In recognition of Black History month, here’s another person that inspires me:
When I was a University Student, I studied Creative Writing. My professor, Lewis Warsh (who I’ve spoken about in my Racism series), read the essays I’d written for his class and recommended several writers that he felt I should read.
“Why these writers?” I asked.
“I think you are a talented writer,” he said. “Yours is a voice the reader wants to hear.”
I remember his words exactly but I don’t remember exactly how I initially reacted to these words. But being that I was a student with a chip on his shoulder and unaccustomed to praise for anything I’d created, and being that he was a professional writer and educator, I probably took him at his word.
“Your style is very hard-boiled,” he added. “Very raw and emotional yet tough and edgy. These writers I believe represent the different journeys a voice like yours can take. Check them out for yourself and let me know what you think.”
I told him I would.
They were just names written in red on the cover of my most recent essay. I didn’t recognize any of them but I remember them all.
- Dashiell Hammett
- Elmore Leonard
- James Ellroy
- Raymond Chandler
- Jim Thompson
- Chester Himes
Though I read a lot, I was mostly a biography, auto-biography and sports book guy. I got most of my fiction through film. I was a movie fanatic, Still am. So, my initial research into these guys garnered names of stories I knew well from films I’d seen and dug. Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, Leonard’s 52-Pick up, Chandler’s The big Sleep, Thompson’s The Getaway…(Ellroy would later have L.A. Confidential)
Then there was Chester Himes.
As I researched Himes, the only black writer on the list, naturally I recalled a couple of the movies that were adapted from his books. The first, a film I remembered from my childhood fondly, was a movie called, “Cotton comes to Harlem.”
Yep, it was some campy blaxploitation from the early 70’s that used to find its way to television on the Late, Late show occasionally, and TV Guide devourer that I was I never missed it. Then there was its “sequel” “Come Back, Charleston Blue.” More of the investigative hijinks of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, the two black police officers enforcing the man’s law by any means necessary.
Some funny shit.
And, before I sat down to actually read Chester Himes, I wondered just what Professor Walsh had had in mind when he suggested I read the works of a man who created these two clowns. What did he see in my writing that lead him to believe that I could benefit from reading novels about corrupt black police officers who, though they didn’t take no shit from White commanding officers, colleagues nor criminals, acted like hard-nosed buffoons and ran around Harlem kicking every ass in their way?
My local library didn’t offer much. Those other author’s works were in abundance but Himes…there was only one. A book called: If he hollers let him go.
And read it.
When I finished, and I did so damn near in one sitting, I read it again…immediately. I spent a whole weekend reading this book.
And, I understood, with unadulterated clarity, why Professor Warsh had included Himes on that distinguished list: Himes was me!
Furthermore, Himes, or should I say Bob Jones (what a name), the main character of the story, was every black man. Bob reiterated everything I’d ever heard about what it meant to be a black man in a white world…though Jones was from a different time, the World War II era to be precise, his experience with race was not so different from the experience of black men of the late 80’s and early 90’s. The battles he fought, both internally and externally, wage on even til this day. Even more so for me now that I live in Japan where I’m dealing with some of the same psychological struggles as Jones such as my vulnerability in a society that remains exclusive and the necessity to restrain my urge to assault while I endeavor to understand the nature of the force I find so disturbing, how much of it is within my control and how much outside of my sphere of influence.
Even his relationship with a white woman mirrors my relationship with white women back in the US (especially my relationship with Maggie) and even with Japanese women since I’ve been living in Japan. At the time I first read it I had recently broken up with my first white girlfriend and the book helped me to understand what I couldn’t quite get a handle on at the time. The knot that I had twisted myself into so tightly, imagining the pressure would only find relief through the use of drugs and by way of the sexual subjugation of women.
Also, his eventual self-exile, expatriating to Europe, as had many black artist of that time (James Baldwin and Richard Wright did the same) due to the lack of acceptance of his humanity in the States and an open armed acceptance in Europe. So, my having done similarly, in my case Asia, has allowed me to see Himes in a way I think someone who hasn’t had the experience of living outside of one’s country for an extended period of time can fully experience and appreciate.
The book struck home and continues to do so when I re-visit it as I do occasionally…when I can take having home struck so mercilessly as Himes does.
And, after that weekend, I wanted more. This was pre-Amazon, click and ship, so I bounced around the city until I found a number of his other books including the Harlem crime/mystery novels, “Cotton comes to Harlem,” and “The real cool killers,” and my biggest Bonanza, “The collected stories of Chester Himes,” which included all of the short stories he’d written while in prison for a number of magazines.
Yep, I said prison.
Eventually I’d get around to his autobiographies, “The quality of hurt” and “My life of absurdity” but not before I’d checked out the other writers on the list my professor had furnished. By the time I had gotten through them all I understood why he’d included Himes in this group of rather distinguished authors. Simple. For quality of writing and pure storytelling, character & plot development, suspense, action and hard-boiled hard-hitting dialogue, he was as good or a better writer than those others.
But I also suspected something else, as I read Hammett and Chandler in particular. Himes was not quite writing crime novels. Nor was he creating fictional stories with the reality based backdrop of Harlem like Ellroy does Los Angeles or Thompson did Texas and any other hell hole he’s lived in. Himes was doing something different. I suspect his Harlem was more of a dream-scape, a metaphor or a caricature of Harlem, more representative of his idea of the world as a whole than of Harlem of that time. The world was a place where violence was carried out by the good and the evil, where no one was one or the other, where the comedy was not so much in the irony or in the wit, but in the absurdity of and utter chaos that some writers choose to give order to and rectify. He did not.
His comedy was painful, derived from a guilt-ridden numbness and that was what was missing from all those movies I’d stayed up all night to see as a child and re-watched numerous times over the years. And it’s something that film adaptations of his work cannot capture for the finished product would not be so much a black comedy as a black tragedy comical in its irreverence and lack of everything we’ve come to call humanity. Like watching a person holler in agony, helpless to do anything for your agony has you hollering as well, until you both breakdown into fits of hilarity.
But I could be wrong.
Thank you Mr. Himes for sharing your pain with me, and with the world, for through it maybe we can come to a have a greater comprehension of the true value and purpose of our pain. You have been a great inspiration to me as a writer and as a human, showing by example how to put pain to work at something productive and creative.
I’m not sure if you ever found your Patronus, but I suspect you did, probably with your loving wife, Lesley.
Regardless, I’m forever indebted to you for being a huge part of mine.
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