Black History Month: Chester Himes

These two novels by Chester Himes, written about 12 years apart, show a bit of a transformation of a novelist who never felt like he fit in. “If He Hollers Let Him Go” tells the story of a black L.A. dockworker, a leader, who supervises both blacks and whites, and feel racism every step of the way, fueling his anger and his desire for violence.

The publisher says:

Robert Jones has a lot going for him – a steady job, a steady relationship and plenty of prospects… until a white woman accuses him of rape and, all of a sudden, his prospects seem a lot less bright.
Immediately recognised as a masterful expose of racism in everyday life, If He Hollers Let Him Go is Chester Himes’ first book, originally published in 1945.

‘Youthful, insulting, risky, brash, bad-assed, revolutionary, violent, and struts about as if to say, here come cocky Chester Himes, you litterateurs, and I hope you don’t like it’ Ishmael Reed

‘The greatest, most brutally powerful novel of the best black novelist of his generation’ Chicago Tribune

‘Hard and fast and sure’ New York Review of Books

Meanwhile, A Rage in Harlem:

For the love of fine and wily Imabelle, hapless Jackson loses his life savings to a con man who knows the secret of turning ten-dollar bills into hundreds and steals from his boss, only to lose the stolen money at a crap table. Luckily for him, Jackson has a savvy twin brother, Goldy, who, disguised as a Sister of Mercy, earns a living by selling tickets to Heaven in Harlem. Now for the big payback…
“Himes undertook to do for Harlem what Raymond Chandler did for Los Angeles.” Newsweek
“Himes wrote spectacularly successful entertainments, filled with gems of descriptive writing, plots that barely sidestep chaos, characters surreal, grotesque, comic, hip, Harlem recollected as a place that can make you laugh, cry, shudder.” John Edgar Wideman
“Chester Himes is one of the towering figures of the black literary tradition. His command of nuances of character and dynamics of plot is preeminent among writers of crime fiction. He is a master craftsman.” Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The move from social realism to genre writing is intriguing, and the biographical information about him seems to suggest he had an inability to fit in anywhere (his writing career began with his first published story while a prisoner; he moved from America to Paris and basically stayed in France until he died), coupled with an amazing talent for writing and an active and restless mind.

The Norton Anthology of African American Literature quotes from his autobiography, “My Life of Absurdity”:

“I traveled throughout Europe trying desperately to find a life into which I would fit; and my determination stemmed from my desire to succeed without America. … I never found a place where I even began to fit, due in great part to my inability to learn any foreign language and my antagonism toward all white people, who, I thought, treated me as an inferior.” A web of contradictions, Himes spent a good deal of his life among “all white people.” As we might anticipate, his varied writings reflect the intense conflicts within Chester Himes himself.

The previous authors and writings featured on this blog for Black History Month:
“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”
Gwendolyn Brooks
August Wilson
“Our Nig” by Harriet Wilson
“Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup
“The Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B. Du Bois
Langston Hughes
“Cane” by Jean Toomer
“The Great Negro Plot” by Mat Johnson
“Passing” by Nella Larsen
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”
“I Have a Dream” speech”
“Sula” by Toni Morrison
“The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
“The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead
“Up From Slavery” by Booker T. Washington
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
Sonia Sanchez
“Black Girl in the Ring” by Nola Hopkinson
June Jordan
“Flight to Canada” by Ishmael Reed
Gloria Naylor
“Fledgling” by Octavia E. Butler


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