SPOTLIGHT ON AFRICAN AMERICAN AUTHOR CHESTER HIMES

CHESTER HIMESChester Bomar Himes was an African American writer born in Jefferson City, MS, on July 29, 1909. His parents were to Joseph Sandy Himes Sr. and Estelle Bomar Himes; his father was a peripatetic black college professor of industrial trades and his mother was a teacher at Scotia Seminary prior to marriage.

At age twelve, Himes’ father began teaching at Branch Normal College (now the University of Arkansas). He and his brother Joseph Jr., were made to sit out a gunpowder demonstration by their mother as punishment for bad behavior. The boys decided to conduct the experiment without adult supervision, which resulted in an explosion that blinded Joseph Jr. The aftermath of this tragedy had a profound effect on how Himes viewed race relations later in life. When Joseph Jr. was rushed to the nearest hospital, he was denied treatment due to his race.

“That one moment in my life hurt me as much as all the others put together,” Himes wrote in The Quality of Hurt:
“I loved my brother. I had never been separated from him and that moment was shocking, shattering, and terrifying….We pulled into the emergency entrance of a white people’s hospital. White clad doctors and attendants appeared. I remember sitting in the back seat with Joe watching the pantomime being enacted in the car’s bright lights. 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.”

A short time later, the family settled in Cleveland, Ohio. His parents’ marriage was an unhappy one which eventually ended in divorce.
Himes attended East High School while in Cleveland. Later, during his time as a freshman at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, he was expelled for playing a prank. He was arrested in 1928 for armed robbery and sent to Ohio Penitentiary. He was sentenced to hard labor for 20 to 25 years.
While in prison, Himes wrote a number of short stories, which were eventually published in national magazines. Later, he would state that his prison writings and publications were a means of earning respect from guards and fellow inmates. It also helped him to avoid personal violence.

Himes’ first stories appeared The Bronzeman magazine starting in 1931. His work later appeared in Esquire magazine in 1934. Of particular note was a story titled, “To What Red Hell”. His debut novel “Cast the First Stone”, dealt with the catastrophic 1930 prison fire Himes witnessed while serving time at Ohio Penitentiary. It was published almost ten years after it was written, most likely due to Himes’ unusually candid treatment—for that time period—of a homosexual relationship. Originally written in the third person, it was rewritten in the first person in a more “hard-boiled” style (which Himes would eventually become famous for) and posthumously republished unabridged in 1998 as “Yesterday Will Make You Cry”.

Himes was transferred to London Prison Farm that same year and in April 1936, was released on parole into his mother’s custody. He continued to write following his prison release, while working part-time jobs. It was during this period that he came into contact with author, Langston Hughes. Hughes facilitated Himes’s contacts with the world of literature and publishing.

In 1936 Himes married Jean Johnson (who he later divorced), Four years later, he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a screenwriter and also produced two novels, “If He Hollers Let Him Go” which contains many autobiographical elements — is about a black shipyard worker in Los Angeles during World War II struggling against racism, as well as his own violent reactions to racism. His next novel, “The Lonely Crusade” that charted the experiences of the wave of blacks who were part of the Great Migration. Himes’s novels encompassed many genres including the crime novel/mystery and political polemics, exploring racism in the United States. His work centered on African Americans in general, especially in two books that are concerned with labor relations and African-American workplace issues. He also provided an analysis of the Zoot Suit Riots for The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP.

Hines screenwriting career came to an abrupt halt Jack Warner of Warner Brothers heard about him and said, “I don’t want no niggers on this lot.”
Himes later wrote in his autobiography:
“Up to the age of thirty-one I had been hurt emotionally, spiritually and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear. I had lived in the South, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college, I had served seven and one half years in prison, I had survived the humiliating last five years of Depression in Cleveland; and still 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.”

By the 1950s Himes had decided to leave the United States and settled permanently in France. Himes like the country in part due to his popularity in literary circles. While in Paris, Himes’ was the contemporary of the political cartoonist Oliver Harrington and fellow expatriate writers Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and William Gardner Smith.

