Conversations with Chester Himes.
Bernard W. Bell Pennsylvania State University
"American male writers don't produce manly books," John A. Williams wrote after reading the manuscript of the first volume of Chester Himes's autobiography, The Quality of Hurt (1972); "Himes' autobiography is that of a man." This provocative comment on Himes the man and writer appears in the introduction to Williams's "My Man Himes: An Interview with Chester Himes," the most illuminating and important of the eighteen "interviews" in Michel Fabre's and Robert E. Skinner's Conversations with Chester Himes. The most frequently recurring themes in these interviews and paraphrased, journalistic conversations that range chronologically from 1955 to 1985 are the deep-rooted violence of American culture; the absurdity of American racism; the schizophrenic, sensual lives of petty black criminals and their victims in Harlem; the need for organized revolution in the struggle for social justice and equality; and the exploitation of black American writers. Even though several of these conversations and interviews are rather short and sketchy, they offer useful complements to the story of Himes's life as a black American man and artist that he more passionately and provocatively reveals in his eighteen semi-autobiographical novels, numerous short stories and essays, film script, and two-volume autobiography. "The reappearance of nearly all of his fiction in the recent past," the editors write, "suggests we are very close to a major reappraisal of Chester Himes, and this collection will help in that process."
How does this collection help readers to reconstruct and reappraise Chester Bomar Himes as a black American man and artist? Because most of the selections were translated from French or German into English (seven) or conducted by Michel Fabre (four), the interviews and conversations are primarily European vignettes, reconstructed by the French, of Himes's national, racial, gender, and class identity formations as they were orally constructed over time by Himes himself. The translator of a French volume of Himes's short stories in 1982 and a French edition of his Plan B in 1983, the co-author with Edward Margolies of The Several Lives of Chester Himes, and the former Director of the Center for African American Studies and New Literatures in English at the New Sorbonne, Fabre is apparently the senior editor of this collection. Fabre's co-editor for this project is Robert E. Skinner, a librarian at Xavier University who, with Fabre, co-edited the English edition of Himes's unfinished apocalyptic novel of racial conflict, Plan B (1993). Although the editors helpfully tell us that "the picture is sometimes confusing because Himes occasionally contradicts himself and other times gives out information that is incomplete or erroneous," they provide inadequate corrections and clarifications in the introduction and footnotes to selections by some of the ostensibly more naive and less critical European interviewers.
For example, contrary to the two interviews by Annie Brierre and Francois Bott, Chester's mother, as the editors note, was not white. In fact, according to Himes's autobiography and admittedly autobiographical The Third Generation (1954), Estelle Bomar Himes was a light-complexioned, educated, color- and class-conscious, ambitious, neurotic mother who frequently humiliated and abused her dark-complected, humble husband, Joseph Sandy. Lacking his wife's determination and defiance, Sandy was a professor of blacksmithing and wheel-wrighting, as well as the head of mechanical departments at several predominantly black Southern agricultural and mechanical colleges. Although Himes was "advocating Negro revolution back in the 1940s," he was not, as Philip Oakes fallaciously declares, "a founding father of the Black Power movement." In addition, the harsh criticism by Communists of Lonely Crusade, which Himes tells interviewers appeared in The Daily Worker, actually appeared in a review in New Masses. And even though he told several interviewers that If He Hollers Let Him Go was a bestseller, according to the editors, "there is no evidence to support this claim." On the other hand, Himes reveals the fallibility of his memory by telling one interviewer that the models for Coffin Ed and Grave Digger were two lieutenant cops in Chicago and by telling another that they were inspired by a captain and a lieutenant in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, his explanation to Michael Mok that "the two cops, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, are roughly based on a black lieutenant and his sergeant partner who worked the Central Avenue ghetto in L.A. back in the 1940s" is not found in either volume of his autobiography.
