Race, Sexuality, and Noir in Chester Himes’ Wartime Los Angeles

Recently, UHA member, historian and social media personality extraordinaire Kevin Kruse tweeted out a thread of advice on writing in which the Princeton professor noted that historians, young and old alike, would do well to read outside of the field. Though the thread covered a great deal of territory, Kruse emphasized the need for historians to engage works of fiction as a means to improve their writing and that of the larger discipline.

 

 

 

 

While much of Kruse’s advice focused on style, pacing, and plot, one might add that works of fiction can provide emotional and contextual insights regarding various historical subjects, eras, geographies, and cities that sometimes elude traditional history.

Taking Professor Kruse’s advice, The Metropole sat down with a classic but arguably under-read work from the 1940s: Chester Hime’s If He Hollers Let Him Go. An admittedly imperfect novel, in If He Hollers Himes captures the existential tension of World War II-era Los Angeles for its black population while delving unflinchingly into the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality. A contemporary of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Himes remains less familiar to the larger public than his two aforementioned peers. Though during his Los Angeles sojourn he only wrote two novels and several essays and short stories, Himes made an indelible mark. Literary critic John N. Swift places him in the company of Joan Didion, Nathaniel West, and Thomas Pychon as one of the “city’s great mythographers.”[1]

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[Portrait of Chester Himes], Carl Van Vechten photographer, March 9, 1946, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Himes offers a dark vision of American racial relations in If He Hollers while also charging headlong into the fraught dynamics of interracial sexuality—all under a sun-drenched Southern California sky that casts brighter light on Black Los Angeles.

L.A. Race

In his 1971 autobiography, Himes wrote that despite the city’s welcoming climate and racial and ethnic diversity, Los Angeles had harmed him: “Los Angeles hurt me racially as any city I have ever known – much more than any city in the South … The difference was that the white people of Los Angeles seemed to be saying, ‘Nigger ain’t we good to you?’”[2] The protagonist of If He Hollers Let Him Go, Bob Jones, encapsulates the contradictions and tragedies of mid-century Los Angeles but also the nation’s grim history of sexual violence, or, perhaps more accurately in this discussion, violence related to sexuality. Jones shares Himes’ grim view of the city. “’Just between you and me,’” he confides to another character, “Los Angeles is the most overrated, lousiest, countriest, phoniest city I’ve ever been in.”[3]

During World War II Los Angeles drew 70,000 African Americans to the metropolis, growing from a population of 63,774 in 1940 to 133,082 in 1947. “Most new arrivals found atrocious housing and poor jobs,” points out historian Daniel Widener. Many came for work in the war industry, including Jones, who had also migrated from the Midwest.

Though multicultural for decades, the city placed definite boundaries on its populations: Jews, Mexicans, Asians, African Americans and non- white immigrants (sometimes even European ones in certain cases) were relegated to specific neighborhoods. “Housing restrictions consigned nonwhites to less than a tenth of available housing stock, and the homes of recently interned Japanese and Japanese Americans often constituted the only residences open to African Americans,” writes Widener.[4] While whites might visit minority neighborhoods, blacks and others found themselves less welcome in white communities.

Racism in Los Angeles depended more on custom than law. As evidenced by internment, the Zoot Suit Riots in the 1940s, and bombings and house burnings that occurred in some L.A. neighborhoods during the 1950s and 1960s, violence did occur. In comparison to the South or even Midwestern cities like Chicago, however, racism in the city of Angels was shrouded by a false veneer of respectability.

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Construction of the liberty ship “Booker T. Washington.” Black skilled workers in many crafts participated in the construction of the “Booker T. Washington,” first liberty ship named for an African American. James Kermit Lucas, welder, is shown working on the top deck of the vessel which bears the name of the noted African American educator, Alfred T. Palmer photographer, September 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Economic segregation proved especially pervasive—so much so that in 1941 Los Angeles hosted the first hearings of the Fair Employment Act Commission to be held outside of the nation’s capital. However, due in part to the bonanza of military spending that cascaded over the state as a result of the war, federal scrutiny of employment discrimination increased. By 1945, one estimate suggested that 85 percent of the city’s black laborers worked in connection to the manufacture of military equipment.[5]

