"It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have." ~ James Baldwin
"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Friday, July 29, 2011

Chester Himes

"If one lives in a country where racism is held valid and practiced in all ways of life eventually, no matter whether one is a racist or a victim, one comes to feel the absurdity of life....Racism generated from whites is first of all absurd. Racism creates absurdity among blacks as a defense mechanism." ~ Chester Himes, My Life of Absurdity

Novelist Chester Himes was born July 29, 1909 in Jefferson City, Missouri. His father was an industrial arts teacher at a number of historically black colleges. When Himes was about twelve years old the family lived in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where his brother was denied treatment at a white hospital after a school accident. Himes wrote in his autobiography The Quality of Hurt, "That one moment in my life hurt me as much as all the others put together.... 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."

After briefly attending Ohio State University, Himes was sentenced to prison for armed robbery in 1928. He began writing, and had short stories published in Bronzeman and  Esquire. Paroled after eight years, he moved to Los Angeles where had a brief career as a screenwriter. He worked in the shipyards and his novel If He Hollers Let Him Go, published in 1945, deals with the racism he encountered in the workplace. Another novel, Cast the First Stone, is based on his prison experience. Heavily edited before its release in 1952, it was reissued as Yesterday Will Make You Cry in 1998 using the original manuscript.

Neither novel sold well, and in 1953 Himes left America for France where he became friends with other American expatriates such as James Baldwin and Richard Wright. When a French publisher suggested he write a detective novel he produced For Love of Imabelle which won France's 1957 La Grand Prix du Roman Policiers for the best detective novel. This became the first of a series featuring Harlem detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. One, Cotton Comes to Harlem, was made into a 1970 movie starring Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques, and Redd Foxx. For Love of Imabelle was filmed in 1992 under the title A Rage In Harlem  with Forest Whitaker, Gregory Hines, Robin Givens, and Danny Glover.

Himes suffered a stroke in 1963, and also had Parkinson's disease. He died in Moraira, Spain, on November 12, 1984 at the age of 75. Critic Michael Marsh summarizes his career by saying, "Himes produced 17 novels, more than 60 short stories, and two autobiographical volumes, revealing a unique knowledge of the dark side of human nature and the corrupting influence of racism. He believed in the basic brutality of man and, especially in his early works, man's helplessness in the face of circumstances. Life is often a stacked deck. Himes retained this perspective throughout his career, perhaps because it evolved out of his own experience."

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