During World War II, Chester Himes was one of more than 70,000 African Americans who moved to Los Angeles and one of the many transcontinental migrants who would double the existing black population in southern California (Sides 252). Much like Bob Jones, the semi-autobiographical main character of his first published novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), Himes hoped to benefit from relaxed racial restrictions on hiring due to the massive labor shortage in the defense plants. In his 1971 autobiography The Quality of Hurt: The Early Years, Himes accounts for his four years in Los Angeles in a scant three pages. He details his personal "hurts," including his history of tough breaks, rough childhood, underworld existence, and a seven-and-one-half-year sentence served in an Ohio prison, and describes how these events are transformed into racial anguish:
Los Angeles hurt me racially as much as any city I have ever known -- much more than any city I remember from the South. It was the lying hypocrisy that hurt me. Black people were treated much the same as they were in an industrial city of the South. They were Jim-Crowed in housing, in employment, in public accommodations, such as hotels and restaurants.... The difference was that the white people of Los Angeles seemed to be saying, "Nigger, ain't we good to you?" (73-74) (1)
In response to this hypocrisy, Himes depicts himself as unable to reconcile the cruel contradictions of Californian dreams and the State's racism, the economic promise that masks deeply rooted racial violence and hatred. Similarly, Himes's character Bob becomes enmeshed in and almost paralyzed by the racial conditions caused by wartime hysteria and nativism against the enemy nation of Japan. (2)
The historical context of wartime Los Angeles is crucial to understanding the novel. (3) Bob details his experiences both in its segregated neighborhoods and in his encounters with the growing local African American community that is finding increasing political and economic opportunities in the wartime boom economy. Historians are beginning to analyze the labor organizing and racial consciousness in the 1940s in order to trace the roots of the Civil Rights and Third World Movements of the 1950s and 1960s. (4) From this developing historical tradition, scholars are examining the unique "black popular front" emerging in Los Angeles during World War II. (5) With these developments, it is important to reassess Himes's literary and historical achievement in if He Hollers Let Him Go and examine his fictional response to the events of the early 1940s -- the Japanese American internment and the Zoot Suit Riots -- and their relationship to the African American community. (6) This reassessment also correlates to what literary scholars have begun to isolate about the "Los Angeles novel" in terms of noir, detective, and science fiction. (7) Because of its spatial evocation of minority communities and historical racism particular to Los Angeles itself, Himes's novel merits substantial consideration in any formulation of this regional sub-genre. (8)
In this essay, I will discuss how wartime racism and classism become coded onto both the spatial geography of Los Angeles and the racialized body of Bob himself. Set in early 1944, If He Hollers Let Him Go recreates a Los Angeles demographically changed by the forced removal of 94,000 Japanese Americans from California two years earlier and by the widespread violence against Mexican American youth in the Zoot Suit Riots in June 1943. Both events reverberate in Bob's psyche, feeding his fear of a personal racial apocalypse: "Every time I stepped outside I saw a challenge I had to accept or ignore. Every day I had to make one decision a thousand times: Is it now? Is now the time?" (4). Bob's first-person narrative begins by relating a mysterious dream about a dog with a "heavy stiff wire twisted about its neck" (1) that foreshadows his increasing fear of his own death, his own lynching, real and metaphoric. (9) Furthermore, the absence of Japanese Americans, the horrifying suddenness of their relocation and int ernment, and the vicious beatings of young Mexican Americans sporting zoot suits underscore the inherent contradictions of the American Dream. Unlike most of the characters in the novel, Bob refuses to accept the scapegoating of other races or classes as a means to rationalize white racism in southern California. In contrast, he recognizes the racist underbelly of Los Angeles's economic and social promise as manifested in the state-sanctioned crimes of Japanese American internment and the Zoot Suit Riots. He discerns that both acts of racism are linked, even promulgated, by the putatively safe and unquestioned excuse of American patriotism. Indeed, wartime propaganda conflates the enemy abroad with the citizen at home and deems the violent displacement and disciplining of a racialized body as a patriotic act. (10)
Even within the African American community, Bob is unable to resolve the conflicts among the different classes in Los Angeles, such as the antagonism between the earlier, established black bourgeoisie represented by the Harrison family and the more recent, working-class black migrants flocking to wartime jobs. Having no language for his bodily and psychic pain, alienated from all aspects of society, and stripped of his future, livelihood, and freedom, Bob cannot create a coherent notion of community in America; there is no safe place that will protect him from racial violence. Instead, isolated and criminalized, he is ultimately drafted into the American military, a rigid microcosm of American society in the extraterritorial, extranational space of war, and forced again to become a new migrant.
