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Chester Himes was born on this date in 1909. He was a Black writer
Chester Himes was the last of three children born to educated, middle-class parents in Jefferson City, Missouri. A good student, after graduating from high school he enrolled in Ohio State University. Shortly before entering college, Himes fell down an open elevator shaft while working as a busboy, and suffered back injuries that plagued him for the rest of his life. Leaving school after one year due to ill health and failing grades, Himes became involved in misdemeanors and drug use around Cleveland. In December 1928, he was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 20 to 25 years in prison.
After parole, Himes began seeking paid work as a writer. In 1940, he moved to Los Angeles to write for the movies, but the studios would not hire a Black writer. For the next four years, Himes worked in California's growing war-manufacturing industries, where he found more racist violence and discrimination. This inspired his first two published novels, "If He Hollers Let Him Go," and "Lonely Crusade." Himes decided in 1953 to leave the United States in part because of the commercial and critical neglect of his books. In Paris, Himes found a dynamic community of African American exiles that included fellow writers Richard Wright and James Baldwin.
In 1956, Himes began writing detective novels for a French publisher, the works for which Himes is most admired today. "The Real Cool Killers," "Cotton Comes to Harlem," "The Heat's On," and others. His stories portray a Black life full of contradictions: rich and poor, upstanding and corrupt, tragic and comic. As critics noted and readers have always understood, Himes' Harlem, while nightmarishly violent and ugly, is full of humor and life.
Himes once wrote in his autobiography, "realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American Blacks one cannot tell the difference.” In 1968, in ill health following a series of strokes, Himes moved to Spain with his second wife. In the 1970s, he received an award from the Carnegie Foundation. Chester Himes, whose novels and autobiographies explore the absurdity of racism died in Spain in 1984.
The Encyclopedia of African American Heritage
by Susan Altman
Copyright 1997, Facts on File, Inc. New York