Noir is light and noir is dark. It is black on a white screen, projected by white light. It's lightness is found in the illumination of events but its blackness is given to us by the harsh reality of those illuminated events. Yet Noir is not only the standard black and white, it is also insidious shades of other colors as Chester Himes evokes in his writings. Himes gives the noir world not only its typical shades of black and white, but additional shades of racialized darkness, of racialized lightness, and of the oscillation between the two which people like a pendulum sway between.
Chester Himes was born to a mixed woman (the daughter of an Irish man and either an African princess or Indian Squaw) who looked like a "white woman who had suffered a long bout of illness." His mother, Estelle Bomar, married the son of former slave. Chester's father was able to put himself through Claflin College located in South Carolina. Upon his graduation Chester's father, Joseph Sandy, became a blacksmith, wheel smith, and professor of metal trades. It was this that allured Estelle Bomar to Joseph Sandy according to James Sallis, a biographer on Himes.
While born to a black middle class family the tension between Estelle's desire for properness and white society (shown in her refusal to congregate with other African Americans) and Joseph Sandy's internalized sense of inferiority would bring the marriage to an eventual halt. While intra racial tension was a constant at home, there was also the blinding heat of racism from the outside world.
In one of the pivotal moments of his young life, Chester Himes was punished and forced to sit out of an experiment that he and his brother were conducting. Working alone Chester's brother mixed the chemicals which exploded in his face. His brother was rushed to the nearest hospital where because of his ethnicity he was denied treatment. "That one moment in my life hurt me as much as all the others put together," Himes wrote in "The Quality of Hurt."
Himes life followed a troubled path shortly after his brother's injury. He was expelled from highschool and then arrested for armed robbery. It was while in prison at Ohio State Penetiary where he lived from late 1928 to 1934 that Himes began to write. His short stories were published in Esquire magazine, and in 1936 he was paroled. Upon his completion of paroled life he emigrated to France where he lived the remainder of his days.
It was while in France that he wrote "Cotton Comes to Harlem" a novel that would eventually become a movie and along with other detective novels featuring his characters, Grave Digger Jones, and Coffin Ed.
Himes novels are not only classical noir exploits but also a delving into the double consciousness of the African American psyche of the time. Double consciousness as depicted by W.E.B. Du Bois is the:
sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
Himes work epitmozes that sense of duality. His lead characters are both protectors of and antagonists of the african american community. They work for the white man, and yet also against him.
In the "Real Cool Killers," the second of Himes' saga of Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed, a black man attempts to murder a white man in a bar, the black bartender saves the white man hacking off the original assailant's arm. The white man flees outside. He is chased by another black man who shoots a series of blank pistol shots at him. While running down the street in black Harlem the white man is stopped... stopped dead by a shot.
Digger and Coffin show up on scene to unravel what has happened to the white man after all it's their job. Grave Digger notes his duty when speaking to a white man saying "'I'm just a cop,' Grave Digger said thickly. 'If you white people insist on coming up to Harlem where you force colored people to live in vice-and-crime-ridden slums, it's my job to see that you are'" (65). It is in protecting white people from the other side of the city that things become muddled, partially because of the crowd which includes members of a juvenile gang, "The Moslems." It's natural for a crowd to engage with the fore mentioned events thought, after all "it's only once in a blue moon they (Harlem residents) get to see a white man being chased by one of them. A big white man at that. That was an event. A chance to see some white blood spilled for a change, and spilled by a black man, at that" (151).
The Moslems hide the main suspect in the case, Sonny, the man who was shooting blanks, while Digger is left to unravel who the white man is. After trolling through the underbelly of the city visiting the bar after bar, and a brothel, Digger returns to the original scene of the incident and unravels through intimidation and violence that the white man, Galen, is a sadist who enjoys whipping black girls. Thrown out of a brothel for his violence, Galen resorts to whipping girls in the basement of the bar in which he was initially attacked... by a man whose daughter was whipped by him in a prostitutional exchange.
