Chester Himes

Chester Himes


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 when Himes was writing this essay, Marxism-Leninism and the Communist Party of America

were still a part of the American political landscape. One must remember that it was

the Communist Party of America and not the NAACP who came to the aid of the Scottsboro Boys



Books by Chester Himes

If He Hollers Let Him Go!  /  Cotton Comes to Harlem  / Rage in Harlem  / The Third-Generation  / Cast the First Stone

The Quality of Hurt: The Early Years: Autobiography  / My Life of Absurdity-Autobiography  /  The Collected Stories of Chester-Himes

The End of a Primitive  /  Yesterday Will Make You Cry  /  Lonely Crusade  /  Conversations with Chester Himes

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Chester Himes’ Call for a Negro Revolution!!!

By Amin Sharif


The essay “Negro Martyrs Are Needed” (1943) was written by the novelist Chester Himes, who is best known for his “Harlem Cycle” crime novels written in 1957 while in Paris, France. Many movie buffs  probably know indirectly Himes work from the movies Cotton Comes to Harlem and Rage in Harlem, which featured Himes’ black detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. Like most things that Hollywood gets its hands on, Himes’ work was desecrated by filmmakers only out  to make a fast buck. After viewing Rage in Harlem one would never imagine that the novel was of such literary value that it won for Himes a major prize for literature in France. More serious students of black literature know Chester Himes as the author of If He Hollers Let Him Go! which was published more than ten years earlier in 1945.


“Negro Martyrs Are Needed”, which may seem a stretch for a black crime novelist, is a polemic designed to encourage radical thinking among Black people. Curiously, it first appeared in 1943 in the Crisis magazine of the NAACP. The reader may, at first, be somewhat put off by this essay. For it contains language from another time and place. But the reader should be assured that Himes’ work was more than timely when it was published. Ideas such as Socialism, Communism, and Revolution were very much in vogue during the 1940s. Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, and John Henrik Clarke — all flirted with socialism or communism at one time or another. Essays such as Benjamin J. Davis, Jr.’s  Why I am a Communist, Richard Wright’s “I Tried to Be a Communist,” and Langston Hughes’ My Adventures as a Social Poet attest to the fact that political and artistic radicalism once thrived among “Negro” artists, especially during the 1930s and 1940s. So Himes’ essay must be viewed as one of many literary appeals made on the part of a famous black artist in favor of communist revolution.

We know now that the Communist (Soviet) Revolution was doomed to fail. But when Himes was writing this essay, Marxism-Leninism and the Communist Party of America were still a part of the American political landscape. One must remember that it was the Communist Party of America and not the NAACP who came to the aid of the Scottsboro Boys. Still, even in this polemic, we can see something of Himes’ personality. Himes was known as a rough and ready, cut to the chase, kind of man and writer. As such, we might well expect to hear the call for a Negro American revolution from Himes when faced with the nemesis of white racism. The real surprise for the reader is how much effort Himes put into this work. This is a cerebral not an emotional work. It shows Himes as much more than just a “detective novelist.” There is here real intellectual work. And, if  this essay does not succeed as a convincing polemic, it does flesh out another aspect of the character of Chester Himes. 

More Facts on Himes 

Chester Himes was born in 1909 in Jefferson, Missouri. His mother was a very light-skinned woman who was a descendent of “wealthy white southerners.” Chester’s father, by contrast, was described as “coal black.”  When Chester’s father (who was a college professor) lost his job, the Himes family moved from Jefferson to St. Louis and later to Cleveland, Ohio. Eventually, Chester would enter Ohio State University. But Himes would soon leave the college to pursue another kind of education on the streets of Cleveland’s ghettoes. Himes’ association with pimps, hustlers, and prostitutes drew him into criminal activity. Soon he was convicted of taking part in an armed robbery. For this crime, Himes received a twenty-two-year sentence.

It was while Himes was serving his prison sentence that he turned to writing. He was published both in Abbott’s Monthly and Esquire while in jail. To achieve this artistic feat, Himes did not tell the Esquire publishers that he was a black man. After serving seven and a half years in prison, Himes was released. In 1945, he published If He Hollers Let Him Go! In 1953, he moved to France and in 1957 met Marcel Duhamel of the Gallimard publishing house. It was Duhamel who hired Chester to write the “Harlem Cycle” of crime novels.

In 1984, Himes died in Spain. He never received critically or financially the acclaim his work deserved. In The Dilemma of the Black Novelist in the United States, Himes argues that it is the duty of the black novelist to tell the truth about the condition of black people in America even if those views are seemingly anti-Semitic or anti-black. It is for such an honest and forthright stand that Himes needs to be read, appreciated, and remembered.    

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Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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update 7 January 2012




Home   Amin Sharif Table  Fifty Influential Figures  White & Wells Lynching Index

Related files:   Negro Martyrs Are Needed  Freedom Vision (Chester Himes)   The Need for Martyrs   Freedom Vision (Chester Himes) 

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