Jackson (English and History/Johns Hopkins Univ.; My Father's Name: A Black Virginia Family After the Civil War, 2012, etc.) takes a confusing, twisted tale of a writer and lays it out in a readable, straightforward biography.
Chester B. Himes (1909-1984) was the child of teachers, and his mother home-schooled her children as they moved among Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri. She impressed upon her children, especially fair-skinned Chester, that they all had fine white blood. With middle-class black pretensions his lifelong scapegoat, Himes rebelled against his mother’s racist attitude to the darker of her own race. After a chemistry experiment blinded his brother, he lost his best companion and competition. In 1926, Himes fell down an elevator shaft, breaking his back, an accident that produced a small income from worker’s compensation. With acceptance to Ohio State, his anger at racism manifested itself, and his time was spent gambling, drinking, and taking drugs. Back in Cleveland, he was arrested for robbery and sentenced to 20 years in prison. There, he taught himself short story writing and wrote with his rare perspective on black life from American society’s margins. His prison stories were published widely, but he was still learning. Paroled in 1936, he married and moved to Los Angeles, polishing his ability to reproduce speech and identify black divisiveness. Fighting with publishers and paranoid about royalties that never came, he took his book advance and moved to France. While publishers in Paris were even tighter with royalties, Himes found life easier, cheaper, and less racist. Still, as Jackson clearly demonstrates, he couldn’t sell his books in the 1940s because of his politics nor in the ’50s because of their sexual content. Eventually, he developed his most profitable work in the Harlem detective stories about Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. He was able to discover his answer to racism in humor mingled with violence.
A tumultuous life rendered in never-dull, enlightening fashion.