Though the war had raged for two years before the U.S. entered following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Himes’ protagonist initially thinks little of the growing international conflict. “I’d never given a damn, one way or the other about the war excepting wanting to keep out of it; and at first when I wanted the Japanese to win,” Jones narrates. However, wartime employment provides opportunity and even briefly reshapes Jones’ conception of his place in America. “I was stirred as I had been when I was a little boy watching a parade watching the flag go by. That filled up feeling of my country. I felt included in it all. I had never felt included before. It was a wonderful feeling.”[6]

Unfortunately, such emotions proved transitory. Jones had arrived in L.A with the mindset that while the color of his skin might be an obstacle, it was not wholly limiting. “Race was a handicap, sure, I’d reasoned. But hell, I didn’t have to marry it. I went where I wanted and felt good about it,” he tells the reader. For a moment or two, such beliefs even rang true. Jones ascends to the rank of Leaderman, a working class middle management position at an L.A. Navy Yard devoted to wartime production. He dates Alice, a social worker and the daughter of prominent Black Los Angeles elite. Things appear to be on the rise.

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Los Angeles, California. Japanese-American evacuation from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency order. Japanese-American child who will go with his parents to Owens Valley, Lee Russell photographer, April 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Events, unfortunately, conspire to disabuse Jones of such ideas. His optimism sours as Japanese internment unfolds, thereby wiping away any feeling of belonging: “It was taking a man up by the roots and locking him up without a chance. Without a trial. Without a charge. Without even giving him a chance to say one word.”[7] Jones understood the same fate could befall him. “And since I’d begun earning enough money to live my own life, I hadn’t felt my life belonged to me. Any moment the white folks might ask me to check it in.”[8]

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had unleashed something in L.A’s white population. “It was the look in the white people’s faces when I walk down the streets,” he notes. “It was that crazy wide-eyed, unleashed hatred … All that tight, crazy feeling of race as thick in the street as gas fumes.”[9] Throughout, Jones expresses unease at whites’ ability to demonize the other. “I was the same colour as the Japanese and I couldn’t tell the difference. ‘A yeller-bellied Jap’ coulda meant me too.”[10] Himes’ awareness of this particular inequality may have been heightened by the fact he wrote the novel while living in a Boyle Heights home that had been abandoned by an interned Japanese American family.[11]

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Police check draft cards on explosive Central Ave.–Tempers tense as officers patrol area to curb battles, 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

As in any good L.A. novel, cars play a critical role. Jones drives a 1942 Buick Roadmaster; it “gives Bob the illusion of freedom and equality as he challenges even white drivers to race him on Los Angles streets” knowing that even the toniest resident of Beverly Hills could not get a Roadmaster amidst wartime rationing. Yet it also brands him “an arrogant, uppity Negro” argues literature professor Charles Scruggs.

Indeed, though it provides his mode of transportation throughout the novel, it hardly sets him free: “It was a bright June morning. The sun was already high. If I’d been a white boy I might have enjoyed the scramble in the early morning sun, the tight competition for a twenty-foot lead on a thirty mile highway. But to me it was racial.” Even the scenic “snowcapped mountains” fail to win his attention. “I didn’t even see them; all I wanted in the world was to push my Buick Roadmaster over some peckerwood’s face.”[12] Revenge fantasies rather than escapism dominates his thoughts, notes Scruggs.[13] Doom hangs over Jones, observes novelist, literary critic, and Himes expert Robert Skinner. His “relentless travel” throughout the novel “serves only to bring [Jones] closer” to his tragic end.[14]

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Policemen and wounded African American man inside police ambulance, during Los Angeles “Zoot Suit” riot of 1943, 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Between revenge fantasies, employment discrimination at the Navy Yard and housing segregation, Jones vibrates knowing the all-encompassing nature of American racism. Minorities stood subject to the racial law of L.A. Sure, Japanese Americans experienced the most blatant form of internment, but as Lynn M. Itagaki points out, in Los Angeles racial groups of all kinds were interned in some fashion: “the Japanese Americans in desert prisons, the African Americans in neighborhoods constrained by residential ordinances and segregation.”[15]

The fate of Japanese American Angelenos struck an admitted fear into Jones that pervades much of the novel and drives him to act out in ways indicative of an individual living under a kafkaesque racial regime. “Do you ever wake up scared?” he asks his roommate and occasional paramour Ella Mae one morning.

