Reviews — From the August 2017 issue

Liberation Struggle

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 2 of 6 )

The world has never known what to do with black men like Chester Bomar Himes. And Himes, as Jackson suggests, never really knew what to do with himself, either. He was born to a middle-class family in Jackson City, Missouri, in 1909. His parents were home-owning, upwardly mobile teachers, a remarkable feat considering they were only one generation removed from chattel slavery. Unlike Himes’s dark-skinned father, Joseph, his white-looking mother, Estelle, seems never to have fully acclimated herself to the social reality of being black. She once told her children, “You mustn’t think of yourself as colored. Your mother is as white as anyone. You both have white blood — fine white blood — in your veins. And never forget it.” This “willful intention to ignore racial barriers and proclaim as true her fantasy heritage,” as Jackson puts it, seems to have had a disastrous effect on her youngest son. Although he could never hope to pass, and likely wouldn’t have wanted to, Himes aspired throughout his life to a postracial state of absolute acceptance among whites. It was perhaps his defining feature on and off the page, and an inexhaustible source of frustration.

The Himes family moved frequently during Chester’s youth, in pursuit of better jobs and homes, as well as in retreat from stifling racism. In 1914, they left Missouri for Lorman, Mississippi, where Joseph had secured a post as a professor of blacksmithing at segregated Alcorn College. Himes picked up a Mississippi accent that, though he never lived there again, he kept for the rest of his life. This must have distressed Estelle, who was determined to prevent her children from turning “vulgar.” To keep blackness — or at least her limited sense of it — at arm’s length, she homeschooled her sons, playing Chopin and Verdi on the piano and reading from volumes of Greek and Roman mythology at night. She also rigorously restricted their contact with the neighbors, including the children of other faculty.

By 1923, the Himeses were living in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where the first in a series of catastrophes definitively altered their upward path. During commencement-week exercises at their high school, Chester and his older brother Joe Jr. were scheduled to make gunpowder onstage. Though he always denied it, Chester seems to have lost his nerve and allowed his brother to go it alone. Joe Jr. miscalculated the formula, and the beaker exploded in his face, severely injuring his eyes. Doctors at the city’s main hospital refused to treat him because he was black. The boys’ father wept and pleaded — one of many emasculations his family would witness — but they were forced to go to the black hospital, where the necessary surgery was unfeasible; all the doctors could do was dress the wounds.

Estelle and Joe Jr. went to St. Louis for months of long-term care, while Chester remained with his father in Pine Bluff. When the family reassembled in Missouri, Joseph, having given up his faculty position in a dying field, was reduced to manual labor (a move that foreshadowed what was in store for his son). “He was a pathetic figure coming home from work,” Himes wrote in his autobiographical novel The Third Generation (1954). “A small black man hunched over and frowning, shambling in a tired-footed walk, crushed old cap pulled down over his tired, glazed eyes, a cigarette dangling from loose lips.” The family moved on to Cleveland, where Chester, who had received a drastically uneven education in the South, graduated from high school in 1925 only by the grace of a clerical typo. Nonetheless, he enrolled at Ohio State, ostensibly with the intent of becoming a medical doctor.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share
is the author of Losing My Cool, a memoir.

More from Thomas Chatterton Williams:

Readings From the March 2016 issue

Blanket Security

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2019

Men at Work

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To Serve Is to Rule

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bird Angle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The K-12 Takeover

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The $68,000 Fish

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.