Himes was most famous for a series of Harlem Detective novels featuring Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, New York City police detectives in Harlem. The novels feature a mordant emotional timbre and a fatalistic approach to street situations. Funeral homes are often part of the story, and funeral director, H. Exodus Clay is a recurring character in these books.
The titles of the series include “A Rage in Harlem, The Real Cool Killers, The Crazy Kill, All Shot Up, The Big Gold Dream, The Heat’s On, Cotton Comes to Harlem, and Blind Man With A Pistol”; all written between 1957-1969.

COTTON COMES TO HARLEM“Cotton Comes to Harlem”, was made into a movie in 1970, which was set in that time period, rather than the earlier period of the original book. A sequel, “Come Back, Charleston Blue”, was released in 1972, and “For Love of Imabelle” was made into a film under the title “A Rage in Harlem”, in 1991.

It was in Paris in the late 1950s that Chester met his second wife Lesley Himes, née Packard, when she was assigned to interview him. She worked as a journalist for the Herald Tribune, where she wrote her own fashion column, “Monica”. He described Lesley as “Irish-English with blue-gray eyes and very good looking”. In her, he found someone who didn’t judge him for his race and he also admired her courage and resilience.

In 1958 he won France’s Grand Prix de Littérature Policière and a year later, Himes suffered a stroke, which led to Lesley quitting her job so that she could nurse him back to health. She cared for him for the rest of his life, and worked with him as his informal editor and proofreader. After a long engagement, they were married in 1978.

Lesley and Chester faced adversities as a mixed race couple living in that time period however, they were resilient and prevailed. People close to the author recalled his life with Lesley as one filled with unparalleled passion and great humor. Their circle of political colleagues and creative friends included; Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Malcolm X, Carl Van Vechten, Pablo Picasso, Jean Miotte, Ollie Harrington, Nikki Giovanni and Ishmael Reed. Their Bohemian life in Paris eventually led them to the South of France and finally on to Spain, where they remained until Chester’s death in 1984.

Some within the publishing industry regard Chester Himes as the literary equal of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Ishmael Reed has said, “[Himes] taught me the difference between a black detective and Sherlock Holmes” and it would be more than 30 years until another Black mystery writer, Walter Mosley and his Easy Rawlins and Mouse series, had even a similar effect.

In 1996, his widow Lesley Himes went to New York to work with Ed Margolies on the first biographical treatment of Himes’s life, entitled The Several Lives of Chester Himes, by long-time Himes scholars Edward Margolies and Michel Fabre, published in 1997 by University Press of Mississippi. Later, novelist and Himes scholar James Sallis published a more deeply detailed biography of Himes called “Chester Himes: A Life (2000)”.

A detailed examination of Himes’s writing and writings about him can be found in “Chester Himes: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography” compiled by Michel Fabre, Robert E. Skinner, and Lester Sullivan (Greenwood Press, 1992).

Himes was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

In May 2011, Penguin Modern Classics in London republished five of Himes’ detective novels from the Harlem Cycle.

On a personal note:

Chester Himes, along with Walter Moseley and Robert B. Parker were HUGE influences on my writing in terms of both content and style. I owe these men a great debt and I honestly don’t think that I’d be a writer today, had I not experienced reading their work(s).

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

If He Hollers Let Him Go, (1945)
Lonely Crusade, (1947)
Cast the First Stone, (1952)
The Third Generation, (1954)
The End of a Primitive, (1955)
For Love of Imabelle, alternate titles The Five-Cornered Square, A Rage in Harlem, (1957)
The Real Cool Killers, (1959)
The Crazy Kill, (1959)

AUTOBIOGRAPHIES:

The Quality of Hurt (1973)
My Life of Absurdity (1976)

 

 

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BLACK HISTORY MONTH BOOK REVIEW #2

14290517_121006023000The Man in 3B
by Carl Weber
Review by John F. Allen

What do you get when you combine popular 80’s sitcom, 227, Desperate Housewives and Boyz ‘n the Hood, with a splash of Clue? You get more than what you bargained for, which is more than your average Urban Lit novel. That’s what you’ll find in Carl Weber’s The Man in 3B!

