal heroic solutions and community protectors become entirely implausible for Himes. White power and white law enforcement domination is so entrenched, and its control over the ghetto so pervasive, that the smaller scale heroism of a Coffin Ed or Grave Digger becomes ineffectual. Blind Man, as Himes's last completed detective novel set in Harlem, charts this landscape and demonstrates this collapse. The removal of a protective capacity in turn leads to widespread random violence throughout Harlem, a situation which allows Himes to bring forth his long-held criticisms of unorganized violence.
While Blind Man is less a detective story than any of Himes's previous detective fiction, there is the premise of a mystery within the novel. Like The Real Cool Killers, it involves a white man who lives outside Harlem, comes there to buy a black body for sex, and ends up dead on the street. As Blind Man progresses it becomes obvious that, if Ed's and Digger's former heroic strategies were ever viable ones, they can no longer succeed, for in 1969 the urban scene is very different from that in 1959. The corruption of the police force, previously alluded to, now works to circumscribe Ed's and Digger's behavior. Predictably, the dead white man on the street brings on the white cops in full force, and Grave Digger and Coffin Ed try futilely to protect the citizens from the ensuing lynch mob. At the scene of the crime Grave Digger says to Coffin Ed,
"I just wish these mother-rapers wouldn't come up here and get themselves killed, for whatever reason."
… Coffin Ed turned on [the crowd of black onlookers] and shouted suddenly, "You people better get the hell away from here before the white cops come in, or they'll run all your asses in."
There was a sound of nervous movement, like frightened cattle in the dark, then a voice said belligerently, "Run whose ass in? I lives here!"
"All right," Coffin Ed said resignedly. "Don't say I didn't warn you."
While Coffin Ed and Grave Digger are still following their earlier strategy of protecting Harlem citizens from the anarchic wrath of white law enforcement, the scene has changed. The unidentified belligerent voice who contests Coffin Ed's demands and who asserts his rights as a resident is the voice of a new generation which does not automatically respect either Ed's and Digger's authority or the intimidating practices of the white cops. Ed's answer back to the voice is "resigned," a new way to describe Ed's and Digger's behavior in a crowd.
The breakdown of Ed's and Digger's uncontestable heroic authority originates from two different directions. Primarily, their behavior is curtailed by the white cops who run the force. But also, this new, more militant generation of Harlem citizens has no respect for "the law" in any form. Confronting some young kids threatening another kid with violence because he is too chicken to stone the white cops, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger are neither automatically recognized nor feared. One kid challenges the once formidably terrifying Coffin Ed:
"You scared of whitey. You ain't nothing but shit."
"When I was your age I'da got slapped in the mouth for telling a grown man that."
"You slap us, we waste you."…
"We're the law," Coffin Ed said to forestall any more argument. Six pairs of round white-rimmed eyes stared at them accusingly.
"Then you on whitey's side."…
"Go on home," Grave Digger said, pushing them away, ignoring flashing knife blades. "Go home and grow up. You'll find out there ain't any other side." (italics added)
Here Coffin Ed and Grave Digger express their recognition of the pervasiveness of white power. Whitey's side is the ruling paradigm, and they do not see the nationalist moment as viable, the opponent as fightable. The younger generation of Harlem citizens, however, represents a popularized version of nationalism, which Himes's novel will ultimately critique. They at this point possess the impulse of anger toward white power, the refusal to tolerate further oppression, but they lack the organization of purpose which Himes sees as essential to revolutionary efficacy.
Himes now depicts his former heroes as laughable. Throughout the novel they are frequently described in clown-like imagery: "They looked like two idiots standing in the glare of the blazing car, one in his coat, shirt and tie, and purple shorts above gartered sox and big feet, and the other in shirt-sleeves and empty shoulder holster with his pistol stuck in his belt." Their former possibly heroic stance, Himes's ideal creation of the cops who "devrait exister," is no longer even a viable part of the cultural imagination. Their role has been fully obviated.
Harlem, however, is still a mystified space of illogic to the white cops and to outsiders. The confused anger on the part of whites who can't understand black Harlem linguistic play ends up leading to violence in more than one scene in the novel. Toward the absurdly random end of the novel, a misunderstanding between subway riders is exacerbated by this phenomenon: "The big white man thought they were talking about him in a secret language known only to soul people. He reddened with rage." Because the white cops also fear this "secret language" they still rely on Coffin Ed's and Grave Digger's interpretive police skills, however cursory this reliance may be.
In one scene the white cops who have basically taken charge of the investigation of the white man's murder are accompanied by Ed and Digger, following the blood trail to a tenement's basement room:
The blood trail ended at the green door.
"Come out of there," the sergeant said.
No one answered.
He turned the knob and pushed the door and it opened inward so silently and easily he almost fell into the opening before he could train his light. Inside was a black dark void.
Grave Digger and Coffin Ed flattened themselves against the walls on each side of the alley and their big long-barreled .38 revolvers came glinting into their hands.
"What the hell!" the sergeant exclaimed, startled.
His assistants ducked.
"This is Harlem," Coffin Ed grated and Grave Digger elaborated:
"We don't trust doors that open."
Here Ed and Digger are their old selves, acting in tandem, keenly reading the visual clues of the environment they know by heart. But despite their obviously superior knowledge they are not allowed to act alone, they are not allowed to investigate. Coffin Ed's and Grave Digger's skills in interpreting the Harlem environment lead them too close to uncovering embarrassing connections to Harlem's vice industry on the part of the white power structure and the deeper levels of corruption and complicity within the police force. Therefore Captain Brice and Lieutenant Anderson curtail their activity.
As Brice tells them to leave the investigation to the D.A.'s homicide bureau he asks,
"What do you think you two precinct detectives can uncover that they can't?"
"That very reason. It's our precinct. We might learn something that wouldn't mean a damn thing to them."
This fact, Ed's and Digger's heightened ability to decode their environment, is what makes them successful investigators and therefore what now makes them threatening to the white police force with something to hide. Ed and Digger, over a twelve-year development as characters, have lost any earlier optimistic idealism:
The two black detectives looked at one another. Their short-cropped hair was salted with gray and they were thicker around their middles. Their faces bore the lumps and scars they had collected in the enforcement of law in Harlem. Now after twelve years as first-grade precinct detectives they hadn't been promoted. Their raises in salaries hadn't kept up with the rise of the cost of living. They hadn't finished paying for their houses. Their private cars had been bought on credit. And yet they hadn't taken a dime in bribes. Their entire careers as cops had been one long period of turmoil. When they weren't taking lumps from the thugs, they were taking lumps from the commissioners. Now they were curtailed in their own duties. And they didn't expect it to change.
Thus, while Coffin Ed and Grave Digger may have begun the series with the heroic potential of ideal figures, the further institutionalization of discrimination throughout U.S. society has rendered them ineffectual. Not only has white power cemented its position, but it also acts to prevent any public discovery of its complicitous actions.
Coffin Ed's and Grave Digger's previously folk-heroic strategies for maintaining community security have become absurd. Even as they attempt to pursue their original investigation of the white man's death, they are now aware of this absurdity and identify its racial basis. Astute readers of police force ideology, Ed and Digger clearly see, and state, the racial politics behind the restraint placed on them. When Anderson denies them access to what they know is a key suspect, Grave Digger responds,
"Listen, Lieutenant. This mother-raping white man gets himself killed on our beat chasing black sissies and you want us to whitewash the investigation."
Anderson's face got pink. "No, I don't want you to whitewash the investigation," he denied. "I just don't want you raking up manure for the stink."
"We got you; white men don't stink."
Coffin Ed's and Grave Digger's initial strategies fail as their political consciousness rises. The more they know about the inner workings of the white-run police force, the more clearly they realize that the premise of their role as detectives or investigators is flawed and ineffectual at its base.
As increasingly politically conscious readers of their racist U.S. environment, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger are quite able to name the culprit. What they cannot do is apprehend "him." During the course of Blind Man Harlem has been the scene of several riots, and the white cops have given Grave Digger and Coffin Ed the task of finding out who is the cause of these seemingly inexplicable riots—a particularly conservative and palliative version of law enforcement so commonly practiced by the white cops. In a crucial confrontation with Lieutenant Anderson toward the end of Blind Man, Ed and Digger point the blame at the unapprehendable criminal they have been chasing their whole careers. In this key scene they are so mentally attuned to one another they speak in a close call-and-response pattern that frustrates Anderson, who exclaims,
"All right, all right! I take it you know who started the riot."
"Some folks call him by one name, some another," Coffin Ed said.
"Some call him lack of respect for law and order, some lack of opportunity, some the teachings of the Bible, some the sins of their fathers," Grave Digger expounded. "Some call him ignorance, some poverty, some rebellion. Me and Ed look at him with compassion. We're victims."
"Victims of what?" Anderson asked foolishly.
"Victims of your skin," Coffin Ed shouted brutally, his own patchwork of grafted black skin twitching with passion.
Anderson's skin turned blood red.
Ed and Digger are quite clear here on the balance of law and order on their beat: While the rioters may be black citizens, the instigator, the criminal responsible, is the white racism which causes poverty, ignorance, the hypocrisy of religion, etc. Their own alignment is clearly, as it has ever been, on the side of the victims.
Himes's writing here is at its resonant best as he focuses on the twitching patchwork of Ed's grafted skin. As any reader of the detective novels knows, Ed's face was scarred early in the series by an acid-throwing hoodlum. It is thus a sort of narrative reflection of the violence borne by these two would-be protectors and defenders against white lynch mob law enforcement, as are the other scars and marks which attest to Ed's and Digger's life work. But the pastiche of skin on Ed's face can also be seen as an aspect of the arbitrariness and absurdity of race as a determining category, of blackness as a social construct. By calling attention to the "grafted on" nature of Ed's blackness, and juxtaposing it to Anderson's white, then red face, Himes implicitly questions the absoluteness of race as a category, especially as so obviously resorted to by the white police force. In his 1969 interview with John A. Williams Himes historicizes this discussion of the "cause" of U.S. race riots:
… this whole problem in America, as I see it, developed from the fact that the slaves were freed and that there was no legislation of any sort to make it possible for them to live…. What is it that they have in heaven—milk and honey? That some poor nigger could go and live on nothing. Just to proclaim emancipation was not enough. You can't eat it; it doesn't keep the cold weather out.
Himes makes a similar statement in an italicized "Interlude" in Blind Man, where Grave Digger and Coffin Ed name Lincoln as the instigator of the riots: "'He hadn't ought to have freed us if he didn't want to make provisions to feed us.'" Here Ed and Digger clearly provide Anderson with the singular culprit so doggedly desired by the police force, but of course he cannot be apprehended, and further, if he were, he couldn't be convicted—because he's white. Says Coffin Ed, "'Never was a white man convicted as long as he plead good intentions.'"
Blind Man ends with less resolution than any of Himes's previous detective novels, a point noted by many critics as Himes's ultimate stretching of detective fiction's generic limits. A. Robert Lee writes, "Blind Man With a Pistol, especially, approaches antic nightmare, a pageant of violence and unresolved plot-ends which, true to the illogic of a dream, careens into a last chapter of senseless riot." Coffin Ed and Grave Digger are reduced to the inanity of shooting at rats fleeing a burning tenement. These are crucial aspects of Himes's own long-standing political philosophies about both "senseless riot" and the absurdity of racism. Himes would write in The Crisis as early as 1944,
The first step backward is riots. Riots are not revolutions…. Riots are tumultuous disturbances of the public peace by unlawful assemblies of three or more persons in the execution of private objects—such as race hatreds…. Riots between white and black occur for only one reason: Negro Americans are firmly convinced that they have no access to any physical protection which they do not provide for themselves. It is a well-known and established fact that this conviction is rooted in history: Negroes in fact do not have any protection from physical injury inflicted by whites other than that which they provide for themselves. It is a rather deadly joke among Negroes (especially since the Detroit riots) that the first thing to do in case of a race riot is not to call the police but to shoot them…. "Man, what you mean call the police; them the people gonna kill you."
Fourteen years before the publication of The Real Cool Killers Himes stated the relationship of white law enforcement to the black community. It is important to see the discourse of protection running throughout Himes's writings, even at this early stage.
Himes, who throughout his life was against random violence (as opposed to planned revolution), critiques the chaotic, riotous violence which erupts in Harlem at the end of Blind Man. In his 1970 Le Monde interview with Michel Fabre, Himes explains the genesis of Blind Man:
Il y a plusieurs années, de nombreuses émeutes ont éclaté en Amérique, suivies d'émeutes spontanées après l'assassinat de Martin Luther King et de batailles entre les Panthères noires et la police. J'ai pensé que toute cette violence inorganisée que les Noirs déchainent en Amérique n'était rien d'autre que des coups de feu tirés à l'aveuglette, et j'ai intitulé mon roman Blind Man with a Pistol. Tel était mon commentaire sur l'inefficacité de ce type de violence.
(Several years ago, numerous riots erupted in America followed by spontaneous riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King and battles between the Black Panthers and the police. I thought that all this unorganized violence that the Blacks unleashed in America was nothing other than shots fired blindly, and I titled my novel Blind Man With a Pistol. Such was my commentary on the inefficacy of this type of violence.)
While Himes had since at least 1944 seen unorganized, riotous violence as ineffective, it is important to trace out his "call" for successful planned revolution. Edward Margolies, in his article "Experiences of the Black Expatriate Writer: Chester Himes," quotes from the English transcript of Himes's Le Monde interview:
I realized that subconsciously that was the point I had been trying to make in [Blind Man]…. I think there should be violence … because I do not believe that anything else is ever going to improve the situation of the black man in America except violence. I don't think it would have to be great shattering and shocking violence. If the blacks were organized and if they could resist and fight injustice in an organized fashion in America, I think that might be enough. Yes, I believe this sincerely.
In his representation of chaos and the inefficacies of splintered popular nationalisms at the novel's close, Himes maintains a consistency with his views about the need for a more systematic form of revolution as a means of opposing white power. This need for violent revolution is a common line of thought in Himes's writings, not only occasioned by particular events of the Sixties, but present within his political ideology since (or before) his 1944 Crisis article "Negro Martyrs Are Needed." The title of the article points us toward the role of a single martyr in the revolutionary cause, and Himes's short story "Prediction"—as well as the prefigurings of his final detective novel set in the U.S., Plan B.
It is possible to see Himes's philosophies about the need for organized violence as in some ways an inverted economy of bodies, bearing in mind his earlier idealized construction of Coffin Ed and Grave Digger as protectors of one white body in order ultimately to protect many black bodies. What happens in the economy of "Prediction" and "Negro Martyrs Are Needed" is an ideologically revolutionary inversion: One black body is martyred in the interest of creating more white corpses. In his 1944 article Himes states, "The first and fundamental convictions of the political tactician fighting for the human rights of the people are: (1) Progress can be brought about only by revolution; (2) Revolutions can be started only by incidents; (3) incidents can be created only by Martyrs." Himes specifically counterposes this idea of a planned incident by a martyr to what he sees as more random, spontaneous rioting, which he condemns as ineffectual and based in self-interest, as opposed to race betterment. Twenty-five years later he would tell John A. Williams,
Even individually, if you give one black one high-powered repeating rifle and he wanted to shoot it into a mob of twenty thousand or more white people, there are a number of people he could destroy. Now, in my book [the uncompleted Plan B], all of these blacks who shoot are destroyed. They not only are destroyed, they're blown apart; even the buildings they're shooting from are destroyed, and quite often the white community suffers fifty or more deaths itself by destroying one black man.
There is a distinct contrast, which we should not ignore, between Himes's comments to John A. Williams, fellow black American writer, and Michel Fabre, white French literary critic. Though both interviews were given at about the same time, Himes's divergent expressions of revolutionary ideology reveal both ambiguities in his own thought as well as alterations for his perceived audiences. To Fabre he states (assures?) that "great shattering and shocking violence" is not necessary. Blacks should just use violence "to resist and fight injustice in an organized fashion." His words here seem like platitudes, as he implies a specific and localized enemy who could be systematically resisted. The author of Blind Man, however, knows that there is no such singular enemy. The act of shooting a repeating rifle into a crowd of twenty thousand, as Himes describes to Williams, is fairly "shattering and shocking violence." And the portrayal of this act in "Prediction" emphasizes the graphic nature of the violence. While the philosophy of limited black deaths in order to produce larger numbers of white deaths seems a reversal of the economy of bodies in the discourse of protection articulated in the detective novels, the ideological basis understands white behavioral motivation in the same way. The white reaction to black violence against whites is one that crushes anything in its path. This is simply a more advanced stage of the lynch mob reactiveness of law enforcement behavior as seen throughout the detective novels. In Himes's 1969 short story, appropriately titled "Prediction," this crushing white reaction is disembodied in the form of a tank with a brain.
