backwards over his shoulder, Chester Himes begins
his autobiography, The Quality of Hurt,
thusly: "America hurt me terribly, whether
rightly or wrongly is not the point. When I fought
back through writing it decided to kill me...
when America kills a nigger it expects him to
remain dead... the desperate struggle for life
informed me that the only place where I was safe
was in my skin." Another time, in a foreword
he wrote for a collection of his short stories
and essays, he describes himself as a sensualist
whose two main obsessions are Black Protest and
Black Heterosexuality. He goes on to say, "I
am extremely sensitive to all the humiliations
and preconceptions Black Americans are heir to..."
pretty grim, doesn't it? Fortunately, that was
only half of the story, half of the Chester I
got to know. (Nothing happens outside of a historical
context, now does it? Back then, to a white American,
even more so than today, a smiling Black meant
dour assessment of himself was a classic downtrodden
intellectual's gambit of self-preservation. Actually
Chester was resilient to the point of ebullience,
a trait he tried hard to conceal. The simple truth
is that African-Americans often find it expedient,
for the survival of their sanity and their self-esteem,
to officially appear grim. African-Americans who
wished to be taken seriously learned to suppress
any hint of joviality, lest they be taken for
not exactly sure of the date—it was almost
the middle of the decade, 1963 or 1964, somewhere
in there—before I ever heard of, or laid
eyes on, Chester. It had been a slow week in the
mayhem department, which was my specialty, of
the Paris-based weekly France Observateur, and my boss, the editor of the feature section, brought
Himes up. To have me earn my keep, he had the
bright idea of assigning me to interview this
guy who had just won some big French crime writing
there I was wandering down this street on the
Left Bank trying to match the numbers on my notepad
with the right home. Finally I spotted my destination...
strange the things that stick in your memory...
I remember it was on the ground floor on the west
side of a street that ran north and south.
I started across the road, a little yellow roadster
with a rumble seat parked out in front of the
address caught my eye. It was beat-up but sturdy,
old but still jaunty—old as in mileage,
not as in antique. I thought I knew cars, but
I had never seen anything like it.
answer... I knocked again. The door was opened
by a not-quite-medium-built man with European
features and caramel-colored skin, a dashing figure
in a matinee idol sort of way, his features made
even more handsome by several wicked scars lining
me, monsieur, I'm looking for Chester Himes,"
I said in my best French. The man looked at me
as if he didn't understand. "Chester Himes,"
I repeated, this time leaving out the rest of
the sentence, figuring maybe my French accent
was throwing him off.
Chester Himes," the man smiled and held out
his hand. (Turns out it wasn't my accent, Chester
didn't speak French.)
led me inside. Keen reporter that I was, I hurriedly
made mental notes as I followed him—probably
in his fifties—gait stiffer than his years...
worked in the front room of his apartment. A table,
or maybe it was a desk, was placed against the
wall. It had a typewriter on it and a neat pile
of paper on either side.
offered me a chair and, simultaneously shaking
his head, scowling and chuckling, he took one
himself. I studied him as I sat down. I couldn't
get a handle on him; he was a mind-boggling mixture
of frail and ferocious, the likes of which I had
about the door," he apologized. "I wasn't
paper said they were going to call and that you
would be expecting me," I apologized.
they did... but shit, I wasn't expecting you."
He grinned. "Hell, brother, I didn't know
you were black."
grinned at me and I grinned at him, and that moment
was the start—like they say at the end of
Casablanca—"The beginning of a beautiful friendship." Chester was
twenty-five years my senior, but notwithstanding
that or the fact that I kept putting my foot in
my mouth that first meeting, we remained buddies
for the rest of his life, until he passed away
somewhere in Spain, in the mid-eighties, twenty
the ludicrousness of the situation overcame us.