When a white co-worker knocks Jones unconscious and robs him of his gambling winnings, Jones stalks and nearly kills the man. A desire to turn the tables on his antagonist and escape his feelings of confinement motivates his actions: “I wanted him to feel as scared and powerless and unprotected as I felt every goddamned morning I woke up.“[16] The idea of striking back mattered as much as the act itself. “As long as I knew I was going to kill him, nothing could bother me … they couldn’t hurt me no matter what they did. I had a peckerwood’s life in the palm of my hand and that made all the difference.”[17]

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Nine huge Liberty cargo ships at outfitting docks of California Shipbuilding Corporation’s Los Angeles yards, nearly ready to be delivered to the U.S. Maritime Commission, December 4, 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Nonetheless Los Angeles’s structural racism, even amidst wartime emergencies, does damage Jones—be it in his troubled relationship with his girlfriend/fiancé, the distinctly upper middle class Alice, or in his interactions with his white co-workers at the Navy Yard. The former encourages accommodation while the latter reveals that the Midwestern and Southern whites that migrated to L.A. brought with them the racial beliefs that governed their hometowns. Even before penning If He Hollers, Himes acknowledged this reality in a 1943 article for The Crisis, concluding “the outcome is simply that the South has won Los Angeles.”[18]

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“Women aircraft workers. Perched high on the wing of a giant bomber, women of a large West Coast aircraft factory are speeding the installation of electrical units contolling the engine.” David Bransby photographer, May 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

L.A. Sexuality

Himes was not without his own overdriven masculinity. Many of his characters, including Jones, drew upon noir traditions of the “unapologetic and testosterone driven” male. “Turned on by their own bravado, they claimed entitlement and viewed sex as a struggle for power – the only form of intimacy that engaged them,” wrote the New Yorker’s Hilton Als in 2002.[19] Himes admitted as much. He treated his wife Jean Johnson in “the most casual of manner; sometimes I would leave her standing on a corner waiting for me for hours on end.” Moving to New York in 1944, he confessed to a philandering lifestyle that had wronged his wife, writing “I lost myself in sex and drunkenness … And I almost lost my wife too … and when I came to” If He Hollers had been published to general acclaim.[20]

The black female characters in If He Hollers reflect this sort of ambivalence. Alice, his girlfriend and fiancé, is depicted as a middle-class accomodationist more interested in fading ideas of the “talented tenth” than general racial uplift or protest. “I’m ambitious and demanding. I want to be important in the world. I want a husband who is important and respected and wealthy enough so that I can avoid a major part of discriminatory practices which I am sensible enough to know I can’t change,” she tells Jones during one of their many arguments. “I don’t want to be pulled down by a person who can’t adjust himself to the limitations of his race.”[21] Jones does not stick to only one woman; with Ella Mae’s husband off at war, she and Jones sometimes sleep together and he pursues Madge while dating Alice.

To be fair, the noir genre has long been riddled with misogyny apart from racism. As a result, recent work like the 2014 film “Man from Reno,” which features a Japanese female protagonist in the usual role of the hardboiled male detective, easily distinguishes itself as a result of breaking with genre traditions. Whatever his problematic stances on race and gender, in terms of sexuality, Himes writes squarely within this noir structure.

Still, with such caveats noted, Himes understood the deadly intersection of race and sexuality for minorities. In the aforementioned 1943 essay on the Zoot Riots, he argues that one of the precipitating factors of the violence hinged on white men’s perception that Mexican Americans had been harassing “their women.” Himes refuted the idea that black and Latino men pined for white women. “Mexicans do not desire” white women; “They do not even look at them.” Black men he argued will “crack at anyone of any race who is nice looking … But they will never go as far as white men toward a Negro woman in a white district.” Himes wades into a very problematic and patriarchal view of sexuality, but it’s one that, whatever we think of it today, defined sexual and racial relations at mid-century.

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The six plane factories of the Douglas Aircraft Company have been termed an industrial melting pot, since men and women of fifty-eight national origins work side by side in pushing Americas’s plane output“, circa 1940s, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

When involving white women, interracial sex led to violence or at the very least, the distinct threat of it. Americans “are strictly a gang minded people,” Himes argued, “we lynch Negroes, rob banks, kidnap babies, extort merchants, beat strikers, etc.”[22] Jones himself is both titillated and horrified when his antagonistic co-worker, the relocated Texan Madge, tells him sex with her would “get him lynched” in her home state.[23]

Himes depicts a white Los Angeles obsessed with interracial encounters; its black counterpart less so. When two white soldiers walk into a black bar with a young white woman interested in the male patrons, the tension builds. Though the two soldiers, apparently tired of her behavior, attempt to leave the girl behind, the black manager immediately intervenes “She came in with you, she’s got to go out with you,” he tells them. Jones conveys the dangers succinctly, “She could take those two black chumps flirting with her outside and get them thirty years a piece in San Quentin; in Alabama she could get them hung.”[24]

Despite his own knowledge of these dangers, Jones pursues his white female co-worker, Madge. A recent arrival from Texas, Madge carries with her the kind of racist thoughts common to white Americans of the day. She refuses to take orders from Jones, freely throws racial epitaphs in his direction, and more or less gets him demoted.

