Reflections on Yesterday Will Make You Cry by Chester Himes – Damele E. Collier

By on February 27th, 2018 in Black Listed Authors, Blog Posts

 

I rarely say this, but the introduction of Yesterday Will Make You Cry, written by Melvin Van Peebles was fascinating. It was a befitting preface to the true intention, and first iteration of Himes’s work. It gave such a unique insight into the author’s personality, the way in which he wrote his crime stories, and the frustration he carried within him about the way in which his writing had been censored. An interesting moment was when Van Peebles and Himes sat in shock, in Himes’s home, looking at each other, and admitting that neither knew that the other was Black. They had to laugh at the irony of it. A Black man writing for a French paper, going to interview a Black man, who had won a literary award, was not an everyday occurrence then, and I would venture to guess that it is not an everyday occurrence now. Knowing that the author’s original  novel had to be rescued from obscurity can cause both extreme frustration, and a resolution to read other works that our eyes were not meant to see, if indeed they too can be rescued and restored to their original intention.

The novel is gritty, honest, disturbing, and raw. It does not make the reader comfortable, nor is it meant to. It tells a human story of a young boy coming of age in a place seemingly built to strip away your humanity, and turn you into an animal. Yet, it shows that even in the midst of such a place, there can be tenderness, camaraderie, and even love.

The issue that I did have was the way in which Himes chose to describe Black people in his novel. Van Peebles asserts in the introduction, “Nothing happens outside of a historical context, now does it? Back then, to a white American, even more so than today, a smiling black meant a buffoon…Black Americans who wished to be taken seriously learned to suppress any hint of joviality, lest they be taken for minstrels” (11-12). Yet, many times when Himes describes Black people, he writes them as “grinning”. That seems to be a theme. Himes says, “Jimmy saw the guard kick Perry. Perry started to run, then suddenly stopped, looking back over his shoulder at the leveled gun, and grinned” (77). Himes explains, “And there was Cindy, the black mammy and grinning cook and wash- woman and maid and nurse all rolled into one” (116). There are other examples of happy or grinning Blacks, but none so disturbing as the scene were a Black inmate’s head is blown off.  Himes writes, “While they were looking at him, the top of the convict’s head flew up into the air. …They were looking at him, and his mouth was still grinning as it had been before he lost the top half of his head” (167). Even in death, this Black character is still grinning. Considering what was said in the introduction, and that Himes was well aware of this, I have to wonder why he made these choices in his novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 Comments

  1. Reading Yesterday Will Make You Cry in the context of the “white novels” by African American authors published at the time (Wright’s Savage Holiday (1954) especially comes to mind), I read Himes’ presentation of blackness–importantly viewed from the prospective of his white protagonists–is one why of making whiteness visible. In this context, the racist POV and the ease with which it moves among the white characters helps readers see his depiction of whiteness as inextricably tied to a fully assimilated white supremacy.

  2. HI Damele,

    Yes, I found Van Peebles introduction invaluable too. Important. I was also disturbed by the representation of Black characters but, in truth, in most white-authored novels, the depictions in 1952 would have been (a) either not there at all (in a totally segregated 1920s prison) or (b) far worse. There are friendships between white and Black characters and that is extremely rare in white-authored literature. I think of DuBois’s “double consciousness” and the kind of “quadruple consciousness” of a Black author writing a white character who sees Black characters through a racist white lens while yet being sympathetic enough in that depiction that we reflect back upon the racism of the white character, not on essential negative qualities of the Black characters. It’s a feedback loop backwards. I keep wondering if I had picked up the novel and not known the author was Black, if I would have been surprised at the remarkable attention to Black characters and how often they begin with a stereotypical negative racist portrayal but end up “besting” that characterization and turning out to be more complex, interesting, and deep–and often better human beings–than the person giving them that stereotypical original evaluation. It’s not possible to “unknow” so I don’t know how I would have read the book if I had not known Himes was Black but I know what I read made my head spin with the POV, unlike anything I had read before.

    Thanks for this comment. Best, Cathy

  3. Damele,

    You wrote that “it shows that even in the midst of such a place, there can be tenderness, camaraderie, and even love.” This is something that deeply struck me about this novel, the writing, and the depiction of Jimmy’s relationships. He had deep connections that Himes wrote about with such vivid details, that the tenderness of the characters and of Himes himself was palpable.

  4. I completely agree when you say, “The novel is gritty, honest, disturbing, and raw. It does not make the reader comfortable, nor is it meant to. It tells a human story of a young boy coming of age in a place seemingly built to strip away your humanity, and turn you into an animal.” Chester Himes in this novel really doesn’t write to make his audience comfortable and it makes the reading way more intense and interesting because as we read we didn’t always know what to expect. When we speak about people’s humanity we all have been trained to have a particular point-of-view – to have humanity. With Chester Himes we didn’t always know what view we were getting.

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