If He Hollers Let Him Go is a line from a nursery rhyme that illuminates the dilemma of Bob Jones, an African American worker in a Los Angeles defense plant. An intelligent but conflicted man, he relocated from Ohio to California in search of a chance to find a good job and a better life. Along with the financial benefits, he anticipates the promise of upward social mobility when he courts Alice, the fair-skinned daughter of a well-to-do doctor. In spite of the racial climate in California at the time—Japanese Americans are being uprooted and sent to relocation camps, Mexican Americans are routinely harassed—he and Alice make plans to marry.
He is both pleased with and ashamed of his pride in Alice’s looks. That she can and does pass for white when with her white associates is a source of ambivalence for him. Yet when he shows her off to his male friends, he enjoys the envy he sees in them. The differences in their backgrounds and attitudes about race are often the cause of their occasional arguments. In spite of himself, Jones finds race controlling much of what he thinks and how he feels. He has unsettling dreams about occurrences that can only be interpreted as the consequence of his ongoing apprehension about white people and the dangers that they represent.
A major complication in his life is a coworker, Madge, a white woman from Texas. Though she is “white trash,” he is attracted to her, and she flirts with him when...
Bob Jones, a tense, intelligent, sensitive, black shipyard worker, is anxious to succeed in his position as leaderman at Atlas Shipyard; he yearns to be “just a simple Joe,” distinguished by neither color nor ambition. Caught in a world filled with unleashed hatred and tensions intensified by war, Bob is so haunted by his nightmarish existence that he lives in constant terror. Fear and panic dominate his entire world to such an extent that he cannot distinguish his terrifying nightmares from reality.
As an assistant foreman in a predominately white, hostile environment, Bob desires acceptance and respect, but he and his black crew receive little cooperation from their white coworkers and supervisors. He is agonizingly aware of the problems he must deal with in order to keep his position, one that is vital to his self-image, the affirmation of his manhood; at the same time, he sees the precariousness of his situation as the sole black leaderman in a racially charged atmosphere. This tremendous strain produces such private anguish and intense fears that Bob Jones exists on the borderline between murderous impulses and total collapse.
As the indignities and humiliations steadily increase, Bob is driven compulsively to fantasies of violence—his only means to restore his sense of manhood—but he is psychologically incapable of carrying them out. When Madge Perkins, a white coworker, insults him and refuses to work for “niggers,” he loses his temper and...
Having lived under segregation in Cleveland, Ohio, Bob Jones leaves Ohio to look for work in the defense industry in Los Angeles, which he expects will be a better place to live. Jones is a tall, strong, intelligent, and somewhat arrogant man, who also is preoccupied with racism and the way African Americans, even lighter-skinned blacks like himself, are treated by white people. Still, he is confident he can “make it” in California.
Four days bring about surprising changes in Jones’s life. One day, now working in a shipyard, he has a verbal altercation with Madge Perkins, a “peroxide blonde with a large-featured, overly made-up face.” Every time they are near each other at work, she acts as if she is afraid of him. Jones had always pretended not to notice her “fear,” but today, it angers him; at the same time, it arouses him. She calls him a “nigger,” and he retaliates by calling her a “cracker bitch.” He is immediately demoted from his job as leaderman, or supervisor, for being disrespectful.
Things get worse. Jones joins in a crap game during his lunch break. When one of the white workers claims the game is crooked, Jones gets in a fight and is knocked out. When he regains consciousness, he decides to kill his assailant, not caring if he will hang for murder. He goes to the man’s home after work with a gun, and the man, seeing him, escapes into his house. Jones decides that he is in no hurry to kill him—he can do so anytime he chooses. Jones drives off and puts his gun in the car’s glove compartment.
In the evening, Jones goes on a date with his girlfriend, Alice Harrison, who is described by some of his friends as “the whitest colored girl [Jones] could find.” He picks her up at her home to take her to a swanky hotel for dinner. Alice’s mother and father expect that Jones will buy into their belief that to make it in America, black people should emulate the white upper-middle class. Alice’s parents want him to return to college for a degree to elevate his social standing. When Jones tells them he would rather find a way to “get even with the white folks,” they are shocked, saying he must “accept whatever they [whites] do” for him and try to prove himself “worthy to be entrusted with more.”
Jones and Alice’s date is off to a bad start. At the hotel, they are reluctantly served their dinners and warned not to return. After their unpleasant meal, they visit friends of Alice. Jones sees that Alice is overly intimate with one of the women there, and gets the impression that Alice might be lesbian. Drunk and boorish, he slaps Alice. She breaks up with him. Jones drives away, nourishing an increasing agony about the racist put-downs and insults he has suffered. He feels everything is going wrong at once and that he will kill somebody if he does not get off the streets and away from everyone.
The next day, thinking more clearly, Jones decides he should try to get back his job as leaderman. Though the position has little authority, it has some prestige, plus the perk of military-draft deferment. He talks to the union steward about straightening...
If He Hollers Let Him Go is an account of five days and nights in the life of Bob Jones, a bright young black man who has risen to a leadership position in the Atlas Shipyards during the height of World War II. As the book’s narrator, Bob gives an intense account of his anxieties, rage, love, and confusion as he deals with life in a country that proclaims freedom and equality but that practices racial discrimination.
The novel opens with Bob having a series of anxiety dreams. Upon waking, he realizes that his position of authority (he is a crew leader at the shipyards) has heightened his sense of insecurity as a black man in a white-dominated world. Struggling to maintain his self-respect and confidence, he leaves for work; once there, he is criticized by his supervisor, Kelly. Madge Perkins, a middle-aged white woman who works at the plant, is assigned to work with Bob, but she refers to him with a racial slur; Bob, in turn, calls her a “slut.” Madge lodges a complaint, and Bob is demoted from his position as crew leader. Bob is later sucker punched by a white worker after he wins big at a lunchtime game of craps. Unconscious, Bob is robbed of his winnings.
From this point on, Bob is obsessed with recovering his self-respect. His strategy is basically three-pronged. He plans to crash the color line at a posh restaurant with Alice Harrison, his upper-class, light-skinned black girlfriend. He also plans to avenge himself against...
Fabre, Michael, and Robert E. Skinner, eds. Conversations with Chester Himes. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. A collection of interviews given by Himes. A revealing portrait of Himes’s background, personality, and evolution as a writer.
Fabre, Michael, Robert E. Skinner, and Lester Sullivan, comps. Chester Himes: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. A comprehensive bibliography of Himes’s novels, short fiction, periodical publications, and nonfiction. A chronology of his life and career is also included.