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.

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