We both burst out laughing (not polite white simpers
either), head-back, teeth-flashing basic colored
barbershop peals of joy.
you alright, Chester?" an English accent
called from another room.
yeah, I'm O.K.," Chester choked.
ladyfriend-cum-watchdog, Lesley, later to become
the last Mrs. Himes, a sharp-faced, pretty woman,
stuck a startled head in the room just to be sure.
Later I learned why Lesley was so surprised.
out Chester was considered cantankerous and was
not known for taking to strangers. The truth of
the matter is he was a bottom-line, no-bullshit
brother and suffered fools badly. He was often
impatient with the patronizing literati milling
around the hem of his garment, anxious to ingratiate
themselves. Chester loved to let his hair down,
but he was also a very cautious man and rarely
got the chance. I had the privilege, along with
Herb Gentry, a black expatriate painter, of passing
hilarious hours in Chester's company.
Lesley's head retreated back into the other room,
Chester and I got down to the nuts and bolts of
the interview. He pointed to the two neat piles
on either side of the typewriter and explained
that before he started one of his "detective
stories" ("action novels" as he
insisted on calling them) he would count out 220
pieces of carbon paper and 440 pieces of typing
paper. He would then place a sheet of carbon paper
between every two sheets of typing paper so that
he would have an original and a copy of each page
he completed. He would then put the untouched
pile on the right-hand side of his typewriter
and begin to bang away. After he finished typing
a page, he would put it face down on the pile
at his left.
the significance of 220 pages?" I asked,
fascinated. "Are you into numerology or something?"
my ass," Chester laughed. He explained that
his contract with the publisher required that
he deliver a manuscript of at least 220 pages.
"When the pile on the right-hand side begins
to get low I know it's time to start winding the
I said, Chester was a bottom-line kinda guy.)
pointed to a saucer with a woebegone sliver of
toast. "Breakfast?" I queried. He nodded.
I'd add a human interest touch, I started asking
him what he put on his toast, "jam, marmalade,
caviar," Chester cut in, "I like caviar.
Shit, it's pretty cheap if you know where to shop
euh," I staggered back to the main topic
of the interview, "What got you into writing
mystery novels anyway?"
Marcel Duhamel... he had translated my first novel
If He Hollers Let Him Go
into French. I ran into him one day after he had
been made the publisher of La Serie Noire, that's
the detective series I write for. He was the one
who thought my style would be great for detective
stories. I didn't see it, but he talked me into
you into it? How did he do that?"
I just said, money... he gave me an advance."
I said, Chester was no-bullshit to the bone.)
asked him how was it that he became a writer in
the first place.
had a lot of free time."
and a half years of it in the Ohio State Penitentiary
sat there with my jaw flapping in the breeze,
staring at the delicately featured, elegantly
dressed man sitting across from me.
I finally regained my composure, I started bitching
about another innocent black man being railroaded.
my ass," Chester interrupted, "I was
guilty as sin!
They caught me red-handed. I still had the jewels
on me. Originally the judge sentenced me to twenty
to twenty-five years."
started commiserating again. "That's where
the scars are from, I suppose."
fingered a gash above his eye. "Maybe, some..."
he nodded, "But before I went to jail I was
working as a porter in a hotel and I fell thirty,
maybe forty feet down the elevator shaft."
he chuckled, "another white guy." Chester
squinted over at me and observed the obvious,
"You don't seem to have a lot of information
about me, young man."
just told him the truth. "No, sir,"
I nodded, "I don't know shit about you."
wasn't offended; he understood, as I mentioned
before, that nothing happens outside of a historical
lack of knowledge was more than some funny story.
It was a significant, insidious fact, striking
to the core of the African-American artist's dilemma.
