Rage in Harlem: Black Protest in the Mid-Century American Crime Novel 

An extract from Lee Horsley’s The Noir Thriller (Palgrave, 2001; 2009)

himesIn the literary noir of post-World War Two America, one of the most familiar male protagonists is the 'displaced person' – the fugitive, the casualty of a past that has left him scarred or has cut him off from a stable domestic existence and from a society he seems unable to rejoin. In contrast to the marginalisation represented in interwar victim narratives, the plight of such protagonists is less to do with a desperate search for some way out of an economic impasse than with an irremediable sense of exclusion. The movement of their narratives is almost always away from something. If positive goals glimmer, they soon disappear. The 'wrong man ' pursued in so many plots of the time is frequently a victim of misperception and prejudice, unable to get along in a society that regards him with suspicion and hostility. He is a scapegoat figure who functions to expose corruptions either because he is made to carry communal guilt or because he is driven by wrongful persecution to investigate the secrets of the antagonistic community.


Within a European context, the best-known 'stranger and outcast' narratives of this period are those which express the existentialist consciousness of life's absurdity experienced by the man who stands alone in an inhospitable world, without any of the props of habit, routine or social convention. Mersault in Camus' L'Etranger (1957) moves through his involvement in the violent death of an Arab to his confrontation with the reality of his own death. This 'fall into consciousness' is an essential feature of man's experience of the absurd. Film critics often see this kind of existential awareness, loneliness and dread - Camus' assertion that 'at any corner the absurd may strike a man in the face' - as one of the defining features of film noir.


In postwar America, amongst the most interesting adaptations of such motifs are those in which alienation and marginality are associated with racial exclusion. As Chester Himes said, given the characteristics of the tough thriller (its depiction of character as a product of social conditions and its use of the viewpoint of the outsider as a way of exposing the failures of the dominant society) it was surprising that there weren't more black detective stories. It has been said that race displaced class as 'the great unsolved problem in American life' during the forties, when civil rights activism began gathering force, and it is a natural step for noir to use, say, a black protagonist to exacerbate the outcast status of a marginalised man. One of the most important developments in the literary noir of this period is a movement in this direction, both in white-authored 'civil-rights noir' (by William McGivern, David Goodis, Dorothy Hughes, Charles Willeford and others) and in the substantial body of African-American writing in which noir conventions are joined to a racial theme. The record of publishing houses is far from good, and the outstanding black crime writer of the period, Chester Himes, faced difficulties with publishing his work in the United States as well as with trying to work in film: 'I don't want no niggers on this lot,' Jack Warner proclaimed when Himes was in Hollywood in the early forties. Nevertheless, Himes and other black writers, such as Charles Perry, Herbert Simmons and Iceberg Slim (Robert Beck), continued to write and publish, though not always in America, novels that made powerful use of the noir sense of otherness and marginality as an equivalent for racial exclusion.


Anger and fear are a part of white-authored representations of black experience, but there is a tendency to soften the impact of these emotions by sentimentally optimistic resolutions (Margaret Millar’s Stranger in My Grave, Dorothy Hughes’ Expendable Man) or by representing the emergence of character traits that seem to offer some hope of healing reconciliation (most obviously in William McGivern’s Odds Against Tomorrow). In the African-American fiction of this period, on the other hand, rage and fear are less contained. The pain of the outcast is much closer to the surface. The narratives, more darkly noir, move towards a form of closure that is bitter, angry or grimly comic rather than potentially affirmative and reassuring. The contributions of black writers to crime fiction have been much more fully analysed in recent years, and in Britain the Payback Press in particular has made available a wide range of African-American crime writing, including novels, for example, by Charles Perry, Robert Deane Pharr, Clarence Cooper, Iceberg Slim and the complete 'Harlem Cycle' of Chester Himes, who was the most prolific and important African-American crime writer of the fifties and sixties.


