Love Jones: A Black Male Feminist Critique of Chester Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go
Ikard, David, African American Review
In his insightful essay "A Black Man's Place(s) in Black Feminist Criticism," Michael Awkward asks an important question: "Can black men like himself--those who are deeply invested in resisting patriarchal power, and for whom black women's lives, art, and literature have been crucial to their own intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development--do black feminist criticism?" Responding to the womanist criticism of Alice Walker and Sherley Anne Williams and the psychoanalytical approach of Hortense Spillers, Awkward answers the question by emphasizing the role of black men in analyzing the "practices of patriarchy that have already divided us" (15). He concentrates on the ways that black men's criticism of black women's texts can enhance the study of black women's literature. For this criticism to be productive, Awkward argues, black men must eschew "traditional patriarchal desires for control and erasure of the 'female,'" and perform "sophisticated, informed, and contentious critiques of phallocentric pract ices ... in an effort to redefine our notions of black male (and female) textuality and subjectivity" (21).
Awkward furnishes a useful methodology for aspiring black male feminists. Preoccupied, however, with "legitimizing" black men who critique black female texts, he does not adequately emphasize the potential role of black male feminists who engage black male texts. In this essay, I extend Awkward's theoretical project to provide a black male feminist critique of Chester Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go. To date, Himes's crucial text has not received a serious black feminist critique of any kind. My black male feminist reading of If He Hollers interrogates Himes's rendering of women--black and white--as proponents of black male social emasculation. Focusing attention on the marginalized perspectives of the black women in the text, I reconsider the received image of Bob Jones, the central protagonist, as a "Black Everyman." Illuminating Himes's phallocentric assumptions regarding black women, this perspective calls attention to the erasure of the black female social perspectives in the novel. To redress this era sure, I consider Ella Mae's criticism of Bob Jones's relationship with Madge, and her compelling critique of his black masculine crisis. Such consideration sheds new light on the gendered politics of Jones's perspective. It becomes evident, for example, that Jones's understanding of his socioeconomic oppression is linked to his frustration at not being able fully to sexually dominate black and white women. As such, his project of black resistance to white racism is gendered in ways that reify rather than subvert white patriarchy.
Literary critics of If He Hollers, most of them black and male, typically characterize Bob Jones as a socially conscious Bigger Thomas. Most critics view Jones as the victim, not only of white racism but also of social emasculation at the hands of the black bourgeois and, more specifically, black and white women. From this perspective, Jones's peculiar socioeconomic circumstance demands he choose the lesser of two evils: Either he marries his wealthy, self-absorbed, near-white fiancee Alice and accepts the "limitations" of his race, or he "rapes" Madge, a racially antagonizing white woman, to challenge white supremacy at the risk of death. For example, Gilbert Muller portrays Bob Jones as "trapped in a menacing triangle involving Alice, who would domesticate him, and Madge, who would have him lynched" (27). Jones's personal freedom, writes Muller, is limited by his socioeconomic position: "Ironically Bob Jones, a middle-class intellectual, has been trapped by American culture as powerfully as the uneducated Bigger Thomas was in Native Son. In both novels, the configuration of race, class, caste, and gender conspire to render the protagonist in postures of guilt" (27; my italics).
Like Muller, Stephen Milliken argues that Alice and Madge are the chief antagonists in Bob Jones's struggle for equality. …