Himes, this literary giant, had been publishing
essays, short stories and novels for over a quarter
of a century; the fact that I, a black American,
had grown up and gone to college and never once
heard his name mentioned in the myriad literature
courses I had taken spoke volumes about the walls
of prejudice and the barriers of racism. Chester
was your basic "invisible man." In the
United States, outside of music, we were only
allowed one brilliant Negro per profession, and
Richard Wright, soon to be dethroned by Jimmy
Baldwin, had beaten Chester to the wire in the
protest novel department.
mind what history did or didn't allow—there
we sat, grinning at one another like a couple
of Cheshire Cats, the bloody feathers of racism's
canary dribbling from our respective chops. Me,
a French journalist, and him, an award-winning
were you born?"
in Jefferson City, Missouri. The youngest of three
boys. My mother was a tall regal woman, almost
white, and my dad was a teacher, a short bow-legged
chatted away the rest of the afternoon. On the
one hand, he didn't take his "action novels"
too seriously, but on the other hand he was proud
of breaking the "detective writer" color-barrier.
Chester loved theories, he was full of them, the
more outlandish the better. All were delivered
in a disarmingly straightfaced style. One of his
favorite targets was the French, who Chester maintained
were really light-skinned colored folks in disguise:
"don't they like pigs' feet just like we
do? And what the hell do you think tripe is?...
just chitterlings by another name!"
finally had to go home. When he opened the door
to show me out, the jaunty old convertible was
still parked in the road out front.
that car is some piece of work. I never saw anything
mine," Chester said.
I wasn't surprised.
managed to get my hands on English copies of Chester's
first three novels. I sat down and read them in
the order that they had been published: If
He Hollers Let Him Go
(1942), Lonely Crusade
(1947) and Cast the First Stone
(1952). The books were searing litanies of injustices,
racial and otherwise, analyses-cum-accusations
of American society.
the first two books, Chester's style was a judicious
balancing act, half literary, half hard-boiled,
judgmental yet dispassionate, incisively detailed
but fast-paced. In his third novel, Cast the
First Stone, Chester abruptly checked his tendency toward literary
grace and veered toward pure pulp.
reflection, looking backwards from the detective
stories to the earlier protest novels, I realized
that the pulp path Chester had taken in Cast
the First Stone
was the natural and direct precursor to the joyous,
"vulgar," uninhibited pure pulp fiction
of his later Harlem "detective stories."
In fact, it seemed to me that Marcel Duhamel,
the French editor who convinced Chester to begin
writing his series of "detective novels,"
was only nudging Chester along the road he had
already chosen for himself.
called it like he saw it, and he had seen everything.
Chester's writing is for real, and it was no third-hand
bullshit gleaned from some secondary source. Not
only could Chester "talk that talk,"
he had "walked that walk." Every sentence
of every page is alive with authenticity. But
attributing Chester's grip on the reader to street-smarts
demeans his writing genius. He was not only streetwise—he
was brilliant, period.
people raised in cushier circumstances, Chester
probably seemed cynical and bitter. He wasn't
bitter, he was angry—angry because of and
about the racism he had suffered. Bitterness has
a more diffuse quality; one would have to believe
in justice, or Jesus, for that. Of course, Chester
longed for justice and was incensed by its absence,
but he was too pragmatic to spend his time waiting
for the justice-Santa to come down the chimney
with a stocking full of equality.
experiences and keen memory, coupled with his
irreverent imagination, enabled him to recount
the foibles, follies and folks up and down 125th
Street. Chester reinvented Harlem as metaphor
for the plight of dark-skinned folks in America.
was like that Flemish painter out of the dark
ages, Brueghel the Elder. Brueghel called it like
he saw it too, so unflinchingly in fact that doctors
today, four hundred years later, have been able
to identify medieval maladies from studying the
characters that he painted, diseases of which
people weren't even aware. Chester saw America
unflinchingly too: Hilarious, violent racial antagonism
bursting to the surface in the streets of these
United States (diseases people claim weren't even
there) lay festering just below the pavement of
Harlem in Chester's work years ago.
