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.
(Note: Chester Himes is no relation to Andrew Himes.)
"If He Hollers Let Him Go" was perhaps Himes' best book, and places him in the pantheon of American fiction writers of the 20th century. It is an intense and muscular story, with a swath 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 ‚Äì 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. ‚ÄúIt 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‚Äôd have to get up and die.‚Äù
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, breaking with Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas and pre-figuring African-American literature of the '60s. Thwarted at nearly every turn, Jones 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.