With the publication of his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, Chester Himes joined the ranks of other African Americans writing about being black in America. Autobiographical in many respects, Himes’s novel deals with issues that affected black Americans around the time of World War II: racism in society, including the workplace. The novel’s themes include black bourgeois life, interracial sex, the labor movement, and American communism. It also focuses on how the “blackness” of one’s skin affects social and personal attitudes and self-esteem.
Each of the four days of the plot begins with a dream from which Jones wakes feeling “torn all loose inside, shriveled, paralyzed, as if after a while [he would] have to get up and die.” He becomes increasingly aware of the fear that has been in him all his life. When he is reminded of Japanese Americans being uprooted from their homes during World War II and then interned in what were essentially concentration camps, he feels vulnerable to the power of white people, who can do what they wish to “colored” people. He knows he must always be careful, or suffer the consequences.
In another autobiographical work, Himes says the race prejudice he encountered in Los Angeles caused such “mental corrosion” that he became “bitter and saturated with hate”; this corrosion is evident in his Bob Jones character. In the novel, Jones’s moods range from frustration to anger to...
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