got a big kick out of the detective series, what
he called his "action stories." He would
sit around with me chuckling over the hilarious
adventures he'd put Coffin Ed and Grave Digger,
his two cop heroes, through. But I had the impression
that Chester had a grudge against his "action
stories," that there was something he deeply
resented about them. Of course I attempted to
solve the mystery, but whenever I tried to broach
the subject, Chester's face would cloud up. Then,
always gracious with me, he'd say something funny
to cover himself and change the subject. Finally
I stopped asking, and that's where things stood
with me on the subject of Chester's grudge for
the next thirty years or so.
his detective stories were hugely successful;
they not only resuscitated his career, they took
it to new heights. Of course, Chester's mere survival
was an affront to the literary establishment back
home, but he did better than merely survive. In
France, his detective novels were such a big hit
he became a celebrity. Eventually the news of
Chester's stardom ricocheted overseas (and everybody
loves a winner). Chester's "action stories"
became a big success in America too, so big they
even started making movies from them. Then, partly
on the coattails of his "detective novels,"
Chester's serious writings were rediscovered and
began to receive the attention they merited.
1997, I was contacted by an editor at W.W. Norton
who asked me if I would like to write the foreword
for a new edition of one of Chester's earlier
novels. I didn't realize a thirty-year-old puzzle
was about to fall into place.
I said, "Which one?"
Will Make You Cry."
heard of it," I told him. (I thought I knew
all of Chester's work.)
the First Stone is the original title of the expurgated version of Yesterday
Will Make You Cry,"
he explained. "Expurgated version?"
I came back. "Oh? ... You mean the normal editorial correction, don't
little more than that," the editor said.
"You'll see. We're publishing the original
version of Chester's manuscripts exactly the way
he wrote it. That's why we're using his original
title too, not the one he had to live with."
the hell was going on?)
manuscript arrived, and I sat down and started
by the second page, I realized what
a chump I had been! I had accepted without question Chester's veering
toward pulp as his true intention.
the contrary, the original version of Cast
the First Stone,
Yesterday Will Make You Cry,
is Chester at the top of his game, with literary
and pulp sensibilities rolled into one unique
out Chester hadn't veered toward pulp, for which
incidentally he later became famous, of his own
volition: He'd been shoved.
out Yesterday Will Make You Cry had made the rounds of the publishing houses with successive
waves of editors and agents imposing "improvement"
on the manuscript, forcing him to delete his literary
touches. They jammed Chester's head into a toilet
of racist preconceptions, pulled the chain and
kept pulling the chain... flushing away what they
felt were his uppity literary pretensions... forcing
him to dumb down his masterpiece before agreeing
to publish it.
think perhaps that saying Chester had his head
shoved into the toilet of racism might be euh...
too strong a metaphor... think again. What would
you call making Chester reduce the literary device
of flashbacks, including the back story of Jimmy,
the central character's life? What would you call
forcing Chester to change the more original manuscript
from the reflective third person to the more "natural"
(i.e., primitive) first person?
Yesterday Will Make You Cry might have been accepted for the literary jewel it
was and published in its original form forty-five
years ago if Himes had been an unknown, or more
specifically if his race had been unknown. Not
that the national obsession about race has changed
that much down through the years. The blurb copy,
twenty years later, for the Signet 1972 reprint
of Cast the First Stone
begins with the patronizing, "James
Monroe was a cool cat... ," and ends with, "a ruthlessly honest
novel of a young black's agonizing discovery of
his own emotions, his own identity..."
damn "young black's agonizing discovery"?
Jimmy Monroe, Chester's central character, was
white! The writer of the blurb (twenty years later)
still couldn't leap over the ingrained racial
assumptions that all a black writer could write
about was another black.
wonder Chester had a grudge against his "detective
stories." How painful it must have been to
endure. What a bitter pill. What stomach-turning
irony, forced to mutilate your work and then,
insult added to injury, having that mutilation
become the road to greater fame and fortune.
Chester, long denied his place at the literary
table, is getting his rightful accolades.
loved having the last laugh, so I know somewhere
out there he's a happy camper. My momma used to
always talk about "God and the mysterious
ways of his wonders to perform." Now I know
what she meant. This is a case in point if there
ever was one.