I was so ready for the books of Chester Himes when I first read them. Anyone becoming aware of the world in the 1960s could not ignore the developing consciousness of black people in the USA. From the noble and symbolic protest in 1955 by Rosa Parks, “tired of giving in” to segregation on public transport in Alabama, to the black nationalism of the Black Panthers in the late 60s was a short time and a long journey. I got my information from the music. First it was Bob Dylan’s “Oxford Town” concerning the struggle of James Meredith to exert his rights as a citizen and enroll at the University of Mississippi. Sam Cooke, James Brown and others passed on the news. Later Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield dealt with the progress made and the problems ahead. The speeches and writings of Dr King and Malcolm X were, of course, vital signposts. It was the odyssey undertaken by Cassius Clay/Muhammed Ali, the struggle by the greatest sportsman of the 20th century to assert his individuality and the vituperation this provoked, which acted as the biggest influence upon and the most clear explanation for my young self.
I had read the books of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, the two pre-eminent African-American literary figures of the 40s and 50s. “Soul On Ice” (Eldridge Cleaver), “Soledad Brother” (George Jackson) and “If They Come In The Morning” (Angela Davis) were staples on student bookshelves in the early 1970s. The detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were masterly works in a genre which had become marginalised as “hard-boiled” or “pulp”. The Harlem Detective novels of Chester Himes hit me upside the cerebrum on so many satisfactory levels. Himes’ work is the link between the black literary tradition and the assertiveness of the late 1960s. Ralph Ellison had named the negro the “Invisible Man” in his novel but Harlem was New York City, brash, busy and brutal. The characters in Himes’ novels are loud and proud and with an eye for the main chance. I had never read about this hermetic black culture of the 50s and 60s which, despite institutionalised racism, hustled and bustled and crackled with. often misdirected, energy. As detective/crime fiction the books are violent, sexy, as funny as hell. Nowadays people think that Quentin Tarantino invented this shit.
Chester Himes described a social milieu which functioned in parallel to the rest of NYC. All human life was to be found within, politicians, preachers, hookers, hustlers and those trying to live with as little intrusion from these people as possible. There was black pride before “Black Pride”, an urban confidence, an elan which survived despite the acknowledgement that in any contact with white society there would only be one winner. Obviously it was my own naivete which contributed to my delight to enter this world through the books. Himes’ skill as a writer, his flair for character and story-telling combined with a moral outrage at the choices Harlemites are forced to make to get by, made the books great.
His detectives are Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, a fearsome dynamic duo attempting to discern and interpret a lot of senseless stuff. Their beat is Harlem, these two black men live in Long Island. They have made their deal with The Man by becoming cops, while at work they are “the mens”. Distrusted by both their employer and by the community they police, the bond between the two men has to be a strong one. They are capable of turning a blind eye to some things and also of brutality, psychological torture and intimidation to those, of either sex, who try to thwart them. Coffin Ed has an acid-scarred face which he uses to frighten and intimidate and often causes comment. I did not read the 8 Harlem novels in order. In the first one, “For the Love Of Imabelle” (1957), Himes writes an account of the acid-throwing incident. Coffin Ed had done some bad things in a bad world but I was moved, even shocked, to read of how his disfigurement had happened. In American crime fiction there are no finer creations than Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones.
Hollywood has made 3 attempts to capture the pair on film. The first 2 were in the early 1970s, part of the wave of “blaxploitation” movies. “Cotton Comes To Harlem” & “Come Back Charleston Blue” de-clawed Himes’ Harlem pandemonium and went for a comedy angle. In 1991 Bill Duke filmed “Imabelle” as “A Rage In Harlem” and our heroes were relegated to bit parts. “Cotton”, as a period piece, and “Rage”, for the designer violence & Robin Givens in some super-tight dresses, are worth a look but all swerve the fatalism at the heart of Chester Himes’ books. So, no trailer then…here’s the great Bill Withers with his take on Harlem.
Chester Himes had an interesting and individual take on the world and lived a unique life. Born in 1909 as a young boy he witnessed the distress of his family when his brother was blinded in a school science demonstration and was refused treatment at a white hospital. ” A white man was refusing; my father was pleading. Dejectedly my father turned away; he was crying like a baby. My mother was fumbling in her handbag for a handkerchief; I hoped it was for a pistol.” He attended college in Ohio but was soon expelled over a “prank”. Just 19, he was sentenced to 20 to 25 years hard labour for armed robbery. While in prison he began to write and be published.
Released on parole after 7 years Himes spent time in Los Angeles writing novels and for the screen. The racism he encountered there convinced him that America was no place to be black. “I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate”. He left for France, where he had a literary reputation, to join a small group of emigres that included Wright and Baldwin. It was in France that his bitterness and hate were poured into the Harlem Detective novels published between 1957 and 1969.
There was more than negativity in the books. For sure the world was screwed but his characters still had hope however unrealistic. The final book, “Blind Man With a Pistol” does, though, descend into nihilism with its final description of that very man firing sightlessly at anyone and anything on a New York subway train. It is a great and powerful image. When you put the book down you just have to sit quietly for some time before summoning the motivation to do…well, something. You have read Philip K Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly”…it’s like that.
Reading these books put me on to so many other things. I learned about the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, the work of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. I sought out the books of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, two writers dealing with fictional low-life America. The Allison & Busby editions of Himes’ books had very striking covers (see the top of this post). These were by the English artist Edward Burra, a Surrealist painter who was enchanted by the vibrancy he found on the Harlem streets in the 1930s and 40s. His art warranted further investigation and I discovered a man who was, in my opinion, the greatest British painter of the 20th century.
Now maybe people like Zora Neale and Lightning Rod and Walter Mosley without going anywhere near Chester Himes. In my own experience I have found his great books to be pivotal to an understanding of African-American art and culture of my lifetime. When I had read all 8 of the Harlem novels I moved on to the two volumes of autobiography but was a little ticked off that there would be no new tales of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger. If I made New Year’s resolutions then maybe it’s time to go back to these books.