The story, which would become chapter 21 of Plan B, opens with an all-white police parade "headed north up the main street of the big city." Instead of the precisely locatable, named Harlem geography of the detective novels, the incidents of "Prediction" and Plan B could theoretically occur in any U.S. city. The story describes an all-white scene: white cops, white crowds, white workers, etc. "There was only one black man along the entire length of the street at the time, and he wasn't in sight." This unnamed man, hidden in a church with an automatic rifle, is Himes's martyr for the cause of black liberation: "Subjectively, he had waited four hundred years for this moment and he was not in a hurry." Just as Lincoln was the criminal responsible for the riots in Blind Man, historical racial oppression since slavery is clearly the instigator of the revolution which will follow this triggering incident. The martyr knows, however, the nature of white reaction to his planned crime—he is aware of the lynch-like fervor to follow: "He knew his black people would suffer severely for this moment of his triumph. He was not an ignorant man." The man is "consoled only by the hope that it would make life safer for blacks in the future. He would have to believe that the children of the blacks who would suffer now would benefit later" (italics added). Note here the presence again of the discourse of safety and protection running throughout Himes's depictions of black life in the U.S. This language exists in dialogic relationship with the language of equality, with greater emphasis on safety as the most important condition of freedom for African Americans.
When the police parade reaches a key position on the street, the black gunman opens fire and begins mowing down rows of officers. Himes's depiction of this carnage shows his writing at its maximally grotesque:
[The commissioner] wore no hat to catch his brains and fragments of skull, and they exploded through the sunny atmosphere and splattered the spectators with goo, tufts of gray hair and splinters of bone. One skull fragment, larger than the others, struck a tall, well-dressed man on the cheek, cutting the skin and splashing brains against his face like a custard pie in a Mack Sennett comedy.
Combined with the more obvious political reasons, this level of grotesque description of white deaths caused by blacks is something Himes knew the U.S. publishing establishment—and, by extension, reading public—would reject. Discussing Plan B with John A. Williams he says, "I don't know what the American publishers will do about this book. But one thing I do know, Johnny, they will hesitate, and it will cause them a great amount of revulsion."
The slaughter causes general pandemonium in the crowd, with police officers firing at each other, at civilians, etc., in their frustrated confusion and inability to find the sniper. The lynch mob mentality takes hold, and
all were decided, police and spectators alike, that the sniper was a black man for no one else would slaughter whites so wantonly…. in view of the history of all the assassinations and mass murders in the U.S., it was extraordinarily enlightening that all the thousands of whites caught in a deadly gunfire from an unseen assassin, white police and white civilians alike, would automatically agree that he must be black.
In an apocalyptic climax, the lynch mob itself takes the form of a technologically developed war machine, a riot tank, endowed with a brain and an eye searching, at first futilely, for the hidden sniper:
Its telescoped eye at the muzzle of the 20-mm. cannon stared right and left, looking over the heads and among the white spectators, over the living white policemen hopping about the dead, up and down the rich main street with its impressive stores, and in its frustration at not seeing a black face to shoot at it rained explosive 20-mm. shells on the black plaster of Paris mannequins displaying a line of beachwear in a department store window.
The lynch mob law enforcement behavior has here reached its apocalyptic level of absurdity, shooting at plaster images of black bodies when it cannot find a human black body. This destructive action in turn triggers further mass hysteria and killing of vast numbers of innocent bystanders, until finally the tank demolishes the church with the sniper inside.
Even this last act, however, is not conclusive for the white mob, since it does not produce the desired black body: "It did not take long for the cannon to reduce the stone face of the cathedral to a pile of rubbish. But it took all of the following day to unearth the twisted rifle and a few scraps of bloody black flesh to prove the black killer had existed." When whites are killed, only a black body will appease the lynching mob, and the capturing, dead or alive, whole or in pieces, of this body becomes the all-important aim. In the breakdown of criminal apprehendability which characterizes the cementing of white hegemonic power as represented in the socio-cultural milieu of Blind Man, blackness is made to function as redundancy in white power relations. It is as if, after Lincoln, after four hundred years of oppression, after the ghetto, white power is still, redundantly, emptying its bullets into an already beaten black "opponent."
For the martyr, because of the number of whites he has killed, the exchange of his body for their deaths seems fair:
He was ready to die. By then he had killed seventy-three whites, forty-seven policemen and twenty-six men, women and children civilians, and had wounded an additional seventy-five, and although he was never to know this figure, he was satisfied. He felt like a gambler who had broken the bank.
Himes specifically envisions this kind of murderous gamble as the key move to trigger more widespread planned violence by blacks "which will mobilize the forces of justice and carry us forward from the pivot of change to a way of existence where everyone is free."
In 1972, Himes explained his long-held belief in the necessity of violence to Hoyt Fuller: "I have always believed—and this was from the time that If He Hollers … was published—that the Black man in America should mount a serious revolution and this revolution should employ a massive, extreme violence." Again, notice that to a black interviewer, for a piece published in Black World, Himes calls for "massive, extreme violence." Himes's political philosophizing moves from an assertion of defensive violence to an aggressive violence, yet all within the construct of making the U.S. ultimately a safer place for blacks.
Himes's literary expression of black revolutionary ideologies should be seen within a tradition—his voice obviously is not the first, nor does it stand alone. Hoyt Fuller, in his Black World interview, calls Himes's attention to his literary company in Sam Greenlee's The Spook Who Sat By the Door and another novel whose author is unnamed, Black Commandoes. I would historicize this revolutionary discourse further and add Sutton Griggs's Imperium in Imperio to the list. Griggs's novel exists as an interesting precursor for Plan B, since it too involves two heroes, long-time companions who disagree over particular revolutionary ideologies, with death as the result. Coffin Ed and Grave Digger play a minor role in Plan B. Himes states," I began writing a book called Plan B, about a real black revolution in which my two black detectives split up and eventually Grave Digger kills Coffin Ed to save the cause." Grave Digger is then killed by Tomsson Black. Thus, in Plan B we see the final role and ultimate demise of Himes's two heroes.
For Himes, then, white law enforcement represents the greatest threat to personal safety for impoverished African American urban dwellers. In an environment pervaded by racial oppression the first requirement of freedom is protection from lynch mobs, and the feeling that one's body is not endangered. But over the course of Himes's writing we see this first requirement become less and less attainable. We reach what Himes always considered the absurdity of U.S. race relations.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7023
SOURCE: "African American Anti-Semitism and Himes's Lonely Crusade, in Melus, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 47-68.
[In the following essay, Rosen discusses the presence of anti-Semitism in Himes's Lonely Crusade and its sources and implications.]
Most critics have considered Chester Himes's second novel about racial conflict at a Los Angeles war industry plant, Lonely Crusade, to be his most ambitious and substantial work. However, the novel has attracted little notice since its reissue (1986), having long been unavailable after its initial publication. Were it known as it deserves, Lonely Crusade would still stir controversy.
Himes maintained that the Communist party—excoriated in Lonely Crusade—had effectively suppressed it. However, as he also acknowledged, "Everyone hated it…. The left hated it, the right hated it, Jews hated it, blacks hated it." According to Himes, black reviewers (such as James Baldwin) had been offended by his hero's discovery that "the black man in America … needed special consideration because he was so far behind." As Himes insisted, this argument for what he provocatively called "special privileges" long preceded demands for "affirmative action." Lonely Crusade also anticipated the controversy, occasioned nearly twenty years later by the Moynihan Report (1965), about African American matriarchy. Additionally, Himes's hero, Lee Gordon, finds black workers resistant to integration and has to explain this to a baffled white liberal; such self-segregating tendencies (as in recent proposals for all-male African American high schools) still surprise liberals.
But perhaps the most controversial topic Himes pioneered in Lonely Crusade was black anti-Semitism. "The conflict between Blacks and Jews," as Addison Gayle asserted in his history of the African American novel, had been "previously ignored by other black writers." In light of more recent black-Jewish conflict, Himes's treatment has proven to be very prescient.
As Himes acknowledged, Lonely Crusade did offend Jews, such as the Commentary reviewer Milton Klonsky, discussed below. Is the novel anti-Semitic? I argue that it is, but the subject is highly complicated. Himes ventured to mediate between Jewish leftists and blacks whose hostilities to Jews he thought partly irrational and partly justified. In Lonely Crusade, the hero explains black anti-Semitism to a sympathetic Jew puzzled and troubled by its increase. Lee Gordon cites various black complaints against Jews, which no doubt were more widespread at that time than most black leaders or Jewish liberals cared to acknowledge. But Gordon dissociates himself from some of these charges, such as ignorant exaggeration of Jewish economic power. And Himes further distances himself from black anti-Semitism by noting, in his narrative voice, his hero Lee Gordon's irrational hostility to Jews. In a talk delivered at the University of Chicago one year after Lonely Crusade's disappointing reception, Himes complained of having been "reviled" for his rare "integrity" in revealing such "realities" as "paradoxical anti-Semitism" among the effects of black oppression.
In my view, Lonely Crusade not only, as Himes claims, depicts and deplores black anti-Semitism, it also ventilates an anti-Semitic streak that recurs in Himes's work in tandem with anxiety to assert masculinity. Himes tended to disparage Jews in order to construct his manhood—differentiating himself from those (Jews) who imputedly lacked masculinity or disrespected its significations. To locate this and other anti-Semitic tendencies in Himes means neither that he was always unsympathetic to Jews, nor that his criticisms of Jews were wholly unjustified. In my opinion, two other Himes novels that deal with Jewish characters much more incidentally (If He Hollers Let Him Go and especially The Primitive) deftly criticize a Jewish ethnocentricity that for Himes, perhaps, epitomized racism's absurdity. Dreading to seem unfair to Himes, whose early novels remain unjustly unappreciated, I focus on Lonely Crusade, where his critique of Jews is both most fully and rather objectionably developed. Its anticipation of current black-Jewish hostilities, together with a misleading discussion of "the question of anti-Semitism" in the foreword to the novel's 1986 edition, make the subject irresistible.
Actually, the foreword, by Graham Hodges, minimizes both sides of the issue's embarrassment: (1) the novel's irreducibly unreasonable anti-Semitism and (2) the possible justification for some African American hostility to Jews. According to Hodges,
the portraits Himes draws of Jewish paternalism and black anti-Semitism are unflinchingly honest. Most tellingly, it is Abe Rosenberg, Ruth, and Smitty, another union organizer, that are [the main character, the African American Lee] Gordon's only true allies. At one crucial point, Lee and Rosenberg, a highly sympathetic character, engage in a fierce debate over these historic racial tensions in American history, hurling insults and stereotypes at one another until finally, like exhausted fighters, they come to recognize their ignorance and hatred by confronting them in honest discussion…. We come to see Lee Gordon as far less anti-Semitic than Maud, the Communist secretary.
Lonely Crusade does have an air of honesty; the main Jewish character, Rosenberg, does act benevolently. However, the confrontation Hodges describes as a mutual combat is rather a black intellectual's tirade against Jews, occasionally interrupted by a Jew who makes not one criticism of blacks (except that he is beginning to notice anti-Semitism among them). Were he tactless, Rosenberg might have answered Gordon's charges against Jews by simply reversing them—i.e., countering gouging Jewish landlords and merchants with irresponsible black tenants and debtors, or opposing the charge that Jews pamper their children by asserting that blacks brutalize theirs. However, as Stephen Milliken observed, Rosenberg unrealistically "listens to Lee's anti-Semitic diatribes with smiling patience, responds with eager, warm understanding, indeed almost with cloying sweetness." Why did their confrontation remain more monologue than dialogue? Apparently, Himes did not want Gordon's charges against Jews effectively opposed. His hero complains about Jews, not so much to exemplify the problem of black anti-Semitism, as Himes sometimes implied, but to air Himes's own hostility. Indeed, Himes substantially reiterated his hero's complaints against Jews more than twenty years later, when interviewed by John A. Williams.
Besides misrepresenting a barely qualified attack on Jews as a "debate," Hodges ignores the novel's malicious caricature of Jewish characters. He cites one minor figure, Maud, a Communist secretary and a "self-hating" Jew, as someone whose anti-Semitism exceeds and thereby condones that of Himes's hero. But Himes significantly links her self-hatred to her typically ugly Jewish looks and mannerisms:
She hated all Jews and all things Jewish with an uncontrollable passion as an escape from which she had become a Communist. And yet she was as Jewish in appearance as the Jewish stereotype.
Maud, a grotesque, speaks in a "usually rasping voice," and when provoked, "the stub of her missing arm jerk[s] spasmodically." Lee Gordon perceives the main Jewish character, Abe Rosenberg, similarly:
Hearing the delayed cadence ending on a question mark, he thought "Jew," before he jerked a look down at Abe Rosenberg's bald head in the sunshine. Sitting on a disbanded wooden casing, feet dangling and his froglike body wrapped in a wrinkled tan cotton slack suit, Rosie looked the picture of the historic Semite.
Even when Gordon comes to feel "grateful" to Rosenberg, who defends him to his own cost, the Jewish Communist remains a "frogshaped" and "grotesque little man." While gentile grotesques (such as the murderous black Communist Luther MacGregor) also inhabit the novel, only its Jewish characters consistently alienate by moving and speaking oddly—Maud twitches and rasps, Abe dangles and singsongs, and another Jewish character, Benny Stone, scampers and effuses.
The first time a Jewish character, Benny Stone, saunters into view, an omniscient voice narrates: "Benny's effusive greeting brought a recurrence of the old troubling question. On what side did the Jew actually play?" This instances a third aspect of the novel's anti-Semitism. Although Himes's narrative voice sometimes dissociates itself from his hero's hostility to Jews, for instance, by calling it a "tendency to anti-Semitism," it participates in that tendency as well. Similarly, Gordon's assertions that other blacks, rightly or not, blame Jews more than he does work to substantiate and normalize his diatribe.
Altogether, the main character's tirade, the physical repulsiveness of all the Jewish characters, and the narrator's complicity in the hero's anti-Semitism establish, at the least, that Himes wanted to disabuse Jews of any presumptions upon the high regard of blacks and, more generally, to wound them in their self-esteem.
One probable reason for the novel's articulation of black anti-Semitism was Himes's desire to overcome the fear of "writing the unthinkable and unprintable." When Gordon tells Rosenberg that "the Jew … [has] cornered us off into squalid ghettos and beaten us out of our money," Rosenberg retorts, "Such nonsense should never be spoken." The very prohibition placed on such expressions by the Jews who comprised most of Himes's white friends and benefactors might well have conferred an allure upon them. Yet the likeliest reason that Lonely Crusade voiced hostility to Jews is simply that Himes felt some himself. And we can begin to locate his grievances in the complaint his protagonist produces, charges including: (1) betrayals, exploitations, and manipulations of African American causes by Communists, at a time when many Communists were Jews; (2) a Jewish tendency to ridicule blacks for gentiles (e.g., as humorists); (3) the exploitative practices of Jewish businessmen, with whom blacks had been obliged to deal preponderantly; (4) Jewish prejudice against blacks, which Gordon claims exceeds that of other whites, despite the sympathy Jews ought to feel for other oppressed people; (5) miscellaneous Jewish "manners and personal habits" the character finds "repulsive"—aside from discourtesy in money matters—chiefly mothers spoiling their sons.
Though space limits here (among other factors) preclude an adequate analysis of these complaints, it would be unfair to ignore them. So I will briefly consider the context of Gordon's charges against Jews, assess how Himes apparently felt about them, and note where they seem partially justified and where disturbingly objectionable. Significantly, one common component emerges: the (supposed) Jewish insult to black masculinity.
Communists. Like his friends Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, Himes criticized the Communist party, chiefly for cultivating a ruthless disregard of truth and decency in its members and also for subjecting the personal and national interests of African Americans to a shifting party line, humiliating in its inconsistencies and emanating, absurdly, from the Soviet Union. At that time, though few Jews were Communists, many American Communists were Jews. Still, African American contemporaries of Himes who criticized the Party did not tend to fault its Jewish representation. Wright's American Hunger focuses on the oppressive anti-intellectualism of black Communists; they even expel "a talented Jew" along with Wright from a theater company. Likewise, Ellison's notably unrealistic treatment of the Communist party (obscured as The Brotherhood in Invisible Man) may have been motivated in part by his unwillingness to seem anti-Semitic. Not without anguish, Himes overcame that inhibition. Though the most venal Communist in Lonely Crusade (Luther McGregor) is African American, and the most idealistic one (Rosenberg) is Jewish, Himes does relate at least some objections to Communist party culture to its heavily Jewish membership. These offenses are the Communists' inappropriate internationalism (which may mask specifically Jewish interests and sympathies); their humiliating imposition of alien discourse and values on African American members; and, most crucially, their insufficient appreciation of specifically masculine dignity.
