I have never felt any attraction to violence. Besides, black violence against white has never been as important as the American press pretends to believe. It is obvious to me that blacks had no chance in an armed confrontation, the odds being 10 to one. It’s through acting upon white guilt, and by knowing how far to carry their threats, that Negroes might achieve the greatest revenge. – Chester Himes[i]
The struggle for recognition on the part of Black American authors in 20th-century literature is most often associated with the likes of James Baldwin (1924-1987) and Richard Wright (1908-1960), rather than Chester Himes (1909-1984). As celebrated filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles put it, “We were only allowed one brilliant Negro per profession and Richard Wright, soon to be dethroned by Jimmy Baldwin, had beaten Chester to the wire in the protest novel department.[ii] Despite the fact that Himes was a mainstream presence in the Parisian circles of writers such as Baldwin and Wright, he was never taken as seriously as the they were in the realm of meaningful protest.
Himes wrote with verve but with little hope of his real message being heard, as time went by. His “protest” novels, such as Cast the First Stone (1953, later published as Yesterday Will Make You Cry in 1998); The Third Generation (1954) or The End of a Primitive (1955) were written during his years in America and indeed in American prisons. They remained undervalued for quite some time. It was only with Himes’ relocation to Paris and his move away from pure protest that he gained notoriety. With the help of Marcel Duhamel (1900-1977) and the Série noire, Himes’ authentic critique of race relations in America found resonance.[iii]
All three of these authors found their way out of America and into the Parisian enclaves of Black expatriates which allowed them to analyze the racial violence of their native country with a distance that ultimately served to sharpen their critiques across the board. Both Wright and Baldwin are indeed legendary protest authors whose words resonate today. On the contrary, Himes slipped into one of the most undervalued genres of the time period, the detective novel. While some claim that this move compromised his protest voice, his Harlem detective series nonetheless reveals an astute and uncompromising critique of white guilt and racial violence in the United States in the mid to late 20th century.
A key concept throughout the series is that of the absurdity of racism. The introduction to Himes’ autobiography immortalizes this obsession of his:
Albert Camus once said that racism is absurd. Racism introduces absurdity into the human condition. Not only does racism express the absurdity of the racists, but it generates absurdity in the victims. …Racism generating from whites is first of all absurd. Racism creates absurdity among blacks as a defense mechanism. Absurdity to combat absurdity. So it was for me. I thought [when I wrote The End of a Primitive] I had struck a great blow against racial prejudice… I was arrogant in the belief.[vi]
Himes mocks his own arrogance in thinking that he had struck a blow against racism when he unleashes his talent for absurd expression in the detective series which has strongly shaped his legacy. In these novels, all of which were written while he was an expatriate, the discerning reader finds a biting assessment of white guilt and its role in perpetuating racial violence of a uniquely American nature, despite the fact that his attack on racial absurdity was routinely downplayed by the marketing techniques targeting a white reading public.[v] Himes’ real aim, according to Van Peebles, was to use Harlem as a metaphor for tracing “the plight of dark-skinned folks in America” (17).
The series consists of nine novels (some sources suggest ten, but Run Man Run, published in America in 1966, was not considered by Himes to be part of the series), all featuring his trademark detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. The detectives are both Negroes and for the most part, at an ironic peace with the outrageous lack of justice for the dark-skinned people of their community. Their deadpan humor throughout the series makes them the mouthpieces for many of Chester Himes’ ironic positions, for example, when some young black hoodlums accuse them of being Uncle Tom cops and further claim that they are cops who are on whitey’s side. To this Gravedigger responds, “Go home and grow up. You’ll find there ain’t no other side” (Blind Man with a Pistol, 140). The remaining characters to be found in the series, in particular in the debut novel A Rage in Harlem (1958), are Negro stereotypes ostensibly created to amuse a white reading public and assuage feelings of white guilt. They were therefore read primarily on a surface level.
Plan B, the last of the novels, was published posthumously in Paris in 1984 and only saw the light of day in an English translation 10 years after Chester Himes’ death, in 1993. Unlike the others, Plan B strongly resists a surface reading. It is in this novel that Himes wreaks havoc on his own sustained Harlem metaphor, concluding the narrative with the two detectives in an irreconcilable dispute about American racism that brings about the death of both men. One of Plan B’s central episodes is referred to as the 8th Avenue massacre in which the tenants of a slum building in Harlem are attacked and untold numbers of blacks are killed by the police. The episode epitomizes Himes’ analysis of white guilt as a primary cause in the perpetuation of racial violence. Himes uses the violence of the massacre as an illustration of the repression of white guilt which is eventually institutionalized as justified defense against the fear instilled by Blacks. It is difficult not to think of the recent instances of Black Lives Matters protests, police violence against young Blacks, black violence against police officers… In short, the conundrum of racial violence taking place in the U.S. today.
