23 octobre 2015

ENG - A tribute to Faulkner

While he was writing his first novel for the Série noire in 1957 (For the Love of Imabelle or A Rage in Harlem), Himes, lacking inspiration after the first 80 pages, turned to Faulkner: "The first thing I did on returning to my room was to reread an old beat-up paperback of Faulkner's Sanctuary to sustain my outrageousness and give me courage" (My Life of Absurdity). When he described in Plan B blacks  covered with dust and plaster after being shot by the police cannon, Himes wrote: "William Faulkner would have been vindicated in his description of black skin turning the grey of wood ashes".

Faulkner's influence is manifest in the narration. For example, the structure of Sanctuary, with its alternating focus on the two main characters (Temple and Horace Benbow), and the structuration of time essentially by light marks (in the 1st chapter, the conscience of the passing of time stems from the setting sun, the dusk, the light of a lamp) have certainly inspired Himes. The meeting of Horace Benbow and Popeye, which opens the book with its very cinematic eye contact is obviously quoted by Himes in the sequence between Dummy and Sugar in The Big Gold Dream (chapter 14) with its match cuts connecting the eyes and glances of the two characters.

And Faulkner is also present in the vision of the History of the South. In Plan B, the History of Tomsson Black's plantation is a "crappy counterpoint"[1] to the epical clearing and planting by Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom.

There is, finally, an issue on which the two authors coincide. We grasp it better thanks to the magnificent interpretation of Édouard Glissant in Faulkner, Mississipi. This is "the merciless impartiality" of Faulkner, his uncompromising gaze focused on blacks. Himes goes even further: the monstrous is present in The Heat's on, and in his last two novels, Blind Man with a Pistol and Plan B.

[1] Chester Himes, l’unique.

14 octobre 2015

ENG - From the "bad man" to Coffin Ed and Grave Digger: permanence and signification of black violence

The brutality of the two detectives has always bothered Himes' readers. It contradicts a political understanding of the Harlem domestic novels according to which the two detectives, so radical when denouncing the living conditions of the black, are expected to love and lead their people. A good example of these judgements is the following assertion by Jean-Patrick Manchette emphasizing the two detectives' submission to the white power: "We are free to say that these two men are the only Harlemites created by Himes who have apparently lost their soul." 

In Born in a Mighty Bad Land: The Violent Man in African American Folklore and Fiction, Jerry H. Bryant studies the figure of the bad man in the African American culture and especially in literature. The bad man is the opposite of the Uncle Tom. He has two sides. He may be the black leader, the "moral bad man", who revolts mainly against whites within the white system (Muhammad Ali or several leaders of the radical black movements of the 60' like Malcolm X and Huey Newton). He is also the hard man, the slave who is brutal to other slaves, the bully feared in his neighbourhood and hated by the black middle class, eager to display its respectability. Bigger Thomas (Native Son - Richard Wright) is a perfect example of bad man. A contemporary form of bad man is the black rapper to whom a chapter is dedicated.

Another chapter of the book concerns Chester Himes. It shows the pervasive presence of violence in Harlem and specifically examines the character of Johnny Perry (The Crazy Kill), a "good bad man", a violent man, quick to fits of rage, but who plays by the rules in his gambling house and is respected in the ghetto. Then comes the more delicate and more expected analysis of the two detectives' violence agains their fellow citizens. First, using some distance, one can see that violence in Harlem is so extensive that most of its inhabitants are not innocent victims pushed around by the two policemen. Grave Digger and Coffin Ed use their own violence to combat violence.

Secondly, their brutality is essential for their survival and mission. It is, indeed, their violence, rather than their status as police officers, which guarantees the respect of the community. At a global level, that of the likeliness of the Harlem domestic novels, without violence, the "concept of a black policemen would be a kind of oxymoron".

Finally, the violence of the two detectives meets the whole tradition of the bad man. Another author, Raymond Nelson, can be referred to: "Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are more than familiar literary heroes. (…) Simply enough, they are the 'black niggers" of Black folklore. They are Nat Turner or Stackalees[1] brought up to date and moved to the city, contemporary avatars of one of the stubbornly pervasive motifs in Black American culture. (…) The 'bad nigger' is an emotionally projected rather than a socially functional figure: he is valuable as a symbol of defiance, strength and masculinity to a community that has been forced to learn, or at least to sham, weakness and compliance."

Jerry H. Bryant does not forget the personality of Himes, entwined in the history of the African Americans, when he concludes: "Indeed, the signature feature of Himes' domestic novels is anger. This is what makes these eight[2] hard-boiled Harlem detective novels so personal, for Himes himself was a man in a fury and projected it in characters equally angry. It is not an anger of protest, or rather not simply of protest, but a kind of existential rage at the general conditions of living. Only such anger could enable Himes to become the 'prose poet' of ghetto violence."

Jean-Patrick MANCHETTE, Chroniques, Rivages/Écrits noirs,1996.
Jerry H. BRYANT, Born in a Mighty Bad Land: The Violent Man in African American Fiction and Folklore, Indiana University Press, 2003
Raymond NELSON, "Domestic Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes”, in A Critical Response to Chester Himes, Charles L.P. Silet (ed.), Greenwood Press, 1999.

