Tag Archives: Chester Himes

Smith: LA’s African American Renaissance of the 1940s

RJ Smith The Great Black WayI enjoyed The Great Black Way, and LA really was amazing in the 1940s. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean the awesomeness of the Harlem Renaissance was any less, so my only quibbles are with the taste of implied rivalry. One of the opening sentences of the book that sets the scene:

Walled off by segregation and custom, black L.A. built an infinitely rich world. Once upon a time, black L.A. was a stand-alone city within a city, and the more I understood that, the more artificial it seems to spear ate music from the rest of people’s lives. Once upon a time, everything was connected: the civil rights leader Clayton Russell was good friends with the R&B artists. He appears fictionalized in one of the early L.A. books of black novelist Chester Himes. On Central Avenue the jazz musicians were civil rights champions; the actors were tied to the gangsters; the gangsters court the crusading newspaper editor, who was allied with the Communist Party; the renegade communist was a member of the gay subculture… (x)

I loved how this connected a lot of the dots for me, because these artists, writers and activists are all people I love, but hadn’t really understood in their full context of place, friendships, connections. The interviews are pretty amazing, and beautifully full of a whole lot of knowledge and pride. I loved too that they understood the privilege they were bestowing on the author — he notes that a number of the people he interviewed gave him a caution in referencing Carl Van Vechten, white patron of the Harlem Renaissance who would end up writing a book called Nigger Heaven. That’s some betrayal of trust.  Smith seems to have taken the point.

Did I say there are some really good quotes in here?

“Anything the power structure wanted to know about blacks in Los Angeles,” said Gilbert Lindsay, “they would say ‘Call L.G.’ Now, this is a janitor. And he was the power for the whole Negro community of Los Angeles! . . . L.G. Robinson spoke for the Negroes.” (4)

another on the role of Central Avenue:

“Central was like a river,” recalled musician Clifford Solomon. “A mighty river like the Amazon or the Nile, or in this case the Congo. And all the streets were tributaries that branched off from this great river.” (4)

There are some great passages really evoking the feel of Central Avenue, an imagined tour heading south past all of the many sights to be seen.

Herb Jeffries bankrolling the Bronze Recording Studios, and the Flash Electronic Laboratories — where ‘engineers strive to perfect their ‘color organ,’ an instrument that can take sound from a radio and translate it into visual energy. Sound is seen; the invisible becomes indigo in your living room. (13)

Before it runs into the white wall…

Though Negroes have moved south to the neighborhood around Vernon and Central, all motion stops here. Mister Jones heard the Klan claimed Slauson and everything below; Lady Creswell heard about the kids put in the county hospital after the police caught them playing on the swings south of the line. Everybody’s got a tale of what happens to those detained in this white man’s land, and enough of it is true that the street has acquired a supernatural power. You and I will acquire a seat on the streetcar. (14)

Later on there’s a note about how the song ‘Open the Door, Richard’ became a catchphrase for ending segregation.

You have to jump that to continue on down south to other great centre of culture, though of a very different kind:

Head down to Watts, from jazz to blues, world of T-Bone Walker who can ‘lift a chair, put it in his mouth, and balance it on end as he plays a frenetic shuffle.’ (15)

Chapter 1 is written about John Kinloch, nephew of Charlotta Bass who is such an inspiration, and such a central figure in the black community here as the owner and editor of The California Eagle. I recognised Kinloch’s name from many of the articles, knew he had gone to fight in WWII and died there. He called Charlotta ‘Madame’, she was his mother’s sister. His mother lived back in Harlem — I didn’t know that. I think this gets Charlotta Bass a little wrong — one central factual error is that her husband Joe Bass was not a founder of the Eagle, rather she inherited it from its founder and hired Joe on. They were partners in life and activism, but he was never more than editor. Still, it’s cool to hear a little more of her from Kinloch’s letters, and the have more life breathed into Kinloch as well. A few other facts about people I’ve written about — Leon Washington was Loren Miller’s cousin.