Some of the notable early examples of black crime writing are most strongly linked to classic detective fiction. There were, for example, the novels and stories published in the thirties by the Harlem Renaissance writer George S. Schuyler, such as The Ethiopian Murder Mystery, and much recent critical attention has been given to Rudolph Fisher's The Conjure-Man Dies (1932), a novel that for the first time creates a black detective duo and centres the narrative on black characters and themes. But while Conjure-Man remains what is essentially a locked-room mystery, from the mid-thirties on black writers also began to produce novels and stories much more closely allied to the noir thriller. That is, they wrote narratives in which the focus is often on the criminals rather than the detectives and in which there is a much more direct treatment of prejudice and racism. Even in the Harlem Cycle of Chester Himes, which features the famous detective partnership of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, the novels are equally concerned with the creation of a wide assortment of criminals and other outcasts, and with the elaboration of the teeming life of Harlem, an 'outcast location' so intensely realised that the setting itself can be seen to have the same kind of grotesque reality as Himes' characters. It is an enclosed, carnival-like milieu from which no-one can escape, a cause of maiming and deformity that, like blackness itself, serves to mark and isolate those who are fated to live there.


One of the striking things during this period is how many African-American non-genre writers (for example, Ann Petry, Richard Wright, Herbert Simmons, John A. Williams) wrote fiction which, like the noir thriller, used characters' involvement in violent crime to create bleak, often savage representations of ghettoised black life. So, for example, Ann Petry's short story, 'On Saturday the Siren Sounds at Noon' (1943), is a moving compressed version of the noir narrative of the victim who becomes an aggressor - of a good and loving man driven to kill his wife by knowledge that is unbearably horrifying. John A. Williams, in 'The Man Who Killed a Shadow' (1946), uses the same victim-turned-perpetrator pattern to make a more direct assault on the mutual incomprehension that is inescapably part of a segregated society: 'Saul, looking timidly out from his black world, saw the shadowy outlines of a white world that was unreal to him and not his own'. The adaptation by mainstream black writers of the situations, plot constructions and character types of the noir thriller provides a disturbing means of representing the effects of a harsh environment and of giving dramatic form to the kinds of injustice that arise from the misperception of 'the other'.


Herbert Simmons' first novel, Corner Boy (1957), for example, very effectively employs the elements of genre fiction to represent a fundamentally unjust society. He makes the doomed career of a young hoodlum into a study in racial marginalisation and isolation. The ironically named haunts of the black teenagers, throwing dice at Club Paradise, suggest aspirations never to be fulfilled. The novel centres on the fates of characters who long for something above ghetto poverty. For Jake, the 'bad boy' protagonist, the way out is drug dealing, and he briefly feels he has attained the American dream at the wheel of his Cadillac, confident that 'It was a good world as long as you had money to buy it...' (162-3). But a white girl's accidental death, and the complete misconstruction of their relationship by the white community, leads to Jake's ultimate isolation in prison and a belated recognition of how fully his race has excluded him from the real power structure of society.


himesIn the same year that Simmons' Corner Boy was published, Chester Himes brought out For the Love of Imabelle (Rage in Harlem), published by Gold Medal in 1957. It was initially written for the French paperback publisher Gallimard after Marcel Duhamel suggested to Himes that he write a detective story in the American style for his Série Noire. Himes had begun writing crime fiction in the 1930s, by his own account under the influence of Hammett's Black Mask stories, when he was serving seven and a half years for armed robbery in the Ohio State Penitentiary. He developed from the start a savagely comic style that was to become his hallmark in the ten novels of the Harlem Cycle (1957-69). There has in recent years been a substantial reappraisal of Himes' work, which was at the time most highly valued in Europe, particularly in France, to which he had moved in 1953, where the absurdity and dark laughter of his books met with a more sophisticated critical response. Some American critics of the time responded favourably to Himes' work, but the market for work by black writers was relatively small at this time. Himes' books did not sell especially well, and he was under attack from various quarters - not only from white critics who objected to his anger and ferocity, but also from black and Communist critics. As Melvin Van Peebles says, 'Chester saw America unflinchingly...hilarious, violent, absurd and unequal, especially unequal' (Preface to Payback Press reissue of the Harlem Cycle). But the expression of these views through the surreal extremity of Himes' crime novels was a strategy that was little understood. Having already accepted hard-boiled crime fiction as literature worthy of serious attention, European audiences, on the other hand, much more readily recognised Himes' attempts to use genre fiction for the purposes of social protest.