When Daryl Graham aka The Man in 3B moves into a Jamaica Queens apartment building, all the females lose their minds and the men become jealous lunatics. Apparently this brother is finer than wine, all that and a bag of chips and the cat’s meow, with all the women—from eighteen to eighty, married and single—wanting to claim the title of Pussy Galore. He’s also everything every brother wants to be with a charisma that they will never possess.

Many of the female residents are in dysfunctional and broken relationships and see Daryl Graham as Doctor Feel Good/Mister Big Stuff, the cure for what ails them and just the right prescription to fill their empty lives with HOT SEX!

The front stoop of this New York walkup is gossip central, where mostly all of the building’s female residents congregate to chinwag about the latest, greatest dirt going on in and around the building. They also stake out the entrance for any chance to catch a glimpse of Daryl, whom they all have professed a burning desire to sleep with. Because of this, he is quickly welcomed into the building with much more than friendly neighbor affection, weaving his way into each of the tenants’ lives.

Enter Connie, the overweight and sexually frustrated wife of Avery Mack, a down on his luck former mortgage broker whose disgust in Connie’s appearance is readily apparent and quite mean-spirited. A chance encounter leads to Daryl offering to help Connie in her mission to lose weight and possibly save her disintegrating marriage. However, Daryl’s charisma is not lost on Connie and his flirtations begin to make her feel attractive, appreciated and more confident than she’s felt in years.

Enter Avery, whose disgust and lack of sensitivity to his wife leads him to ask for a divorce. He is plunged into a further downward spiral when he gets in over his head with a bad element. Avery’s only concern is to reclaim the luxurious lifestyle he once had and he’s determined to achieve that goal by any means necessary. Despite his contempt for Connie, he becomes jealous of Daryl for showing interest in her and for how she’s decided to take control of her life and move on without him.

Enter Benny, a smart, shy and sheltered young man who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Daryl and begins to look up to him as a role model, much to the dismay of Benny’s father, Ben—a local firefighter and resident “Histress,” to the ladies of the building. When their time together becomes more frequent and Benny approaches his twenty-first birthday, he begins to reevaluate his life and his identity as an adult.

Enter Krystal, Daryl’s first love, who calls him back into her life for sexual escapades after years apart. While Daryl wants to be in a serious relationship, Krystal only wants to have fun. What she doesn’t tell Daryl is that she’s involved with another man who she has no intentions of leaving. Krystal abruptly leaves Daryl hanging when her current boyfriend proposes and unwittingly ends up moving into the same building where Daryl lives. She tries to use this situation to her advantage as she wants Daryl to continue ringing her bell, yet also make things work with her fiancé, but Daryl’s not having any of that and sends her packing.

Everything is hunky dory until someone is murdered…

Everyone becomes a prime suspect as many of the residents have means, opportunity and motive. This throws everyone into a tizzy and deepens the mystery that surrounds exactly who Daryl Graham really is and what about him brings out such passionate emotions in those who encounter him.

The plot of this novel is tightly wound and while Daryl serves as the nexus to the other characters, Weber is able to give each and every one a unique and distinctive voice. The transition from Urban lit to Whodunit is masterful and I applaud Weber’s ability as a writer to pull it off. I was so invested in the discovery of what happened next, I almost forgot at times it wasn’t a Walter Mosley mystery novel I was reading. Where’s Socrates Fortlow when you need him?

The mystery surrounding Daryl Graham and how his presence and influence has affected everyone in the building are just some of the reasons you’ll want to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.

The Man in 3B is filled with interesting, dysfunctional characters with plenty enough personality to keep the reader intrigued and invested from start to finish.

I’ve been a fan of Carl’s work from his first novel, “Lookin’ for Luv.” He has failed to disappoint me with his writing and I encourage you to take a look at each and every one of his novels.

But if you want to know all the juicy details and the fate of these well-developed characters in The Man in 3B, you’ll have to read the book!

STAY TUNED! Next week I review “The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson!!!

THE HISTORY OF BLACK SPECULATIVE FICTION WRITERS

FIRST IN A WEEKLY SERIES FOR FEBRUARY 2013!

