Always, Always, Always a Black Man: The War on Skin Color in 1940s L.A.

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Chester Himes vocalized in his novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, the amount of resentment he carried toward the color of his skin. Being black created a social block between Himes and the white society of World War II Los Angeles area, which kept him from succeeding in a world controlled by the white men. According to Himes, acceptance from whites could only come about if, as stated in the thoughts of his character Robert Jones,

Unknown“[Y]ou…accept being black as a condition over which you had no control, then go on from there. Glorify your black heritage, revere your black heroes, laud your black leaders, cheat your black brothers, worship your white fathers…” (151)

But the black heritage, heroes, leaders, and brothers are to be, or rather should be, included with the heritage, heroes, leaders, and brothers of the overall nation and history of America.  Himes revealed the unfortunate reality of black men in Los Angeles. A reality so different from the one the white men of the time were living.  It was almost as if Himes was describing a second America, one that is complete with the blacks own history, leaders, and heritage, all of which are separate from the whites.  Blacks are driven by the white men to this second America where they are encouraged to advance but only among their own people.

Himes continued to reveal in his novel how blacks and whites were part of two different Americas even as they were within California. At the head of the whites were Patrick Henry, Charles Lindbergh, George Washington. The whites also were the ones who learned about liberty and justice and equality. The leaders or principles of the blacks were not those of the whites. Himes, as reported by Hilton Als in his foreword of Himes’ novel, was raised in the same manner of a white child, taught the same principles as white children, and began to aspire to the same dreams as those of white society. Yet, it was the whites that shunned the blacks. The whites demanded the blacks to glorify their black heritage, revere their black heroes, and etc. in order to be accepted in the white community which only held the opportunity for power and success.

1940s Los Angeles during Christmastime
1940s Los Angeles during Christmastime

Himes expressed through the thought process of Jones that blacks had the chance of success. Jones could marry Alice, go back to college, and become a “big and important Negro.” But that is what Jones will always be: a black graciously accepted by the white community, the very whites that mercifully gave him the recognition of importance. Jones would only be recognized as a black when he truly wanted the recognition as a man. Himes forcefully implored in this novel that as long as a man was black, he was not a man at all.


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