- Introduction:A special section on Chester Himes
"Let it first be stated," writes Chester Himes in an early essay for the September 1942 issue of Opportunity, "that the character of this writer is vulnerable, open to attack, easy to be smeared; that the strength of this writer is questionable, his person inconsequential, insignificant; that the name of this writer will soon be forgotten" ("Now is the Time!" 271). Whereas the essays included in this special section of A frican A merican R eview testify to the inaccuracy of Himes's claim to insignificance and erasure, it is worth noting the remarkable consistency with which Himes made such claims throughout his literary career. As his essays, editorial correspondence, fictional works, and autobiographical writings alike attest, Himes was indeed both vulnerable and prone to attack. His writing was marginalized and even smeared as much as it was praised; his personal conduct was also often subject to question. Born in Jefferson City, Missouri in 1909, Himes began writing during the Depression as a prisoner in the Ohio State Penitentiary. His first short stories appeared in a number of African American magazines such as Abbott's Monthly and the Atlanta Daily World; in 1934, he started publishing in mainstream magazines such as Crisis and Esquire, where his stories first appeared under his prison number, 59623. Arrested in 1928 after an ill-fated attempt at armed robbery, Himes had spent eight years in prison, a period documented in his semi-autobiographical novel Cast the First Stone (1952), as well as in the first volume of his autobiography, The Quality of Hurt (1972).
Our point is not to suggest, however, that Himes's career as a writer was animated by either personal grievance or persecution mania—or, for that matter, by anti-social intentions. Rather, as Himes contends in his 1942 Opportunity essay, the writer is questionable, inconstant, and even insignificant because it is not his voice that speaks. The writer, Himes explains, is only an instrument; the voice that speaks through Himes's writing is not that of the author but instead "the voice of Negro heroes, dead on American fronts throughout all American history; the voice of Negro martyrs, dead, hung from American trees; the voice of the centuries of Negro oppression in the unmarked graves of Negro slaves who prayed to God for freedom from birth to death; the voice of the centuries of contained waiting, repressed hoping, stained with the tears of bitterness that saw death before light; the voice that comes out of a bruised and beaten past, out of a confused and shadowed present, an obscure future—like a clarion it comes, loud, clear, positive" ("Now is the Time!" 271). Written at the height of the U. S. engagement in World War II, Himes's 1942 essay aims most immediately to recognize the urgency of fighting fascism and intolerance at home as well as abroad. As Justus Nieland discusses in his essay for this special section, Himes radicalizes the rhetoric of democratic universalism brandished by the Allied campaign in order to redress "the brutal realities of racism, both domestically and in the practices of colonialism that Allied nations continued to engage in around the world" (Nieland 283). Himes's writing, in other words, articulates the historical demand of a collective black American voice in the face of a universalism that threatened yet again to obscure it.
No less significant to Himes's writing and thought, though, is the inherent multiplicity of this voice itself. In spite of the loudness and clarity of its call, the voice [End Page 225] for which Himes considers his writing a conduit resounds with an historical depth and affective range whose contradictions and violent paradoxes Himes would explore throughout his career, from the psychosexual conflicts of his early fiction, to the grotesqueries of his "Harlem domestic" cycle of crime novels in the 1950s and '60s, to the "quality of hurt" thematized in his late autobiographical writing. In its catalogue of rage, reactionary fear, violent sexuality, frustrated ambitions, and revolutionary longing, Himes's writing charts not only an archive of black historical experience in America, but also a...