In his day, Henry “Box” Brown was a celebrated stage magician who incorporated performance into his lectures on abolitionism in the United States and England. Much of what we know about him comes from his memoir, the Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself (1851).
African American Creators
Many writers and artists through history have developed their craft, and even published, while they were imprisoned. Among them is Chester Himes, an African American author who wrote about racism, prison life, and who is best known for his Harlem Detective series.
Records related to Himes are found in the Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. archive, which documents the history of the well-known publishing house. The papers contain correspondence, publicity materials, and/or manuscripts from a number of other African American writers, including James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, John Oliver Killens, Nella Larsen, Alain Locke, Claude McKay, and Walter White.
Himes was born in Jefferson City, Missouri in 1909. Of his adolescence, Himes wrote that he was “lonely, shy, and insufferably belligerent.” 1 Himes was incarcerated at Ohio State Penitentiary at the age of 19, and two years into his 20-plus-year sentence for armed robbery, his first short story was published in an African American–owned magazine, The Bronzeman, in 1931. He also sold articles to Esquire, such as “Crazy in the Stir,” which appeared with the chilling byline “59623,” his prison number.
After his release from prison during the Depression, he held dozens of jobs while focusing on writing novels, screenplays, and making connections with other writers. Himes favored protagonists who were less than heroic or likable, and the enthusiasm for his fiction by other African American writers was often tepid. However, Langston Hughes supported him by introducing his work to his own publisher, Blanche Wolf Knopf.
Knopf asked Hughes to provide a blurb for Himes’s second novel, Lonely Crusade (1947), a novel exploring racism and labor strife during World War II, but Hughes demurred. His reason? “Most of the people in it just do not seem to me to have good sense or be in their right minds; they behave so badly, which makes it difficult to care very much what happens to any of them.” 2
In the summer of 1950, Himes taught a popular creative writing seminar at the North Carolina State Negro College in Durham, where for two weeks he was a celebrity figure. Below is Himes’s letter of gratitude written to Knopf music editor Herbert Weinstock for his publication advice to “new novelists.” 3
Editorial Vice President Seymour Lawrence received this letter in 1964 from Himes, who by this time had expatriated to Paris. Himes writes that he felt it was time for him to publish his memoirs and in this letter, requests an advance on royalties of $400 per month for two years. The Quality of Hurt, volume one of his autobiography, was published by Doubleday in 1971.
Between 1957 and 1969, Chester Himes eventually found popularity in France for his Harlem Detective novel series featuring detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones.
Ishmael Reed wrote that Chester Himes was “[A] great writer and a brave man. His life has shown that black writers are as heroic as the athletes, entertainers, scientists, cowboys, pimps, gangsters, and politicians they might write about.” 4
 Chester Himes, The Quality of Hurt, (Paragon House, 1990), 14.
 Arnold Rampersand, The Life of Langston Hughes, (Oxford University Press, 1986 and 1988), 134.
 James Sallis, Chester Himes: A Life, (Walker & Co, 2000), 32.
 Stephen F. Milliken, Chester Himes: A Critical Appraisal, (University of Missouri Press, 1976), 220.
In 2017, renowned portraitist Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) reflected on his four-decade career by stating simply, “my work has largely been based on representation of the human subject.” He explained that he has used photography to depict “subjects such as the black subject, or young people, who are not always—within the larger social conversation—thought of as having a rich interior life.” In addition to these poetic portraits of ordinary people, Bey has recently begun confronting central events in African American history, asking, “what kind of work can one make about something that happened decades ago?”
This question is vital to Bey’s newest project, Night Coming Tenderly, Black, completed in 2017. Bey has written, “Night Coming Tenderly, Black is a visual reimagining of the movement of fugitive slaves through the Cleveland and Hudson, Ohio landscapes as they approached Lake Erie and the final passage to freedom in Canada. Using both real and imagined sites, these landscape photographs seek to recreate the spatial and sensory experiences of those moving furtively through the darkness.”
Bey’s masterful printing methods work to convey the sensory experience he seeks to recreate. Initially photographing these landscapes by day, Bey printed them in the deep blacks and rich grays of night. The results allow the delicate tonal gradations and fine details to slowly emerge. Bey has described the darkness in these prints as “a metaphor for an enveloping physical darkness, a passage to liberation that was a protective cover for the escaping African American slaves.”
Using both real and imagined sites, these landscape photographs seek to recreate the spatial and sensory experiences of those moving furtively through the darkness.
A portfolio of ten photographs from Night Coming Tenderly, Black, published in 2018, has been acquired by the Harry Ransom Center in partnership with Black Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. This acquisition supports Black Studies’ goal of increasing the University’s collection of primary documents relating to cultures of the African Diaspora, and the Ransom Center’s aims of enriching its photography holdings by acquiring works by historically underrepresented artists.
This article appeared in the print edition of the Ransom Center Magazine (Spring 2020).
In 1933, the Harlem Renaissance star wrote a powerful essay about race, unpublished in English until 2019. [Read more…] about A lost work by Langston Hughes