There are lots of little snippets, fascinating facts. There are paragraphs like this one:

The Harlem Renaissance was cracking up on Central Avenue, its one time elitists dropping by to cash a Hollywood check. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Huston, Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen and Wallace Thurman had all been on its periphery between the early 1930s and the early 1940s as they performed lucrative, if fruitless writing tasks for the picture business. (29)

Some of my favourite writers, some of this made me a little defensive of them I confess, but there you are.

ellington-jump-for-joyMaybe the best thing to come out of reading this book — along with a new unfulfilled and unrequited desire so rare in this modern age —  is finding out about Duke Ellington’s Jump For Joy musical revue. Langston Hughes wrote a sketch for it. It featured Big Joe Turner and Dorothy Dandridge. It proudly proclaimed Black civil rights through songs like “I’ve got a Passport from Georgia (and I’m going to the U.S.A.)”, and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Is a Drive-In Now.” It played at the Mayan — where I have danced the night away or watched Lucha — and received death threats from white supremacists. Never filmed, most of these songs have not been recorded. A fucking loss to humanity.

A few more stories, like the one from Howard McGhee of the Charlie Barnet Band, who told the board he refused the draft, refused to fight, refused to go to jail…they sent him to the psychiatrist:

I said, “Well, man, why should I fight? I ain’t mad at nobody over there.” … I said, “Shit, I’ll shoot any son of a bitch that’s white that comes up in front of me.” And they said, “No, we can’t use you.” (38)

Another story about how back in 1919 there was a celebratory banquet at Patriotic Hall for black Angelenos returning from the war, with a mass assembly and parade and military band. I think I remember reading about that, but don’t remember it being mentioned that film of it was used in a film titled Injustice. I’m trying to find it, it sounds awesome and I do believe Joe Bass of the California Eagle is the J. B. Bass who is named as an actor in it. Imagine seeing him walking down the street…

There are more stories about the People’s Independent Church of Christ — I know that church down on 18th and Paloma. Hattie McDaniels celebrated her Oscar there, Jackie Robinson got married there, Adam Clayton Powell Jr preached there…as did Clayton Russell. how did I never know any of that?

There is a rather fascinating comment on noir, which the more I think about it the more it makes sense and is perhaps best exemplified by Chester Himes:

In white noir the hero blinks for a moment, gives in to a single weak impulse, and his life is over. Order shatters around his ankles and we are supposed to realize how much darkness lurks beneath the surface of things when good intentions make way for bad. The moral universe of black noir is different; it’s about realizing good intentions don’t matter any more than bad ones in a world run by white folks. All intentions are equal and equally pointless. All choices in the end amount to one, have the same value — a value determined by people who think you are less than human. (114)

He talks about Bronzeville a little, the short term flowering of Black life, music, culture, bars in Little Tokyo after everyone of Japanese heritage was taken away to the camps. It is one of those more complicated moments of LA history, because while most of the African American said little at the time, there was by the end of the war a recognition of the injustice of it, and some coalition made. But histories of this time and place are made even more complex by things like this that I had never heard of:

By the Fall of 1945, within weeks of the atom bomb falling on Hiroshima and the Nagasaki, the always-looking-for-an-angle club owners of Bronzeville were on the case. Pianist Eddie Heywood was promptly billed as “atomic action manifest” for his stint at Shepp’s Playhouse. The band of Sammy Franklin had abruptly changed it s name to the Atomics, there was a spot called the Atomic Cafe, and you could get your laundry done at the Atomic Cleaners. At the Samba Club, patrons could hear a singer named Francis “The Atomic Bomb” Gray and drink something called an atomic cocktail. (155)

All I could think was damn. That is fucked up.

A little more on geography, and the earliest community in LA:

At the onset of the twentieth century, Azusa Street was an unpaved byway, basically an alley, which dead-ended into the Los Angeles River. It was also said to be the first all-black street in L.A. (160)

William J. Seymour builds his Pentecostal church — the Azusa Street Revival — on the site of first AME church. After the AME church had moved, the land had been used as a tombstone shop then stables.  All of it was built on this land formerly owned by Biddy Mason, once a slave, later a large landowner. These roots run deep.