Yet like Jones, she seems excited, arguably for different reasons, at the prospect of interracial sex. Even after his demotion, Jones pursues her. Madge proves a willing participant, though she throws around the word rape to remind Jones, and perhaps herself, the taboo nature of their potential coupling. Jones eventually decides against it, yet even his contemplation of sex with her proves worthy of punishment under the racial logic of Los Angeles. His decision to pursue Madge puts into motion a series of events that don’t quite end tragically but also do not result in anything remotely triumphant. “She pretends to be terrified of him, and he wants nothing to do with her, but as in a nightmare he lives out Freud’s repetition-compulsion cycle,” observes Scruggs.[25]

To their credit historians like Josh Sides and Daniel Widener have acknowledged Himes’s contributions to L.A. culture and history. Sides describes his L.A. works, If He Hollers and The Lonely Crusade, as “searing indictments of racism, unemployment, and the emasculation of African American men in the 1940s.” Widener notes Himes’ “incisive and dystopian” outlook, and the two books as “exemplary examples of California noir, as pioneering examples of interethnic, cross-racial politics linking disaffected black, Asian American, and ethnic Mexican communities and as a challenging … effort to write seriously about the problematic boundary between race, sex, and violence in Jim Crow America.”[26] Reading fiction serves many purposes, as Kevin Kruse aptly detailed in his tweet thread, but one of the more enjoyable and insightful is when it tells us a story about history with pathos, tragedy and emotion. Whatever his flaws, Chester Himes captured the despair and hurt of mid-century Black Los Angeles.

Featured Image at top:  Launching of the SS Booker T. Washington. Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune, Director of Negro Affairs, National Youth Administration (NYA); an identified member of the local committee; Marian Anderson, celebrated contralto; Dr. William J. Thompkins, Recorder of Deeds, Washington, D.C.; Reverend F.D. Jordon, Los Angeles; and Mrs. Portia Washington Pittman, only living daughter of Booker T. Washington, wave farewell as the Liberty Ship named for the great Negro educator and leader, slides down the ways at the California Shipbuilding Corporation’s yards at Wilmington, California, Alfred T. Palmer photographer, September 1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

[1] John N. Swift in Lynn M. Itagaki, “Transgressing Race and Community in Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go, African American Review, Vol. 37 No. 1: 78.

[2] Chester Himes, The Quality of Hurt: The Early Years, The Autobiography of Chester Himes (Paragon, 1972), 73-74.

[3] Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go (Da Capo, 2002), 41.

[4] Daniel Widener, Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (Duke University Press, 2010), 32.

[5] Widener, Black Arts West, 32.

[6] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 38.

[7] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 3.

[8] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 163.

[9] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 4.

[10] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 4.

[11] Edward Margolies and Michel Fabre, The Several Lives of Chester Himes, (University Press of Mississippi, 1994), 50.

[12] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 14.

[13] Charles Scruggs, “Los Angeles and the African American Literary Imagination”, in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, Ed. Kevin McNamara, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 77.

[14] Robert E. Skinner, “Streets of Fear: The Los Angeles Novels of Chester Himes” in … 229.

[15] Lynn M. Itagaki, “Transgressing Race and Community in Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go, African American Review, Vol. 37 No. 1: 68.

[16] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 35.

[17] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 45.

[18] Chester Himes, “Zoot Riots are Race Riots” in Black on Black, 225.

[19] Hilton Als, “In Black and White” in If He Hollers Let Him Go, (Da Capo, 2002), xiv.

[20] Als, “In Black and White”, xv.

[21] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 97.

[22] Chester Himes, “Zoot Riots are Race Riots” in Black on Black, 220-225.

[23] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 147.

[24] Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 76.

[25] Charles Scruggs, “Los Angeles and the African American Literary Imagination”, in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, Ed. Kevin McNamara, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 76.

[26] Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present, University of California Press, 2006, 54-55; Widener, Black Arts West, 30.

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