A Little Hysterical: The Young Lives of Chester and Jean




IN HIS EXTRAORDINARY 1947 novel Lonely Crusade, Chester Himes wrote that the violent abuse that African-American women received at the hands of African-American men gave them “that beaten, whorish look,” the typical appearance of “so many other Negro women.”

Lee Gordon, the college-graduate protagonist of Himes’s novel, makes the judgment as he “raped” his wife “without desire.” The sexual assault is born passively by Ruth Gordon, who stands as the financial support for the couple. Neither of the pair is in a land of lustful arousal; the physical act “to force submission into her living flesh” is unpleasant for Lee, “as unemotional as spitting on the street.”

Himes’s revelation of college-educated black men driven to violate and brutalize their wives to relieve themselves briefly of the fear brought on by racial anxiety and panic, like his association of middle-class black women with streetwalkers, was understood broadly as repugnant and unseemly. The novel wounded his marriage, unsettled his friends, and earned him literary foes.

When Jean Himes read the completed manuscript of Lonely Crusade while the couple lived on a rural California ranch owned by her brother, she ran sobbing out from the cabin into the night and the rattlesnake-infested hillsides of the desert along the border of Nevada. She wandered the sand for miles and, when found, asked to be rescued — from her husband. As Chester Himes recalled, the passage went on to create “great emotional upheavals in my life,” precisely because Jean “protested bitterly the treatment of the Negro wife.” It was the second time she had responded in wounded panic to something Himes had done, and her wild reaction was a harbinger of the book’s reception: chiefly because reviewers presumed that Himes was writing autobiography. The left-wing Harlem newspaper The People’s Voice reminded their audience that “it has been rumored that this novel is largely autobiographical. If this is true, then Himes should repair to the nearest clinic before writing another novel. For he is a mighty sick man.”

The reviews from better-established novelists complemented the idea that Himes was indeed ill. Believing himself on the cusp of an American age fully beyond racism, the popular black writer of the hour Willard Motley vilified the book, writing that the novel tried to prove that “the Negro is hopelessly paranoiac, he hates all white people, this hate is practically justifiable, all whites hate all Negroes, [and] race is the strongest human emotion.” In September of 1947, just before the review was published, Motley had justified himself to Himes, whom he knew from a cocktail party, writing simply: “I didn’t like Lonely Crusade. I react violently to it — my ideas and opinions are so different from yours.”

Motley’s published review was a masterpiece of misreading and exaggeration, but it nevertheless managed to capture the essence of Himes’s book, which did indeed argue that the racial formation of the United States exacted a heavy price on individual black people of conscience. What’s more, Himes had defiantly linked this problem of fear and hatred to his protagonist’s sexual functioning, writing that his hero’s “warped […], sickly, dwarfed, cowardly, cringing ego” required him to “beat his wife just to prove that he was stronger.” Then he doubled down.

So what if he did want in a wife a sycophant and a slave? A wife who, if she could not think of him as great, could at least tell him he was right — a wife who would always be beneath him, who would have to look up to him to look at him at all?

His ambitious but then unknown friend Ralph Ellison believed the novel completely tone-deaf, “dishonest,” and nearly an exercise in futility. “Personally I was disappointed with the book,” Ellison wrote to Richard Wright, a sad estimate made worse because Ellison had participated somewhat in the composition of the work and then had even cameoed in the novel itself.

To peers like Ellison, Himes’s concern with the relationships between black men and women was pathetic. It took a kind of fool’s courage to suggest that black people were anxious in their heterosexual relationships: to do so either proved the racist theory of inferiority and social disorganization, or the sexist theory of weak patriarchy. In a 1945 Social Forces article, sympathetic sociologist Charles King tried to describe what was understood as the routine operation of the lower class black family, which might be said to mean the majority of black America:

In the community the maternal family has practically the same status as the conventional family. Its social worth is judged on the basis of the character of the mother. There is no ostracism of the family if the mother is considered to be of good character. The mother can easily proves that she is not a lewd woman and that she is respectable if she refrains from letting herself become “common” with men, from allowing married men to pay her attention, and from having quarrels, or fights, occur on her account. As long as she carries on conventional courtship no social stigma will be placed against her.