Black Attack, White Defense or White Attack, Black Defense? A Microcosm of Chester Himes’ Harlem
The 8th Avenue massacre begins as a reverse parody of Whites in black face. The sequence of events is as follows: a lone sniper (later identified as a Negro) is deemed responsible for the killing of five policemen in Harlem. This shootout is followed by an attempt on the part of the armed forces to locate and eliminate the sniper. In their fervor to eradicate the black man, they bring in a tank which explodes an entire rotting slum building inhabited by Negroes. The explosion causes burnt white ashes to spray out and cover the faces of the black tenement dwellers. Black face, a tradition of ridicule and condescension towards Blacks, is inverted and then imposed upon the Negro community, adding insult to injury. In addition, the overblown nature of bringing in a tank to eliminate one sniper gives new meaning to the term ‘use of excessive force’. This term is indeed prevalent in contemporary news reports about police violence against Blacks and has helped to fuel the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years.
Who’s to blame?
The initial reaction from the white community in the face of this desecration of a large proportion of the black community by white police forces is one of outrage, guilt and remorse, but this is a short-lived reaction. To assuage the heavy guilt felt by white people, the ironic narrative voice analyzes the causes of the massacre in order to make decisions about where to lay blame. In the process of dissecting the events, many practices so fundamental to Jim Crow America in the ‘age of the Negro’ are evoked. As is stated in the novel[vi]:
No one had the slightest idea why he (the Black gunman) would suddenly attack and kill white policemen who had always been good and kind to black people. They could not imagine him doing a thing like that; none of them would even think of killing a kindly white cop. Not one of them had seen him fire at the patrol car or at any of the other police cars that appeared subsequently. None of them knew anything, had seen anything, had heard anything, or said anything of importance. It was as though they had spent the night on another planet (111).
Himes catalogs the ways in which Negro behavior in a white public is almost always in conformity with how Whites want to be seen by Blacks, that is, as beneficent and well-meaning towards the black communities. For example, pantomiming acquiescence is a stock in trade for American minstrel shows and other stereotypical depictions of American blacks. The reference to living on another planet from the Whites is a fairly accurate description of life in Jim Crow America.
To believe that the behavior described in this quote was authentic helped in alleviating repressed white guilt. Any departure from this kind of behavior could quickly bring on a reaction of surprise, disbelief, indignation and more often than not, instances of white on black violence. According to the white mind-set being parodies, a Negro who could even imagine that a white policeman could harm them, or who failed to praise the white community, would be considered uppity. Genuine dissent on the part of the Negro community cannot go unpunished. Thus it is better not to see, hear or even say anything about the events leading up to the violence, or else risk succumbing to the wrath of the white man.
Nonetheless, the initial reaction of the white community to the massacre is a profound sense of quilt about what has happened to these innocent black bystanders. Though such racist dynamics might be gleaned in many national contexts, Himes emphasizes the unique American context in his subsequent description of the analysis in such passages as:
The citizens of other nations in the world found it difficult to reconcile this excessive display of guilt by America’s white community with its traditional treatment of blacks. What the citizens of the world didn’t understand was that American whites are a traditionally masochistic people, and their sense of guilt towards blacks is an integral part of the national character [my emphasis] (107).
As the events leading up to the massacre are further scrutinized and reported upon, the extent to which white guilt quickly morphs into acts of violence born of repeated repressive gestures becomes apparent. And the real justification for the final outcome of this novel, triggered by the 8th Avenue massacre, is a fusion of actions prompted by white guilt and self-identification by white Americans as members of a superior group.
Justifying White on Black violence – the courts and the press
The legal investigation into the 8th Avenue massacre bears this out. The massacre is initially seen as atrocious and guilt-inducing for Whites.
Never had the white community projected such mawkish feelings of guilt. White men, crying unrestrainedly, confessed to deeds and emotions they had kept concealed and had denied for centuries. They were heard to confess to beating blacks, oppressing blacks, corrupting blacks, lusting after blacks and most violently of all, to hating blacks. …And they contended that they were indeed devils, as certain blacks had contended all along and declared that they should be punished for their wickedness (105).
