Authors: Chester B Himes
Chester B. Himes
First published by
Thunder’s Mouth Press
ALSO BY CHESTER HIMES
If He Hollers Let Him Go
Cast the First Stone
Cotton Comes to Harlem
The Real Cool Killers
All Shot Up
The Heat’s On
The Quality of Hurt
Blind Man with a Pistol
Black on Black
“Mr. Himes undertakes to consider the everpresent subconscious terror of the black man, the political morality of American Communists, the psychology of union politics, Uncle Tomism, and the relationship between Jews and Blacks. The value of this book lies in its effort to understand the psychology of oppressed and oppressor and their relationship to each other.”
“A bitter story about a young black man who becomes a union organizer at a west coast airplane factory during World War II. The tragedy of this particular man is a psychological one, a growing despair over being black which hamstrings him in every human relationship.”
The New Yorker
“Mr. Himes can write with power and effectiveness.”
The New York Times
For my brother-in-law
HUGO JOHNSON, C.M.M., USN
The tempestuous, Dostoyevskian universe of
stands alone among the works of Chester Himes as his most profound examination of racism, anti-Semitism, labor-management strife, moral corruption—and the search for their extirpation—in American life. When Alfred A. Knopf published the book in 1947, the company fully expected
to better the rave reviews of Himes’s first novel and companion work,
If He Hollers Let Him Go
. But, though critics were impressed with the novel’s structure, plot, and superb portrayals of union organizers and laborers in the aircraft factories of Los Angeles in World War II, his brutally honest treatment of the—Left and of the major themes of anti-Semitism and racism was deeply troubling to liberals, literati, and Communists alike. Even the author’s wife, Jean Himes, seeing too much of herself in the role of Ruth Gordon, the hero’s wife, threatened divorce after seeing the manuscript. As Himes later described, “
hates the book.”
Some forty years later, this reprint marks the first appearance of
since critics, white and black, closed angry ranks against Chester Himes, causing him to abandon any future attempts at so ambitious an inquest into human relations as
. And, if the book’s analyses of these issues in American life seem as disturbing today as in 1947, it is nevertheless time to recognize Himes’s courageous and ever-timely artistic achievement.
A graduate of UCLA, Lee Gordon, the novel’s protagonist, is trapped inside an iron cage of racial resentments. His efforts to escape and to create a meaningful world for himself bring alive the brute hardship of black life in the U.S. during the 1940s. If anything, Lee Gordon is even more frustrated than that human time bomb, Bob Jones, of
If He Hollers
. Well-educated, but unable to find steady work, as the novel begins, Gordon has just been hired as the first black union organizer in Los Angeles. Lionized by the black press, Gordon feels the pressures of any “first.” His education sets him apart intellectually from his fellow black workers, instigating conflicts and robbing him of the solace of their companionship. But, even with his educational advantages, Lee Gordon lacks their survival skills.
Meanwhile, his position is ultimately untenable: there is no one to trust. The Communists try constantly to lure Gordon into their fold, planning to use him as a pawn; at work, he is resented by white and black workers and union officials; he is patronized by liberals in the community; and he is offered bribes by the plant’s owner. At home, Gordon’s marriage is collapsing, in part through his own prejudices and failings. He sees his wife’s employment—she works as a counselor at a major company—as an emasculating threat, and he retaliates against her. At the same time, Ruth Gordon is tiring of her husband’s brutality and the bleakness of their future.
The Communists send the nihilistic Luther McGregor to shadow Gordon. McGregor is the hero’s
; his servility and cynicism a mockery of Gordon’s troubled idealism. A powerfully developed character, Luther McGregor embodies the social extremes of hatred and oppression; significantly, Luther’s sole sympathy for Gordon is based upon their dark skin. Though McGregor regards Gordon as a “square,” he will feel obliged to help a fellow black.
Himes molds an elegant tale of Lee Gordon’s developing consciousness and commitment to humanity. By manipulating repugnant social pathologies Himes has instilled his tale of factory life with the universal dimensions of the human comedy. This is a novel of ideas made alive with brutal realism and commentary.
There are three aspects of this stirring novel that demand special comment. First, despite the “bile” that affects all human relations in the novel,
is a love story. Lee and Ruth Gordon have been married, childless and with no personal successes, for eight years. Except for sporadic brutality, culminating in the rape of his wife, Lee has been impotent. The violence of her life has given Ruth a “beaten whorish look.” But Ruth withstands the beatings, “allowing him to assert his manhood in this queer, perverted way, because all of the rest of the world denied it.”
Ruth is an heroic woman. As she works to obtain respectability and a steady income, Lee will desert her for Jackie Forks, a white woman and a Communist, sending Ruth into a personal hell. She acts out her deep feelings of inferiority by even trying to wear ‘white’ makeup. In this, she parallels the anguish of her husband’s struggles against racism. Despite his contempt and infidelities, Ruth loves Lee, and, as his fling with Jackie Forks disintegrates into racial slurs and betrayal, Lee comes to recognize Ruth is his true life-partner. It will be her image that gives him the strength to act as he must.