Himes apparently seriously considered the link between black female sexual permissiveness, black matriarchy, and black inferiority, but he also believed that black women’s access to white-collar work needed to be debunked. At one point in the novel Lonely Crusade, the hero Lee Gordon explores his unwillingness to earn a living from demeaning, “dishonorable” jobs, such as employment as a servant.

And if this entailed her having to work for what he would not give her in dishonor, she should at least understand that there was nothing noble in her doing so; it was only the white man’s desire to deride the Negro man that had started all the lies and propaganda about the nobility and sacrifices of Negro women in the first place.

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Himes had not intended for Lonely Crusade to be, exclusively, a tour de force on the psychological dynamics of black heterosexual marriage. The novel was designed to show the emergence of interracial labor alliances, though Himes believed this great goal was stymied by systemic racial inequality. Himes also embraced a bit more Marxist analysis than was fashionable in the months following Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech and the Truman administration’s request for loyalty oaths in spring of 1947. But more importantly, he believed, more or less, in what came to be known in 1965 as “affirmative action,” or, special, deluxe treatment for black Americans. Himes argued in 1947 that for genuine democratic equality in the United States, African Americans needed “special” treatment. “What you don’t understand,” the novel’s novice labor organizer Gordon tells his white boss:

is that equality to the Negro worker who has never known equality is more than equality. To us equality is not a chance to participate equally. To us equality is special privilege. […] The Negro’s confidence, or his ego, or whatever in the hell you want to call it, has to be built up to where he can feel equality without having to first achieve superiority. Therefore at the beginning of any democratic movement the Negro will always be a special problem.

This was a note of frustration and implausibility that struck the more sensitive among the liberal crowd as completely sincere. Himes’s treatment of the maladjusted black college graduate had appealed to the publisher Blanche Knopf precisely because Himes was thought to be on a similar groundbreaking path to that of Richard Wright in Native Son. Knopf house reviewers commended the intense book for recording the “utter frustration, the heart-breaking effect of constant defeat, and fear that can be dissolved only by violence.”

The confluence of fear ameliorated by violence and special privilege was acutely meaningful for Himes, who had served a nearly eight-year prison term between 1928 and 1936. Himes afterward understood himself prejudicially judged on account of his prison record, and the repression of parts of his criminal past and prison experience was a typical tactic in his day-to-day life with publishers and the literary world. He found himself in difficulty when he engaged people unwilling to repress unflattering elements of his past. In the novel, he included a more or less verbatim conversation that he had had with Ellison in the late fall of 1946, reproduced as the thoughts of “Negro scholar” John Elsworth, a Tuskegee graduate, “who was not only convinced, himself, of his own inferiority, but went to great scholastic lengths to prove why it was so.” The Ellison character Elsworth, proved “his own inferiority” by admitting the matriarchal character of lower-class black life. Himes was nauseated by the idea that in a race struggle of ideas, Ellison could present a point of view that ignored the history of the destruction of black families. “What Lee rejected was not the truth of the knowledge of Negroes’ inferiority, for this he was learning on each succeeding day, but its value. Why learn conclusively that you were less than other people? — it was bad enough to suspect it.”

The point that Himes made, that it was “bad enough to suspect” inferiority, points to an area of susceptibility in his work and thought. Himes wanted the world to see him as confident, bold, and capable of earning a living, a husband in a heterosexual marriage, but his published work emphasizes the crevices of vulnerable ethnic pride and susceptible masculinity, fear, repression, and the crisis of imminent violence. He had tough guy bona fides, but he also recognized, in a manner that he felt it important to repress, that he needed the prosthesis of special treatment.

Himes resented the formulation of the “maternal family,” with its implied absence or disappearance of a male breadwinner. He tended to emphasize the patriarchal but downwardly mobile black family such as the one he had grown up in, and dwell upon the dissolution ever threatening strong ties between black women and men. Himes’s narrator Lee Gordon is complicit in his own guilt, and has to pay for the sin of masculine pride — demonstrating that “it was bad enough to suspect” his inferiority, indeed, and Himes’s understanding that “special treatment” was necessary to resolve black inequality with whites was connected to this fear that the maternal family existed because of a, by then, irreversible corruption of black women and men.