The massacre is perceived as an event so shocking and horrifying that, in the initial shock of the moment, they forgot that the original act of violence was indeed the fault of one Black man. But the formal conclusion on the part of the courts and the press is that the attack on the Negroes was actually a legitimate defense on the part of Whites against a black man who singlehandedly killed five white policemen. This outcry is quickly transformed as is so often the case in these scenarios. By the end of the chapter, the groundwork for future acts of violence against the Negro community is laid:
Uneasiness grew as the press published detailed reports of the wanton killing of five white policemen by the black killer. Visions stirred in the minds of white citizens of blacks running amok with mystery guns. Trepidation supplanted their orgy of guilt. Trepidation grew to anger. Were they asking too much to feel safe in their own country, in their own homes, living their own lives? …Civilization would be a shambles if the sins of the fathers were visited upon the children to untold generations. They were fed up with these unwanted blacks with their impossible demands (112).
In short, the feelings of guilt that threaten the order and sanctity of the law in America must be assuaged and in the process give way to a justification for violence against Negroes. Such is the mechanism of perpetuating racial violence in America as illustrated by Himes in the episode of the 8th Avenue massacre of Plan B.
Strangely enough, writing at the end of his life, Himes excuses American whites for very little, but his sympathy for Blacks in short supply as well. In the final chapter of Plan B, an all-out confrontation between Whites and Blacks takes place. In this apocalyptic confrontation which ends the novel, Himes writes that “in the wake of this bloody massacre, the stock market crashed. The dollar fell on the world market. The very structure of capitalism began to crumble. Confidence in the capitalistic system had an almost fatal shock” (182). Just as his narrator had earlier noted that white guilt was part of the national character of America, he asserts in this later section that American self-interest is rooted in the institutionalization of the capitalist system. That system maintains its power through the continual reaffirmation of white supremacy as the grounding for law, order and the American way. The repression of white guilt is thus represented as a mechanism for perpetuating violence, and as long as the black community is unable to turn that white guilt against itself, it will be a community continually victimized by the righteous wrath of the supremacists. As my opening quote from Himes attests, Himes believed that the only recourse to action for the Negro was through the manipulation of white guilt. There are no heroes in Plan B. There is only a condemnation of the mythologies which allow for racism to become self-perpetuating and impossible to eradicate.
Himes and America today
Himes’ Harlem is an elaborate and surreal nightmare about the absurdity of racial relations in America and it reflects uncannily upon the racist nature of contemporary events. For the mainstream American press, such ironic incidents are written up as tragedies. The words of legendary protest authors Baldwin and Wright are evoked time and again as a way of parsing and protesting the injustices resulting from these tragedies. They too had the opportunity to distance themselves from their own suffering in the United States and therefore comment more forcefully on the dysfunction of America and its race relations. Their writings have indeed stood the test of time. But we should no longer be living in an age where only one brilliant Negro at a time can be allowed to speak. Himes’ metaphoric Harlem, though seemingly lost in an ironic haze, is nonetheless drawn with candor and precision. It behooves us to recognize the value and relevance of his texts as the unconquered protests they ultimately prove to be when read with precision.
[i] From Michel Fabre’s “Chester Himes Direct” in Hard Boiled Dicks, (December 1983): volumes 8-9, 5-21. Reprinted in Conversations with Chester Himes. Edited by Michel Fabre and Robert E. Skinner. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press. 1995. 125-142. 136. Print. The use of the word Negro throughout this article is in conformity with Himes’ own use of the term.
[ii] Introduction to Himes’ Yesterday Will Make You Cry. New York: W.W. Norton. 1998. 16-17. Print.
[iii] One example of the ease with which Himes’ protest literature was dismissed comes from The New York Times 1959 Book Review (1959) “Himes is a small man with a little moustache and a big dog who has written such unsuccessful books as The Primitive, Cast the First Stone, If He Hollers Let Him Go and The Third Generation and is now writing detective stories for the French Série noire.” Quoted in My Life of Absurdity, 1976, 195-196.
[vi] My Life of Absurdity. New York: Paragon House. 1976. Print.
[v] One example of racist marketing is seen in the cover publicity of the Dell publication of Chester Himes’ novel Run Man Run. The female protagonist is purported to be a singer but “men were her trade. She never discriminated!” Of this marketing tactic Himes wrote “Who are they talking about? I wrote a book about a psychopathic white detective killing two brothers and trying to kill a third. And they put this shit down about some black sister out of her mind (Margolies and Fabre 149, quoted in my “A Victim in Need is a Victim in Deed: The Ritual Consumer and Self-Fashioning in Chester Himes’ Run Man Run”, Question of Identity in Detective Fiction, ed. Linda Martz and Anita Higgie. Newcastle: Cambridge. 2007. 37-58. 47.
[vi] For those unfamiliar with the laws of Jim Crow society in America, a useful and responsibly done website is from the Ferris State University Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, <http://www.ferris.edu/jim crow/what.html> accessed 23 March, 2016.