I’ll end on a song, and a fascinating but not very good one. Still, it’s a symbol of how much changed during the 40s, as well as some of the ways people fought to change it back.

“Shipyard Woman” by Jim Wynn

They said the war is over
And peace is here to stay
You shipyard-working women
Sure did have your way
But it’s all over babe
Now you girls have got to pay (212)

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Paris: An African-American refuge

Not long ago I read Conversations with Chester Himes, and confess I noted down a few places to visit in Paris, notably the Café Tournon, where he would often meet up with Richard Wright and/or James Baldwin and Ollie Harrington among others.

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Little did I know (and writing this brief blog has become a lengthier experience than expected):

the Tournon is largely considered the place where the St.-Germain neighborhood jazz scene got its start, providing the stage where Duke Ellington made his Parisian debut.
James Baldwin’s Paris, The New York Times

How cool is that? Yet there is no mention of any of that when you get there, only a note in the menu that in this building resided Joseph Roth — a good guy, a good writer, but c’mon, Himes, Baldwin, Wright AND Duke Ellington?

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They might well have pulled up to a spread like this one (gorgeous, if a little big for one — that was a serious mistake. And I confess my aversion to pâté, which seems to me to need some serious spicing up):

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I imagined them enjoying the summer sun from safely in the shade.

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Of course, there were other key places of African-American refuge here like the more famous café Les Deau Magots, whose upstairs room saw James Baldwin writing much of Go Tell it on the Mountain. We didn’t manage to get there in the end, or the equally famous Café de Flore opposite, as I had them marked down as second tier, the more tourist-trap kinds of places — favourites of Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir and the ubiquitous Hemingway. Thus full of a different kind of literary tourist.

Baldwin’s article, ‘The Lost Generation’, published in Esquire in 1961, has some pretty brilliant descriptions of Paris — and why so many Black writers went there after the Second World War as a matter of life and writing and death:

it is from the time of my friend’s death that I resolved to leave America. There were two reasons for this. One was that I was absolutely certain, from the moment I learned of his death, that I, too, if I stayed here, would come to a similar end…From the time of this death, I began to be afraid of enduring any more. I was afraid that hatred, and the desire for revenge would reach unmanageable proportions in me, and that my end, even if I should not physically die, would be infinitely more horrible than my friend’s suicide.

This is hard to believe now, a good reminder of those luxuries we so take for granted now:

Paris, from across the ocean, looked like a refuge from the American madness; now it was a city four thousand miles from home. It contained-in those days-no doughnuts, no milk shakes, no Coca-Cola, no dry Martinis; nothing resembling, for people on our economic level, an American toilet; as for toilet paper, it was yesterday’s newspaper. The concierge of the hotel did not appear to find your presence in France a reason for.rejoicing; rather, she found your presence, and in particular your ability to pay the rent, a matter for the profoundest suspicion. The policemen, with their revolvers, clubs, and ( as it turned out) weighted capes, appeared to be convinced of your legality only after the most vindictive scrutiny of your passport; and it became· clear very soon that they were not kidding about the three-month period during which every foreigner had to buy a new visa or leave the country. Not a few astounded Americans, unable to call their embassy, spent the night in jail, and steady offenders were escorted to the border. After the first street riot, or its aftermath, one witnessed in Paris, one took a new attitude toward the Paris paving stones, and toward the cafe tables and chairs, and toward the Parisians, indeed, who showed no signs, at such moments, of being among the earth’s most cerebral or civilized people. Paris hotels had never heard of central heating or hot baths or showers or clean towels and sheets or ham and eggs; their attitude toward electricity was demonic-once one had seen what they thought of as wiring one wondered why the city had not, long ago, vanished in flame; and it soon became clear that Paris hospitals had never heard of Pasteur. Once, in short, one found oneself divested of all the things that one had fled from, one wondered how people, meaning, above all, oneself, could possibly do without them.

