‘Mama’s Missionary Money’ by Chester Himes

Himes, Chester 1949

Mama’s Missionary Money by Chester Himes, 1949

The magic trick:

Creating a vivid slice of life 

I struggled to make sense of this one. It’s a morality tale, sure. Lemuel gets caught stealing – you guessed it from the title – his mama’s missionary money.

OK.

But he isn’t redeemed in the end. He’s only punished. Violently.

So is it meant as a playful slice of life story? I’m not sure. That would be my best guess.

It’s just complicated because the violence – being whipped by a belt – isn’t playful or funny. I know these are different times, but sheesh. This brand of corporal punishment is a key part of the entire story – referenced earlier when he hears a neighbor friend getting whupped. “Everybody knew everybody else’s cry,” we’re told.

So I’m not sure where the author’s morality lies. I’m not sure where the story is pointing us toward emotionally. But there’s no doubt it is a terrific picture of a specific time and place. The descriptions are great. Lemuel’s generous adventures in spending the ill-gotten money are vivid and fun. The beatings too are a part of that picture. It’s all very easy to visualize. And that’s quite a trick on Himes’s part.

The selection:

Lemuel went on to the house, opened and shut the screen
door softly, and stood for a moment in the kitchen. His ma’d be
gone about fifteen minutes. He wiped the dust off his feet with
his hands and started going through the house, searching each
room systematically, just looking to see what he could find. He I went upstairs to his ma’s and pa’s room, sniffed around in the
closet, feeling in the pockets of his pa’s Sunday suit, then knelt
down and looked underneath the bed. He stopped and peeped
out the front window, cautiously pulling back the curtains. Old
 Mr. Diggen was out in his yard ‘cross the street, fooling ’round
his fence. His ma wasn’t nowhere in sight.

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