A native of Missouri, Himes spent most of his childhood in southern towns and cities where his father taught in the mechanical departments of African American colleges. He graduated from high school in Cleveland, Ohio. After a 1928 robbery Himes spent seven and one-half years in prison. While in prison he published fiction in a number of newspapers and magazines, including Esquire. Frustrated by employment discrimination in Ohio as the United States mobilized for World War II, Himes decided to move to Los Angeles.
Himes described his experiences in Los Angeles in his first two published novels, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) and Lonely Crusade (1947). These novels challenged the depiction of Los Angeles as a city in which African Americans faced little discrimination. In the first volume of his autobiography, The Quality of Hurt, Himes wrote that African Americans in Los Angeles “were treated much the same as they were in an industrial city of the South. . . . The difference was that the white people of Los Angeles seemed to be saying, ‘Nigger, ain"t we good to you?’”
Although Himes lived in Harlem for several years after he left Los Angeles, his experiences throughout the United States left him disenchanted with the country. In 1953 Himes moved to Europe, where he spent most of the final thirty years of his life.