BLACK SPECULATIVE FICTION WRITERS     In the spirit of celebrating Black History Month, I’m dedicating my weekly blog posts to honor the accomplishments of black writers with a look into their work and contributions to the writing profession. I will be tasking myself with reading the work of one black author per week and reviewing their work as a blog post. These posts are meant to be educational, insightful and inspiring. In addition, I will be writing a post exploring blacks in a particular genre. The first post in the series will focus on the history of black writers in speculative fiction!

Within the various genres of speculative fiction, blacks are an even larger group of minorities than they are as a whole within society. And while the collective of black speculative writers is small, I believe that their voices are huge and resonate within the black fan community as a growing demographic.

Of black speculative fiction writers, some of the most popular to come to mind are Octavia Butler, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due and Charles R. Saunders. However, the roots of blacks in speculative fiction go back much farther than them.

One of the foremost U.S. black political leaders of his time was Martin Delany (1812 – 1885). In 1859, Mr. Delany published Blake, or the Huts of America as a serial in the Anglo-American Magazine. The novel dealt with an alternate history where a successful slave revolt in the Southern states led to the founding of a black country in Cuba. Unfortunately, the novel remained unfinished. Noted black speculative fiction writer, Samuel R. Delany (no relation), has described it as being about as close to a Science Fiction style alternate history novel as you can get.

Another noted early black speculative fiction writer was Charles W. Chesnutt. He wrote folkloric Hoodoo stories and published a collection called The Conjure Woman in 1899, which is the first known speculative fiction collection written by a person of color.

Most people don’t associate W.E.B. Dubois with speculative fiction however, he wrote several science fiction short stories including, The Comet which depicted a world where the only survivors of an apocalyptic event were a black man and a white woman. This marks the first post-apocalyptic fiction work where an African American appears as the subject.

By the 1920’s, African writers began publishing works of speculative fiction, which because of the social climate of the time, received very little if any attention.

In 1920, Thomas Mofolo (1876 – 1948) of South Africa published his novel, Chaka which was written in Sotho. The novel presented a magical realist account of the life of Shaka the Zulu king.

Another African novelist, Jean-Louis Njemba Medou wrote Nnanga Kon, a 1932 novel which covered the first contact between white colonialists and the Bulu people. In Cameroon, where Medou hails from, the novel became so popular it is the basis of local folklore.

In 1945, Makonnen Edalkaccaw, an Ethiopian writer, penned the story of Yayne Ababa in Amharic. It is noted as an early work of Muslim science fiction and depicts the adventures of a teenage Amahara girl who was sold into slavery.

In the years that followed, have been graced with a growth in the number of blacks writing stories and novels in speculative fiction which includes: Charles R. Saunders, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due, Octavia Butler, Maurice Broaddus, Nisi Shawl, Brandon Massey, Zaji, Milton Davis, L.A. Banks, Balogun Ojetade, Chesya Burke, Wrath James White, Valjeanne Jeffers, N.K. Jemisin, Talitha McEachin, Paul West, Alicia McCalla, Thaddeus Atreides, Brandon Easton, Xavier Moore, Seressia Glass, Hannibal Tabu , Sheree Thomas, Nalo Hopkinson and Nnedi Okorafor to name but a few.

Despite what’s displayed on the bookshelves of large chain bookstores, there are plenty new and emerging black speculative fiction writers who are making their mark and raising the various genres to another level. I encourage fans of speculative fiction, beginning with the readers of this blog to support these writers and help to give the genres a shot in the arm and to be representative of various cultures and subcultures throughout the US and the world. Modern black speculative fiction writers now cover a wide range of genres including: Science Fiction, Steampunk, Fantasy, Urban Fantasy and Horror however, two emerging sub-genres to appear have been Sword & Soul and Steamfunk which predominately feature characters of color.

I challenge my readers to put aside a couple of hours each week and pick up a book written by a black author during Black History Month. I encourage you to start by checking out the works of the above mentioned authors, as you’d be broadening your horizons and expanding your minds, which are two components of reading I find most admirable. Trust me; you’ll be glad you did!

FRIDAY’S BLOG POST: A review of Zaji’s novel, “When We Were One.”