Himes had already connected a tactless preoccupation with an international agenda to a putative Communist's Jewishness in his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go. When a union steward with a "big hooked nose" asks the black hero to subordinate his racial grievance for the unified fight against fascism, the latter calls the steward both "Comrade" and "Jew boy." Likewise, in Lonely Crusade, Lee Gordon "felt vindicated in his stand against the Communists, whose insidious urging that he become a laborer to help defeat fascism had become obnoxious." Why "insidious"? "At a party of Jewish Communists," he interprets their fervent internationalism as a covert Jewish nationalism: "Another Jew joined in the conversation. "Russia must be saved!" "For who? You Jews?" Lee asked harshly.
The prolonged, preponderant, inevitably resented influence of Jews, however benevolently motivated, not only on African American policies in the American Communist Party, but as executives in civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League, helps explain Himes's associated hostilities to Jews and Communists. As Harold Cruse was to contend in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, it must have been galling for African American Communists to have their situation defined for them by others (many of them Jews) and to be made by the Party to speak a language of leftist jargon that alienated other African Americans. Even Mark Naison, who defends the sincere dedication of Jewish Communists to African American causes and culture, acknowledges that the party's "language and ideology, and above all its interracialism" alienated African Americans. From this perspective, one might understand the appeal of anti-Semitic language for Himes; it might seem an exquisitely iconoclastic declaration of independence, potent in its populistic appeal. (Likewise, Jesse Jackson "on one occasion" characterized his later renounced "anti-Semitic discourse" as "talking Black.")
Perhaps the chief cultural differences between Jewish Communists and black populists involved constructions of gender. In Lonely Crusade, a benevolent Jewish Communist, obtuse to their cultural difference, provokes one of Lee Gordon's most visceral revulsions: The "small, elderly Jewish man with a tired, seamed face and kindly eyes" takes Gordon into a bedroom at the party and shows him "a picture of a naked Negro" which Gordon mistakes for a "ballet dancer" until the Jew identifies him as a lynching victim. Shocked, nauseated, enraged, reminded that such crimes go unavenged, and confronted perhaps with a mutilated black figure of uncertain gender, Gordon's masculinity has been insulted. Significantly, he directly hears "someone … saying: 'There are no such things as male and female personalities. There is only one personality.'" In reaction, Gordon promptly asserts his traditionally construed masculinity:
I like women who are women…. I like to sleep with them and take care of them. I don't want any woman taking care of me or even competing with me.
In My Life of Absurdity, Himes remarks that to enjoy his detective novels as they enjoyed their folk culture "American Blacks had to get all the protest out of their minds that the communists had filled them with." That is, they had to stop regarding themselves as suffering victims, with the attendant implication of unmanliness. Rather than "just victims," as "protest writer[s]" portrayed them, Himes wished to present black Americans as "absurd"—i.e., as capable perpetrators as well as victims of violence, humorous, extroverted, and full of joie de vivre. In contrast, he felt that Jewish Communists sought to politically organize African Americans through pooled self-pity, and that they demeaned black masculinity by making the lynch victim a protest logo.
Humorists. Lee Gordon complains that, to similarly demeaning effect, "the Jew will hold Negroes up for ridicule by the gentile—that in instances where the gentile is not thinking of the Negro, the Jew will call attention to the Negro as an object of scorn." Apparently, Himes felt this way himself because twenty-three years later he reiterated the charge in his Williams interview, claiming that Jews, paradoxically because of their somewhat similar status, are most likely to offend blacks. He said, "You know, some of the Jewish writers, because of the fact that they belong to a minority too, can get more offensive than the other writers do." Himes more pointedly told Black World editor Hoyt Fuller that a Jewish screenwriter's rejected treatment of Cotton Comes to Harlem was "a smart Jew-boy angle, especially of the racial scene, because he figured the Jews had a right to do so." Likewise, a Jewish fence in Himes's detective novel The Big Gold Dream, having through prolonged familiarity assumed the speech style of blacks, also indulges in offensive racial humor. And a Jewish junk dealer in Himes's Cotton Comes to Harlem tries some tactless ethnic humor while bargaining with blacks.
Himes told John Williams he once walked out of a Hollywood script conference on a film about George Washington Carver beginning with Carver ironing a shirt in his kitchen—i.e., feminized by tool and workplace. He understandably resented the traditional movie treatment of blacks as comical servants and menials, and he may have held the predominantly Jewish studio heads accountable. Likewise, while praising Lonely Crusade's treatment of black-Jewish relations, Himes's admirer Ishmael Reed complained of "Jewish playwrights, cartoonists, film-makers, novelists, magazine editors and television writers [who] depict Blacks in such an unfavorable light as if to say to whites, 'we'll supply the effigy, you bring the torch.'" (Reed compared David Susskind, for "defending the troopers' actions at Attica," to Hitler.) Jews are liable to be blamed—as recently and controversially by City College professor Leonard Jeffries—for unflattering references to African Americans in the news or entertainment media. Of course, anti-Semitic exaggerations of their offenses do not absolve Jews from whatever blame their conduct may merit. However, I regard the claim that Jews have been especially prone to racist ridicule as dubious, and that gentiles have needed Jewish incitements to "scorn" African Americans as preposterous.
Businessmen. Lee Gordon's complaints about the exploitative control of black commercial life by Jewish businessmen, while not unjustified, also contain disturbing exaggerations and dangerous implications. Again, Himes later reasserted these complaints in his own voice, and again anxiety about masculine dignity attaches to the issue.
Speaking of the 1940s, Lee Gordon chiefly justifies growing African American hostility to Jews by real economic grievances:
Most of the Negro contact with the business world is with the Jew. He buys from the Jew, rents from the Jew, most of his earnings wind up, it seems, in the Jew's pocket. He doesn't see where he's getting value in return. He pays too much rent, too much for food, and in return can't do anything for the Jew but work as a domestic or the like.
His Jewish interlocutor acknowledges that "many [Jewish businessmen] exploit Negroes" but counters that at least they give blacks commercial opportunities others deny them; Rosenberg adds that their own exclusion from gentile-dominated industry forced Jews to deal with blacks. Gordon grants that most blacks exaggerate Jewish economic power, but he insists that "many [other] Negroes [wrongly] … think that Jews control all the money to the world."
By sometimes differentiating his narrator's views from his hero's, as well as his hero's from those of less sophisticated African Americans (whose ideas he nonetheless needs to convey), Himes lends an interesting ambiguity to the novel's anti-Semitic expressions; and he protects himself through undermining their authority. However, since he insists on conveying (while denying) an irrational anti-Semitism he imputes to a segment of the black population less able than he to propagate their views, those views take on the pathos of suppressed thoughts struggling for expression. And, indeed, a recurrent, fundamental association of Jews with money—both as benefactors and as exploiters—functioned importantly for Himes himself.
In his Williams interview, Himes again attributed then current (1969) black hostility to Jews to economic factors. He claimed, like his character Gordon, that the real basis of black animosity to Jews was that they were formerly the only, and currently the primary, dealers of goods and services to blacks, and that they took advantage of that position. He also granted, as his character Rosenberg had asserted, that Jews had been relegated to servicing blacks by an anti-Semitic society. But Himes himself used emphatic and exaggerated language in asserting that, given the commercial ignorance of blacks,
Jewish landlords and merchants misused them…. All businesses in the ghettoes were owned by Jews…. The black had an ingrown suspicion and resentment of the Jew. He realized that he was being used in certain ways by all Jewish landlords and merchants. Even today a Jew will make a fortune out of the race problem, and this builds up a subconscious resentment—although most of the white people I do business with, who help me, whom I love and respect, are Jews. But that doesn't negate the fact that the Jews are the ones who had contact with the blacks and took advantage of them.
Some hyperbolical and mystifying aspects of Himes's language here indicate a disturbing willingness to cultivate an irrational approach to this topic. Surely Jews cannot have owned "all" the ghetto businesses. Can "all" the Jewish "landlords and merchants" have "misused" blacks? Describing black resentment of Jewish economic exploitation as "ingrown" and "subconscious" means that its existence cannot and need not be demonstrated; that it can thrive without concrete occasion; yet that releasing such resentments might constitute the African American's most essential liberation. The degree to which Jews had controlled ghetto commerce was hotly debated in the sixties. The most widely accredited writer to deal with the topic, James Baldwin, both condemned and condoned black rage against Jewish landlords and businesses. Jewish writers commonly argued that banks, universities, market forces and other impersonal institutions and conditions actually controlled the ghetto economy. Of course, Jews were conspicuously engaged in ghetto commerce (in part because they had lived there before blacks did). Some certainly cheated blacks, and even if they did constitute a small percentage of Jewish businessmen, it does not take many instances of victimization (as with criminal violence) to stigmatize a perpetrator's group if it already carries signs of otherness. Certainly most major Jewish businesses in ghettoes were slow to employ blacks in responsible positions. And nobody likes landlords, whatever their ethnicity. So when Himes wrote Lonely Crusade (and later when he discussed the issue with Williams), black resentment of Jewish businessmen was both widely felt and understandable, if often disproportionate to real offenses. Hence, Himes's treatment of this conflict cannot be dismissed as unrepresentative, though its representativeness does not excuse it from criticism.
Himes's complaints about the behavior of Jewish businessmen might especially typify resentments among black creative artists. Himes hoped for work as a writer in Hollywood, but reported that Jewish employers jim-crowed and insulted him there. Today, mistrust of Jewish employers is commonly voiced among black jazz musicians and rap artists. In Spike Lee's film Mo' Better Blues, graceless, greedy Jewish nightclub owners apparently exploit black performers; their caricaturization provoked a controversy in which the Anti-Defamation League, Nat Hentoff, and other Jewish writers attacked Lee, who defended his Jewish characters as realistic.
In Himes's Lonely Crusade, unlike Lee's less complex film, the major Jewish character, the Communist Rosenberg, behaves very generously to his black friend, Gordon. And Himes himself readily acknowledged many Jewish friends and supporters. He wrote his first novel on a Rosenwald Fellowship. An element of ambivalence on this subject—i.e., a tendency to regard Jews not only as exploiters but as benefactors—might help explain why Himes describes the general black hatred of Jewish businessmen as "subconscious." The fiercely independent Himes might have resented Jewish philanthropists as much as Jewish businessmen, but also felt that it was wrong to do so.
Himes's convoluted economic connections with Jews may have predated his birth. He claimed that his "father's father was the slave blacksmith of a Jewish slaveowner, probably named Heinz, whose name he took when he was freed. That's how [he] came by the name of Himes." However, Himes scholar Edward Margolies told me that Himes's brothers did not corroborate this claim and that both blacks and whites named Himes—none of them apparently Jewish—occupied the region of his father's forbears. From an early age, Himes seems to have found Jews risky sources of substantial funds. In 1928, having heard a chauffeur "bragging about the large sums of money his boss always kept in his house," Himes held up the boss (named Miller) and his wife in their home. (Margolies opines that the couple were Jewish.) Himes fled to Chicago, where he approached "a notorious fence called Jew Sam." Sam turned him over to the cops. Then the police "sent to Cleveland for someone to identify the jewelry, and one of the executives of the firm that insured it arrived. His name was Frieberg. Later he became a friend." Near the conclusion of his autobiography, Himes described some traveling and dining that he and his second wife, moderately prosperous at last, enjoyed in the company of his good friend and "excellent agent," Roslyn Targ, and her husband. The Targs are Jews. At the end of their trip, as both couples sat together in Himes's home,
Roslyn began crying and said, "Chester, at last you've got your own house. I congratulate you both." We all began crying, thinking that after all these years at last I had a house when I was sixty-one years old.
My point is that Himes, who consistently associated Jews with money, blamed them when financially frustrated and bonded with them when successful.
Himes was willing to exploit, even to inculcate, a very reductive association of Jews with money in his Harlem thriller The Big Gold Dream. The Jewish fence, whose offensively familiar humor was cited above, is reduced to a mere stereotype through constant reference to him simply as "the Jew." Such images as "his face lit slowly with an expression of uncontainable avarice … saliva trickled from the corners of his mouth" make "the Jew" grotesquely greedy—but so are many of Himes's black characters. What bothers me here is that Himes's black detectives, who always speak with authority, simply reduce the Jew's meaning to money with several statements such as "in order to bring the Jew into it, there had to be money." This disturbs because the dehumanizing equation of Jews with money prompts people to take out their economic frustration on innocent Jewish scapegoats. Thus, for instance, the Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti in Crowds and Power explained the Nazi persecution as a reaction to catastrophic inflation; Germans associated Jews with money and passed on the sting to them when their currency became worthless. Likewise, according to one analysis, an outburst of black anti-Semitism occurred when African Americans did not get the economic parity some expected after the achievement of civil rights legislation—not because Jews exploited blacks but because disappointment and envy required an outlet.
Himes's tendency to associate Jews with money also ramified into his gender anxiety. His very first published story, "His Last Day," reciprocally relates Jewish money and black masculinity. A condemned convict, Spats, aims to walk to his death so coolly that fellow convicts will say "what a man," and he spends his last day recalling the "frightened eyes of the little Jew … a little tyke," i.e., kike, whom he had robbed. He also blames himself for trembling "just like that tyke" he had threatened with his gun. Note how the euphemistic substitution of "little tyke," for "kike" insults both the Jew's ethnicity and his masculinity. Later, Spats frightens and gyps his lawyer, a "lousy tyke fixer who [inadvertently] gave his services for nothing," by refusing to locate his cache for the lawyer's payment. Despite his bravado, Himes's convict only barely masks his "utter fear" before electrocution. And, of course, the story does not propose that blacks ought to assert their masculinity by robbing and intimidating Jews. Still, Spats's lack of remorse, his toughness, his candid irreligion—among other qualities Himes, then imprisoned for robbery, presumably admired—suggest at least some identification with the convict.
Lee Gordon also resembles Spats, Himes's first protagonist: he expresses hostility to Jews, is benefited by one he verbally abuses (rather than robs), and manfully walks to his probable death at the plot's conclusion. Gordon's characterization also reflects Himes's financial-marital crisis when he wrote Lonely Crusade. His promising connections with Jewish leftists in Hollywood having proven fruitless, Himes later wrote that his intense inner hurt only became consciously racial when he found he could not support his wife, i.e., fulfill his traditional economic role as a man. She "had a better job than [he] did and … that was the beginning of the dissolution of [their] marriage." As Himes put it, he "was no longer a husband to [his] wife; [he] was her pimp. She didn't mind, and that hurt all the more." Furthermore, it was through a relative of his wife that he got a fellowship from the Rosenwald Foundation. When Himes was broke and embarrassed before his wife, she enjoyed both a better job and better relations with Jews than he did, all of which threatened his masculinity.
Conspirators. In Lonely Crusade, Lee Gordon claims that Jewish prejudice against blacks exceeds that of other whites. He also insists that he "believe[s], like other Negroes, that Jews fight, and underhandedly [the African American] struggle for equality." Charges of secretive, conspiratorial opposition can hardly be disproven. But clearly, by their former substantial involvement in civil rights organizations (however disparaged as conscience money) and their still quite similar voting records (despite divergent economic interests), Jews have demonstrated far less hostility to blacks than other whites.
Here Himes might be distinguished from his character, whose paranoia on this point might be what the narrator means when he refers to Gordon's sentiments as "anti-Semitism." As noted above, a Jew, Rosenberg, proves Gordon's most devoted friend. However, Gordon also recalls an incident when a white gentile had warned him "that the Jewish people … were trying to get the white people to drive them from their neighborhood," lest "the property would go down." There the narrative does intimate at least one Jewish anti-black conspiracy.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Lee Gordon's charge that Jews fight blacks "underhandedly" is that such contention is unmasculine. Unlike open hostility—"fighting like a man"—secretive opposition affords no opportunity to affirm masculinity, even if defeated, through combat. This links the charge of conspiracy to Gordon's other complaints against Jews by their common insult to black manhood. Jewish Communists emasculate blacks by publicizing their victimization in lynchings. Jewish producers and entertainers present or joke about unthreatening, submissive black men. Jewish businessmen make black husbands look bad before wives they find difficult to support, lacking a Jew's economic opportunities.
Mothers. Gordon's final, apparently incidental but psychologically crucial complaint against Jews explicitly concerns gender: Jewish mothers pamper their sons. He deplores "the repulsive manner in which Jewish mothers worship their sons, making little beasts of them. I've sat on a streetcar and seen Jewish tots beat their mothers in the face…." But significantly, Gordon is the novel's only character who beats an unprotesting woman, his wife, in part because she plays an excessively maternal role. In other words, the defense mechanism of projection appears to be operating in this instance of his anti-Semitism.
Himes's resentment of women clarifies his parallel resentment of Jews. As his most autobiographical novel, The Third Generation, reveals, Himes disastrously overidentified with his mother, a very light-skinned woman of color highly contemptuous of blacks. She both doted upon and beat him, and photos show that she kept him, her youngest child, overlong in girlish attire. Perhaps another source of gender anxiety might have been Himes's prison experience. Because he wore a back brace, he was housed with "crippled" inmates. In Cast the First Stone, his prison novel, the hyper-masculine hero's homoerotic love object is embittered, disabled, and effeminate.
