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If He Hollers: Remembering Chester Himes

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I have in my collection of rare pulp fiction a 1969 printing of Chester Himes' Run Man Run. The jacket copy is simultaneously to the point and over the top: "Lush sex and stark violence colored black and served up raw by a great Negro writer." If one were to crank out a micro-summary of Chester Himes's work, that would pretty much be it.

Himes, who would have turned 100 this past July 29th, fairly personified the grit and grandeur of the hard-boiled life. As a teen in Cleveland, he lost his virginity to what he described as "an old fat ugly whore." As a young man, he was kicked out of Ohio State University, eventually nicked for armed robbery and sentenced to 25 years hard labor. Once inside, however, Himes bided his time writing short stories and eventually was published in Esquire, using his prison number as his pen name -- 59623.

In 1945, Himes' novel If He Hollers Let Him Go was published -- both his first, and the first in the vein of what some contemporaries would deride as protest novels. And they were. Himes never soft-pedaled his disdain for the systemic racism of the day or for black integrationists, whom he referred to as "whining beggars."

Fed up with race politics, and much like his friend and fellow writer James Baldwin, Himes eventually ditched America for Paris ... and, in 1955, abandoned the protest novel to begin a new series of books: The Harlem Cycle. Starting with For Love of Imabelle in 1957 and ending with Blind Man With a Pistol in 1969, the eight-novel Harlem Cycle became not only Himes' most enduring work, but also some of the most powerful American fiction ever written. With NYPD Detectives "Coffin" Ed Johnson and "Grave Digger" Jones as protagonists, readers were given a tour of New York's Harlem that didn't patronize and didn't flinch. "I put the slang, the daily routine and complex human relationships of Harlem into my detective novels," Himes once said.

He took what was previously an "exotic" place and people and made them real. It's why Himes preferred to call his books "domestic novels" rather than detective fiction.

Some have glibly referred to Himes as the Jackie Robinson of noir fiction. Not hardly true. Despite the fact that Himes went on to receive France's most prestigious prize for crime fiction, his success opened few doors. Hard-boiled fiction is still largely the domain of a particular kind of writer.

One hundred years after his birth, for better and for worse, the great Chester Himes remains nearly one of a kind.

This commentary appeared earlier at NPR.org. For More perspective, please visit That Minority Thing.com