A decade before he began the Harlem Cycle, Himes published his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), which drew on his own experience as a wartime worker in the segregated Los Angeles defence plants. The fundamentally serious themes of Himes' thrillers are abundantly apparent in this mainstream novel, in which black estrangement, fear and disillusionment are powerfully represented. The narrator, Bob Jones, who says that race had 'never really gotten me down', encounters prejudice in California of the early forties that makes him see the entire society around him from a different perspective - 'All that tight, crazy feeling of race as thick in the streets as gas fumes' (7). The atmosphere of violence and the sense of absurdity that dominate Himes' crime novels are intensely present in If He Hollers, as the ordinary life of Bob Jones spirals out of control: 'I was looking for my white boy again...I was going to walk up and beat out his brains...After that I could go up and sit in the gas chamber at San Quentin and laugh. Because it was the funniest goddamned thing that had ever happened...' (119). Jones increasingly feels that '"I don't have anything at all to say about what's happening to me"' (156). His fear is ultimately not just of persecution and mob violence but of America itself. He has tried to conform, but after the events of the novel, he is 'cornered...small and weak and helpless...without soul, without mind...' (182 - see Fig. 7). Like Goodis' Blonde on the Street Corner, Himes' novel moves towards a conclusion in which the protagonist cannot commit any act decisive enough to alter his circumstances. Finally unable to shoot the white boy or to make a break from the police, Jones in the end acquiesces in a system which only allows him to go on living on the most debasing of terms.


Himes wrote a handful of other non-genre novels, including Lonely Crusade (1947) and Pinktoes (1965). The last complete novel of his Harlem Cycle, Blind Man with a Pistol (1969), was also in a sense placed in a different category when it was elevated from the Série Noire and published instead in the more prestigious 'Du monde entier' series. This reflects a process of moving beyond generic boundaries that begins with Blind Man and goes considerably further in the unfinished Plan B, in which the trajectory of the plot is towards civil war with apocalyptic slaughter, towards violence escalating on such a scale that it is sometimes suggested that Himes left the novel unfinished because he could see no 'logical answer' to the problems he was writing about. Within the main body of the Harlem Cycle, Himes uses a range of the devices of the noir thriller that function to fragment any secure perspective, to destabilise identity and to challenge conventional judgements. He uses, for example, investigative figures who are themselves excessively violent, unstable and ambiguous in the roles they occupy. Multiple points of view and departures from a linear time frame undermine all sense of orderly progress. Several analyses of Himes' work have represented him as breaking decisively with the existing forms of American hard-boiled writing, but this kind of contrast is grounded in much too narrow a definition of the tradition of which Himes is a part. Hammett's Op is perhaps the nearest to the 'black badman' figures of Grave Digger and Coffin Ed, but the macabre humour and surreal violence of Himes' novels also has much in common with the noir thrillers of his own period, particularly with the fiction of Jim Thompson. His ironising of the American dream, the creation of protagonists excluded and haunted by unattainable desires, is a central part of the noir tradition, from James M. Cain and Horace McCoy to Thompson, Goodis and beyond.

Another argument sometimes advanced is that Himes is not really a 'protest' writer 'because his work lacks a sense of redemptive change, offering instead only a 'vast pall of futility', but here again, it is the resistance to optimistic resolutions that allies Himes most obviously with the long-standing noir tendency towards pessimistic satiric expressions of rage and disgust. As in Gresham's Nightmare Alley, the delusive fantasy of escape is either nostalgic or an amalgam of bogus economic and religious hopes for salvation. The naive characters, the 'squares', Himes creates (Jackson in Rage in Harlem, Roman in All Shot Up [1960], Sonny in The Real Cool Killers [1959]) are preyed upon by trickster figures (Casper Holmes in All Shot Up and the Reverend Deke O'Malley in Cotton Comes to Harlem are two of the most memorable). Recurrently in the Harlem Cycle, gambling and religion seem to offer characters a way out of this entrapment. 'Hitting the number', in particular, becomes a symbol of economic salvation, paralleled by the more conventional salvation that appears to be offered by religious prophets and sometimes helped along by looking 'straight up into heaven [to] find the number' (Rage in Harlem, 86). Religion, as a self-serving financial enterprise, knows its place in the hierarchy of human hopes: '"Nothing takes the place of God," Doctor Mubuta said in his singsong voice...then added as an afterthought, as though he might have gone too far, "but money."' (Blind Man, 228-9).


