If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes

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If He Hollers Let Him Go Summary

The book begins as Bob Jones, an educated African American man from Ohio who has moved to Los Angeles to work in a shipyard during World War II, recounts several dreams he has just had. One includes his telling white men that he wants a job and their laughing at him and deriding him. The book covers just a few days in Jones's life—four days in which his dreams of advancement and equality are quashed.

Jones heads to work, where he has been promoted to be a leader at Atlas Shipyard. A white woman at work named Madge who is from Texas refers to him as a "nigger," and he responds by calling her a "cracker bitch." Madge demeans and fears him but is also attracted to him. As a result, Bob loses his job as a leader and is demoted to being a mechanic. He plays dice with white coworkers and nearly kills a white man who attacks him, though Bob pulls back at the last minute.

Bob's girlfriend, the refined and light-skinned Alice Harrison, tells him that he should make up to his bosses and try to get along with Madge the way he is expected to. Alice's family, who have achieved some degree of social success, believe that they can get ahead by accommodating the desires of whites and working toward financial success.

After Bob attempts to get along with Madge at work, he visits her at home to try to straighten things out. She comes on to him, but he refuses to sleep with her. At work the next day, she accuses him of rape. Believing he will be imprisoned, he decides to seek revenge on the white man who treated him badly. The police find him with his gun and jail him. In the end, a manager from the plant comes to tell Bob that Madge has dropped the rape charges, but the judge on his case forces Bob to join the army to get out of the weapon charge against him.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 she thinks no one else is watching. He realizes that there is a danger even in “liberal” California of a black man associating with a white woman in any way remotely sexual, but he is also resigned to the fact that a black man can just as easily be lynched for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time as for having committed a crime. He would prefer to be lynched for the actual crime and decides to give in to the compulsion to take their flirtation to another level, but nothing comes of it.

A final encounter between Jones and Madge sets the stage for Madge to entice the finally reluctant Jones. He makes the fatal mistake of telling her that he wants nothing to do with her. Angry at such an audacious rebuff from a “colored boy,” Madge cries rape. Nearby...

(The entire section is 1,415 words.)