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Issue 55, April 2001

Raging at racism

Chester Himes: A Life
By James Sallis, Payback Press, 2000, £18.99 hbk
Reviewed by Tony Aitman
writer Chester Himes.

TUNE IN to late night cable film channels, and chances are that one of them will be showing Ossie Davis' 1970 Blaxploitation classic Cotton Comes to Harlem. Rummage through the bargain bins in your local video store, and you are likely to find a copy of Forest Whitaker, Danny Glover and Robin Givens starring in A Rage in Harlem. What links these films is that they are both based on books written by one of the foremost satirists of the twentieth century - African-American crime writer Chester Himes.

That Himes remains relatively unknown is testimony to the underlying racism of both American and British society, a racism that drove Himes himself to leave his native America for the relative security of the exiled African-American community in France, and subsequently the peace of Spain. Now, to set the record straight, the definitive biography of Himes, written by American crime writer James Sallis, has been published by Payback Press.

To call Himes - or Sallis himself for that matter - a crime writer is to ignore and misunderstand this outstanding humorist, social commentator and black activist. Himes' writing was a reflection of his experiences as a black man in white racist America, experiences which led him to question his own sanity, and to ask if any black person could really be sane in the madness of racism.

And Himes certainly had some experiences. Subsisting on $75 disability pension he got after falling down a liftshaft, Himes tried to go to university, but the 'Uncle Tom' attitudes needed to fit in to 1930s American university life sickened him, and he was thrown out. The need for survival faced him as it faced millions of black Americans; to live off crime seemed the only alternative. Being black and poor, rich white crime was ruled out - the crime of the stock exchange, the rack renter, the sweated employer - and so Himes turned to a life of black crime - bootlegging, dope running, prostitution. Eventually, a bungled armed robbery found him sentenced to 20 to 25 years hard labour.


Just as the prisons were the universities of the Russian revolution, so in America for the thousands of African Americans that find themselves the guests of the US prison system. In a society which has criminalised them by its very nature, it is no accident that black people form the majority of the imprisoned - or that many use their time in prison to question their incarceration and the system of society that has brought them there.

Himes was no exception, using his time to write, drawing on the experiences he had had as a member of the Cleveland Bunch Boys: the women, the dope, the speakeasies, the jazz. On parole after seven years, he tried his luck as a Hollywood scriptwriter; despite help from the prominent writer and Communist Party member Langston Hughes, Himes could only find work as a welder in the Los Angeles shipyards of 1943.

It was this that marked Himes out from many of the chroniclers of the black condition in the USA - his understanding of the needs and passions of the working class. Bitter at the way he had been treated, thrown into life in the shipyards where the needs of wartime production had broken down the demarcations of race and gender, Himes poured out his hatred of American society into his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go. The novel's main character, Bob Jones, terrified of failure and full of desire for wreaking violent revenge on society, is clearly Himes himself.

The book was an immediate success, far more angry, bleaker, violent and bitter than, for example, Native Son by Richard Wright, another black Communist Party member, who lavished praise on the book and its author. It seemed to Himes that the doors were about to open.


Yet Himes in his writing was nothing if not honest. His next book, Lonely Crusade, was about Lee Gordon, a black militant trade unionist, at work in a factory and recruiting for the Union and the Party. But Himes had had some bad experiences, and saw the American Communist Party of the 1940s for what it was. Lee Gordon is used by the CP members, anxious to have a black as a figurehead. He is, behind his back, treated with contempt by the white middle-class liberals who court him as a representative of the black proletariat. The trade union leaders themselves are corrupt and conniving.

Unsurprisingly, all those groups who had praised If He Hollers turned against Lonely Crusade. White liberals saw themselves portrayed too closely for comfort; the Communist Party complained that the book gave a false impression - the reaction of critics was universally hostile. At a speech at the University of Chicago, drugged and bitter, Himes tore into his critics, telling them they were afraid of the truth - if his characters were mean, violent, nasty and brutal, it was because that was the way that society had made them.

Such was the hatred that greeted Lonely Crusade, Himes was driven to despair. With no hope of America, Himes left for Europe, for the exiled community that already existed in Paris. With the Beats and a whole range of African-American writers and musicians in residence, he found a sense of belonging that was absent in America.

Ten years of drugs, drink and despair ended with Himes' agreeing to write a crime novel for the Serie Noir series of Marcel Duhamel. Thus was born the book that was to become A Rage in Harlem. But this was far more than just a crime story. Himes was writing about a Harlem he knew well, a Harlem of conmen, religious frauds, pimps, a Harlem where just to be black was to live on the edge of the law, a Harlem of jazz and speakeasies, a Harlem that reflected the spirit of the times and fitted the flavour of 1970s Blaxploitation. And yet this Harlem was a microcosm of America, with all its racism, oppression and poverty. Through the vehicle of the crime novel and his almost comic creations, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones - two black cops sent in to police an area where white cops feared to tread - Himes wrote a bitter satire on the mores of American society.


Whether part of the Harlem canon or not, Himes' novels were a searing indictment of a society that rested on the suppression and exploitation of millions through the violence of racism. In novels such as Run, Man, Run and End of a Primitive the violence that underlies racism is brutally revealed. For his characters, there is no way out, no solution, there is no final revelation and capture of the criminal, as in Christie or Rendell or Paretsky. Even Chandler and Hammett, both of whom saw capitalist society as inherently corrupt and politicians and businessmen inherently evil, brought their novels to a neat conclusion with the criminals brought to book. For Himes, though, police procedure and the crime itself are secondary. Most important is the life they reflect, the forces that make people act as they do, the fact that, whatever happens, the actors in his drama must carry on with their lives. For how can there be neat conclusions if violence and crime are the results of a violent and criminal society?

Himes' novels mix a blend of violence and humour that is missing in the novels of other writers; the humour only serves to make the satire and the anger that more cutting. For it is clear from Himes' life that it was not violence per se that he abhorred, but violence that had no specified target in society at large. In the posthumously published Plan B, there is a violently successful black uprising in America; reflecting the dichotomy amongst blacks themselves, Grave Digger Jones kills Coffin Ed, his otherwise inseparable twin.


Thankfully, many of Himes' novels are still in print. Payback have produced the Harlem cycle of novels, others are available from Allison & Busby, Pluto and Serpents Tail. A search of the second hand shops should throw up Lonely Crusade - when it got panned in America and did not sell, a couple of thousand were dumped over here. The two volumes of his (unreliable) autobiography, The Quality of Hurt and My Life of Absurdity were remaindered in this country a few years ago, and you should be able to find these. Hopefully, Sallis' new book should stimulate greater interest in one of the most neglected - although one of the most influential - writers of the twentieth century.

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