Second is the question of anti-Semitism in the novel. The portraits Himes draws of Jewish paternalism and black anti-Semitism are unflinchingly honest. Most tellingly, it is Abe Rosenberg, Ruth, and Smitty, another union organizer, that are Gordon’s only true allies. At one crucial point, Lee and Rosenberg, a highly sympathetic character, engage in a fierce debate over these historic racial tensions in American history, hurling insults and stereotypes at one another until finally, like exhausted fighters, they come to recognize their similarities and weaknesses. Himes’s characters dispel their ignorance and hatreds by confronting them in honest discussion. We come to see Lee Gordon as far less anti-Semitic than Maud, the Communist secretary.
And third, Communist revulsion towards the novel was well-earned by Himes. His scathing analysis of Communist manipulation, duplicity, and racism goes far beyond the portraits drawn by Richard Wright in
and Ralph Ellison in
Lee admires the tenacity of the Communists, such as McGregor and Rosenberg. He has the affair with Jackie Forks, even knowing she has been assigned to him by the party, but, ultimately, he distrusts them. Himes here presents Marxist theory clearly and forcefully. Rosenberg’s commitment to his ideology is respected, even as
explores the real relationships between black workers and their putative liberators.
Finally, this novel is a positive, powerful portrait of a man, a city, and its workers, with vivid descriptions of city streets and the factory shop floor, of the workers making big money for the first time, and of Lee Gordon as he learns the meaning of struggle and how to fight. Overcoming his enemies from within and without, Lee Gordon becomes a symbol of change, hope and resolution.
New York City, 1986
was the happiest man in the world that afternoon. His happiness was contagious, infectious, affecting every person in the office. Smitty the union council secretary beamed with the good feeling of a man who has just done a noble deed. The other union officials present grinned with good fellowship; and the two white women secretaries looked up with friendly smiles.
Lee Gordon had just been hired by the union council as an organizer. His first assignment, to which he would report in the morning, was at the Comstock Aircraft Corporation, where an organizational campaign was then under way.
To a white man that spring of 1943, with war wages hitting their peak, this job, paying only forty-two, fifty a week and offering no more than a future in a union, might have meant very little.
But to Lee Gordon it meant a new lease on life. Not only did it mean the end of a long and bitter search for dignified employment, but also vindication of his conviction that a man did not have to accept employment beneath his qualifications because his skin was black. And in a very personal way it meant that he could hope again to be a husband to his wife.
To other Negroes also it had a special meaning. It was the sort of job to which they refer so proudly as a “Negro First”—in this instance the first appointment of a Negro to the position of a full-time organizer in a Los Angeles union. Reporters and photographers from the three Los Angeles Negro weekly newspapers had covered his appointment. By the time the next editions had been read, Lee would become an important figure in the Negro community. Various civic and church groups would invite him to address their meetings; social clubs would invite him to join.
There were white people also—politicians, Communists, and members of various race-relations committees—who would realize the importance of this job to Negroes, from whom Lee would receive overtures of sorts.
All of this Lee Gordon knew. He felt a sense of satisfaction. With inner exultation he also felt vindicated in his stand against the Communists, whose insidious urging that he accept a laborer’s job to help defeat fascism had become obnoxious in the end.
But when he had left behind the supporting tolerance and the democratic camaraderie of the union officials, his high spirits dampened. Awareness of his race began leaking into his consciousness. And when he boarded the streetcar crowded with white Southern warworkers that war spring of 1943, being a Negro imposed a sense of handicap that Lee Gordon could not overcome. He lost his brief happiness in the sea of white faces.
For now the very thing that had, at first, inspired it brought a sudden fear. The elation at having secured this job was now replaced by the frightening realization that he, a Negro, was holding it—that he had once again crossed into the competitive white world where he would be subjected to every abuse concocted in the minds of white people to harass and intimidate Negroes. He was afraid, as much of the fact that he would go and subject himself to this, as of what would happen to him once he had become subjected. Now suddenly he hated this urge in him that always sent him sowing in the fields where the harvest was nothing but hurt. Yet he would go, he knew. And be afraid, and hate his fear, and hate himself for feeling it.
He was a fool, he called himself. To keep going back where he was not wanted. Where the penalties for just going were so great. But he would go, he knew.
He wished he didn’t have to go. It certainly would not be for the money; he could earn twice as much doing the labor he had refused. Nor would it be for the prestige in the Negro community, which a few short minutes ago had been a cause for pride. For now he was not moved by the desire to be a big shot on the South Side.
Although he believed in unionism, and admired the union’s democratic stand—never so much as that day—yet he would not subject himself to the exquisite mental anguish of the Negro out in the main white stream purely for the love of unionism, he knew.
Nor would it be the sense of satisfaction he had first experienced that would make him go, he now realized. In a way, it would be more satisfying if he did not go at all. He had always found it more satisfying to reject the conditions of existence prescribed for him by white people than to accept them.
No, it was something more. He did not know exactly what it was. But it would make him go. But it would charge him to. He knew that he would pay for it in this fear that rooted in the bog of all his protestations and strangled every noble purpose he ever had. Because fear was the price he paid for living.
And fear was the price he was paying now, ten hours later, as he lay tense and unsleeping beside his sleeping wife. The fear in him was something that a dog could smell. He could do the work, he told himself. That, in itself, would be no problem. And he could get along with the white workers if they would give him a chance. But his mind kept conjuring up visions of rebuffs, humiliations, sneers, scorn, rejection, exclusion—all of the occupational hazards of a black face. He could see the hostile faces of the white workers, their hot, hating stares; he could feel their antagonisms hard as a physical blow; hear their vile asides and abusive epithets with a reality that cut like a knife.