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The building blocks of Himes’s ideas on black marriage and the important dignity of patriarchy were hewn out from two powerful life experiences. Born in a two-story white-frame bungalow in Jefferson City, Missouri, on July 29, 1909, Himes had grown up on a hillside overlooking Lincoln University, a college founded by black Union Army troopers. His most complete early memories would be of Lorman, Mississippi, on the campus of Alcorn State University, an old plantation. Himes’s parents were college instructors — “professors” — in the network of old Normal Schools, academies turned industrial colleges, that dotted the American South in the era of Booker T. Washington. The schools, such as the campuses of Lincoln and Alcorn, had the basic function of offering mainly post-common school education to the children of freedmen, and, often, technical training in a craft. Only rarely were there students and faculty capable of taking and offering a college course curriculum. In everything from their architecture to their curriculum, their faculty and their campus regulation, these schools regularly combined outstanding examples of modern ideals with the relics of chattel slavery.

Himes’s father was a black man whose family had exited slavery in Tenille, Georgia, moved to the Reconstruction-era black majority of South Carolina, and prospered enough to own a blacksmithing shop. Joseph “Sandy” Himes was ambitious, small but powerfully built, a master artisan who had finished a degree at Claflin University in South Carolina, and who had risen to the head of his department at Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth in Savannah by 1901. That same year he married Estelle Bomar, a very accomplished young woman from a prestigious colored family, who had attended Scotia Seminary in North Carolina. Estelle Bomar’s parents both had had the ambiguous relation to their owners as both chattels and kin, but the family had lived in Spartanburg, where race relations among blacks were not known for the codes of separatism that shaped so much of black life in the low country part of the state, with its racist and separatist “Brown” societies. While Estelle herself did not look much like a person of African descent, she had sense enough to understand she shared the fate of black and tan Americans, and she admired her classmate Mary McLeod (later Mary McLeod Bethune) and her husband’s brother-in-law Roddy Moon, a dark-skinned pater familias who worked for the federal government and who had moved his family to Cleveland, where he headed the local branch of the NAACP.

After a series of mishaps, some of them financial and one that took the eyesight of Chester’s older brother Joseph Jr., the family settled permanently in Cleveland. But his father’s career was outmoded in the heavy industry automobile age of the postwar 1920s. Nor had the marriage been tranquil. Estelle, who received a portion of her wealthy brother’s estate in 1905, had grown punitive over the years regarding her husband’s ambition. She believed him an Uncle Tom of the Old South, and he responded by calling her “color struck.” They made a last go of life together when they bought a house in 1925 on 10713 Everton Avenue in a formerly all-white Jewish neighborhood. Chester went to East High School, and, graduating in January of 1926, went on with many members of his class to Ohio State University in the fall of 1926.

Chester did not fare as well in Columbus. Because of an insurance claim payout after he had fallen down an elevator shaft in 1926, Chester had a small fortune in disposable income. In Columbus, he became a regular at the brothels of Long Street on the East side, was exposed by a classmate, and expelled. By the time he returned to Columbus in February of 1927, his parents were no longer living together; they soon divorced and sold the home. Chester’s mother hoped to see his intellectual promise fulfilled by a professional career. She was suspicious of his withdrawal from school and the extended convalescence he required. Chester was embarrassed by his diminished father, a college teacher turned porter who sanctioned his son’s profligate behavior. Nonetheless, Himes wanted the African-American family to be patriarchal, perhaps because he himself had witnessed the disintegration of his own family in rancorous struggle for control between his father and mother.

Chester’s father’s relatives criticized his mother’s pretentiousness and her skin color preference and, at least by implication, Chester himself, as the lightest-colored son. His mother accused his father of inadequate pride and inadequate manhood, which became core issues for Himes in his imaginative construction of the dynamics of black heterosexual marriage, especially in Lonely Crusade and in his autobiographical portrait of his life with Jean, whom he met as his father’s authority was proving inadequate and his parents stopped living together.