The sense of inescapable entrapment is reinforced in the world of Himes' novels by the imprisoning boundaries of race, symbolised by the hellishness of the Harlem ghetto. This is a world in which purposeful action is impeded by extreme heat or (in All Shot Up) extreme cold and in which many of the inhabitants look 'like people from another world' (213). In Blind Man with a Pistol, when asked what is inciting people to 'senseless anarchy', Digger replies, '"Skin"'. The culprit can be identified as lack of respect for law, lack of opportunity, irreligion, poverty, ignorance or rebellion, but the real 'mother-raper at the bottom of it' is the fatality of racial injustice (Blind Man, 323; 342). The people's hopes for riches (Rage in Harlem, All Shot Up) or salvation in the form of escape to Africa (Cotton Comes to Harlem [1965]; The Heat's On [1966]) are routinely betrayed. The inhabitants of Harlem are imaged by Himes as physically and psychologically damaged, 'forced to live there, in all the filth and degradation, until their lives had been warped to fit' (375). What Himes retains of his early naturalism is a strong element of determinism, which stands behind his fantasies of deformation. He embodies the absurdity of the black man's life (he called one of his autobiographical volumes My Life of Absurdity [1976]) in an extraordinary variety of freakish characters trapped within a carnival-like milieu that is cut off from the rest of society.


As in the novels of Goodis, for example, the disabling of characters by the dominant society isolates them and propels them towards transgressive acts. Coffin Ed with his acid-scarred face, is so severely traumatised that, though he continues to function positively as a detective, he is no longer entirely sane. In The Heat's On (1966), when Ed knocks out Red Johnny's teeth, he looks like a 'homicidal maniac', 'dazed as though he had just emerged from a shock treatment for insanity' (434). On his 'junkie's tour' of Harlem, he moves with Madame Cushy 'like a monstrous Siamese twin' and tortures Ginny, knowing that he has 'gone outside of human restraint' (465-7). Coffin Ed's brutality is simply one manifestation of the bizarre and random violence that characterises Harlem as a whole, the inevitable consequence of its exclusion from the dominant society. In The Heat's On, the albino giant, Pinky, is an abused and bemused innocent, too freakish to be accepted by his own race, effectively homeless and fatherless, and too simple-minded to understand the realities of the society that exploits him. As, for example, in Iceberg Slim's Trick Baby (1967) the 'otherness' of a different colour is driven home by placing an incongruously white character in a black context. Pinky's desperation leads him into increasingly surreal disguises, as he tries to find an appearance that will be less outlandish than his own. He is still absurdly covered by a disintegrating disguise at the end of the novel, having gone on a journey that is pointless and circular, that takes him not to the 'heaven' of Africa but only to Sister Heavenly, to death and destruction.


