Chester Himes – one of the great American writers of the 20th century, was one of many artists of color who emigrated to Europe and settled in Paris in order to leave prejudice and racism behind and to preserve their sanity and maintain their craft.
Known primarily for his crime novels, Chester Himes has been likened to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. But, as was pointed out by colleague Ishmael Reed; “Himes taught me the difference between a Black detective and Sherlock Holmes”. He wrote numerous short stories and essays about life in Black America at a time when the Civil Rights movement was gathering momentum.
His first published novel, the one which brought him to prominence early on, was his debut in 1945, If He Hollers, Let Him Go – but it was his later works, including Cotton Comes To Harlem, which became a popular film in 1970.
His writing style, particularly in his Harlem Detective series, was noted for its matter-of-fact and unvarnished view of life. It was a slice of reality not previously encountered, and certainly not in White society. His characters were primarily Black and were often the subjects of racism and the violence associated with racial prejudice. It was often said that much of Himes writing was autobiographical in nature, that his early years were laced with racism and violence.
In 1959 Chester Himes suffered a debilitating stroke, which affected his speech. This interview beetwen host Ellis Haizlip and fellow writer Nikki Giovanni, from the NET program Soul! is from March 15, 1972 and is hard to understand at times. But it’s a rare interview with one of the great American writers of the 20th century, discussing his craft and the world that permeated his writing. If you are only familiar with Chester Himes via his crime novels and have never heard him speak about his life and his work, here is a chance to listen to the man himself, in his own words.
Enjoy and take notes.