Life in the United States was hard for a man like Chester Himes, a proud, nonconformist rebel and mulatto whose mother, often mistaken for white, demanded respect even to the point of armed combat. There's that great scene in his book "The Third Generation" in which his mother, passenger in a car whose student driver is threatened by a white farmer, pulls a gun on the farmer.
James Baldwin, another proud and temperamental genius, said that if he hadn't left the United States he would have killed someone. The same could be said of Chester Himes, the intellectual and gangster who left the United States for Europe in the 1950s. He achieved fame abroad with his Harlem detective series, which are remarkable for their macabre comic sense and wicked and nasty wit so brilliantly captured in Bill Duke's "A Rage in Harlem."
The black male characters in these stories either rage against the assaults upon their dignity and self-worth by American society or channel this rage, the strategy used by the dignified Dick Small, the deferential headwaiter in the story "Headwaiter," a virtuoso performance that shows Himes' gift for scene, speech and characterization was evident as early as 1937.
Most of the men in the book spend their time "on the muscle," that is, in a constant state of anxiety and depression. In "All God's Chillun Got Pride," Keith Richards has a "tightfaced scowl . . . high shouldered air of disdain . . . a hot, challenging stare . . . uncalled-for and out-of-place defiance, and a lack of civility and rudeness." As a result of his pride, his career ends in the Army's guardhouse.
Another character's pride almost results in his murder by the landlady of a prostitute he's sharing with a rich white john named Mr. Shelton. When the wealthy Mr. Shelton visits his paramour unexpectedly, Joe Wolf hides in the closet, where he is discovered by Shelton. Shelton refuses to notice him.
"All of a sudden it hit him that Mr. Shelton had opened the door deliberately, knowing he was there, and after having satisfied himself that he was right, had refused to acknowledge Joe's existence. Why he had not only refused to recognize him as a rival, not even as an intruder, why the son of a bitch looked at him as if he was another garment he had bought for her."
Insulted and humiliated, Wolf attacks the prostitute until the landlady "Miss Lou burst into the room pointing a long-barreled .38." Wolfe has to run for his life and swallow his "innate pride, his manhood, his honor."
James (Happy) Trent, an ex-convict, returns to civilian life, only to find his mother and brother experiencing hard times. An old ragged overcoat cast off by his brother symbolizes his failure and misery. He steals a new coat and is murdered by a policeman while trying to escape.
The condition of these brooding, troubled characters is so bleak that they spend a good deal of the time dreaming. Some of these stories were written while Himes was serving time in prison.
In "The Meanest Cop in the World," Jack fantasizes that he is a college freshman in love with a co-ed named Violet, "a brunette with a tinge of gold in the bronze of her skin and nice curves beneath her simple little dress," whose demeanor causes a "flip-flop" in his heart. He awakens in jail. "Suddenly Jack realized that he wasn't in love with a pretty girl called Violet, that he didn't even know such a girl, that he was just convict number 100012 in a dark, chilly cell."
Another character slips into a daydream after he reads of a Mississippi trial of two white men accused of murdering a "Negro youth for making a pass at a white woman." His dream locates him at the scene of the trial where, using a variety of weapons, he slaughters every "peckerwood" in sight.
American ethnic literature might be divided between the missionary tradition, that which espouses assimilation and preaches adherence to what one newspaper critic of black behavior calls "white mainstream values" (whatever that might mean), and the satirical comic "trickster" tradition that undercuts and even mocks the writing of assimilation.
Charles Fanning, in his "The Irish Voice in America," argues that the satirical tradition is the one employed by the underdog: "The power of words is a great offensive weapon, a potent and public act of comic aggression that fortifies one against one's enemies." The "serious" and "earnest" writing in this collection often falls flat, especially the love stories in which, typically, a man is involved with a woman of a higher class than his own. Himes, however, is highly successful when he uses "comic aggression" to puncture the social and political daydreams of his times.
The daydream that if blacks prove their valor by sacrificing themselves for whites or by fighting against their enemies, American society would embrace them as dark brothers is treated in "Two Soldiers," about a black private who displays his bravery on the battlefield on behalf of Joshua Crabtree, who goes "berserk" at the very sight of a black man in uniform. " 'Set me down, white brother, and save you'self,' George whispered through blood-flecked lips." As in "Glory" and "Home of the Brave," only then does the white character recognize the black's humanity. Calvin Hernton is right in his excellent introduction when he asserts that some of these stories, though written in the '30s and '40s, address contemporary issues.
Feminist revisionist theory, promoted in such plays as "The Straw Woman," that white women in the South suffered as much as the blacks who were often lynched and maimed, is a daydream exploded by Himes' story "A Penny for Your Thoughts": A white woman assaults a man who is trying to calm a mob bent on lynching a black man accused of rape. " 'Why, you nigger-lovin' bastard, what's Texas comin' to when a white woman . . . ' She drew back and slapped him across the mouth with the barrel of her gun." To add to the irony, the intended victim is a black veteran.
Himes' America is alive and well, and racism, that ugly social parasite, has found a host in parts other than the South, and festers in the speeches of politicians who know they can gain votes by "running against the nigger" as politicians used to say in the old South.
After an hour's flight during which I was red-lining sections of this book, one of those "aberrational" events that happen to the black men, including those in Himes' book, frequently, happened to me.
While approaching the parking lot accompanied by a black professor and a white student who'd come to pick me up for an engagement at the California Institute of the Arts, I was stopped by three white men who identified themselves as Burbank Airport Narcotics Security. The one who did all of the talking was obviously high on testosterone. He wanted to know why I exited from the terminal instead of choosing the exit in front of the baggage claim, as my fellow passengers had. (I hadn't checked any bags.)
I could imagine Chester Himes, for whom living in a racist society was a situation of absurdity, doubling over from laughter. I thought of a dozen smart answers that I could have given to such a stupid question. But I know my America like a book. The wrong answer would have given me the same fate as a character named Black Boy in "The Night's for Cryin' ":
"The cops took him down to the station and beat his head into an open, bloody wound from his bulging eyes clear to the base of his skull."
As evidence that the same experiential gap between blacks and whites that existed when Himes wrote these stories exists now, a white friend to whom I related this incident said I should have taken down the officer's badge number.