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Himes was introduced to his wife of almost 40 years, Jean Lucinda Johnson, by a thief named Benny Barnett. In September 1927, the two pals stole a car and drove from Cleveland to Columbus for a weekend bender of college parties after Chester had been expelled. Along with another man named Cornalee Thatch, Benny orchestrated the .45-caliber pistol robbery of the Cedar Avenue YMCA, for which he, Thatch, and Chester were arrested in October 1928, and for which Barnett was sent to federal prison. Chester liked to remember Benny as “a big-framed, light-brown-skinned, simpleminded boy.” But he was also crucial to Chester’s later teenage years in Cleveland. “Benny had a two-room basement flat somewhere in the eighties off of Cedar Avenue, and he would always get girls for a party. At one of these I met the most beautiful brownskin girl I had ever seen, Jean Johnson.” Chester supplied a series of ramshackle explanations that lead up to the courtship that lasted through 1927 and 1928, before resuming in 1936, when he was freed from prison. Chester and Jean married in 1937.

All of the sporadic autobiographical references describing the blossoming romance with Jean occur within the geographical boundaries of Benny’s apartment. After his father moved out of the house, following the final fight with Estelle in late 1927, Chester wrote: “I left home the next day and found Benny back in his basement apartment after his thirty days in jail, with Jean occupying one of his rooms. I moved in with Jean.” This might have been the historic fight in which Joseph Himes claimed that Estelle Himes “cursed and swore … in front of their children and called him numerous names, too vile to write …” On January 23, 1928, Chester pled guilty to check forgery, which he had committed in September 1927, and following his four month stretch in jail in Columbus, he returned to Cleveland. As he recorded in the autobiography, “I learned that Benny was in the workhouse for another crime and Jean was living with his girlfriend in his old basement flat. I stayed with Jean …” Chester is supposed to have split his time between Jean and another woman, the sister to Benny’s girlfriend, whom he believed he got pregnant and who returned to her parents in Georgia. The timeline here is not precisely clear, but one part of it is. Roughly nine months after his return to Cleveland, on October 9, 1928, he was arrested in Warrenton, Ohio, attempting to sell the .45s.

Himes was strongly attracted to working up doses of autobiography in his fiction, from the beginning of his career, when he wrote mainly short stories. He retained the technique in longer works like Lonely Crusade and satires like Pinktoes. Two of his fiction works directly reproduce the relationship of a Himes-like narrator to a young woman in the 1920s. In an early short story, unpublished until 1967, called “A Nigger,” he recounts an unusual relationship — unusual to people whose standard of normativity is serial monogamy. The relationship involves four people: an attractive young black woman named Fay; an older “rich white John out of Shaker Heights” (Cleveland’s prestige community); her common-law husband, “a fine looking, hard-working, tall yellow boy […] who dumped his paycheck to her as regular as it came”; and a poet named Joe Wolf who seems modeled on a young Chester Himes. One afternoon, after the common-law husband goes to a “tonk” game at Bunch Boy’s (the same name used by Himes in his autobiography to describe his “father figure” in the Cleveland underworld), the poet is dishonorably forced to hide in the closet when the “old white man she went with on the side” makes an unexpected amorous visit. The narrator Joe is humiliated to be forced into the closet to placate the financial power of the white man. Joe has competing desires: sexual attraction and the possibility of physical satisfaction tempered by a puritanism that seeks to enforce a regime of chastity or monogamy and causes him to experience nausea. He imagines to himself, “Hell, I’ve known she was a slut; that’s what attracted me. Do I have to puke goddammit, because she demonstrates it?” “The fact was he, Joe Wolf, had been maneuvered by a whore into a spot too low for a dog.”

Perhaps two decades later, after Himes had completed his novel The End of a Primitive, he drafted the outline of a novel called A Case of Rape. Himes structured part of the novel around a fictional romance between an African-American expatriate and a white American member of blue-blood debutante society; the characters in the novel closely resembled himself and Willa Thompson, a white woman he had encountered on the voyage from New York to Le Havre in April 1953. He had a romance with Thompson in 1954 and 1955, in France, England, Spain, and New York, and which culminated in their joint authorship of a novel, which Thompson ultimately published under her own name as Garden Without Flowers. In A Case of Rape, drafted while the romance with Thompson was unraveling, Himes describes his hero Scott Hamilton’s first wife with the following précis:

A café au lait, black haired piece of red hot sex, rotten to the core. She had served a year in the women’s reformatory for deserting an illegitimate baby she’d had when she was fifteen; and she was then, in addition to singing, working as an amateur whore and sleeping free with three men, two colored and one white.