The violence of Himes' novels is, like his characterisation, surreal in its extremity. All Shot Up opens with an old lady 'flying through the air, arms and legs spread out, black garments spread out in the wind...' (165). It includes the decapitating of a motorcyclist, his 'taut headless body' spurting blood until the motorcycle crashes into a jewellery store, 'knocking down a sign that read: We Will Give Credit to the Dead' (244). 'Big Six' shuffles along with the knife stuck through his head ('"It's a joke," the man said knowingly...The woman shuddered. "It ain't funny," she said' [287]). Blackly comic violence is a constant feature of Himes' Harlem novels, but from the mid-sixties on the elements of social protest and the whole issue of violence as a means of bringing about change came more to the fore. Himes himself considered Blind Man with a Pistol to be 'his most important work', containing 'much of his feeling about what is happening here in America'. The most violent of Himes' completed novels, Blind Man represents various visions of a possible solution to the racial conflicts of the sixties, ranging from brotherhood and the Black Jesus movement to the radicalism of the Black Muslims. There has been considerable critical controversy over Himes' own attitude towards violence. In his Preface to Blind Man, he writes, 'I thought of some of our loudmouthed leaders urging our vulnerable soul brothers on to getting themselves killed, and thought further that all unorganised violence is like a blind man with a pistol.' This clearly implies a contrast between unorganised and organised violence, and at least some critics have argued that he had by this stage in his life become an advocate of organised, bloody revolutionary acts, though at the same time implying that he had reached an 'ideological impasse' that prevented him finishing Plan B. In the inset story of the blind man, he is a figure who is different (not only black but blind) but who tries to proceed as though he is normal. In consequence he and the world radically misjudge one another. A chaos of misunderstandings on a subway journey leads him to shoot at a belligerent 'big white man' but instead to hit a 'fat yellow preacher'. During the ensuing pandemonium, in which 'Some thought the world was coming to an end', the black man shoots again at the white man, this time killing a policeman and being shot down himself. It is a miniature of senseless violence, based on misperception and correspondingly random in its effects, achieving nothing by way of improvement of conditions or resolution of problems.


In his earlier novels, Himes' tone of edgy comedy enables him to round off in a positive way without sentimentalism. Even at the end of Cotton Comes to Harlem, although the violence has claimed so many lives that the undertaker 'was kept busy all week burying the dead', the compensation is such profitable business that Jackson finally is able to marry Imabelle, and Cotton Headed Bud gets back to Africa after all, with the money from the bale of cotton buying 100 wives. But the energy of Himes' grotesquely farcical plots is readily channelled into something altogether darker, as is apparent, for example, in the comic cat fight in Cotton Comes to Harlem, when the tussle between Iris and Mabel suddenly changes from an anarchic brawl to a shooting. Iris snatches the pistol from Deke's hand and empties it into Mabel's body, 'so fast it didn't register on Deke's brain' (92). Harlem is 'a carnival harem' (All Shot Up, 165-6), characterised by its 'grotesque realism': that is, it is not an essentially positive carnivalesque vision, but one based on degradation and debasement, in which 'all suddenly becomes meaningless, dubious and hostile', a vision of an 'alien world' of 'terror, hostility, and the loss of meaning'. Himes' street scenes have a nightmarish intensity. The vitality of the people can have a positive celebratory element: 'Half-naked people cursed, muttered, shouted, laughed, drank strong whiskey, ate greasy food, breathed rotten air, sweated, stank and celebrated' (Blind Man, 261). But his human grotesques are living in a place that is dilapidated and dangerous, cut off from the outside world and ill-suited to human life.

In Blind Man, the conditions of a Harlem ripe for apocalyptic violence are embodied in Reverend Sam's house: 'No one knew what it looked like inside, and no one cared' (195). A 'horde of naked black children' swill 'like pigs' out of troughs, and the bogus Reverend Sam points out to the bemused policemen that it's simply an expedient way to live for a family separated completely from economic sufficiency (197). Himes' savagely lyrical, almost Swiftian lists of the 'contents' of the ghetto reinforce his view of Harlem as a dwelling that has become unfit for human habitation. The eyes of Grave Digger and Coffin Ed sweep over the scars and graffiti on the walls of an apartment block, all testifying to the violence and sordidness of the place: '"And people live here," Grave Digger said, his eyes sad. "That's what it was made for."' (251). In such an atmosphere, it is perhaps not surprising that in Plan B, pushing the pessimism of his underlying vision to its conclusion, Himes added the deaths of his two detectives to the toll of escalating violence and civil war. As one of the novel's French reviewers wrote when the unfinished Plan B was published, it was Himes' 'bloody farewell to literature and his legacy of despair'.

Copyright © 2001 Lee Horsley