In the decades just prior to the eruption of the American civil rights movement in the late '50s, Chester Himes was one of the most significant African American authors--although today he is less well known than several of his contemporaries. He wrote numerous novels, short stories, essays, and a powerful, searing autobiography, and he did so with an economy of language, a graceful eloquence, and a painful yet unflinching directness.
If He Hollers Let Him Go places Himes in the pantheon of 20th-century novelists. It is an intense and muscular story, with an assembly of characters drawn from virtually every social and economic class present in Southern California in the '40s. The novel takes place over four days in the life of Bob Jones, the only black foreman in a shipyard during World War II. Jones lives in a society literally drenched in race consciousness--every conversation in a bar, every personal relationship, every instruction given on a job site, every casual glance on a sidewalk, every interaction of any kind, no matter how trivial, is imbued with a painful and dangerous meaning. A slight mistake, an unwitting rebellion, an unintentional expression of rage or desire can spell disaster for a black man--a beating over a game of craps, or an arrest, or termination from a job, or an accusation of rape. Jones awakes each day in fear, and lives steeped in fear:
It came along with consciousness. It came into my head first, somewhere back of my closed eyes, moved slowly underneath my skull to the base of my brain, cold and hollow. It seeped down my spine, into my arms, spread through my groin with an almost sexual torture, settled in my stomach like butterfly wings. For a moment I felt torn all loose inside, shriveled, paralyzed, as if after awhile I'd have to get up and die.
For Jones, there is no escape from the constant drumbeat of race and racism. It invades his dreams, his tiniest aspirations, and his deepest passions. Every attempt to retaliate or defend himself leads only to further trouble, loss, or humiliation. He can never forget who he is or what he is prevented from being. At the same time, he comes across as an actor, a subject, a doer, and not as a hapless, helpless victim. For all that he is confronted with, he never stops planning and acting and moving, and in the end, he survives, though his escape is incomplete and bittersweet.
The very idea that Jones can escape, however, marks a revolution in American literature. Thwarted at nearly every turn, he is nonetheless a powerful, intelligent, complicated agent of his own destiny. This 1945 novel is a compelling read, and Chester Himes deserves to be remembered for far more than Cotton Comes to Harlem and the raft of hard-bitten detective novels with which he made his living. --Andrew Himes
Chester Himes, who died in 1984, is best known as the author of the hard-boiled Harlem detective novels Cotton Comes to Harlem and The Crazy Kill. First published in 1947 in London, If He Hollers is a more austere and concentrated study of black experience, set not in New York but in southern California in the early forties. Himes' prose remains tough and no-nonsense, but it occasionally edges into a tender lyricism, almost despite its general tone of unsentimental realism. This is just one aspect of the contradictions that grip every page.The narrator is Bobjones, a young black crew-leader in a shipyard near Los Angeles. World War 11 is underway and the factories are humming with war-time production. Blacks such asJones are experiencing a new-found authority -roles as supervisors, in order to facilitate the cooperation of black workers in the war-time effort, and decent wages as a result of union efforts. But things are also grim: resentment from whites on the floor at working on the same jobs with "negro boys;" and the vicious baiting of the black men by white females who have the power of a hanging judge by merely alluding to a pass from a black. Himes' main achievement, however, is the psychological profile he paints ofJones in this milieu -strong and proud, the stereotypical "young buck," but nonetheless deeply troubled by notions such as patriotism in a world obsessed by race. Jones' charge toward self-identity -as a worker, as a lover, as a citizen-is confused and at times halted by his welling anger. The white world consistently rebuffs him, reminds him of his "blackness," his vulnerability in a system that excludes him from real participation. His urges to strike out at the establishment on the one hand, and to struggle to understand and control it, on the other, become confused with prospects of sexual triumph over white women, a symbol forJones of What white men view as their most precious, and exclusive, commodity. Jones' girl-friend Alice, from an upper-class black family, ridicules Jones for his reluctance to "assimilate" and become a "good negro. "Jones can only win Alice, she makes it clear, if he lets go of his deep hate of society. The knot which holds Jones pulls even tighter in his unconscious. In a powerful dream sequence he chases after the wildly screaming Alice who is trying to elude attacking animals. When Jones finds her she is "shrunken" and inanimate, no bigger than a doll. When he looks up he sees "millions of white women leaning on a fence ... giving me the most sympathetic smiles I ever saw." Unfortunately, Himes loses his mastery of the tightly wired ambivalence that makes most of his novel so powerful. The book's concluding incident has a simple equation -white evil and black victimization. Such broad strokes, no matter how useful and apt in the abstract, seem an abandonment of an otherwise taut and complex psychological study. Still, the book is a welcome new edition of an important work of American literature. -- From Independent Publisher
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.