[1] Cruel Stackalee or Stack O’Lee is the central character of a blues. He refuses to spare the life of a man who has stolen his hat, although he has a wife and two young children.
[2] Eight novels and not nine. Although published in 2003, Born in a Mightly Bad Land seems to ignore Plan B, novel written in 1967-1968 by Himes and left unfinished. Michel Fabre and Robert Skinner completed Plan B from the elements left by Himes and published it in 1995 in the United States.

10 octobre 2015

Du « bad man » à Cercueil et Fossoyeur : permanence et sens de la violence noire

La brutalité des deux inspecteurs a toujours dérangé une partie des lecteurs de Himes. Elle contredit une lecture politique du cycle de Harlem qui voudrait que les deux policiers, si radicaux dans la dénonciation des conditions de vie des Noirs, soient aussi des leaders de leur peuple. Un bon exemple de ces jugements est ce qu’écrit Jean-Patrick Manchette qui voit en eux des agents de répression au service du pouvoir blanc: « Nous restons libres d’affirmer que ces deux hommes sont les seuls Harlémites de Himes qui aient apparemment perdu leur âme. »
Dans Born in a Mighty Bad Land: The Violent Man in African American Folklore and Fiction, Jerry H. Bryant étudie la figure du bad man dans la culture afro-américaine et, notamment, dans la littérature.
Le bad man est l’opposé de l’Oncle Tom. Il a deux versants : le leader noir, le moral bad man qui s’oppose aux Blancs (Mohamed Ali ou plusieurs leaders des mouvements noirs radicaux des années 1960 comme Malcolm X ou Huey Newton) et le dur, qui s’oppose non seulement aux Blancs mais aussi aux autres Noirs, l’esclave brutal pour les autres esclaves, le petit caïd, redouté dans son quartier, celui que la classe moyenne noire, soucieuse de respectabilité, déteste. Bigger Thomas (Un enfant du pays de Richard Wright) est un exemple achevé de bad man. Une forme contemporaine du bad man est le rappeur noir à qui un chapitre est consacré.
Un autre chapitre du livre concerne Chester Himes. Il montre la présence constante de la violence à Raymond Nelson, Harlem et étudie plus particulièrement le personnage de Johnny Perry (Couché dans le pain), un « bon méchant », un homme violent, prompt à des accès de rage, mais régulier dans sa maison de jeu et respecté dans le ghetto.
Puis vient l’analyse plus délicate, et plus attendue, des deux inspecteurs et de leur violence envers leurs concitoyens. Tout d’abord, avec un peu de distance, on peut voir que la violence de Harlem est si étendue que la plupart de ses habitants ne sont pas d’innocentes victimes que les deux policiers malmèneraient. Cercueil et Fossoyeur se servent de leur propre violence pour combattre la violence.
Ensuite, leur brutalité est indispensable pour leur survie et leur mission. C’est, en effet, leur violence, plus que leur statut de policiers, qui garantit le respect de la communauté. A un niveau plus global, celui de la vraisemblance, sans cette violence, le « concept d’un policier noir aurait été une sorte d’oxymore ».
Enfin, la violence des deux inspecteurs les relie à toute la tradition du bad man. On peut citer ici un autre auteur, Raymond Nelson : « Fossoyeur et Ed Cercueil sont plus que des héros littéraires familiers. Au fond, ils sont les mauvais nègres du folklore noir, les Nat Turner ou Stackalee[1] actualisés et urbanisés, avatars contemporains d’un des mythes omniprésents de la culture noire américaine […] Le mauvais nègre est une projection émotionnelle plutôt qu’une figure sociale et fonctionnelle : sa valeur vient de sa force symbolique de méfiance, de force et de masculinité dans une communauté qui a été forcée à apprendre, ou tout au moins à feindre, la faiblesse et la soumission. »
Jerry H. Bryant n’oublie pas la personnalité de Himes, inscrite dans l’histoire des Noirs américains, quand il conclut : « Le trait caractéristique du cycle de Harlem est la colère. C’est ce qui fait que ces huit[2] romans policiers sont aussi personnels car Himes était un homme plein de fureur et il a créé des personnages eux-aussi en colère. Ce n’est pas une colère de protestation, ou plutôt ce n’est pas que cela, mais plutôt une sorte de rage existentielle devant les conditions de vie. C’est cette colère qui a fait de Himes le “poète en prose” de la violence du ghetto. »

Sources :
Jean-Patrick MANCHETTE, Chroniques, Rivages/Écrits noirs, 1996.
Jerry H. BRYANT, Born in a Mighty Bad Land: The Violent Man in African American Folklore and Fiction, Indiana University Press, 2003
Raymond NELSON, « Domestic Harlem : The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes », dans A Critical Response to Chester Himes, édité by Charles L. P. Silet, Greenwood Press, 1999.

[1] « Cruel Stackalee » ou « Stack O’Lee » est la figure centrale d’un blues. Il refuse d’épargner la vie d’un autre homme qui lui a volé son chapeau, bien que ce dernier ait une femme et deux petits enfants.
[2] Huit romans et non neuf. Bien que sa publication date de 2003, le livre Born in a Mightly Bad Land ignore Plan B, roman écrit en 1967-1968 par Himes et laissé inachevé. Michel Fabre et Robert Skinner ont complété Plan B à partir des éléments laissés par Himes et l’ont publié aux États-Unis en 1995.