The repetition of the relation of the significant partner with two other paramours, two black and one white, is valuable and revealing, and brings us closer to something that Himes obliquely refers to in the autobiography: “My wife had never been innocent despite the fact that she loved me fiercely, and had satisfied me completely.”

Chester had valid reasons for the portraits and cast off lines of shared love. One important friend that Chester left out of his autobiography was a man named Harry C. Plater, a waiter who lived in Cleveland on E. 79th Street. On September 12, 1928, 21-year-old Plater married Lucinda “Jean” Johnson. Not a month later, on October 8, Chester was along for the ride with Barnett and Thatch in Warrenton and, out on bail six weeks later, during a snowstorm on November 25, 1928, he robbed Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Miller of Fairmount Heights. Chester claimed he robbed the Millers to be able to escape to Mexico, but perhaps he did not intend to go alone. In any event, a year later the Platers separated, around the time that Harry went to jail for robbing a Cedar Avenue butcher shop. In the divorce documents, Jean cited her spouse’s drunkenness and his having abandoned her. After a while, she moved in with Harry’s older brother Philip. At one time or another, teenage Jean, who developed early and looked older than she was, lived with Benny, Harry, and Philip. From time to time, she let Chester live with her.

As Chester liked to say, “I did a lot of things I might not have done otherwise” when he was in Benny’s company. Shy, soft-spoken, teenage, middle-class Chester experienced sexual initiation in this group of homeboys. But the likelihood of Jean — whom Himes flatteringly described as looking like a brown-skin version of famous Hollywood belle Lena Horne — living in chaste circumstances with the man who taught Chester to steal cars, ransack furriers, and smoke opium is improbable.

The triad might have begun as a double relationship: sexual intimacy with one partner, and a platonic, emotionally weighted relationship with the secondary man. It makes more sense that Jean and highwayman Benny were lovers and Chester the third person, the emotionally available man, in the trio.

Though Himes came of age in the Cleveland ghetto among the gamblers, landprops, thieves, and hustling men and women, he could not manage the swagger of an athlete or a genuine hoodlum. By the time he wrote the short story “A Nigger,” he was fleshing out the power of erasure embodied in the narrator’s hiding in a closet to avoid sacrificing the financial relationship between his married lover and her white sugar daddy. “Why, he had not only refused to recognize him as a rival, not even as an intruder; why, the son of a bitch looked at him as if he was another garment he had bought for her.” Chester accepted the position that was left: the sharpie, the bounder, the knowing john, the man who asserts as his own what had been spent on another. It was hard for him to admit this to himself, and it was always unpleasant when he did. He preferred to imagine himself a man who rescued the damsel in distress, but in the case of several women whom he loved well — Jean, Vandi Haygood, and Regine Fischer, sometime playmate of cartoonist Ollie Harrington — this was not true.

As a teen, Himes was the jay who was not clever enough and on his way to prison to get hip. The boy who thought he “had been so ‘jay-wise,’ who had been around the Horn,” was actually the suffering mark who never quite learned the score. His mother said to him before he had even gone to college that he might wind up in prison or at the gallows; everyone around him could see his trajectory, and his rightly judgmental Aunt Fannie had always predicted this fate. He disliked having uneducated relatives berate him, and this too seeps into the early short story. The hero accepts the position of kept man of the heroine — “Just to keep on putting up a cheap front among the riff raff on Cedar Street, just to keep from having to go back to his aunt’s and eat crow.”

Himes tried to turn his life around, but he would always find himself in these relationships with a woman who had already been intimate with one of his friends. After breaking his back, rupturing his urethra, and having a tube inserted in his bladder, after having at 18 to appear undressed in front of his white-looking mother in order to be strapped into a remedial harness, after having to insert a syringe of silver mercury into his meatus to relieve himself of gonorrhea, he wanted to be heroic, to have the legendary priapic capacities attributed to black men. But it was his emotional sensitivity, his sweetness, his willingness to listen, his personal wounds, and his ability to shed a tear — these were the qualities that he had in abundance. Undoubtedly these are the qualities he shared with Jean when she wasn’t in the other room with Benny. The sensitivity that made him a great writer, left him enraged at his own weakness.

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Lawrence P. Jackson is professor of English and African American Studies at Emory University. He is the author of The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics and My Father’s Name: A Black Virginia Family after the Civil War.


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