Himes's intense identification with his mother and perhaps his prison experience disposed him to differentiate himself from women violently. His autobiographical novels, The Primitive and The Third Generation, reflect their author's woman-beating tendencies, justified as follows in The Quality of Hurt: "the only way to make a white woman listen is to pop her in the eye, or any woman for that matter."
The marital relationship in Lonely Crusade closely parallels Himes's account of his own domestic circumstances when he wrote the novel. Ruth Gordon has a better job than her husband, resulting in a sexual "impotency, that was … trampling down his every endowment of manhood"—though he beats and rapes her. The narrator states that Gordon's wife
had not minded absorbing his brutality, allowing him to assert his manhood in this queer, perverted way, because all of the rest of the world denied it. But at so great a price, for it had given to her that beaten, whorish look of so many other Negro women, who no doubt did the same.
Gordon knows that it is wrong to beat his wife, but reflects, "Lord God, a man had to stand on somebody, because this was the way it was." Gordon reflects that his wife had formerly, at her first job, worked for Jewish Communists who had "wooed" her, so that he "felt that the [Jewish] Communists were taking her away from him." These Jews may pose a sexual threat, indirectly, through their ability to offer her salary and flattery. However, the Jew is feared here, not so much as a wife-seducer but as someone likely to conspire with her against her husband's desire to affirm masculinity with other men, including white men, if only through open combat against them.
Gordon is a union organizer, and when the company's WASP tycoon offers to buy him off with a high-paying job, his wife wants him to take it. But that would be "without honor." And
he had reached the point in life where if he could not have the respect of men he did not want the rest. And if this entailed her having to work for what he would not give her in dishonor, she should at least understand that there was nothing noble in her doing so; it was only the white man's desire to deride the Negro man that had started all the lies and propaganda about the nobility and sacrifices of Negro women in the first place.
Eventually, Ruth Gordon does quit her job to repair her husband's masculine ego. But she can never bond with him in violent heroism. Nor can the Jewish Communist Rosenberg, despite pronouncing Gordon "a Negro of revolutionary potential" who will "not be afraid to die." As Gordon marches into suicidal combat against union-busting cops at the book's conclusion, his wife screams in terror, while the equally self-sacrificing and protective "Rosie" stands at her side and yells: "No, Lee! No!"
Gordon finds his wife financially superior and physically inferior. Her very supportiveness unmans him; the Jewish analogy (in Hodges's) is to "paternalism." "Little" "Rosie" likewise treats Gordon to lunch and absorbs his (verbal) abuse. When Gordon hides out, hunted and sick, Rosenberg comes to nurse him, undressing him, putting him to bed and feeding him—functions more readily associated with wives and mothers than with buddies. In short, the novel's chief Jewish character resembles the hero's wife as an oddly maternal figure. But Gordon resents their motherings. One of his pet peeves is the theory that African American society is matriarchal, which he won't accept "even if it is true," because "in a white society where the family unit of the dominant group is patriarchal, doesn't that make us something less?"
This line of thought reflects Himes's personal need to establish a masculine identity by cutting himself away from his overbearing mother. But the associated anti-Semitism and anti-feminism he sometimes expressed may not be explained so well by his personal psychology as by his intuition of how African American cultural authority would have to be communicated to a broader audience.
Himes determined that African Americans would only be respected in America by emphatically (if "absurdly") brandishing their masculinity, and that this entailed the sacrifice of their special relationship with Jews and the world view of leftist Jewish intellectuals. Blacks could bond with Jews through political argument, as Rosenberg and Gordon do in Lonely Crusade. But they could more readily and authoritatively bond with gentile white Americans in drinking, fast driving, brawling, shooting, and gambling—i.e., through the rituals of mainstream, masculinity-proving American culture. Underlying the connection between Lee Gordon's hostility to Jews and to women is his attraction to a masculinity-proving ethos—a violent, straight-dealing culture shared with most American black and white men, but, he felt, neither with his wife nor with American Jews. Hence, Himes characterized the model of Lonely Crusade's Rosenberg, his friend Dan Levin, as the author of a novel "in a way a forerunner of the Jewish writer's treatment of the war theme…. Jewish writers never glorified war." Contrastingly, in Lonely Crusade, war is glorified in a speech by a Southern white army officer who trains black pilots; it tells them that World War II requires their fighting heroism, though formerly they have been encouraged to suffer misfortune patiently. This call to arms includes such phrases as "all of us must prove first of all that we are capable of the dignity and nobility of manhood." To Gordon, this means that "whenever a Negro came to believe that full equality was his just due, then he would have to die for it, as would any other man."
Clearly, a political rhetoric that prioritizes proving manhood poses problems. For one thing, it is dangerous. Note that it is a socially privileged male, a white Southern army officer, who asserts the need to "prove first of all that we are capable of the dignity and nobility of manhood." It was by courageously fighting for the unjust cause of slavery that Southern army officers established their iconic masculinity in American culture. Indeed, unjust occasions for combat (e.g. gang warfare) may facilitate proving masculinity even better than just ones. The rhetoric is also unrealistic. Himes himself lived a good long seventy-five years, rather than dying for "full … equality as would any other man." It is also problematic that these values exclude women and, with them, (Diaspora) Jews—not Israelis, whose combativeness Himes admired and thought American blacks should emulate. Both women and (Diaspora) Jews have generally felt—as Himes's Southern colonel said of traditional African Americans—that their group would be more harmed than helped by displays of heroic violence.
Unsurprisingly, one of Lonely Crusade's most negative reviews did come from the Jewish journal Commentary. The review and Himes's response to it together illuminate the black/Jewish kulturkampf brewing then and yet to come. Both the black novelist and the Jewish reviewer (Milton Klonsky) misrepresented each other's texts and seemed most obtuse to each other when dealing with the touchy gender issue.
Complaining in The Quality of Hurt about the biased reception of Lonely Crusade, Himes said that "the writing might well have been bad, but the writing was not criticized by one review I had read." He also said the Commentary review most objected to his depiction of a "Christ-like Jew." Both accounts are mistaken.
The Commentary reviewer, who was not the only one to do so, did attack what he (wrongly) called Himes's "shabby style" and "clumsily written" novel. He found especially ludicrous Himes writing of lovers going to bed "to consummate their gender." (Might this refusal to consider the sexual act as an signification of gender typify a difference in the sexual sensibilities of Jewish and black writers?) Not above delivering a gender insult in a patronizing racial tone, Klonsky wrote that "although the author is himself a Negro, his book is so deracinated, without any of the lively qualities of the imagination peculiar to his people, that it might easily have been composed by any clever college girl" (emphasis added).
The reviewer also objected, not to Himes's treatment of his main Jewish character as "Christ-like," but to Rosenberg being stereotyped as a Communist and caricatured as physically repulsive. He also objected to the black and Jewish characters' discussion of "why Jews love money." (But their discussion of the domination of ghetto commerce by Jewish businessmen makes no such claim; it is hardly that crude.) While conceding that Himes might have been well-intentioned, Klonsky concluded that his "treatment here reveals a bias which is almost incredible in a book of its pretensions." That is, Himes's evident hostility to Jews was oddly incongruous with his intention to analyze and warn of black anti-Semitism.
Himes considered himself a mediator between worried Jews and blacks more anti-Semitic than he, all of whom required compassionate attention. His response to the Commentary review attributed Klonsky's hostility to "subconscious disturbances within the individual" and denied its "calumny"—that the book was anti-Semitic. He asserted that his hero's "self-destructive … anti-Semitism" resulted from "oppression." But Himes's attribution of his hero's anti-Semitism to "oppression" too thoroughly condones it. Rather than substantiate such an analysis, the novel ventilates an anti-Semitic tirade, then qualifies it (e.g., in Rosenberg's kindness and "wisdom of five thousand years"). Though this ambivalence is one of the book's many sources of interest, it does not erase its anti-Semitism.
Himes's reply to Commentary twice insisted that his novel's main theme was the universal one of "searching for manhood"—even, implausibly, that "this story could have been written about a Jew, a Gentile, a Chinese…." And he concluded his response by repeating his Southern officer's call to masculinity-proving heroism. By insisting upon the masculinity-proving theme and its universality, Himes both assertively countered the charge of ethnic bias and, implicitly, blamed Jews like Klonsky, because they lack authority and manifest obtuseness in masculinist discourse. Indeed, most American Jews have felt proving manhood by violence to be inimical to their culture and potentially dangerous to them.
Klonsky's reply to Himes boasted of his review's having stuck it to the novelist—"It seemed to have stuck in his throat but barely grazed his mind." He otherwise refused to perpetuate the dialogue. Commentary's reviewer was understandably disturbed and offended by Lonely Crusade. However, he grossly underestimated Himes's extremely well-written and prescient novel.
Himes's prescience consists essentially in having realized, in the heyday of Ernest Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart (and just before Jackie Robinson), that African Americans would most effectively enter the mainstream of American culture through a display of hyper-masculine endeavor: that is, in sports, in the military, in hard-driving music, perhaps in the police (like his Harlem detectives), and in other potentially heroic roles, which men (perhaps especially Southern, even racist white men) cannot help but admire. It is too bad that Himes sometimes employed Jewish characters or formulated Jewish traits as a foil to the black American masculinity he endeavored to invoke. This made Himes a disturbing exponent of African American anti-Semitism—though he remains one of its more penetrating analysts. Certainly, in encouraging discussion of this touchy and offensive topic, few set a bolder example than Chester Himes.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9261
SOURCE: "From the Far Side of the Urban Frontier: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes and Walter Mosley," in College Literature, October, 1995, pp. 68-90.
[In the following essay, Crooks analyzes the frontier mentality in the detective fiction of Chester Himes and Walter Mosley.]
Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" marked a watershed for the European-American version of the history of North America. By 1890 the western frontier as a geographical space had disappeared, and "the frontier" as signifier was now cut adrift, its attachment to past, present, and future conceptual spaces a matter of debate. Indeed, for Turner himself the signifier slides significantly, sometimes figuring as a place where European-American settlement or colonization of North America ends, but also as a conceptual space, a shifting no-man's-land between European-and Native-American cultures, and finally, ideologically, as a "meeting point between savagery and civilization."
Other conceptual and spatial divides along ethnic and racial lines emerged almost simultaneously with the western frontier, however, and were available to absorb and transform its conceptual significance. The most obvious was that between European and African Americans embodied in the codes, economy, and practices of slavery and subsequent segregation. Such lines of segregation became particularly sharp and contested in urban settings, thanks to the close proximity of sizable communities formed along racial lines, often subject to differential treatment in terms of urban development, availability of credit, school funding, policing, and so forth. It is this urban manifestation of frontier ideology, and particularly the textual space opened up by crime fiction for an articulation of that frontier from its "other" side, that will concern me here.
Turner suggests, in an inchoate way, the need for and function of the particular ideological formation that drew a line between "white" civilization and "Indian" savagery, a term for which "black" criminal chaos could easily be substituted. Noting that there was not one frontier, but rather a trading frontier, a farming frontier, a military frontier, a railroad frontier, and so forth, he also notes that the various frontiers did not coincide geographically, nor in the economic interests that constructed them. In an attempt to account for the assumed ideological unity of the (European-American) United States, Turner maps these differences onto a progressive cultural history stretching from the savage prehistory of Indian lands in a linear development to the industrial metropolitan centers of the east. Ignoring the lack of fit between this mapping and the uneven developments of various frontiers, Turner identifies the Indians as the unifying factor that transformed the various frontiers, their regulation, and their histories into a unity by posing a "common danger" of absolute otherness.
It is difficult to reconcile this distinctive unity produced by common danger with Turner's invocation of the western frontier as the factor that transformed the European colonists into Americans: "The American frontier is sharply distinguished from the European frontier—a fortified boundary running through dense populations. The most significant thing about the American frontier is, that it lies at the hither edge of free land." On the one hand, Turner conceives of the frontier as the near edge of a wilderness of free resources, providing what he would later call a "safety valve" inhibiting the reproduction of the European class tensions between owners of the means of production and labor. In this sense the ideological work of the frontier was the production of individualism—meaning both individual liberty and individualized entrepreneurial competition—as an alternative to class politics. On the other hand, the frontier as a producer of unity is precisely a "fortified boundary" dividing "civilization" from "savage" others, a consolidating interpretation that rescues a racialized sense of national identity from the threat of anarchic individualism.
The role of individualism in this racializing and naturalizing of the frontier, translating it from a site of cultural contestation and ideological struggle into an expanding boundary of civilization, is overdetermined. First, the ideology of individualism romanticizes capitalist competition, displacing collective machinations with an image of a "fair fight" between free individuals. Second, as Richard Slotkin points out, early frontier narratives depicted figures like Benjamin Church and Daniel Boone as "the lone white man among tribes of Indians" even though "both men dealt with the Indians as agents for large land companies." Produced by a familiar trope of individualizing the European-American self against collectivized others, the "lone white man" would be a recurring image suggesting that the struggle of European Americans against the wilderness was not even a "fair fight," but rather a heroic battle against the odds. Third, in conjunction with the representation of the far side of the frontier as vacant wilderness, capitalist competition (including that with Native Americans for land and resources) could be concealed behind images of individual entrepreneurs—whether farmers, traders, trappers, or prospectors—taming a "nature" divested even of collectivized Native American subjects, bringing it within the pale of culture. Finally, the ideology of individualism could mediate between the narratives of men against the wilderness and the experiences of the European-American colonists of the frontier as a site of ideological struggle between different cultures. A continuous stream of diatribes against "Indianization" and the motif of the "good Indian," prominent in frontier narratives from Cooper through Zane Grey to the Daniel Boone television series, has helped in a variety of ways to reconcile a racially defined oppression with ideologies of egalitarianism and tolerance by posing frontiersmen and Indians as individuals free to choose European-American civilization over Indian savagery.
These various meanings and functions of individualism are not mutually compatible or equally operative in every moment of discourse. Such disjunctions are a consequence of contradictions that emerge in the ideological negotiation of material encounters between cultures or emergent micro-cultures. The ability of Turner to move discursively back and forth between "Indian lands" and "free lands," or to rewrite complex modalities of capitalist competition as a progressive history inscribed seamlessly across the continent, demonstrates the possibility and necessity of evading such contradictions through the ideological isolation of discourses. In geographical terms, the western frontier was a battlefront in a territorial war that was articulated within various struggles over issues including race, the structuring of the State, and the proper use of land and resources. Because such war could not be justified according to prevailing ethics or law, it was necessary to isolate discursively the colonization of territory from the battle between civilization and savagery by converting "the idea of racial propensities into a rationale for wars of extermination."
From the European-American perspective, then, the frontier wars were not wars of conquest, for the assertion of authority by the U.S. government to make legal claim to land occupied by Native Americans was tantamount to redefining Native Americans themselves as foreign intruders to be eradicated. Through this redefinition, the "Indian Question" was discursively linked to the "Slavery Question." At the same time that the European-American frontier was being pushed westward, a new and distinctively American "science" of craniometry was developing an "objective" method for differentiating among races.
Such work in racial "science" not only helped to justify the continuation of slavery and the war on Native Americans, but also helped determine the shape of the eventual "solutions" to those problems. Though the complete extermination of Native Americans and the mass transportation of black Americans "back" to Africa had many proponents, the compromise solution was collective oppression and exploitation facilitated by racial segregation, the containment of Native Americans and Native-American culture on Reservations, and the similar containment of African Americans through various forms of segregation.
This partitioning refocused the frontier ideology, which continued to map cultural and racial divisions, but in geographical terms now denoted relatively fixed lines of defense for the purity and order of European-American culture. Such lines became particularly charged in cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, where population densities and the size of minoritized communities threaten individualist ideologies, since the collective experience of exploitation lends itself to collective resistance or rebellion. Thus the meaning of the other side of the frontier, in the shift of focus from its western to its urban manifestation, has been partly transformed: no longer enemy territory to be attacked and conquered or vacant land to be cultivated, it now constitutes in mainstream European-American ideologies pockets of racial intrusion, hence corruption and social disease to be policed and contained—insofar as the "others" threaten to cross the line.
Like the association of individualism with European-American manifest destiny, the association of black urban communities in particular with the criminal side of the urban frontier has historically been overdetermined. Many of the African Americans migrating to the cities were forced to seek housing and then to remain in the poorest areas of the cities by discriminatory practices in housing, as well as in the workplace and schools. Furthermore, as Homer Hawkins and Richard Thomas point out:
Most northern white policemen not only believed in the inferiority of blacks but also held the most popular belief that blacks were more criminally inclined by nature than whites…. For decades, white officials in northern cities allowed vice and crime to go unpoliced in black neighborhoods. This non-protection policy had the effect of controlling the development of black community by undermining the stability of black family and community life.
Police indifference to black-on-black crime has been frequently noted in all regions of the U.S. and persists to such an extent that Rita Williams exaggerates little, if at all, when she says that "African Americans know they can murder each other with impunity and absolutely no one will care."
