Transgressing Race and Community in Chester Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go

Article excerpt

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. …