Reviews — From the August 2017 issue

Liberation Struggle

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Discussed in this essay:

Chester B. Himes: A Biography, by Lawrence P. Jackson. W. W. Norton. 640 pages. $35.

Early in Chester Himes’s first and best-known novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), the brown-skinned narrator, Bob, takes his light-skinned love interest, Alice, on a surprise date to a fancy hotel restaurant. Alice is a member of the black bourgeoisie, the daughter of a prominent physician; Bob is working-class, a leaderman at a Los Angeles shipyard. As he pulls his Buick up to the restaurant, her resistance leads him to suspect that Alice, a social climber, may have dined there in the past with whites who didn’t know she was black. But he forces her inside with the brutal calm of a man accepting a duel he is certain to lose. The two are seated at the worst table in the house, next to the kitchen door, and duly disrespected by the waitstaff. Powerless against the mounting humiliation, Bob lashes out. “I thought you liked places like this?” he says to Alice. The evening is an exercise in sadomasochism as torturous as anything in Dostoevsky. When the bill arrives, it reads: “We served you this time but we do not want your patronage in the future.”

The scene does more, however, than hold up a mirror to American skin prejudice. Himes is an artist of unusual, discomforting candor, whose eye for the psychological contradictions of membership in a lower caste is sharper than that of any American writer before or since. During the meal, Bob glances over to the next table, where a young ensign is sitting with a beautiful blonde. He looks at her longingly for a moment before his eyes meet those of her companion:

There was no animosity in his gaze, only a mild surprise and a sharp interest. There were two elderly people at the table, probably the parents of one of them, and the man laughed suddenly at something that was said. After a moment he switched his gaze to Alice; it stayed on her so long the blond girl looked at her too. Her face kept the same expression. Alice didn’t notice either of them; she was drinking her martini with a rigid concentration.

I had a sudden wistful desire to be the young ensign’s friend.

This is quintessential Himes: a rage that burns so hot it melts into a kind of perverse love.

If He Hollers — at turns savage and startling, illuminating and wise — charts an abysmal four-day span in Bob’s relatively privileged life, during which he slaps Alice, murderously stalks one white co-worker, and comes unhinged at the opportunity to punish-fuck another. As Himes said in “The Dilemma of the Negro Writer in America,” a speech he delivered in 1948,

If this plumbing for the truth reveals within the Negro personality homicidal mania, lust for white women, a pathetic sense of inferiority, paradoxical anti-Semitism, arrogance, Uncle Tomism, hate and fear of self-hate, this then is the effect of oppression on the human personality.

Yet what makes If He Hollers not merely a protest novel but a work of art — a book that in its unrelenting dejection and absurdity calls to mind Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’s The Stranger — is that for all the prejudice Bob faces, it’s ultimately impossible to say whether social forces or his own bad decisions are to blame for his implosion. At the time the book came out, white readers and publishers had recently made a star of Richard Wright for Native Son (1940), the blunt, deterministic story of a barbaric black man who murders a white woman, and they would soon catapult the patrician Ralph Ellison into the literary firmament for Invisible Man (1952), his exquisite meditation on the social anonymity of black Americans. But they had never encountered anything quite like Himes’s feverish vision of lustful ressentiment. Seven decades after the book’s publication, at a moment when the repeated spectacle of black men being killed by police has forced many of them to assert something as basic as the idea that their lives matter, its insistence on black culpability as well as victimization remains difficult to assimilate. Still, the questions that obsessed Himes — about the psychological toll of being “black” and, perhaps more crucially, of not being “white” — feel as urgent as they ever have.

The rediscovery and near sanctification of James Baldwin — kicked into high gear in 2015 with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir Between the World and Me and intensified at the end of last year with Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro — has provided as powerful a framework to understand the continuity of what used to be called the “Negro problem” as we are likely to come across. At the same time, it has had the odd effect of simultaneously expanding and narrowing our debate over race. This is in part the result of what Henry Louis Gates Jr. has called “the ethnographic fallacy, the pretense that one writer’s peculiar experiences can represent a social genus.” Baldwin, remarkable as he was, can never serve as a comprehensive lens, something his ubiquity in the marketplace of ideas has now made plain.

A selective interpretation of his work has exacerbated the problem. In the conversation around Between the World and Me, Coates was initially positioned as the new Baldwin. Yet it often feels as if Baldwin has been retrofitted into something akin to the original Coates — a militant proto-ambassador of “wokeness,” an eloquent victim. In such a neat reconstruction there is little use for the messiness and contradictions of real life. So the time feels ripe for an exploration of different, less manipulated voices — a broader reevaluation of the offerings of that most fertile period in African-American cultural production, and of its continued relevance to our own. Fortunately, we now have the exhaustive and fascinating biography Chester B. Himes, in which Lawrence P. Jackson, a professor of English and history at Johns Hopkins University and the author of a well-regarded study of Ellison, makes the case that we have every reason to reimagine that trio of great black postwar novelists — Baldwin, Ellison, and Wright — as a quartet.

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