Inadequate policing of intra-community crime, the saturation of black communities with liquor and gun stores, and gentrification supplement strategies of containment with strategies of eradication and displacement. If the war of extermination and deterritorialization goes largely unrecognized, it is because the urban frontier works more through hegemony than openly repressive force. All Americans can watch the physical and economic "self-destruction" of black communities on the nightly news, and conservative African-American intellectuals can be co-opted into chastising blacks for failing to take responsibility for "their own" problems and the disintegration of their communities Meanwhile the urban frontier serves the same purpose for capitalism as did the western frontier and the European colonial frontiers in general: the production of relatively cheap resources, including labor.
Though specific techniques of oppression and exploitation have changed, then, the frontier ideology remains largely intact, though displaced. Individualism in particular remains crucial in disguising a site of ideological struggle as a line of defense against crime and chaos or the boundary of advancing modernization or "urban renewal" or "revitalization," and for disarming collective resistance. Hegemony works through negotiation, though, and resistance does exist, in however fragmented forms. In the remainder of this essay I will consider one mode of resistance from the far side of the frontier, the emergence of African-American detective fiction, a popular form that has the capacity both to represent and enact resistance in social and literary terms.
And it wasn't just this city. It was any city where they set up a line and say black folks stay on this side and white folks on this side, so that the black folks were crammed on top of each other—jammed and packed and forced into the smallest possible space until they were completely cut off from light and air.
Cultural historians like Slotkin and Alexander Saxton have argued persuasively that the hard-boiled American detective is a direct descendant of nineteenth-century frontier heroes like Natty Bumppo, liminal figures who crisscross the frontier, loyal to European-American society but isolated from it through their intimate involvement with Native American others. Indeed, Saxton sees the rapid emergence of the dime-novel detective in the late 1880s partly as a consequence of the closing of the frontier and a corresponding "credibility gap … between the occupational activities of [real contemporary miners and cowboys] and the tasks that western heroes were expected to perform." Critics of detective fiction—Cynthia Hamilton's recent Western and Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction in America is the most elaborate and thorough account—have likewise traced the lineage of the American adventure hero through the hard-boiled detectives of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and beyond, without, however, paying much attention to the fate of the "frontier" in that passage.
The importance of that genealogy is indisputable, I think, particularly for considering the ideological and cultural work of hard-boiled crime fiction. The emphasis on the figure of the adventure hero, largely apart from the rest of the hard-boiled urban world, has on the other hand been something of a critical red herring encouraged by the rhetoric of the fiction itself. Hard-boiled fiction, possibly more than any popular formula, has been overwhelmingly dominated by the individualism that is crucial to frontier ideology, in that it allows recuperation of the outlaw frontier hero who, in Slotkin's suggestive reading, is represented as renewing European-American civilization through acts of violence that at once transgress and defend its symbolic and geographical boundaries. Though particular discourses do, of course, construct particular subject positions, their most important ideological work lies not in the construction of individual subjects but rather in matrices of subject relations within a conceptual space. For that reason, we need to look beyond particular characters in adventure fiction to the dynamic spaces, the intersubjective matrices, constructed by those fictions.
Given the overdetermined association of African Americans and crime in everyday life and the representations of that association as a natural result of essential racial characteristics, one might expect black crime and racial conflict to play a more central role in hard-boiled detective fiction, which more often deals with white law and white deviance. That this is not the case seems partly a consequence of the transformation of the frontier from a movable western boundary into a relatively fixed partitioning of urban space. An overt war of extermination requires that the other side be represented, if in distorted or fantasmatic form. Sustained oppression, which is a covert war of extermination largely by ideological remote control, benefits more from sanctioned ignorance. Nevertheless there are occasionally references to a racial frontier at the extreme edge of society that marks the ultimate frontier, the absolute boundary of the "order" of the familiar, as in this passage from Mickey Spillane's One Lonely Night:
Here was the edge of Harlem, that strange noman's-land where the white mixed with the black and the languages overflowed into each other like that of the horde around the Tower of Babel. There were strange, foreign smells of cooking and too many people in too few rooms. There were the hostile eyes of children who became suddenly silent as you passed.
This frontier dividing Harlem from the rest of Manhattan is represented from its far side in Chester Himes's novel of the same period, A Rage in Harlem (also known as For Love of Imabelle), as Jackson, the central character, on the verge of escape after a harrowing flight from the police, suddenly realizes that he has left Harlem and is "down in the white world with no place to go … no place to hide himself." He turns back to face certain capture rather than go on. Himes does more than simply affirm the existence of the border, however: he explores its meaning as an ideological concept marking the exercise of white hegemony. In doing so he offers a conception of crime never more than tentatively articulated in European-American detective novels by acknowledging an "underworld" that is "catering to the essential needs of the people" (my emphasis), perhaps not in ideal fashion but in a manner necessitated by the character of the socioeconomic system. A good deal of criminal activity in this fiction is a result of the U.S. economy's partitioning through segregation. Crime itself, then, is a potentially resistant practice.
Viewing crime as part, rather than the breakdown, of a cultural system, Himes and, more recently, Walter Mosley construct a complex picture of crime and detection as a negotiation of cultural needs and values, operating within the black American subculture as a critique of white racial ideologies. Referring repeatedly and explicitly to the complex politics of race and class in the U.S., they seek to disentangle justice and morality from white hegemony, fighting exploitation and violence within black communities while also attacking a social system that engenders crime. In short, they resist the assimilation of the far side of the frontier as "chaos" and "evil," favoring a conception of the frontier as a site of ideological struggle for rights and privileges between two American microcultures.
The general grounds for such struggle are perhaps best summed up by Himes, commenting on "The Dilemma of the Negro Novelist in the U.S.A.": "Of course, Negroes hate white people, far more actively than white people hate Negroes…. Can you abuse, enslave, persecute, segregate and generally oppress a people, and have them love you for it? Are white people expected not to hate their oppressors?" Whatever differences there might be on specific details, Himes and Mosley agree in affirming the need for African-American opposition to oppression and in rejecting the privilege of white supremacist ideology to diagnose and prescribe remedies for the situation of African Americans.
Self-policing of a community, even an oppressed one, is not necessarily complicitous with the oppressive order, of course, or at least not completely so. As I indicated earlier, crime within an oppressed community may be a form of resistance, but it is also a part of the larger, macrocultural economic and social structure. In the U.S. that means crime is exploitative, for it acts out the imperatives of capitalist competition in a particularly unfettered manner. Therefore, as Manning Marable has pointed out, in relatively poor African-American communities, like those of the Himes and Mosley novels, "the general philosophy of the typical ghetto hustler is not collective, but profoundly individualistic … The goal of illegal work is to 'make it for oneself,' not for others. The means for making it comes at the expense of elderly Blacks, young black women with children, youths and lower-income families who live at the bottom of the working class hierarchy." It is because of their need to resist the manifestations of individualist competition as criminal entrepreneurship that Himes's police detectives and Mosley's private investigator work in their own communities.
Aside from that common ground, however, the novels of the two series differ considerably, and these differences intersect in complicated ways with the construction of the urban/racial frontier in the two series. These constructions in turn reflect the contradictions produced by ideological struggle between differing American microcultures. A dominant ideology tends to be self-sustaining, thanks to its greater access to means of reproduction like educational systems and mass communication media. Nevertheless dominance and its reproduction can never be complete, never attend adequately to every extra-cultural force operating through travel, migration and immigration, international economic transactions, and so forth, or to every gap that develops in the intra-cultural social formation through uneven development. On the other hand, the pervasiveness of dominant ideologies tends to fragment and disperse the force of other microcultural modes of ideological resistance. Resistance is therefore always under pressure, faced with an incessant need to escape from or relocate itself within a space defined by the dominant microculture.
Michel de Certeau's Practice of Everyday Life still offers perhaps the most exhaustive attempt to theorize this locating of resistance, by positing two logical possibilities. Strategic resistance finds its space outside the domain of the dominant by attaching itself to an alternative, fully constituted ideology that exists elsewhere. Tactical resistance, on the other hand, works within the space of the dominant, exploiting the contradictions within that space as opportunities arise, but unable to hold on to what is gained in the tactical moment. The novels of Mosley and Himes can be usefully read as narratives representing, respectively, strategic and tactical resistance. To read the novels this way, however, also raises questions about the dichotomy de Certeau constructs, suggesting a more complicated relation between strategies and tactics.
Resistance in representational practices, of course, cannot operate in a straightforward manner. Fictional narratives in particular raise the question of the use of representation for resistance, since the diegetic world constructed by a narrative has an ambiguous, if necessary, relation to the world of everyday practice. Furthermore, representation of resistance need not itself be a resistant practice (mainstream media coverage of the Los Angeles uprising in 1992 offers the most blatant recent demonstration). Therefore, in what follows I will separate questions of representing resistance from the manner of representation, in this case narration.
"Detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson reporting for duty, General," Pigmeat muttered.
"Jesus Christ!" Chink fumed. "Now we've got those damned Wild West gunmen here to mess up everything."
Representation and enactment of resistance to white hegemony is central to detective fiction of both Himes and Mosley. In discussing these issues, I will consider the two writers in reverse chronological order for two reasons. In terms of representation, Himes's police detectives occupy a more complex and ambiguous ideological space. In terms of enactment, Himes's formal experimentation, especially in Blind Man With a Pistol, possesses a more radical potential than anything in Mosley's writing to date, though the latter also suggests directions for resistance unexplored by his precursor.
Unlike detective characters ranging from Mike Hammer or Kinsey Millhone, who despite many differences all bend the law only to better uphold it, Mosley's Easy Rawlins readily and unrepentantly acknowledges having been on the "wrong" side of the law himself. His detective work is described as being for the community and outside the white system of law, often performed on a barter basis and for people who "had serious trouble but couldn't go to the police" because they themselves are already of material necessity living on the fringes, if not outside, of the law: "In my time I had done work for the numbers runners, church-goers, businessmen, and even the police. Somewhere along the line I had slipped into the role of a confidential agent who represented people when the law broke down." This strategic position of "confidential agent" is justified partly on the grounds that an African American could not both work for the police and remain part of the community. Speaking of Quinten Naylor, a black cop who figures in the second and third novels, Rawlins says that he "got his promotion because the cops thought that he had his thumb on the pulse of the black community. But all he really had was me…. Even though Quinten Naylor was black he didn't have sympathy among the rough crowd in the Watts community."
Within the narratives as a whole, the division between a communal African-American order and white law proves tenuous. Mosley's first three novels turn on problematic intersections of the white and black communities of Los Angeles, focusing on figures who traverse the unstable interstice between: Daphne Monet/Ruby Hanks, an African-European-American ("passing" for a "white" woman) who likes the Central Avenue jazz clubs and black lovers; Chaim Wenzler, a Jewish member of the American Communist Party who works in and for the black community; Robin Garnett, a rich young white woman who has rebelled against her family and upbringing by becoming a stripper and prostitute in Watts under the name of Cyndi Starr. And in each case, Easy Rawlins is pressed into detective work by forces from the white world as well: racketeer DeWitt Albright, who plays on Easy's need for quick mortgage money after losing a job (Devil in a Blue Dress); the IRS and FBI, who threaten to prosecute him for tax evasion (Red Death); the L.A. police, who threaten to pin a series of murders on his friend Mouse (White Butterfly). More important than these connections with the white community, however, is Easy Rawlins' discovery that there is no simple way to work for order and justice in his African-American community when what counts as "order" and "justice" is defined, at least in part, by a dominant white supremacist ideology. Rawlins does not share the common illusion of the privileged, that such terms can be defined outside of ideology. He observes frequently that all people act according to what they perceive to be their own best interests. That leaves open, however, the question of whether a community that is systematically disempowered by a dominant ideology can produce a coherent strategic resistance.
Mosley's second novel, A Red Death, addresses the question most directly. At the beginning of the story Rawlins is summoned by an IRS investigator for tax evasion. Technically the charge is valid, because Easy failed to report as income $10,000 that he acquired illegally, though in his own view legitimately in Devil in a Blue Dress. FBI Agent Craxton then offers to help Rawlins cut a deal with the IRS, provided that he helps them get damaging information about Chaim Wenzler, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust and is a member of the Communist Party in the U.S. Craxton appeals to Easy's patriotism, positing an alliance between them through an explicit statement of urban frontier logic: "the Bureau is a last line of defense. There are all sorts of enemies we have these days…. But the real enemies, the ones we have to watch out for, are people right here at home. People who aren't Americans on the inside." Easy doesn't trust Craxton, insists that he will do the job only because he has no choice, and tells us that his own feelings about communism are "complex" because of the alliance between the Soviet Union and the U.S. during the war and Paul Robeson's professionally disastrous connections with Russia. However, he doesn't actually challenge Craxton's construction of the frontier between real Americans and un-Americans. Instead he dismisses the idea of communist activity in the African-American community and insists that he will help the FBI get Wenzler but won't work against his "own people."
The rest of the narrative shows that any attempt to define such an internal frontier that aligns black and white interests against a common un-American enemy leads to unresolvable contradictions. Wenzler himself proves to be a sympathetic figure who works in the black community because of the links he sees between his own experience as Jew in Poland and that of African Americans. His main activities involve charitable work that Rawlins supports and aids. Furthermore, Wenzler's connections within the black community make any attempt to isolate him as an object of investigation impossible. Partly as a result of Rawlins' work, two black women and a black minister get murdered in addition to Wenzler, and Rawlins finds himself having to investigate the Garveyite African Migration group.
In short, Easy finds no reason to aid the FBI's investigation except his own economic interests, and he feels increasingly guilty about that. What is most interesting about the novel in ideological terms, however, is the response he works out to that guilt. One might expect that, seeing the impossibility of sharing the collective interests of the white-dominated U.S. government, Rawlins would decide between the two models for African-American opposition offered by Wenzler's Communist Party and the African Migration group. Both, after all, draw upon oppositional ideological formations, one drawn along class lines, the other along racial and cultural ones. Mosley uses an appeal to individualism to validate Easy's rejection of both collective positions. In each case Easy appeals to Jackson Blue, who might be described as the paradigmatic organic intellectual of Mosley's mid-twentieth century Watts. Jackson expresses his own rejection of the Migration agenda in terms of the cultural gap between Africa and African Americans: "We been away too long, man." Shortly thereafter Easy echoes Jackson's rejection of the Migration movement himself, but with a crucial difference: "I got me a home already. It might be in enemy lands, but it's mine still and all." Unlike Jackson's argument on grounds of collective, microcultural differences, Easy appeals to the imperative of individual property interests.
Jackson rejects communism on similar grounds of an unbridgeable difference of collective interests. While admitting that the communist economic agenda coincides with the interests of African Americans, he reduces the question of the Communist Party in America to the blacklist, and says that whites will eventually get off the list, but the situation of blacks will remain the same. Again Easy's rejection of collective action soon follows, based again on individual interests rather than microcultural ones: "It wasn't political ideas I didn't care about or understand that made me mad. It was the idea that I wasn't, and hadn't been, my own man…. Like most men, I wanted a war I could go down shooting in. Not this useless confusion of blood and innocence."
The position reflected here aligns Easy with the individualist ideology that has crucially underpinned conservative frontier American politics, which helps explain why he is unable to reject the FBI's new frontier account of real and unreal Americans even though he distrusts Craxton. The positing of "American" as a collective cultural and ideological identity stands in direct contradiction with the notion that what makes one American is precisely radical "individuality." That contradiction has enabled the frontier ideology, in both its western and urban manifestations, to link an egalitarian political rhetoric with systematic aggression against Native Americans on the one hand, and the systematic underdevelopment of Black America meticulously documented by Marable on the other. Given the demand of political expediency, frontier ideology sometimes serves the establishment of national boundaries or internal partitions on the basis of an essentialist racial ideology that hierarchizes individuals by group identifications. At other times, however, and in other geographical or cultural terms, the idea that all people are free individuals is used to argue that they fall on either side of the frontier lines through their own bad choices or personal failings. The logic of individualism coupled with that of nationalism and patriotism thus permits systematic and collective cultural aggression and oppression to be passed off as a policing action against one bad Indian like Cochise or Crazy Horse or Geronimo, or as the legitimate surveillance of a dangerous black leader like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X—or a communist like Wenzler. That Easy Rawlins falls into line with the ideology that claims that he can be his own man seems to confirm the accusation made by his friend Mouse: "You learn stuff and you be thinkin' like white men be thinkin'. You be thinkin' that what's right fo' them is right fo' you." Thus it is on very shaky ground indeed that Easy chides the black police officer Quinten Naylor: "You one'a them. You dress like them and you talk like them too."