Born in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1909, young Chester Himes was educated mainly by a mother who doted on him and by petty criminal acquaintances before being expelled from college during his freshman year. He grew into manhood as a hustler and writer in the Ohio State Penitentiary, to which at nineteen years old he was sentenced in 1928 to twenty years for armed robbery. But he was released on parole in 1936 and married Jean Johnson in 1937. Ambivalently representing himself as agent and victim in the construction of his racial identity, Himes tells an interviewer: "My wife was black and beautiful, with the same shade of skin as Josephine Baker. We stayed together for fourteen years, but I could never provide the kind of life for her I wanted because we were Negroes. In the end we separated." Concerning his writing, he was bitterly disappointed by the mixed critical reception of his first three novels: If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1945), Lonely Crusade (1947), and Cast the First Stone (1952), which Himes tells Fabre is one of his "most autobiographical novels" and which I believe is the most realistic novel of prison life in American literature. In part because of frustrations with the critical reception of his books and because of anxieties about an abusive love affair with a white woman, he emigrated to France in 1953, where he published The Primitive (1956) and became an international literary success with his Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones Harlem detective series. In declining health after a couple of strokes, he died in the care of his British wife Lesley Packard in Benissa, Spain, in 1984.
What, then, to paraphrase cultural studies critic Stuart Hall, are the names that Himes gives to the different ways in which he was positioned by, within, and against the narratives of the past, and in which he positioned himself? "America hurt me terribly, whether rightly or wrongly is not the point," Himes writes in The Quality of Hurt. "When I fought back through writing, it decided to kill me, whether because I was a degenerate ex-convict who refused to wear sackcloth and ashes, a Negro who refused to accept the Negro Problem as my own, a 'nigger' who would not conform to the existence prescribed for niggers, or a black man who pitied white women, I will never know." An intelligent, proud, angry, violent, light-complexioned black man, Himes also confesses in his autobiography and suggests in some of the interviews to having "always been something of a snob" and hurting, sometimes viciously, others, especially women. These others included Maud, a pregnant black lover whom he abandoned; Jean, the black wife he deserted; Vandi, the white lover he nearly beat to death; and Marlene, the twenty-two-year-old German lover that his abuse helped drive to attempted suicide. But his relationship with Alva, apparently the major love of his life, was different. "No white man has ever felt more protective toward his wife than I toward Alva," Himes tells us in The Quality of Hurt. "And yet I felt an enormous, moving pity for her that she had given up her place in the white world for me."
We also learn in his autobiography, four early novels, and fragments of the most significant interviews that he was scarred primarily by four traumatic events. These include the racism of his mother as well as whites, the guilt of his role in the accidental blinding of his brother, the broken back he suffered from failing down a hotel elevator shaft, and the seven-and-a-half years that he served in prison, especially the tragic fire and riot in which more than 300 prisoners were killed. The twin passions in Himes's life for survival that are implicit in the interviews are explicit in My Life of Absurdity: "It struck me that sex and writing were my two obsessions: writing because it was my profession, my ambition, my goal and my salvation, and sex because it was my sword and shield against the hurts and frustrations of the other."
For his black admirers of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Julius Lester, Charles Wright, Ishmael Reed, and even John A. Williams - whose admiration for Himes began after reading If He Hollers Let Him Go in 1945 - Himes overcame adversity by courage and determination, as well as by the naturalistic power of his early protest novels and by the creativity of his Coffin Ed and Grave Digger novels. But except for the Jenkins, Fabre, and Williams interviews, inadequate attention is given to the nihilistic attitude and violent male-chauvinistic behavior that he acquired and developed primarily in the streets and prison, including shooting at people in fits of rage as a teenager, viciously abusing women, and fictionalizing a homosexual affair between the protagonist/author Jimmy and Dido in Cast the First Stone. He is candid about these traits in his strongly autobiographical novels and about their culmination in his posthumously published Plan B, which he first boldly outlined in the Williams interview. Several times Himes explains that the graphic mix of realism and surrealism in his fiction, especially the Harlem narratives, is the authentic product of his memories, which, as I am attempting to demonstrate, were not so infallible as his interviewers apparently believed of actual experiences.
