The mysteries of Black writers

Gregg Reese | 10/17/2012, 5 p.m.

The style of these films, in sharp contrast to the comparatively optimistic aura projected by postwar movies, struck a cord with the French still reeling from the carnage of the World War.
Just as the literary and cinematic forms cross-fertilized each other, both sides of the Atlantic influenced each other, abetted by the relocation of African American artists, entertainers, and writers who emulated their Jewish counterparts of postwar period by trading the Jim Crow environs of their homeland for a more hospitable setting in Europe.

Abstract violence and the Harlem Cycle

"Her hips were pitching like a rowboat on a stormy sea, but her cold, aloof face said: Your eyes may shine and your teeth may grit, but none of this fine ass will you git."--"Cotton Comes to Harlem" (1965) by Chester Himes.

Although he spent time in Hollywood as an underused screenwriter, Chester Himes is not normally associated with Los Angeles. Nonetheless, he deserves inclusion because of his stature as the first prolific writer of color in the detective genre. Himes' childhood was shaped-or misshapen, by his overbearing light-skinned mother's domination of her darker-complexioned husband. Most of the femme fatales that populate his crime fiction are thusly "high-yaller" sexpots of ambiguous morality, characters to be desired, feared, and fitting neatly into the archetype of the noir femme fatale.

Born into bourgeois comfort, Himes' naturally rebellious nature still got him thrown out of Ohio State University after one semester, and incarceration at a Ohio penitentiary for armed robbery at the age of 19. His new writing career, shaped by the perilous sway of his environment, gained a measure of success with the publication of several short stories, including in Esquire, in 1934.

Released on a reduced sentence in 1937, Himes pursued his craft while bouncing across the United States, spending an extended period in New York's Harlem, a place that would shape his later output. Following the example of his mentor, Richard Wright, he moved first to France in 1953, then on to Spain.

After a few more years of scraping by, he entered the next phase of his career and monetary stability with his association with the La Serie Noire (Black Series) French crime fiction line. Notable is his nine-book Harlem Cycle (three of which, "Cotton Comes to Harlem," "Come Back, Charleston Blue," and "A Rage in Harlem" made it to the big screen) featuring Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones characterized by surreal descriptions of violence and mayhem. Himes used the hard-boiled idiom as a platform to address racial issues while his Uptown cops relied on their fists and guns in place of the more traditional method of sleuthing.

East versus West

"I had been slipping back into the street in spite of my respectable job as supervising senior head custodian at Sojourner Truth Junior High School. In less than three months I had investigated arson, murder, and a missing person. I had also been party to a killing that the police might have called murder.

But worst of all, I had found out that my best friend in life was definitely dead. Raymond Alexander, Mouse had died trying to help me. There wasn't a place in my mind that I could turn to for hope or a laugh."--"Black Betty" by Walter Mosley