May 01, 2006

An Unjust World, Exhibit D: Zane and Teri Woods are both considered literary figures. Chester Himes is not.

''I would sit in my room and become hysterical about the wild incredible story I was writing. And I thought I was writing realism. It never occurred to me that I was writing absurdity. Reality and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference.'' - Chester Himes

Cotton Comes to Harlem - Soundtrack, Composed by Galt MacDermott (1970)
Coffy - Soundtrack, Composed by Roy Ayers (1973)

Grave Digger and Coffin Ed weren't crooked detectives, but they were tough. They had to be tough to work in Harlem. Colored folks didn't respect cops. But they respected big shiny pistols and sudden death. It was said in Harlem that Coffin Ed's pistol would kill a rock and that Grave Digger's would bury it.

Harlem 1950. Across 110th Street. Himes used his words as a canvas to paint vivid pictures of slices of Harlem life. He used the genre of the mystery as a medium to discuss race, politics, and power. His most famous collection is his Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones detective series. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, two black detectives, are on the Harlem beat. The black front to the white police structure. The translators of justice to Harlem.

Himes tales are equal parts mystery, social commentary, humor, history pieces, and sheer absurdity. His style is obviuously the mold that Walter Mosley, Donald Goines, and Ishmael Reed have attempted to fill. Sometimes the only thing keeping you from crying is a good laugh. His ability to create a scene, its sites, smells, characters, sounds is best explained by a quote:

Their next stop was a dingy bar on Eighth Avenue near the corner of 112th Street. This was the neighborhood of the cheap addicts, whisky-heads, stumblebums, the flotsam of Harlem; the end of the line for the whores, the hard squeeze for the poor honest laborers, and a breeding ground for crime. Blank-eyed whores stood on the street corners swapping obscenities with twitching junkies. Muggers and thieves slouched in dark doorways waiting for someone to rob; but there wasn't anyone but each other. Children ran down the street, the dirty street littered with rotting vegetables, uncollected garbage, battered garbage cans, broken glass, dog offal - always running, ducking and dodging. God help them if they got caught. Listless mothers stood in the dark entrances of tenements and swapped talk about their men, their jobs, their poverty, their hunger, their debts, their Gods, their religions, their preachers, their children, their aches and pains, their bad luck with the numbers, and the evilness of white people. Workingmen staggered down sidewalks filled with aimless resentment, muttering curses, hating to go their hotbox hovels but having nowhere else to go.

"All I wish is that I was God for just one mother-raping second," Grave Digger said, his voice cotton-dry with rage.
"I know," Coffin Ed said. "You'd concrete the face of the mother-raping earth and turn white folks into hogs."

Cotton Comes to Harlem, one of his most famous books, was made into a movie. Ossie Davis directorial debut was a smash. Better than you'd think, for a blaxploitation flick, this movie paved the way for the buddy-cop genre. Here's the soundtrack, composed by the same man who wrote the music for Hair. The soundtrack is standard blaxploitation backdrop. It has its Madlib-sampled moments, Melba Moore-fronted tracks, and some nice horn arrangements.

Keeping with the soundtrack theme, check out Roy Ayer's Coffy. Why this doesn't get the props Superfly gets is beyond me. A classic. Possibly Roy Ayer's best record.

As a piece of history, check out this mini-documentary (featuring Madlib, Peanut-Butter Wolf) on Galt MacDermott's impact on hip-hop:

Cotton Comes to Harlem:
One more Coffy:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks. more people need to read himes. now.

12:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

could you please please reup it again?!?


12:11 PM  
Blogger jeff said...

yeah, himes is a good read. why they left the typos in on his books, i'll never know.

i'm surprised that the link disappeared so quickly. it's a great sound track. could you up it one more time, please?

12:23 PM  

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