The Arkivest: Chester Himes and Black Futurism

The Arkivest: Chester Himes
-d. scot miller

When reviewing the prolific life of Chester Himes the first lesson to learn is that as Black artists, we are the world-walkers. The second is as Black writers we are the scribes of the jubilee apocalypse.

With sixteen novels covering thirty-two years of professional writing, it is amazing that so few people know of his established presence in neither American literature nor his contributions to what is now known as Black Futurism.

And how does Chester Himes relate to Black-Futurism? Though he passed away nearly 25 years ago, and many of his writings are set in the time and place he was in, Chester Himes‘ life was, the embodiment of the Black Avant Garde and, dare I say, apocalyptic sage of the Black Futurist literary tradition.

Before the redemption narratives of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice, Himes began his writing career while serving a three-year prison bid for armed robbery by writing articles for Esquire and Harper’s.

Before Ralph Ellison addressed the perils of Black men struggling with absurd disenfranchisement in Invisible Man and Richard Wright confronted the exploitation of Black people by American Capitalism and Communism through the 40s and 50s in Native Son, Himes had nationally published two separate full-length novels- If He Hollers Let Him Go (Doubleday, 1945), and The Lonely Crusade (Knopf, 1947) – laying the groundwork for these two seminal works.

By the time James Baldwin, John A. Williams and Cecil Brown escaped this Land of the Free; Chester Himes had traveled across Europe several times and was there to greet the expatriate Black writers on Parisian shores. In the 70s, Melvin Vann Peebles stayed in Himes‘ Paris apartment while Chester, then in his late 50s, traveled through Spain in a busted Volvo, writing.

One only has to follow his bibliography to see the evolution of Black Futurist thought as it emerged from the African American subconscious. The Primitive (New American Library, 1955), tells the story of Jesse Robinson, a drunken, guilt-ridden reprobate, holed up in a New York City penthouse with a White socialite and too much booze to go around. The fact that he wove narratives fully exploring miscegenation in a time of overt segregation would be enough to clarify his trajectory as a radical man of letters, but the last scene of the novel – where Robinson sits naked on the living room couch, plays with his Johnson and watches a talking gorilla on a morning news program inform him that the socialite lies dead in the next bedroom, that he is the killer, and will be going to jail for life shortly – places him, again, at the forefront and gives an unnerving, and genre-shattering glimpse into the future of speculative fiction.

absurdity.jpg In the second book of his double-volume biography, The Quality Of Hurt / My Life Of Absurdity, Himes tells of after a failed marriage and being blacklisted by the American literary establishment, he takes a cruise-ship to Europe. What met Himes there was a whole new level of absurdity. As with nearly all of the great jazz musicians of the era’s Avant Garde, Paris made a home for Chester Himes. The writer was offered a contract with Serie Noire-Gallimard, the most successful detective novel publishers in France. He received the best pay of his career, but Himes wrote and drank all day, everyday, in apartments and chateaus all over Spain, Paris, and Holland, while living in relative obscurity and poverty.

For twelve years, Himes published a book a year. He was honored with le prix du Roman Policier in 1958 for his 1957 novel For The Love Of Imabell/A Rage In Harlem. Cotton Comes To Harlem (1963) was made into a movie directed by Ossie Davis in the 70s, and twenty years later, A Rage In Harlem made it to the big-screen under the direction of George Duke.

Himes, having been away from America for so long, had vivid recollections of the sights and sounds of Black America that gave life to his detective novels. Along with remembering streets and bars throughout Harlem, he also took advantage of fictionalizing the world of cops and robbers through his lens of surreal experience. In the beginning of Real Cool Killers (1959), for example, a man’s arm is chopped off at the elbow by a fireman’s axe as he confronts a patron in a bar.

The publication of Amistad #1, Writings On Black History and Culture (Vintage Periodicals, 1970), marked an important occasion in literature and Black Futurism. In it, John A. Williams, author of The Man Who Cried I Am, traveled to Spain to interview Chester Himes for a piece entitled “My Man Himes.” In it, for the first time, he is asked about his life as a writer and thinker. It is here that Chester Himes, Black Futurist, truly emerges as he discusses the work he is doing on his final novel, a piece of pure speculative fiction, Plan B. Though he hadn’t chosen the title at the time of the interview he explains, “-all dialogue ceases, all forms of petitions and other goddamned things are finished. All you do then is kill as many people as you can, the black people kill as many of the white community as they can kill. That means children, women, grown men, industrialists, street-sweepers, whatever they are, as long as they’re white.”

Chester Himes made a place for himself in the Arkives by stating and living his truth at all costs. Peep him. Now.

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