The Dilemma of the Negro Novelist in the United States



Chester Himes

From the start the American Negro writer is beset by conflicts. He is in conflict with himself, with his environment, with his public. The personal conflict will be the hardest. He must decide at the outset the extent of his honesty. He will find it no easy thing to reveal the truth of his experience or even to discover it. He will derive no pleasure from the recounting of his hurts. He will encounter more agony by his explorations into his own personality than most non-Negroes realize. For him to delineate the degrading effects of oppression will be like inflicting a wound upon himself. He will have begun an intellectual crusade that will take him through the horrors of the damned. And this must be his reward for his integrity: he will be reviled by the Negroes and whites alike. Most of all, he will find no valid interpretation of his experiences in terms of human values until the truth be known.

If he does not discover this truth, his life will be forever veiled in mystery, not only to whites but to himself; and he will be heir to all the weird interpretations of his personality.

The urge to submit to the pattern prescribed by oppression will be powerful. The appeal to retrench, equivocate, compromise, will be issued by friend and foe alike. The temptations to accede will be tempting, the rewards coercive. The oppressor pays, and sometimes well, for the submission of the oppressed.

* * * * *

If this novelist, because he has prepared an honest and revealing work on Negro life anticipates the support and encouragement of middle-class Negro people, he is doomed to disappointment. He must be prepared for the hatred and antagonism of many of his own people, for attacks from his leaders, the clergy and the press; he must be ready to have his name reviled at every level, intellectual or otherwise. This is not hard to understand. The American Negro seeks to hide his beaten, battered soul, his dwarfed personality, his scars of oppression. He does not want it known that he has been so badly injured for fear he will be taken out of the game. The American Negro’s highest ambition is to be included in the stream of American life, to be permitted to “play the game” as any other American, and he is opposed to anything he thinks will aid in his exclusion. The American Negro, we must remember, is an American; the face may be the face of Africa, but the heart has the beat of Wall Street.

* * * * *

There is an indomitable quality within the human spirit that can not be destroyed; a face deep within the human personality that is impregnable to all assaults. This quality, this force, exists deep within the Negro also; he is human. They rest so deeply that prejudice, oppression, lynchings, riots, time or weariness can never corrode or destroy them. During the three hundred years Negroes have lived in America as slaves and near subhumans, the whole moral fibre and personality of those Negroes now living would be a total waste; we would be drooling idiots, dangerous maniacs, raving beasts—if it were not for that quality and force within all humans that cries: “I will live!”

There is no other explanation of how so many Negroes have been able to break through the restrictions of oppression, retain their integrity, and attain eminence, and make valuable contributions to our whole culture. The Negro writer must not only reveal the truth, but also reveal and underline these higher qualities of humanity.

My definition of this quality within the human spirit that can not be destroyed is a single word: Growth. Growth is the surviving influence in all lives. The tree will send up its trunk in thick profusion from land burned black by atom bombs. Children will grow from poverty and filth and oppression and develop honor, develop integrity, contribute to all mankind.

SOURCE: Himes, Chester. “The Dilemma of the Negro Novelist in the United States,” (1948) in Beyond the Angry Black, ed. John A. Williams (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1966), pp. 51-58.

Note: This anthology is a document of a bygone era, and this essay—originally a speech—is a vestige of the era before that. Williams did not indicate the year of its original delivery, and from a biography I learned that Himes resented Williams’ taking out a copyright on it, whereas Williams himself claimed that he did that to protect the author.

Himes’s portrait of the lack of self-esteem, the misguided self-conceptions of both working class and middle class Black Americans, and the hopeless cluelessness of both hostile and sympathetic whites, and thus the near-impossibility of Black writers telling the whole truth, reflects two bygone eras and is probably exaggerated due to Himes’s personal history, except of course regarding the cluelessness of whites. Hence I am hesitant to quote too much from this essay, though it is representative of an historical moment and Himes’s place as a writer in it.

This speech also highlights the positive strivings of the writer as well as the bitter account of the obstacles facing the Black writer and the (overgeneralized and thus exaggerated on Himes’s part) wounded psyche of Black Americans of that period, all of which impels the writer to tell the unvarnished truth. Himes does not spare white publishers or the white public, but his assessment of Black consciousness (as he saw it in 1948) is also bleak.

Himes recounts the temptations to flee from racial identification altogether or at the opposite pole to take refuge in a postulated African identity.

Expressions such as ‘dwarfed personality’ are hard to take. My memory of reading this decades ago—in the 1970s or ‘80s I believe— is very vague. I do remember Himes mentioning the need to be honest about psychological reality and not sugar-coat it for public consumption, e.g. the understandable hatred of whites, ‘paradoxical anti-Semitism’, ‘uncle tomism’, etc. I decided to look this essay up again because of the one phrase I remembered:

“The American Negro, we must remember, is an American; the face may be the face of Africa, but the heart has the beat of Wall Street.”

Richard Wright Study Guide

Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe—Study Guide

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Uploaded 17 February 2021

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