This is still true, of London at least:

One soon ceased expecting to be warm in one’s hotel room, and read and worked in the cafes.

Yet the distinction from America is stark:

In my own case, I think my exile saved my life, for it inexorably confirmed something which Americans appear to have great difficulty accepting. Which is, simply, this: a man is not a man until he’s able and willing to accept his own vision of the world, no matter how radically this vision departs from that of others.

What Europe still gives an American–or gave us–is the sanction, if one can accept it, to become oneself. No artist can survive without this acceptance. But rare indeed is the American artist who achieved this without first becoming a wanderer, and then, upon his return to his own country, the loneliest and most blackly distrusted of men.

Himes had written:

Here a Negro becomes a human being. There’s nothing grotesque about a black man meeting a white woman here. There’s nothing unnatural. (127)

and

France was an escape from racial prejudice in the publishing industry. I believe that America allows only one black man at a time to become successful from writing, and I don’t think this has changed. France seems to be a place where my talent would make me as successful as Alexandre Dumas. (121)

We passed by the street where he once lived:

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Imagine this:

Himes lives at Saint-Germain-des-Pres, in a top-floor studio on rue Bourbon-le-Chateau. you have to stoop in order to get inside. Nearly everything there is red: the carpeting, a vase of roses, and even an angrily-daubed abstract canvas. (Francois Bott, 1964)

Pretty sweet, especially when it also contained Melvin van Peebles. Himes would move on to Valencia, in Spain, but Richard Wright stayed and died here in Paris.

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I haven’t yet hunted down any words of what this city meant to him. For the next trip perhaps.

It is curious to put this freedom found by American Blacks alongside the lack of freedom experienced by members of French Colonies — particularly Arabs, particularly Algerians during this period. But I will save that discussion for elsewhere. In its place just a reminder of France’s own history of race, slavery and colonialism:

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Conversations with Chester Himes

395789Chester Himes is an author whose work I really love, and this has been sitting on my shelf forever. It starts out a bit disappointing — a bit gossipy about Dick and Jimmy and others. Complaining of this I was reminded that this was pre-internet in French, and what was the likelihood of it getting any circulation?

There was much less need to be cagey in those days.

Still, it is nice to think of Richard Wright and being so generous — once giving Himes $1000 when only asked for $500, giving money to James Baldwin to allow him to finish revising one of his novels and helping him get the Saxton Fellowship. The interviews get better, more thoughtful, perhaps more sober as Himes gets older.

his words stand for themselves really.

I did particularly love some of the details, like this description of his studio in Paris

Himes lives at Saint-Germain-des-Pres, in a top-floor studio on rue Bourbon-le-Chateau. you have to stoop in order to get inside. Nearly everything there is red: the carpeting, a vase of roses, and even an angrily-daubed abstract canvas.
(Francois Bott, 1964)

This was the flat that Melvin Van Peebles moved into. Sweet Sweetback himself.

I love Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, love the Harlem novels, loved to read this:

I was very happy writing those detective stories, especially the first one, when I began it. I wrote those stories with more pleasure than I wrote any of the other stories. And then when I got the end and started my detective shooting at some white people, I was the happiest. (49)

This also reminded me, in a way that still jars slightly with that understanding of America that I learned in school and somehow no amount of education and experience can quite eradicate completely, of the way that the US is founded on violence and how that runs through absolutely everything:

Cause no one, no one, writes about violence the way that Americans do. (47)

Anyway, you know, there is no way that one can evaluate the American scene and avoid violence, because any country that was born in violence and has lived in violence always knows about violence. Anything can be initiated, enforced, contained or destroyed on the American scene through violence. That’s the only thing that’s ever made any change, because they have an inheritance of violence; it comes straight from the days of slavery, from the first colonialists who landed on the American shores, the first slaves, through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Indian wars, and gunslingers killing one another over fences and sheep and one goddamn thing or another; they grew up on violence. And not only that, it’s gotten to be so much a part of the country that they are at the place where they are refining the history of their violence. (62)

It reminds me also how many writers moved abroad to achieve a basic dignity in life.