Galen had been in the Harlem bar because it was a site where black girls would come to him. He was known for his compensation for services rendered and the bar also was a place of service for his desires (he would bring the girls into the basement where he would whip them). After all for a black woman it wasn't that much ado, as the bartender tells Digger "A colored woman don't consider diddling with a white man as being unfaithful. They don't consider it no more than just working in service, only they is getting better paid and the work is less straining. 'Sides which, the hours is shorter. Ad they old men don't neither. Both she and her old man figger it's like finding money in the street" (59).
Himes unveils that one of the girls was less than happy with her experience and when the old white man sought to engage her girlfriend in his sadistic desires she shot him in a moment of confusion.
It is here that Himes' double consciousness can be seen. While his main characters bring to justice the gang members who are suspected and tried for their crimes of deliquency and hiding a suspect, they also alleviate the culprit for her shooting of the white man as essentially "he deserved it," he was sadistically abusing young women for money. They allow the real culprit go free, a black girl, while still prosecuting the black male youth.
The layered notion of ethncity and race does not stop with "The Real Cool Killers" though. Himes' "Cotton Comes to Harlem," which was turned into a hit blaxploitation film, also uses Grave Digger and Coffin Ed as establishers of justice in a black world.
Himes sets Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed in search of the missing money, which they only wish to return to the families of Harlem knowing full well that O'Malley sought to hoodwink the local residents. To the residents, however, O'Malley "appeared in their imaginations as a martyr to the injustice of whites, and a brave and noble leader" (112). O'Malley disappears instantly after the robbery and in the search for the reverend the detectives put his wife under arrest.
It is in a comic scene between the preacher's wife and a detective that the Himes shows the way in which the black body is attempted to be consumed by whites. The preacher's wife tempts the detective with sex and injures his sense of masculinity so that the detective "was incensed by her allusion to his masculinity, but he consoled himself with the thought that in different circumstances he'd ride that yellow bitch until she yelled quits" (70). The wife continues with her seduction and says that she'll make it with the detective if he wears a sack on his head. He puts on the prophylactic on and the wife escapes. The detective is then found naked by other white officers who never "knew who was the first one to explode with laughter" (74). Here we see the temptation offered by the exorcized black body. The wife uses it to aid her escape and the white man is left with a flaccid cock and worthless sack.
The cotton quietly switches hands in the meanwhile. Found by a homebum who sells it to a junkyard the cotton bale is then acquired secretly from the junkyard by another homebum, Bud Cotton. Bud finds the money but still sells the bale to a stripper Billie Belle who in turn sells it for even more money to a white Colonel. The white Colonel was behind the initial robbery and becomes quit flummoxed when he can't find the money in the bail much to the amusement of Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed. After all the detectives care only about returning the money to the residents of Harlem and in wanting so threaten the Colonel with a murder he committed (the Colonel murders a junkyard worker while in search of the cotton bale). The detectives force the Colonel to write a check out for the same amount as was in the cotton bale and let him go. Allowing a white criminal to go free, and thus break the law in order to restore order to their Harlem home.
The detectives then return the money to the residents in an event similar to the one that opens the book. Grave Digger stands before the families and looked at a souvenir map of Africa given out to the barbecue. Grave Digger then states clearly that "Brothers, this map is older than me. If you go back to Africa you got go by way of the grave" (157). Digger in his closing statement makes it clear that the residents are stuck in Harlem, and that they will be forced, as Digger and Jones are to live in a white man's world. After all it is a world where police Captain's redden with anger and state "I'll arrest every black son of a bitch in Harlem" (120).
Ultimately Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones realize that the world they live in is damned, and thus do nothing other than serve as arbitrators of a justice within the Harlem community. While acting within the white police department the detectives go about their duty in order to save their people and thus act as folk heroes. Grave Digger's sense of self sacrifice is spurred on by the history of slavery and oppression suffered by him and his people. He tells the chief of police that "'I wouldn't do this for nobody but my own black people,' said in a voice that was cotton dry" (122).