The trajectory of Easy's particular negotiation of the contradictions of American culture can be traced, I think, to a lesson he learns from DeWitt Albright in the first novel of the series: "You take my money and you belong to me…. We all owe out something, Easy. When you owe out then you're in debt and when you're in debt then you can't be your own man. That's capitalism." There is no necessary linkage between capitalism and white supremacist ideology, but just as racism can serve the interests of capitalism by ideologically fragmenting classes, so too can a capitalistic individualism undermine collective resistance to racism. Various sympathies notwithstanding, Easy's actions are structured by the drive to accumulate wealth, which drives wedges between him and the South Central community. At the end of White Butterfly, Easy announces his move to a section of West Los Angeles that "[m]iddle-class black families had started colonizing." Significantly absent from the text is the recognition of the way this geographical sectoring of classes in the capitalist metropolis splits the interests of African Americans as a minoritized community—a phenomenon well understood by Bob Jones in Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go: "When you asked a Negro where he lived, and he said on the West Side, that was supposed to mean he was better than the Negroes who lived on the South Side; it was like the white folks giving a Beverly Hills address." Instead, Easy's casual use of the "colonizing" metaphor suggests the subordination of collective interests to the exigencies of white capitalism, which undermines strategic resistance organized around either class or community.
As police detectives, on the other hand, Chester Himes's Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson align themselves explicitly with the existing power structure, while nevertheless enacting a tactical resistance within that system. Although they ostensibly solve crimes, the solutions often turn out to be plausible but false ones. These solutions satisfy the white legal establishment, but also work to rid Harlem of committed criminals while sparing others, often "squares" who have gotten involved in crime through a desperate need for money, and offering them incentives to avoid further crime. Usually these fortunate survivors, like Jackson and Imabelle in A Rage in Harlem or Sissie and Sonny in The Real Cool Killers, marry at the end of the novels. In addition, Jones and Johnson's position within the law enforcement structure allows them to critique it directly, which they do most frequently by pointing out the roots of black crime in economic exploitation by whites.
Nevertheless they take their orders and carry them out. As insiders, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed cannot mount any consistent resistance to white oppression. Rather, in the way that de Certeau cogently recognizes, they seize opportunities where they arise, never working directly against the interests of the police department, but twisting situations and police procedures in such a way as to subvert them and turn them to the use of the Harlem community.
Such tactical resistance proves as difficult to define and sustain as the strategic resistance attempted by Easy Rawlins, however, and that difficulty seems implicitly addressed by a trajectory that can be traced through the Grave Digger/Coffin Ed series. The pattern involves the way in which crime and policing, the relation between the two, and between the two and the Harlem community, are conceived.
As I pointed out earlier, a passage in the first novel of the series radically defines crime not as a deviation from, but rather an integral part of the U.S. economy, catering to "essential needs" of people that are not satisfied through "legitimate" business, or at least not satisfied uniformly, given the various kinds of inequalities that are also integral to the U.S. economy and culture. And far from standing in simple opposition to one another, the police and the organized crime system are also bound by economic relations. Himes's detectives are said to take "their tribute, like all real cops," and as Coffin Ed succinctly puts it, "Crime is what pays us." Nonetheless, the novels insist on an order, a standard of tolerable or legitimate action, and that requires drawing a line, constructing a frontier. The passage on crime and the police in A Rage in Harlem reveals some of the contradictions that ordering raises, even within Himes's radical redefinitions:
[Grave Digger and Coffin Ed] took their tribute, like all real cops, from the established underworld catering to the essential needs of the people—gamekeepers, madams, streetwalkers, numbers writers, numbers bankers. But they rough on purse snatchers, muggers, burglars, con men, and all strangers working any racket. And they didn't like rough stuff from anybody else but themselves.
Aside from the complicated question of what constitutes "essential needs" or legitimate access to "rough stuff," the inclusion of "strangers" in the list of those who cross the line of legitimacy is a particularly troubling one given the line drawn by whites that establishes all blacks as strangers outside Harlem. Jones and Johnson themselves, by working for the white police, make themselves strangers both in and outside Harlem. The novels themselves acknowledge this tenuous position. Early in The Heat's On, Coffin Ed notices residents of a white-occupied apartment building watching them, and remarks, "They think we're burglars," to which Grave Digger replies, "Hell, what else are they going to think about two spooks like us prowling about in a white neighborhood in the middle of the night?" In Blind Man With a Pistol a black woman appeals to the two for help when white policemen try to arrest her unjustly, and Grave Digger is forced to respond: "Don't look at me … I'm the law too."
Theoretically, the problem is one that de Certeau's Practice of Everyday Life manages consistently to evade or finesse: since even dominant cultures are riven by ambiguities and contradictions emerging in the gap between ideologies and practices, how exactly is tactical resistance to be distinguished from complicity, or to put in terms that Himes might more likely use, how is justice to be distinguished from injustice?
Himes's novels themselves seem aware of this problem and try to address it by gradually shifting the position of Jones and Johnson from one of tactical to one of strategic resistance. The claim that the two take their tribute from the underworld like all the rest of the cops is reversed in later novels, and in Blind Man With a Pistol they are described as martyrs for the cause of honesty:
Now after twelve years as first-grade precinct detectives they hadn't been promoted. Their raises in salaries hadn't kept up with the rise of the cost of living. They hadn't finished paying off their houses. Their private cars had been bought on credit. And yet they hadn't taken a dime in bribes.
It is from this position of unshakable honesty that Coffin Ed can ask, in The Heat's On, "Is everybody crooked on this mother-raping earth?" The immediate point of such passages seems to be the moral superiority of the two over the rest of the police force, yet the passages also work to legitimate Jones and Johnson's access to acceptable violence in Harlem on the same moral grounds. Thus Himes emphasizes the distance Grave Digger and Coffin Ed place between themselves and the Harlem community, a distance he otherwise tries to mitigate through occasional encounters between the detectives and acquaintances from their childhood. In effect, then, the resistant position of the detectives is established in terms of the individualist ideology that Mosley resorts to, because the legitimacy of Jones and Johnson's liberties with the law rests entirely on their individual moral quality, and has nothing to do with the inadequacy of the law itself. Collective resistance to a system of law and order based on collective oppression is therefore undermined altogether and the black detective located on what has been the good white side of the frontier all along. The project of collective opposition to a white supremacist culture succumbs to the fantasy of being one's own man.
Yet neither Himes nor Mosley embraces individualism unambiguously. Blind Man With a Pistol maps the end of multiple trajectories of the Harlem detective series, and where the career of Jones and Johnson leads to an ideological cul de sac, the narrative turns instead back to the Harlem community itself for a model of effective resistance. Indeed, the story is one of continual frustration for Grave Digger and Coffin Ed. They are forbidden by their superiors to use their prized pistols, forbidden to solve the murders that occur, and instead ordered to determine who's responsible for a series of riots in Harlem. The detectives offer one culprit themselves—Lincoln, who "hadn't ought to have freed us if he didn't want to make provisions to feed us"—and they receive another answer from Michael X, a Black Muslim leader—"Ask your boss, if you really want to know … he knows." Other culprits are produced by the narrative as a whole: an earnest but stupid integrationist organizer named Marcus Mackenzie; the leader of a Black Jesus movement named Prophet Ham, whose motives seem dubious; Dr. Moore, a racketeer who uses a Black Power movement as a front; and finally, a blind man with a pistol.
This multiplication of suspects, and the failure of the detectives to narrow the list to one guilty party, as the detective formula demands, suggests that the individualist question posed is the wrong one altogether. Instead the novel suggests that riots are caused by a conjuncture of various personal interests with a general atmosphere of frustration, resentment, and hatred. The parable of the blind man with a pistol that forms the narrative's conclusion, displacing the conventional tying up of loose ends in the District Attorney's office, is important in this regard. Superficially the tale suggests that riots are caused by blind anger lashing out randomly. There is a crucial, though implicit, connection between this episode and the rest of the novel, however. Though the blind man starts shooting his pistol because of a complex misunderstanding and hits all the wrong targets, the one certain condition of possibility for the event is his fear and hatred of white people that is produced by the dominant racial ideology of the U.S. It is the same ideology that creates the crowds necessary to turn an individual cause or scam into a riot, that allows Michael X to say with confidence, "Ask your boss, he knows" who's starting the riots, and impels Grave Digger to respond, "You keep on talking like that you won't live long."
The turn away from individualist ideology, which permits right and wrong to be sorted out in terms of intrinsically good and bad guys, is manifested in other ways as well. For the first time in the series, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed have serious and repeated disagreements, not about facts or procedures in a specific case, but about their own role in general. Here's a representative passage, from a scene in which the detectives question a witness, a white woman named Anny:
"You changed your race?" Coffin Ed interrupted.
"Leave her be," Grave Digger cautioned.
But she wasn't to be daunted. "Yes, but not to your race, to the human race."
"That'll hold him."
"Naw, it won't. I got no reverence for these white women going 'round joining the human race. It ain't that easy for us colored folks."
"Later, man, later," Grave Digger said. "Let's stick to our business."
"That is our business."
In this reconsideration of their business, the detectives and the narrative itself suggest that the answer to the linked problems of racism and crime may not lie with them at all, but rather in collective resistance within the black community. In the earlier Cotton Comes to Harlem, a back-to-Africa movement is dismissed as a scam through which hustlers con the squares of Harlem, much in the same way that the Brotherhood, Black Jesus, and Black Power movements are dismissed in Blind Man With a Pistol. The Black Muslims also figure briefly in Cotton Comes to Harlem and are not subject to the same satirical treatment, but neither are they dealt with in more than a passing way. However, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed's ultimate engagement with the Black Muslims in Blind Man With a Pistol, an alternative ending that immediately precedes the concluding parable, is marked by startling departures from character on the part of the detectives. For the first time in the series, their engagement with another character is free of both irony and paternalistic condescension. Having chafed at orders not to use their pistols throughout the novel, here they volunteer to surrender them as a gesture of their good will toward Michael X. And when Michael X does agree to talk to them, they listen with astonishing seriousness and humility to the man described unequivocally as "the master of the situation."
I take the gesture of offering to hand over their pistols to be particularly significant because of the way it alters the position of the detectives constructed in A Rage in Harlem through the words "they didn't like rough stuff from anybody else but themselves." This early position reproduces a dominant definition of legitimate access to violence. The gesture of laying down arms, while not reversing that definition, at least marks a refusal on the part of Jones and Johnson to uphold it actively.
The novel doesn't explicitly endorse the Black Muslims or lay out in any detail an effective oppositional strategy. Indeed, as I noted above, Grave Digger's last words to Michael X are a grim prediction of an imminent and violent death. In addition, sexual integration is tentatively held up earlier in the novel as the ultimate solution to racial inequality. I will not pretend to resolve the question of whether the proper form of black American resistance is tactical or strategic, terms that in this case coincide roughly with integrationist/assimilationist and black nationalist agendas. The merits and weaknesses of each of these projects have been widely debated, and the problems are perhaps best summed up by Michele Wallace (citing Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual) in "Doing the Right Thing":
black political philosophy has always seesawed between an integrationist/assimilationist agenda and a cultural nationalist agenda…. Integrationism always ends up being an embarrassment to its black supporters because of the almost inevitable racism and bad faith of its white supporters; they are willing to "integrate" with a small portion of upper-class blacks only if the masses of poor blacks are willing to remain invisible and powerless. Cultural nationalism, on the other hand, has conventionally taken refuge in a fantasy of economic and political autonomy that far too often compounds its sins by falling into precisely the trap of bigotry and racism (against gays, women, Jews, "honkies," and others) it was designed to escape.
Aside from the problems, though, integrationism and separatism need to be seen not in simple opposition to one another, but rather in triangulation with the ideology they resist, that of old or new frontier capitalist individualism. Thus far Mosley's series, at the level of representation, has examined that triangulation and opted for individualism, viewing the collective possibilities of integration or separatism as they inevitably look from the individualist position: as individual choices amounting to something like voluntary club membership. Himes's series, on the other hand, finally leaves the triangulation as exactly that, an unresolved tension pulling the community of Harlem in different directions.
Mosley gestures toward a critique of individualism in a different way, by elaborating Easy's place within a community. His relationships with other characters like Jackson Blue, Mouse, and EttaMae are not merely glyphs that naturalize the authority of the central figure, as in most detective series, but rather change in significant connection to events of the narratives—Easy makes friends, loses them, feels the conflicts among his own various interests and ties acutely enough not to set himself on a moral pedestal. As a result those other characters attain a complex subjectivity that allows us to measure Easy's own limitations, making room for ironies at the level of textual narration if not at that of the first person narrator.
Himes's critique of individualism depends also on redefining crime again in Blind Man With a Pistol. Michael X implies that Harlem's crime is not a self-sustaining economy, as was suggested in A Rage in Harlem, and that the ultimate profit goes to the white community outside. In those terms, the irreducibly collective form of "crime," rioting, that preoccupies the novel also invalidates the individualist premises of American justice and law enforcement systems. Walter Mosley's series seems headed toward similar ends, since the historical trajectory of his series so far suggests that Easy Rawlins will eventually confront the Watts riots of 1965, just as Blind Man With a Pistol obviously alludes to the Harlem riots of 1964. The difference between the two series in their relation to the individualism central to frontier ideology extends beyond representations of crime and detection or policing, however. The Harlem series and Mosley's three novels employ quite different strategies of narrational enunciation that have implications as well for their relation to the urban frontier.
It was a Black-Art bookstore on Seventh Avenue dedicated to the writing of black people of all times and from all places….
"If I had read all these books I wouldn't be a cop," Coffin Ed said.
Like most kinds of fiction aimed at a mass market, detective fiction generally has been fairly conventional in most formal terms. Although the detective story trades heavily on enigmas, withheld information, misdirection, and confusion, readers can generally depend on the detective to finally put all the scattered pieces in place to construct a single, accurate account of events. Walter Mosley's novels are no exception, assuming perhaps the most common form for hard-boiled detective novels since Raymond Chandler began the Philip Marlowe series: a first-person narrative told by the detective. Though any narrative form can be manipulated to various ideological ends, this form lends itself to an individualist stance, especially in a formula where the central question might be articulated as "who has the one true version of the story?" The ideological frontiers that the detective novel generally constructs, between good and evil or justice and injustice, tend to get drawn around the figure of the narrating detective trying to negotiate a path of honesty in a corrupt world. Easy Rawlins agonizes over his own shortcomings and ethical blind spots—letting himself be manipulated into betraying his friends and community in A Red Death, forcing his wife to have sex against her will in White Butterfly, and so forth. He still seems to emerge, in his own accounts, as the most scrupulous and decent of the erring humans mired in the blindness of their cultural situations. In this respect Rawlins is hardly distinguishable from Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, or Kinsey Millhone, though as I suggested above, his meticulous placing within a community works against the monological form of the detective's narration, and perhaps will undermine it altogether as the series continues.
Chester Himes offers no such vision of community micropolitics, but on the other hand, he established himself as a formal innovator in the field of popular crime fiction from the beginning. In what seems an ingenious tactical response to the problem of writing novels set on the far side of the urban frontier, he rejected the convention of centering the novel in the perspective of the detectives, instead combining the narrational forms of the hard-boiled detective novel with that of criminal adventure narratives like James M. Cain's Double Indemnity or, to stretch definitions a bit, his own If He Hollers Let Him Go and Lonely Crusade. All the novels begin with so-called crimes and criminals, and the detectives often aren't introduced until several chapters into the narrative. Subsequently the point of view tends to shift back and forth, with some additional shifting on both sides of the law/crime divide. The limitations of each perspective are emphasized through a sprinkling of observations like "[Coffin Ed] hadn't discovered any lead to Uncle Saint, so he didn't know there were already three others dead from the caper." No single character ever acquires complete knowledge of the events of the novels. The conventional aim of the detective novel, to restore or uphold an order we are asked to accept as legitimate, and that of the conventional aim of the criminal adventure thriller, to test the order but finally to succumb or be reconciled to it, are displaced by a negotiation that never leaves an established order entirely dominant or unquestioned.
This mixing of genres tends to subvert the adamant insistence of crime fiction on the accessibility of "truth" to an individual perspective and its containment within a single coherent narrative. Such resistance to a dominant fictional mode is still limited, nonetheless, by established conventions of reading. Setting the detective story against the criminal adventure story does not simply consign meaning and truth to a site of contestation. Rather, both narrative points of view are subordinated to that of the overarching narration that assures readers of getting a true account, even if it is denied to any diegetic subject. Blind Man With a Pistol carries narrational innovation further, however, in a way that undermines the assurance of single, stable meaning.
As narratologists such as Seymour Chatman have argued, narrative discourse as such depends upon a double time-scheme, in which we can distinguish an order of diegetic events from the order in which those events are narrated. We need not have a complete account of the events told, but conventional narrative depends upon a stable narrational time to assure that such a complete account is available in principle. Cutting between different scenes of action, different sets of characters, different points of view, and so forth, is acceptable even without explicit transitions, so long as we have the impression that a unique spatial and temporal relation between all the events could at least possibly be reconstructed.