The only reason for going to Paris is just to have a certain amount of freedom of movement for a limited period of time. (64)

Writers of colour, that is.

WIlliams: What about your experience with white expatriate writers?
Himes: I don’t have any experiences with white expatriate writers. (69)

Later Michel Fabre would ask him if living in Europe had changed him?

Of course. Here a Negro becomes a human being. There’s nothing grotesque about a black man meeting a white woman here. There’s nothing unnatural. (127)

and in describing for him why he stayed in Paris and NY (and responding to a question from Miotte about why not NY), Himes says:

France was an escape from racial prejudice in the publishing industry. I believe that America allows only one black man at a time to become successful from writing, and I don’t think this has changed. France seems to be a place where my talent would make me as successful as Alexandre Dumas. (121)

Himes describes the regular get togethers at the Café Tournon, with Himes, Dick Wright to a limited extent, the centre of them Ollie Harrington. John A. Williams, unsurprisingly, carried out my favourite interviews, a long and nicely in depth one. This is my favourite story from it:

Dick was a compulsive conversationalist in the early hours of the morning. When he woke up he had to telephone somebody and have a long conversation. When Ollie wasn’t there he had to find someone else–Daniel Guérin or even Jean-Paul Sartre. But they got tired of these conversations, so he chose Ollie. As long as Ollie was in town Dick would telephone him as soon as he woke up in the morning, whether Ollie was awake or not (it didn’t make any difference) and have long conversations about the CIA and the race problem and all. You know, that kind of conversation doesn’tgo down too well at seven-thirty in the morning. (77)
— John A. Williams 1970

Michel Fabre, following on the heels of this in the same year of 1970, focused on writing:

I think that writing should be a force in the world. I just don’t believe it is. It seems incapable of changing things. (89)

and Himes’ relationship to Harlem:

…most American black people have kept to ghettos for many reasons, but mainly to hide from the prejudice and the arrogance of white people, and because they wanted to be together, for protection, and togetherness. I didn’t do this, and this is part of the reason why I have to explain myself.  (89)

To David Jenkins in 1971 he gives his thoughts on struggle, which he novelised of course, though didn’t in the end finish it:

I have never fully endorsed the black movements, although I have supported both the Black Muslims–I was a friend of Malcolm X–and the Panthers. I don’t think they will succeed because they are too used to publicity, and a successful revolution must be planned with secrecy, security.

Yet there is no reason why 100,000 blacks armed with automatic rifles couldn’t literally go underground, into the subways and basements of Manhattan–and take over. The basements of those skyscrapers are the strongest part of the building…This was the novel I was wring, and I don’t know if I have the energy or determination to finish it. (102)

The last interview with Michel Fabre in 1983 focused a lot on writing, and I always love to know other people’s routines:

I like to get up early, have a big breakfast, and work at one stretch until it’s time for lunch. If the mail is good, I generally go one with my writing. If it’s bad, my mind is disturbed for the rest of the day. I have nearly always typed my manuscripts, without consulting any reference books or dictionaries. In my hotel room in Paris I only needed cigarettes, a bottle of scotch, and occasionally a good dish of meat and vegetables cooking on the burner behind me. Writing’s always whetted my appetite. (130)

Fabre says he’s sometimes been called a ‘surrealist’ writer, which I suppose makes some sense, I quite love Himes’ answer:

I didn’t become acquainted with that term until the fifties, and French friends had to explain it. I have no literary relationship with what is called the surrealist school. It just so happens that in the lives of black people, there are so many absurd situations, made that way by racism, that black life could sometimes be described as surrealistic. (140)

(Fabre, Michel and Robert E Skinner (eds). (1995) Conversations With Chester Himes. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. )

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