Bob's failure to achieve the proverbial promised land through migration corresponds with the plot of the fugitive narrative. In his seminal work on African American migration and literature, critic Lawrence Rodgers offers a definition of the "fugitive migrant novel" as a critique both of the American Bildungsroman and of fugitive slave narratives of the nineteenth century:
Fugitive migrant novels also undermine the utopian connotations derived from popular images of the North as the biblical land of Canaan. Unable to imagine any inhabitable geography (symbolic or real), they offer the migration form's severest critique of ascent as a mechanism to achieve racial and cultural advancement. (98)
As a failed Bildungsroman in which Bob's inexorable trajectory thwarts his plans and sends him to a possible death, If He Hollers Lets Him Go can be considered a variation of the fugitive migrant novel. Rather than reinforcing the fugitive migrant novel, a form that contains the idea of another possible existence, whether in death or expatriation, I posit a modification of the fugitive migrant trope to include Michel Foucault's concept of transgression.
Bob embodies the continual movement defined by Foucauldian transgression; his body is the transgressor that manifests limits as it attempts to erase them. In Foucault's essay "Preface to Transgression," he argues that, through transgression, limits are revealed and, conversely, that, through limits, transgression becomes possible: "Transgression carries the limit right to the limit of its being; transgression forces the limit to face the fact of its imminent disappearance, to find itself in what it excludes (perhaps, to be more exact, to recognize itself for the first time)..." (34). But transgression is not seen to have a telos in exteriority or in its ability to see itself for the first time; instead, Foucault is careful to envision the movement as "crossing and recrossing" the limit, as this rupture allows the limit to incorporate what has been previously excluded into the very "core of its being" (34). This transgression can be perceived metaphorically as the movement across threatening geographical divis ions of Los Angeles. In the transgression of limits, however, Bob is silenced by his inability to articulate his location, a position that excludes neither location but also belongs to neither.
Transgression signifies the permanent migrant without roots in either origin or destination. Although this movement carries some notion of self-expression and agency, the migrant still exists in an intercessory moment between people, communities, classes, and races. In the novel, Bob's personal migration lies not so much in his physical distance from Cleveland, but rather in his negotiation of others' migrations, their emotions and prejudices toward each other. Transgression becomes an appropriate metaphor for Bob's own physical and psychological homelessness. Bob continually migrates just as he constantly moves, transversing the different segregated spaces of Los Angeles: the white Westside, the Harrisons' elite black Westside (28th and Western), and the seedy Southside of Central Avenue and downtown. However, this transgressive figure is ultimately fixed into a stereotypical identity of a black man in wartime Los Angeles.
In particular, one of the spaces that Bob transgresses reveals the overlapping limits of racism directed at all minority communities. Driving through Bronzeville, a primarily African American section of downtown Los Angeles during the war, Bob remembers the Japanese Americans who used to live in the same area before their incarceration. By August 1942, the federal government displaced Japanese Americans on the West Coast, imprisoning them in holding centers such as the Santa Anita racetrack (for residents of Los Angeles) until "relocation" camps could be hastily fabricated in remote locales across the country (Chan 124-27). Their relocation was motivated by war hysteria and rampant rumors of espionage fomented by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Given the overcrowded residential areas near the war industries, African Americans moved into the hastily abandoned residential and business districts of the Japanese American community.
This negotiation of interracial spaces can be seen in the unsigned 1943 article "Little Tokio's Jumpin' Now," condensed from the Los Angeles Sentinel, one of the few African American newspapers in the city, which discusses the then-recent influx of African American migrants into the former Japanese American ethnic enclave in Downtown Los Angeles:
If the War Department ever relents and permits its former residents to return to Little Tokio in Los Angeles they'll hardly know the place. The joint's jumping now.... Jitterbugs, hep-cats and just plain hard working war workers have replaced the nervous Nisei, the shrinking Issei …