Community feature: Ohioana Library celebrates unsung Harlem Renaissance writer

Erica Thompson
(From left) Morgan Peters, Yolonda Tonette Sanders and David Weaver

There is perhaps no one more synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance than Langston Hughes, who burst onto the scene of the African-American social and artistic movement in 1921 with his signature poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” going on to publish more poetry, short stories, essays, plays and novels.

Hughes received numerous literary awards and honorary degrees throughout his storied career. His former home in Harlem has also been designated a historic landmark.

Can you imagine if such a renowned figure co-signed your writing?

For the late Ohio writer Chester Himes, it was a reality. On Nov. 24, 1945, Hughes wrote a letter to the Ohioana Library Association in Columbus about Himes’ work. Established in 1929, the library collects literature solely about or by Ohioans. (While Hughes lived much of his life in Harlem, he attended high school in Cleveland and is featured in the library.)

“Our corresponding secretary wanted to know of other noted African-American writers, and [Hughes] said, ‘Chester is one of them,’” said Ohioana Executive Director David Weaver.

Despite the endorsement from Hughes, Himes, who started writing as an inmate at the Ohio Penitentiary, did not gain widespread recognition in his lifetime. In recent years, however, people have been highlighting his work. (A new biography of Himes by Lawrence P. Jackson was released in 2017.)

To contribute to that momentum of discovery, the Ohioana Library Association will present “From Prison to Prominence: Life & Literary Work of Chester Himes” on Wednesday, Feb. 20, at the new Martin Luther King branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. It is part of Columbus’ celebration, “I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100.”

“Even though it was [called] the Harlem Renaissance, Harlem was not the only place where it took place,” Weaver said. “There were writers, musicians, artists and entertainers who were performing all over the country.”

For the Ohioana program on Himes, Columbus author and teacher Yolonda Tonette Sanders will share a presentation that includes a Q&A with Himes, as portrayed by local actor Tony Roseboro.

“I was not familiar with the name Chester Himes whatsoever,” Tonette Sanders said. “The Ohioana Library has a huge file on [him], and so I started going through their material. … He was an awesome writer.”

Himes was born in Missouri and later relocated to Cleveland with his family. He attended Ohio State, but was expelled. Afterwards, he was charged with armed robbery and sentenced to prison for 20 years.

At the Ohio Penitentiary, Himes published stories in black publications before landing a piece on the tragic prison fire of 1930 (“To What Red Hell”) in Esquire. His reputation grew, and he was released from prison after serving less than eight years.

Garnering more attention from European readers, Himes moved to Paris in the 1950s.

“He talks about that rejection [in his autobiography, The Quality of Hurt],” Tonette Sanders said. “It seemed like America thought that they could only have room for two African-American male authors: Richard Wright and James Baldwin.”

When he was abroad, Himes created his popular Harlem Detective series of nine novels, including A Rage in Harlem and Cotton Comes to Harlem, which were later made into films. Tonette Sanders plans to show clips from at least one of his films during the presentation.

“I’m a visual person,” said Tonette Sanders, who has published her own books in a mystery series called The Protective Detective. “I was reading [Cotton Comes to Harlem], and I can picture the scenes, how the characters look. It was so vivid, and when people can create that kind of realism, I’m hooked.”

She hopes the program will expand attendees’ knowledge of African-American artists.

“A lot of times during Black History Month, at least when I was growing up, you heard about Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, but [not] Chester Himes, and he has so many works,” she said. “[Our artistry] is powerful and I would dare to say not as prominent as it should be. We’re still in a corner of the bookstore.”

This article has been updated to include the correct address for the Martin Luther King branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. 

6:30-8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20

1467 E. Long St., Downtown

Columbus Metropolitan Library – Martin Luther King Branch