Blind Man With a Pistol flouts these conventions. It is impossible to tell how many riots occur, or when they occur in relation to other events of the novel. There are repetitions of names and features of characters without a clear indication in some cases of whether the same character is reappearing or whether another happens to have the same feature. There are italicized interludes whose relation to the rest of the story seems to vary considerably. For the most part events seem organized according to a clear temporal order only within specific episodes.
This narrative disorder threatens the possibility of conventional narrative closure (aside from the fact that no closure is offered even nominally within some of the particular subplot sequences). If we nevertheless finish the novel and try to make sense of it, we are forced to seek some other principle of unity than temporal sequence of events connected through a limited set of characters. What offers itself instead, I think, is a thematic coherence linking various episodes. And the point of that alternative mode of coherence, I think, is that the problems of racism and oppression cannot be thought through in the personal, individualistic terms that conventional narrative offers, but rather in terms of collective practices that invisibly link disparate individual stories. In other words, a novel like Blind Man With a Pistol reproduces ideological linkages as rhetorical ones, and therefore renders at least potentially visible in fiction what is generally concealed in the practices of everyday life in the United States.
This is only textual play, perhaps. But the Frontier remains powerful as the text of American destiny, fixing it in a genre of expansionist adventure and natural cultural dominance. The erosion of generic boundaries may then be crucial to eroding the urban frontier. From frontier adventure tales to Proposition 187, the text of the frontier has been most effective in its capacity to construct a single cultural enemy on which to build a fantasy of a unified American people pursuing a linear national narrative. The disruption of narrative exemplified in Himes's Blind Man With a Pistol may offer one effective strategy for disrupting the frontier narrative itself in a way that lays bare its ideological underpinnings and internal contradictions. Mosley's digressions into the micropolitics of community and between communities pull at the seams of the detective narrative in another way, undermining the traditional generic reassurance that the good guys and bad guys can be sorted out, and disrupted order reestablished. Pursuing this trajectory, investigating the genre as much as the crimes, may lead toward and beyond the achievement of Blind Man with a Pistol, toward multiple stories that produce irreducibly multiple culprits. A radical rewriting of the frontier might thus be an overdue rewriting of Turner's thesis, insistently restoring the frontier's fragmentation that he was at pains to conceal.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6525
SOURCE: "So Much Nonsense Must Make Sense: The Black Vision of Chester Himes," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1, Autumn, 1996, pp. 11-30.
[In the following essay, Cochran discusses the portrayal of racial tensions in Himes's fiction and states that "Himes viewed race as a dialectical relationship which progressed toward increasing absurdity."]
In the penultimate chapter of Chester Himes's 1969 crime novel Blind Man With A Pistol—the last in his series of stories set in Harlem—the eponymous character makes his first appearance, shooting craps in a small gambling house on a hot summer afternoon. After losing all his money, he walks to the subway station and boards a train. An eccentric pride precludes the man from admitting his blindness to anyone, including himself, and his naturally surly temperament is exacerbated by his gambling losses. On a crowded subway car he sits across from Fat Sam, an embittered black laborer carrying on a loud and intense argument with himself. Fat Sam mistakes the blind man's unseeing gaze for a mocking stare and begins belligerently shouting at him. Unaware that he is the object of Sam's anger, the blind man pays no attention, which further infuriates Sam. When a female passenger sticks up for the blind man, he unleashes his anger at both her and Sam, saying all he wants is the money that has been taken from him. A neighboring black minister, reading the New York Times, puts down his paper and attempts to maintain peace, pleading "Brothers! Brothers! You can settle your differences without resorting to violence." A nearby white passenger retorts, "Violence hell! What these niggers need is discipline," to which the blind man responds, "Beware, mother-raper! Beware!" causing the preacher to quickly sit down. But both the white man and Fat Sam take offence at the warning and the white man knocks the blind man down. Getting up, the blind man states "If'n you hit me again, white folks, I'll blow you away." As the minister begs "Peace, man, God don't know no color," the blind man pulls a..45 from beneath his coat and fires, accidentally striking the minister in the heart. A woman begins screaming "BLIND MAN WITH A PISTOL" and pandemonium ensues as the blind man fires two more shots. "The second blasts were too much," Himes writes. "Everyone reacted immediately. Some thought the world was coming to an end; others that the Venusians were coming. A number of the white passengers thought the niggers were taking over; the majority of the soul people thought their time was up." Fat Sam escapes by shattering the subway's glass doors just as the train pulls into the 125th Street station. Others follow as the station landing becomes strewn with fleeing, stumbling bodies, cut by glass, screaming in panic. As the woman continues yelling "BLIND MAN WITH A PISTOL" the title character stumbles over the bodies lying about the floor, waving his gun, asking "Where? Where?"
Meanwhile, on the street above the subway station, a group of angry Harlem residents is watching the demolition of condemned slum buildings, part of an urban renewal program which has succeeded primarily in displacing the ghetto's inhabitants without providing new housing. The famous black New York City detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones—heroes of eight Himes novels—are standing at the intersection of Lenox Avenue and 125th Street using their signature long-barreled, nickel-plated .38-caliber pistols on .44-caliber frames to shoot rats as they flee the buildings being demolished while several white policemen stand by watching. Having long since been pulled off the case that provided the original plot for the novel—a case everyone, including the author, seems to have lost sight of—the two must vent their fury on Harlem's literal, rather than figurative, rats. Onto this scene, from out of the nearby subway entrance, bursts Fat Sam immediately followed by a crowd of running, hysterical people covered in blood. As the white policemen pull their pistols, the blind man comes stumbling up the stairs and fires his gun, hitting a white cop in the middle of the forehead, before being gunned down by the other officers. Witnessing the chaotic unfolding of events, the denizens of Harlem immediately begin crying that white cops have killed an innocent black man. Rumors spread rapidly and Harlem is quickly engulfed in a full-scale riot. When Grave Digger speaks with his commanding officer, Lieutenant Anderson, an hour later, Anderson asks, "Can't you men stop that riot?"
"It's out of hand, boss," Grave Digger said.
"All right, I'll call for reinforcements. What started it?"
"A blind man with a pistol."
"You heard me, boss."
"That don't make any sense."
With this incredible scene—simultaneously violent, disordered, grotesque and humorous—Himes draws his series of Harlem crime novels to its logical conclusion, as the barely controlled chaos which had permeated his world view explodes into a maelstrom of racial apocalypse. Coming in 1969, the scene contained numerous symbolic references to specific recent events as well as to more general racial tensions. A year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Himes portrays an ineffectual, intellectual black minister pleading nonviolence and reconciliation who, ironically, is the gunman's accidental first victim. At a time when both political parties sought to outdo the other in calling for "law and order"—a racially-charged code term for cracking down on urban violence—Himes shows a white bystander scornfully declaring "what these niggers need is discipline." Fat Sam, a handyman for a white family, embittered by his low pay, demeaning work, and degrading contacts with his white employers, pathetically seeks to exert what power he can by forcing the other passengers to listen to his tirade. Outside the subway, Himes depicts the impotent anger of Harlem's black population confronting a distant, bureaucratic city government which cavalierly destroys its homes. Meanwhile, tensions with white police, the only immediate and tangible targets of the imperious city government, have reached the breaking point. Finally, the title character symbolizes the blind rage of African Americans who lash out in violence, with other blacks usually being their first victims. As Himes writes in the preface, the novel's central metaphor derived from a true incident a friend told him about, "and I thought, damn right, sounds like today's news, riots in the ghettos, war in Vietnam, masochistic doings in the Middle East. And then I thought of some of our loudmouthed leaders urging our vulnerable soul brothers on to getting themselves killed, and thought further that all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol."
In the interactions between the blind man and the people he meets on the street and subway and between the residents of Harlem and the police, Himes conveys what Mikhail Bakhtin termed heteroglossia. With this concept, Bakhtin referred to the way in which discourse
is entangled, shot through with shared thoughts, points of view, alien value judgments and accents. The word, directed toward its object, enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judgments and accents, weaves in and out of complex interrelationships, merges with some, recoils from others, intersects with yet a third group: and all this may crucially shape discourse, may leave a trace in all its semantic layers, may complicate its expression and influence its entire stylistic profile.
Some recent scholars of postmodern theory give a largely benign view of this concept, seeing in this heteroglossia a mélange of discourses of various racial, ethnic and other subcultures in which everyone can find his own niche. According to Jim Collins, the chorus of competing voices is so complex that the issue of power becomes problematic and the source of power, ultimately, unlocatable. But Himes's vision is much more sinister, as he sees in this cacophony of voices what Strother Martin would call "a failure to communicate" and the implications of this failure, Himes predicts, will be catastrophic. And unlike Collins, Himes firmly situates power in the distant, undemocratic, and white city government and portrays the competing discourses in Harlem as being a dialogic of the powerless.
Minority artists played a special role in the development of an emergent critical culture in the post-World War II period, since, as George Lipsitz has said, "[t]heir exclusion from political power and cultural recognition has allowed aggrieved populations to cultivate sophisticated capacities for ambiguity, juxtaposition and irony." Himes employs these artistic strategies in an effort to unmask the cultural contradictions of America in the postwar period. His paradigm, though, differs in significant ways from the traditional African American worldview. As Lawrence Levine has said, historically blacks have had little understanding of and appreciation for absurdity. Normally, only those fully integrated into a system of beliefs have the luxury of being able to see it as absurd. With their history of exclusion from and struggle to gain admission into the dominant culture, black Americans have seldom viewed the social order as fundamentally meaningless, as that would similarly render their struggle meaningless.
But Himes viewed absurdity as a concept central to an understanding of race. As an expatriate living in Europe during the height of the civil rights struggle, Himes gained enough distance from the American situation to formulate a concept of race relations that contrasted sharply with most African Americans' understanding of the issue. Himes viewed race as a dialectical relationship which progressed toward increasing absurdity. As he wrote in the second volume of his autobiography:
Racism introduces absurdity into the human condition. Not only does racism express the absurdity of the racists, but it generates absurdity in the victims. And the absurdity of the victims intensifies the absurdity of the racists, ad infinitum. If one lives in a country where racism is held valid and practiced in all ways of life, eventually, no matter whether one is a racist or a victims, one comes to feel the absurdity of life.
Racism generating from whites is first of all absurd. Racism creates absurdity among blacks as a defense mechanism. Absurdity to combat absurdity.
Himes experienced the absurdity of both Southern and Northern racism. Born in 1909 in Jefferson City, Missouri, Himes spent his early years living in several Southern and border states where his father taught blacksmithing at a series of black state colleges. The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1925, where, after graduating from high school Himes began consorting with the criminal underworld. In 1928 he robbed the house of a rich white couple at gunpoint, stealing money, jewels, and a car, and fled to Chicago. Arrested in Chicago, Himes was badly beaten by two detectives—who handcuffed his feet together and his hands behind his back, hung him upside down with the cuffs on his feet draped over an open door, and then beat him around the ribs and testicles. Extradited to Cleveland, Himes was sentenced to twenty-five years in the Ohio State penitentiary.
While in prison, Himes began writing, publishing short stories in such magazines as Esquire in 1934. Paroled in 1936, he returned to Cleveland where he worked for the Works Progress Administration as a member of the Ohio Writer's Project. Moving to California in 1940, he worked at a variety of unskilled jobs in the booming war industries and wrote his first two novels, If He Hollers Let Him Go and Lonely Crusade. The failure of the second novel left Himes embittered and determined to leave the country at the first chance and, in 1953, he emigrated to Europe. But during his European sojourn Himes was always a stranger in a strange land, his soul seldom finding refuge. Though he lived in France for nearly two decades, he never bothered to learn the language. His relations with the community of black American artists in Paris were always strained, and he was as appalled by French racism as by American. He ran through a series of difficult relationships with white women, both American and European. And, despite his eventual success in France, he was as unable to earn an adequate living from his writing in Europe and America and, for nearly a decade and a half, lived a largely hand-to-mouth existence.
It was in 1956, during one of these many periods of dire financial straits, that Himes's friend Marcel Duhamel (who had translated If He Hollers Let Him Go), urged him to write a crime story. The suggestion seems much more natural now than it did to Himes at the time. Not only did Himes claim not to know how to write detective stories, but virtually no black American authors had ever used the mystery story genre. But as Duhamel remarked, Himes's prose already bore a strong resemblance to the American style of Tough-Guy detective stories. "Write like you did in the novel I translated," he told Himes. "All action. Perfect style for a detective story." Beyond Himes's personal style, the genre itself is in many ways ideally suited for minority writers. As John Reilly has written:
Tough-Guy fiction in viewpoint or setting reflects conditions produced by the class and caste system. In the manner of Naturalism it depicts character as the product of social conditions, and from the standpoint of an outsider it provides a guide to the disorder of American civilization, making clear that the cause of it all is eventually located in the practices of the dominant class.
Finally Himes's adoption of the hard-boiled crime genre allowed him to escape the standard categorization of black writers, which fit all writing by blacks under the heading "protest." Like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, African American authors in the post-war period were invisible because of the dominant white culture's determination to force them into a predetermined, stereotyped mold of protest writer, a problem Himes had faced repeatedly. In the shadow of Richard Wright, black writers were expected to portray, with naturalistic despair, the effects of racism. But at the same time blacks were given only this one creative outlet, the public was growing weary of black protest novels. Himes too was dissatisfied with the form. In his autobiography he wrote:
I had the creative urge, but the old, used forms for the black American writer did not fit my creations. I wanted to break through the barrier that labeled me as a "protest writer." I knew the life of an American black needed another image than just the victim of racism. We were more than just victims. We did not suffer, we were extroverts. We were unique individuals, funny but not clowns, solemn but not serious, hurt but not suffering, sexualists but not whores in the usual sense of the word; we had a tremendous love of life, a love of sex, a love of ourselves. We were absurd.
Ironically, only by allowing himself to be typecast as a writer within another fictional genre—one relegated to second-class citizenship in the field of literature—could Himes escape the confines of being a black writer.
The universe of Himes's Harlem crime stories is marked by chaos, ambiguity, absurdity and violence while his description of it is filled with "that bitter self-corroding irony which white people call 'Negro humor.'" Harlem's residents are so accustomed to the disorder of their surroundings that they feel comfortable in it. As Grave Digger says at one point, "so much nonsense must make sense." Even the elements themselves contribute to this sense of chaos and violence, as all of Himes's stories take place either in the oppressive heat of summer or the bitter cold of winter. In the Harlem of his crime stories, Himes found a perfect metaphor for his worldview, which he described in his autobiography.
Some time before, I didn't know when, my mind had rejected all reality as I had known it and I had begun to see the world as a cesspool of buffoonery. Even the violence was funny. A man gets his throat cut. He shakes his head to say you missed me and it falls off. Damn reality, I thought. All of reality was absurd, contradictory, violent and hurting. It was funny, really, if I could just get the joke. And I got the handle, by some miracle.
The atmosphere of violence pervading this world is immediately apparent as virtually all of the stories open with a scene mixing chaotic and graphic violence with slapstick comedy. The Real Cool Killers, for example, begins with the only white man in a crowded bar being accosted by a diminutive patron with a knife. When Big Smiley, the bartender, comes to the aid of the white man, the small knifeman cuts his arm. Big Smiley reaches beneath the bar and pulls out a fireman's axe and swings it, cutting off the attacker's arm. "The severed arm in its coat sleeve, still clutching the knife, sailed through the air, sprinkling the nearby spectators with drops of blood, landed on the linoleum tile floor, and skidded beneath the table of a booth." When Big Smiley continues to advance on the small knifeman, he yells, "Wait a minute, you big mother-raper, till Ah finds my arm! It got my knife in his hand," before collapsing. When the white manager announces that everyone should remain calm and that the police have been called, the bar's remaining patrons stampede for the door. As soon as they exit, a hophead on the sidewalk accuses the same white patron of messing with his wife and begins pursuing him with a gun. The chase is soon joined by a gang of juvenile delinquents disguised as Arabs—the Real Cool Moslems—and a large crowd of black bystanders. Finally the white man is shot and the hopheaded gunman and the gang stand around his body laughing until the police come. Several of the other opening scenes are equally as bizarre.
These wildly absurd introductions merely foreshadow increasing violence, and chaos to come. In Himes's view, he sought to realistically portray the effects of violence. Cultural images of violent death rarely depict the effects guns, knives and other weapons have on the human body. "Even when they just say 'blown to pieces' that doesn't describe what they look like blown to pieces," he said. "When a shell hits a man in a war, bits of him fly around, half of his liver is flying through the air, and his brains are dribbling off. These are actual scenes, no one states these outright." No one except Himes, whose graphic descriptions of violence utilize grotesque metaphors and, often, slapstick comedy. One typical passage, in which a group of gunmen invade a large barbecue and opens fire, says, "There was a burst from a machine gun. A mixture of teeth, barbecued pork ribs, and human brains flew through the air like macabre birds."