First published in 1970, John A. Williams's "My Man Himes: An Interview with Chester Himes" is the center piece of Conversations with Chester Himes. It is as outstanding for the sociocultural sensitivity, insightfulness, and authority of Williams's frame story as it is for the illuminating depth, range, and candor of the mutually respectful dialogue with Himes. Before meeting Himes in Carl Van Vechten's apartment in 1962, Williams tells us in framing the interview, he had already read and was impressed by If He Hollers Let Him Go and The Third Generation. Van Vechten told Williams: "Chester doesn't like many people. He likes you." The feeling was mutual. "We corresponded regularly after our meeting," Williams writes; "we exchanged books and he gave me a quote for Sissie." At the time of the interview Williams believed that Himes was "perhaps the single greatest naturalistic American writer living today." Their friendship obviously contributed to the candor and range of important topics discussed at length, including the publishing business, personal worksheets, the Harlem Renaissance, Hollywood, black and white writers, black anti-Semitism, and Richard Wright.
Commenting on his advocacy of Affirmative Action in the 1940s and on the racial scene of the late 1960s, for example, Himes tells Williams that, while writing Lonely Crusade, he believed that his protagonist and "the black man in America must have, for an interim period of time, special consideration." But in the last twenty-five years, he declares,
My opinions have changed, because I don't believe the whites have any desire, any intention whatsoever, of accepting the Negro as an equal. I think the only way a Negro will ever get accepted as an equal is if he kills whites; to launch a violent uprising to the point where the people will become absolutely sickened, disgusted; to the place where they will realize that they have to do something. . . . I think that if he has to take the choice between giving the black man his rights or destroying the entire economic system in America, he'll give the black man equality.
This political belief, he also tells Williams, was imaginatively developed in his nihilistic novel of black rage, revenge, and revolution, Plan B. At the end of this novel, which was written mainly in the late 1960s, Coffin Ed is killed by a nihilistically black-conscious Grave Digger, who, in turn, is ironically killed by the black revolutionary protagonist Tomsson Black. "Now, in my book all of these blacks who shoot are destroyed," says Himes. "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 this one black man. What I'm trying to do is depict the violence that is necessary so that the white community will also give it a little thought, because you know, they're going around playing these games. They haven't given any thought to what would happen if the black people would seriously uprise."
Himes apparently shared Frantz Fanon's view in The Wretched o the Earth (1968) that the "exploited man sees that his liberation implies the use of all means, and that of force first and foremost." Fanon, according to the Williams interview, "wrote a long article on my Treatment of Violence which his wife still has, and which I've thought I might get and have published. Because he had the same feeling, of course, that I have." Although both men believed in revolution as organized violence, a close reading of their books reveals that their politics are radically different. Himes also anticipated Rap Brown's declaration as leader of SNCC that violence was as American as apple pie. He tells Williams, "There is no way 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. Anything can be initiated, enforced, contained or destroyed on the American scene through violence."
For black writers of detective stories this is more of a blessing than a curse. "There's no reason," he says, "why the black American, who is also an American, like all other Americans, and brought up in this sphere of violence which is the main sphere of American detective stories, there's no reason why he shouldn't write them. It's just plain and simple violence in narrative form, you know. 'Cause no one, no one, writes about violence the way that Americans do." For future reappraisals of Himes, then, such as The Several Lives of Chester Himes (1997) by Michel Fabre and Edward Margolies, Conversations with Chester Himes should be a valuable resource for scholars and students. The book provides compelling vignettes of Himes's ambivalence about his shifting identities and double consciousness that should foster more respect in the United States for him as a proud, combative, intelligent, provocative, internationally celebrated black American naturalistic writer. But it will probably foster less respect and sympathy in the 1990s for his politics and male chauvinism as a black American man.
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|Author:||Bell, Bernard W.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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