African American Anti-Semitism and Himes's 'Lonely Crusade.' (Chester Himes)

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Most critics have considered Chester Himes's second novel about racial conflict at a Los Angeles war industry plant, Lonely Crusade (1947), to be his most ambitious and substantial work.(1) However, the novel has attracted little notice since its reissue (1986), having long been unavailable after its initial publication.(2) Were it known as it deserves, Lonely Crusade would still stir controversy.

Himes maintained that the Communist party - excoriated in Lonely Crusade - had effectively suppressed it.(3) However, as he also acknowledged, "Everyone hated it.... The left hated it, the right hated it, Jews hated it, blacks hated it" (Quality of Hurt 100).(4) According to Himes, black reviewers (such as James Baldwin) had been offended by his hero's discovery that "the black man in America...needed special consideration because he was so far behind" (Williams 38). As Himes insisted, this argument for what he provocatively called "special privileges" long preceded demands for "affirmative action" (Williams 38-39). Lonely Crusade also anticipated the controversy, occasioned nearly twenty years later by the Moynihan Report (1965), about African American matriarchy (61). Additionally, Himes's hero, Lee Gordon, finds black workers resistant to integration and has to explain this to a baffled white liberal (138-40); such self-segregating tendencies (as in recent proposals for all-male African American high schools) still surprise liberals.

But perhaps the most controversial topic Himes pioneered in Lonely Crusade was black anti-Semitism. "The conflict between Blacks and Jews," as Addison Gayle asserted in his history of the African American novel, had been "previously ignored by other black writers" (225).(5) In light of more recent black-Jewish conflict, Himes's treatment has proven to be very prescient.

As Himes acknowledged, Lonely Crusade did offend Jews, such as the Commentary reviewer Milton Klonsky, discussed below. Is the novel anti-Semitic? I argue that it is, but the subject is highly complicated. Himes ventured to mediate between Jewish leftists and blacks whose hostilities to Jews he thought partly irrational and partly justified. In Lonely Crusade, the hero explains black anti-Semitism to a sympathetic Jew puzzled and troubled by its increase. Lee Gordon cites various black complaints against Jews, which no doubt were more widespread at that time than most black leaders or Jewish liberals cared to acknowledge. But Gordon dissociates himself from some of these charges, such as ignorant exaggeration of Jewish economic power. And Himes further distances himself from black anti-Semitism by noting, in his narrative voice, his hero Lee Gordon's irrational hostility to Jews. In a talk delivered at the University of Chicago one year after Lonely Crusade's disappointing reception, Himes complained of having been "reviled" for his rare "integrity" in revealing such "realities" as "paradoxical anti-Semitism" among the effects of black oppression ("The Dilemma of the Negro Novelist in the United States" 75).

In my view, Lonely Crusade not only, as Himes claims, depicts and deplores black anti-Semitism, it also ventilates an anti-Semitic streak that recurs in Himes's work in tandem with anxiety to assert masculinity. Himes tended to disparage Jews in order to construct his manhood - differentiating himself from those (Jews) who imputedly lacked masculinity or disrespected its significations. To locate this and other anti-Semitic tendencies in Himes means neither that he was always unsympathetic to Jews, nor that his criticisms of Jews were wholly unjustified. In my opinion, two other Himes novels that deal with Jewish characters much more incidentally (If He Hollers Let Him Go and especially The Primitive) deftly criticize a Jewish ethnocentricity that for Himes, perhaps, epitomized racism's absurdity.(6) Dreading to seem unfair to Himes, whose early novels remain unjustly unappreciated, I focus on Lonely Crusade, where his critique of Jews is both most fully and rather objectionably developed. …