Himes self-consciously sought to place his portrayal of violence in the broader context of American history and culture. "[T]here is no way," he told John Williams, "that one can evaluate the American scene and avoid violence, because any country that was born in violence and has lived in violence always knows about violence." It is, in fact, the close interrelationship between American culture and violence which has served as the basis of the large body of American hard-boiled detective novels. "'Cause no one," Himes said, "no one, writes about violence the way that Americans do[,]… for the simple reason that no one understands violence or experiences violence like the American civilians do…. American violence is public life, it's a public way of life, it became a form, a detective story form."
Similarly Himes plays with other icons of American culture in his portrayal of violence. Coffin Ed and Grave Digger are often viewed as fast-on-the-draw sheriffs and Harlem a dangerous frontier town. As one character says upon seeing Ed and Digger arrive on the scene of a crime, "Now we've got those damned Wild West gunmen here to mess up everything." The two mete out their own brand of frontier justice in an attempt to maintain some semblance of order amidst the daily chaos of Harlem. Their first appearance in a book is almost always immediately followed by mayhem. Arriving on the scene in The Real Cool Killers in which the crowd has just chased down and shot the white man from the bar, Ed and Digger line up the suspects. When one of the defiant Real Cool Moslems throws a bottle of ceremonial perfume at Coffin Ed—who once had a bottle of acid thrown in his face—then Ed fires off two shots, killing the perfume-thrower, injuring a woman by stander and sending the crowd into a panicked stampede, trampling the injured woman and two others.
In this case, first appearances are not deceiving. Beatings, threats and shootings provide the primary means by which Digger and Ed solve their cases. In A Rage in Harlem, they take turns slapping one suspect on the cheek. "They slapped him fast, from one to another, like batting a Ping-pong ball. Gus's head began ringing. He lost his sense of balance and his legs began to buckle. They slapped him until he fell to his knees, deaf to the world." Later in the novel, when the beautiful suspect Imabelle tries to seduce Grave Digger in order to avoid being arrested, Himes writes, "He slapped her with such savage violence it spun her out of the chair to land in a grotesque splay-legged posture on her belly on the floor…."
That Himes's attitude toward his protagonists could not have been unambiguous is reflected in The Crazy Kill where Ed and Digger take the suspect Chink back to police headquarters to elicit information from him. There they beat him in the same manner the young Himes was beaten when arrested for armed robbery. Chink's ankles are cuffed together and his hands behind his back, he is hung upside down by his ankles from the top of an open door, then the two put their heels in Chink's armpits and push down. Such practices frequently lead Digger and Ed into trouble both with the Harlem community and the police hierarchy, and the two often find themselves reprimanded or suspended by the commissioner and excoriated in the press for excessive use of force. But as Ed and Digger understand, their brutal tactics are necessary for survival in the violent and bizarre world of Harlem. "They had to be tough to work in Harlem. Colored folks didn't respect colored cops. But they respected big shiny pistols and sudden death. It was said in Harlem that Coffin Ed's pistol would kill a rock and that Grave Digger's would bury it."
With this portrayal of his two detectives, Himes epitomizes a major transformation occurring in the late fifties and sixties in popular cultural images of heroes. In his study of sixties' films, Ethan Morden has discussed the "very relative morality" of the era by focusing on actor Lee Marvin. In the fifties, Marvin had been typecast as a brutal and violent heavy and then graduated to playing heroes in the sixties, though in fact his heroes are as brutal and violent as his villains had been. "In Marvin," Morden said, "we have … a figure to centralize the decade's growing belief in violence as an expression not of villainy but of humanity." In his discussion of Marvin's performance in Point Blank Morden could easily be describing Coffin Ed and Grave Digger—"There's steel in his mad, even charm in his tense. No regrets. No opinions. When you deal with cheaters and liars and 'the organization,' violence is like breathing: necessary." In the era's popular culture, perhaps only Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer rivalled Ed and Digger for sheer brutality. But the New York City Hammer stalked was a Manichean world, with good and bad easily identifiable. Himes's heroes, on the other hand, inhabit an ambiguous and chaotic universe where values are relative and the two blunder through acting on an imperfect knowledge of good and evil. Thus while Hammer never accidentally shoots innocent bystanders, Ed and Digger frequently beat and injure the innocent along with the guilty.
What redeems these two is that they adhere to a strict code of ethics, though one that does not necessarily jibe with the law. In this sense they fit in with one of the dominant themes of American hard-boiled fiction. From Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade to Robert Parker's Spenser, detectives have been considered heroic if, in the midst of a chaotic, violent, and morally ambiguous world, they have carved out and maintained a rigorous code of honor. The first principle of Ed's and Digger's code is absolute loyalty to each other. The two are constantly together to the point that their personalities are almost interchangeable. Distrusted by the community they serve, frequently at odds with the department hierarchy, the two realize they can absolutely count on no one but each other.
In their Sisyphean quest to maintain order in Harlem, Digger and Ed have formulated a complex code of selective law enforcement.
They took their tribute, like all real cops, from the established underworld catering to the essential needs of the people—game-keepers, madams, streetwalkers, numbers writers, numbers bankers. But they were rough on purse snatchers, muggers, burglars, con men, and all strangers working any racket. And they didn't like rough stuff from anybody but themselves.
As Reilly has pointed out, Ed and Digger accept organized crime because its very organization lends consistency and stability to the community. But individual crime is unpredictable and thus exacerbates the normal chaos, so it is intolerable.
The two also have a well-ordered hierarchy of crime, with drug-dealing being the most serious offense. As Digger says of pushers, "I hate this type of criminal worse than God hates sin." When the two are reprimanded for using excessive force in punching a dwarf pusher in the stomach and inadvertently killing him, the district attorney says, "You killed a man suspected of a minor crime, and not in self-defense," to which Digger relies, "You call dope peddling a minor crime?[…] All the crimes committed by addicts—robberies, murders, rapes…. All the fucked-up lives…. All the nice kids sent down the drain on a habit…. Twenty-one days on heroin and you're hooked for life…. Jesus Christ, mister, that one lousy drug has murdered more people than Hitler. And you call it minor!"
Similarly the two often reach compromises which, while technically violations of the law, more fully meet their own moral code and serve relatively to preserve order, peace and stability. In All Shot Up, they find the $50,000 that Harlem's corrupt political boss had stolen and, instead of returning it, send it anonymously to the New York Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund, which sends young New York boys of all races on summer vacations in the country, and send an anonymous telegram to the crooked boss saying "Crime doesn't pay." And in Cotton Comes to Harlem, they force a corrupt white con man to pay an $87,000 bribe so that they can return the money to eighty-seven families that have invested $1,000 each in a crooked back-to-Africa scam.
Digger and Ed are also admirable because of their inestimable skill as cops on New York's toughest beat and the envy they have earned from other, mainly white, policemen. When they break up a potential riot in Cotton Comes to Harlem, Himes writes, "The white cops looked at Grave Digger and Coffin Ed with the envious awe usually reserved for a lion tamer with a cage of big cats." On occasion the two have to earn the respect of other policemen. In All Shot Up, at the scene of a crime, a white cop twice uses the word "nigger." Ed tells him:
"If you use that word again I'll kick your teeth down your throat."
The cop bristled. "Kick whose teeth—."
He never got to finish. Coffin Ed planted a left hook in his stomach and crossed an overhand right to the jaw.
Himes once said in an interview that "the characters in my detective stories, in order to remain credible, had to grow with the passage of time and as they did so, they developed a greater race consciousness." The major difference between Ed and Digger and the rest of the police department has always been their direct connection with the community. At one point Coffin Ed explains the difference in attitude between them and others in the department, saying:
"Brody is a homicide man and solving murders is his business. He goes at it in a routine way like the law prescribes, and if some more people get killed while he's going about it, that's just too bad for the victims. But me and Digger are two country Harlem dicks who live in this village and don't like to see anybody get killed. It might be a friend of ours."
But over the course of the series, their affinity for the people of Harlem takes on a more specifically racial feeling. In Cotton Comes to Harlem, the next-to-last book in the series, Digger and Ed are deeply moved by the plight of the eighty-seven poor, black families that have put up their hard-earned money on the basis of a dream of a return to Africa. As Himes says, "Everyone has to believe in something; and the white people of America had left them nothing to believe in." The two detectives sympathize with the people taken in by the back-to-Africa movement while rejecting the movement itself, a sentiment that paralleled Himes's own. In the early sixties, Himes had become a friend of Malcolm X's. But, as Himes says:
I agreed with everything about his program except his religion. I tried … to tell him that the Moslems were the first people to go into black Africa and collect the blacks whom they took to the African coasts and sold to the European slave-traders, but Malcolm saw the Moslems as the saviors of the blacks. I had been in Egypt and had seen the blacks in Cairo and Alexandria still treated as slaves, and I didn't agree with him at all. But I was all in favor of his politics.
In Blind Man With a Pistol Digger and Ed specifically discuss Malcolm. Ed says:
"You know one thing, Digger. [Malcolm] was safe as long as he kept hating white folks—they wouldn't have hurt him, probably have made him rich; it wasn't until he began including them in the human race they killed him. That ought to tell you something."
"It does. It tells me that white people don't want to be included in a human race with black people," [Digger responds].
The Harlem which Grave Digger and Coffin Ed patrol is as stylized as the Bedford-Stuyvesant in Spike Lee's 1989 film Do the Right Thing. As Himes writes in his autobiography, he had only lived in Harlem a brief time and so, while he knew the geography of the area, "I didn't really know what it was like to be a citizen of Harlem…. The Harlem of my books was never meant to be real; I never called it real; I just wanted to take it away from the white man if only in my books." By lifting Harlem out of the realm of realism and into the symbolic, Himes can portray it, in Edward Margolies's words, "as the intensification, the logical absurdity, the comic horror of the black experience of America." In a typical passage, Himes captures the contradictions of black life in Harlem, wherein the widespread poverty fosters serious social problems while, at the same time, the community offers black people's only refuge from whites.
It was a street of paradox: unwed young mothers, suckling their infants, living on a prayer; fat black racketeers coasting past in big bright-colored convertibles with their solid gold babes, carrying huge sums of money on their persons; hardworking men, holding up the buildings with their shoulders, talking in loud voices up there in Harlem where the white bosses couldn't hear them; teen-age gangsters grouping for a gang fight, smoking marijuana weed to get up their courage; everybody escaping the hotbox rooms they lived in, seeking respite in a street made hotter by the automobile exhaust and the heat released by the concrete walls and walks.
Violence permeates Himes's Harlem, both the repressive violence of the police and the violence borne of frustration that blacks practice on one another. Knifings, shootings, throat-slashings are an everyday occurrence, "because," as Grave Digger says, "these folks in Harlem do things for reasons nobody else in the world would think of. Listen, there were two hardworking colored jokers, both with families, got to fighting … and cut each other to death about whether Paris was in France or France was in Paris." Violence even marks Himes's description of Harlem's geography. In describing the distance between two points, he says, "It was ten minutes by foot, if you were on your way to church, about two and a half minutes if your old lady was chasing you with a razor."
In Himes's view, the violence of Harlem's residents is a pathological response to their social position. Harlemites prey on each other in wildly absurd ways and often for ridiculous reasons. Frantz Fanon described a similar tendency among colonial peoples, terming it "collective autodestruction." "While the settler or the policeman," Fanon said, "has the right the livelong day to strike the native, to insult him and to make him crawl to them, you will see the native reaching for his knife at the slightest hostile or aggressive glance cast on him by another native; for the last resort of the native is to defend his personality vis-à-vis his brother."
Himes's universe is populated with grotesque characters. As Jackson Lears has argued, a recurrent theme of modernist artists has been the belief that the commercial image of the sleek, successful twentieth-century American is neither as substantial nor as realistic as the pathetic, unfortunate and grotesque denizens of, for instance, Winesburg, Ohio, or Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Similarly, black modernists in the post-World War II period faced the slick, Sidney Poitier image of the successful black integrationist, one they knew did not convey the reality of their lives. But not in their darkest nightmares could Sherwood Anderson or William Faulkner conjure up the grotesqueries of Himes's Harlem, peopled as it is with a giant albino Negro idiot, a dwarf pusher, an elderly, withered female faith healer/heroin pusher, a transvestite nun/con man/junkie who sells tickets to heaven, a ninety-year-old black Mormon with eleven wives and a brood of children who run around naked and eat from a trough, and numerous others. Even Coffin Ed is a grotesque; his face, badly scarred when a criminal threw acid in it, is now a patchwork of varicolored skin grafted from his thigh. "The result was that Coffin Ed's face looked as though it had been made up in Hollywood for the role of the Frankenstein monster." Minor characters also often have deformities or physical handicaps. In such figures Himes gave form to his thesis that American racism severely deformed black personality and culture.
Of Himes's contemporaries, perhaps only Nelson Algren consistently provided as nuanced and sympathetic a portrait of society's losers, its petty criminals and small-time con men. Moreover, Himes never romanticizes his subjects. His vision is absent any cloying populist sentimentalism about the nobility of the poor. With his naturalistic sensibility, Himes accepts the dehumanizing effects of the environment. When Lieutenant Anderson says of Harlem, "I hate to see people tearing at one another like rapacious animals," Digger responds, "Hell, what do you expect? As long as there are jungles there'll be rapacious animals."
Just as Levine has argued that slave tales were an ongoing and perceptive parody of white slave-owners' culture, so Himes's Harlem is a savage satire of American capitalist culture. As he said in a 1948 speech, blacks may have "the face of Africa, but [their] heart has the beat of Wall Street." Harlem's residents are as avaricious as the big money men on Wall Street, but the stakes they play for are smaller and the money-making schemes they engage in often do not have the official imprimatur of law. As Himes describes it:
Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.
That is Harlem.
Within this environment blacks have developed a vibrant economy and the requisite skills for success. As Digger once remarks, "If our people were ever let loose they'd be a sensation in the business world, with the flair they got for crooked organizing," to which Ed replies, "That's what the white folks is scared of."
In portraying Harlem as the underside of American-style capitalism, Himes offers a vision of America as being, at its base, violent, chaotic, and absurd. This view captures what Marshall Berman identified as one of the central tenets of modernism, a realization of "the destructive brutalities that bourgeois nihilism brings to life," the logical outgrowth of a world in which, as Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto, "all that is solid melts into air." Just as Coffin Ed and Grave Digger struggle constantly merely to maintain some semblance of order in Harlem, so Himes depicts the "order" of the American capitalist system as a thin veneer masking a dark and nihilistic core. At the end of Blind Man With a Pistol, the sheen is ripped away and the chaos that has always lay just below the surface comes out in the open. Similarly, in his 1969 short story "Prediction," Himes depicts a lone black gunman hiding in a church watching a parade of white policemen march by. He opens fire, and in the exchange between himself and the police department, more than seventy people are killed, the downtown area decimated and the church levelled. "In the wake of this bloody massacre," Himes writes, "the stock market crashed. The dollar fell on the world market. The very structure of capitalism began to crumble. Confidence in the capitalistic system had an almost fatal shock. All over the world millions of capitalists sought means to invest their wealth in the Communist East." In this passage Himes articulates what had been implicit throughout his crime series, a sensibility that captures, in Berman's words
the glory of modern energy and dynamism, the ravages of modern disintegration and nihilism, the strange intimacy between them; the sense of being caught in a vortex where all facts and values are whirled, exploded, decomposed, recombined; a basic uncertainty about what is basic, what is valuable, even what is real; a flaring up of the most radical hopes in the midst of their radical negations.
Or as the unnamed Harlem intellectual whom Himes quotes as an epigraph to Blind Man With a Pistol says, "Motherfucking right, it's confusing; it's a gas, baby, you dig."
Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 237
Austin, Jacqueline. "Harlem on His Mind." The Village Voice Literary Supplement 31, No. 19 (May 1986): 26-7.
Austin discusses Himes' Harlem Thrillers.
Brunet, Elena. Review of Cotton Comes to Harlem, by Chester Himes. Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 December 1988): 14.
Praises Himes's Cotton Comes to Harlem for "vividly bring[ing] to life the streets of Harlem and delv[ing] into the minds of criminal and policemen with equal expertise."
Diawara, Manthia. "Noir by Noirs: Towards a New Realism in Black Cinema." African American Review 27, No. 4 (Winter 1993): 525-37.
Discusses how Himes's A Rage in Harlem and contemporary black films that "participate in the discourse of film noir … force the audience to reexamine the genre and its uses by Black filmmakers."
Fabre, Michel. "Chester Himes's Ambivalent Triumph." In his From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840–1980, pp. 215-37. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Analyzes Himes's relationship with France during his years of exile there.
Newton, Adam Zachary. "From Exegesis to Ethics: Recognition and Its Vicissitudes in Saul Bellow and Chester Himes." The South Atlantic Quarterly 95, No. 4 (Fall 1996): 979-1007.
Discusses the relationship between Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go and Saul Bellow's The Victim.