Racism and Unity in World War II: Analyzing If He Hollers Let Him Go

World War II had a profound impact on American culture. Essentially every person in the country was affected in some way, but the war’s impact of African Americans was unique. Although African Americans were indeed Americans they were often treated like the enemy on the home front. Racism ran rampant in American society, even troops abroad were segregated. In some cases, people were able to see past this racism and view the war as a way to unite people to think of the greater good. Others only saw the war as an example of racism. The novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, by Chester Himes demonstrates this concept. In the story, a black man sees the war as an extension of racism, but is urged by a white man to use the war as a tool to forget hostility in favor of unity. The racial condition of blacks and whites directly affected the ways in which they interpreted the war. Because of his racial condition, the black man is unable to see the war from the white man’s point of view. Contemporary critical analysis of If He Hollers Let Him Go has also made the connection between the character’s racial condition and their perspective on the war. The individual characters in the novel are representative of larger groups. Notable writers in African American literature such as Henry Louis Gates have commented on the racism many blacks endured during World War II.

In the very beginning of If He Hollers Let Him Go, Himes introduces the protagonist, Bob Jones, as he is waking up. Almost immediately, Jones begins to feel an intense fear creeping up on him. Jones says that he “began feeling scared…It came along with consciousness” (2). He explains that he wakes up in this way every day and remarks that this fear “came into my head first, somewhere back of my closed eyes, moves slowly underneath my skull to the base of my brain, cold and hollow… I felt torn all loose inside, shriveled, paralyzed, as if after a while I’d have to get up and die”. (2). The explanation of Jones’ fear helps to emphasize how strong it is. It is not simply an emotion. His fear actually affects him physically, making him feel “cold and hollow”. Also, by using the words “shriveled” and “paralyzed” the Jones makes clear how debilitating his fear is. The cause of his fear is told later in the passage.

Jones later reveals that the events of World War II are what contribute to his fears. Jones says that “Every day now I’d been waking up that way, ever since the war began” (3). This suggests to the reader that it was the onset of World War II that triggered these feelings. While the stress of living in a country at war could possibly be a factor in his fear, Jones explains that a more important factor is the racism that resulted from the outbreak of the war. Jones thinks to himself, “Maybe I’d been scared all my life, but I didn’t know about it until after Pearl Harbor” (3). When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and waged war on America they sparked an incredible amount of hostility towards the Japanese in America. The reason why this upsets Jones so much is because he compares the prejudice towards the Japanese to the racism towards blacks in America. Being black, Jones experiences this racism first hand. He explains how he has been denied service in restaurants on the basis of race, and when applying for jobs, he “kept on getting refused while white boys were hired from the line behind [him]” (3). The character of Jones is representative of a larger group of African Americans.

Jones’s feelings in this scene are not unique to just him. Many blacks during this time felt the same way. In an article about military inequality, Henry Louis Gates explains how African Americans viewed World War II. He writes that “it was difficult for African Americans not to see the hypocrisy between conditions at home and the noble war aims” (pbs.org). Gates makes the same connection between race and the war effort as Jones does in the novel. Because of the overwhelming amount of racism on the home front, many African Americans saw the war as a continuation of that racism. Later in the article, Gates builds upon this idea, commenting on how “because of the gap between the promise and performance of American freedom when it came to race relations, many black people frankly felt alienated from the war effort” (pbs.org).

Further into the passage, Jones states that he became even more aware of his fear when he saw that Japanese were being sent away to internment camps, “Maybe it wasn’t until I’d seen them send the Japanese away that I’d noticed [the fear]” (3). He considers how unfair this punishment is, saying “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” (3). Here, Jones is drawing a parallel between the Japanese and African Americans. In America, blacks were denied service or jobs “without a chance”; without a second thought, and the Japanese in America were being sent away from their homes “without a chance”. In both instances, groups of people are being punished purely because of their race.

The racism towards Japanese makes Jones fear that America could just as easily order African Americans to be put away in internment camps, or inflict some similar treatment upon them. He states that “It was thinking about if they ever did that to me, Robert Jones, Mrs. Jones’s dark son, that started me to getting scared” (3). With these words, Jones is clearly stating that he feels threatened by the events of World War II. Jones uses the term, “Mrs. Jones’s dark son” to describe himself, making clear that he believes his racial condition is an important factor in his identity. Every morning, he wakes up with the fear that the extremely racist treatment towards the Japanese could also be inflicted upon him. In fact, Jones believes that he is even likely to receive this treatment because he has a similar skin color as the Japanese as Jones is a lighter skinned African American. He states “I was the same color as the Japanese and I couldn’t tell the difference. ‘A yeller-bellied Jap’ coulda meant me too. I could always feel race trouble, serious trouble, never more than two feet off” (4). By saying that he was the “same color as the Japanese” Jones is explicitly acknowledging his similarity to the Japanese. Not only are they the same color, but he believes that they also face the same treatment in America. This connection is what creates fear for Jones. The racism that Jones encounters daily influences him to see the racism towards the Japanese during the war as indirectly affecting him.

In an article which analyses If He Hollers Let Him Go, the author, Lynn M. Itagaki also drew this same conclusion. She explains how in the novel, Jones felt that he could potentially be victimized by the racist acts against the Japanese. Itagaki writes that “By addressing himself formally as ‘Robet Jones,’ Bob at once resists racism and becomes subject to it, marking himself as a potential victim. In noting his ‘yellow skin’, Bob recognizes the literal similarities of skin color and race that could possibly ally him with the Japanese” (68). It is clear that Jones’ racial condition affects the way he views the events of World War II.

The opening passage of If He Hollers Let Him Go demonstrates how the racial issues African Americans dealt with on the home front affected the way they interpreted the war. Because of the war, Japanese Americans were being mistreated on the basis of race which frightened African Americans into believing the racism they endured on the homefront could escalate to the level of racism against the Japanese. Other parts of the novel also show how characters’ racial condition affects their perspective of the war.

In Chapter 13, Jones is speaking with a union steward named Herbie, and protesting what he believes is racist treatment he has been receiving at work. Jones asks for the steward to reprimand a white woman who he had an altercation with while working. She made a racial slur towards him, and when he made one towards her, he was demoted. Jones tells Herbie “I want you to tell her she has to work with Negroes here or lose her job” (113). The conversation becomes heated as Jones continues to voice his frustration over the racism he feels is so prevalent at his job. Herbie retorts, saying “Thats the trouble with you colored people…You forget we’re in a war. This isn’t any time for private gripes. We’re fighting facism-we’re not fighting the companies and we’re not fighting each other-we’re all fighting fascism together and in order to beat fascism we got to have unity” (114). In this instance, Herbie is urging Jones to recognize the war as a symbol of patriotic solidarity. He repeatedly uses the term “we” to refer to America, which suggests that he feels unified by World War II. By saying “we’re all fighting fascism together” Herbie is stressing his belief that Americans are all invested in the battle against fascism, a common enemy. He asks that Jones forgets his “private gripes” and consider the larger picture. From his perspective as a white man, Herbie is able to see the war as an example of unification. This view differs from Jones’, who, as mentioned earlier, saw the war as an example of racism in America. However, by referring to Jones’ issue as a “trouble with you colored people”, Herbie suggests that Jones’ racial complaint hinders the ability of other Americans (the “we”) to be unified. This suggests that Herbie may not feel unified with African Americans, even when he is trying to inspire unity.

Jones responds to Herbie’s comment angrily, shouting “What the hell do I care about unity, or the war either, for that matter, as long as I’m kicked around by every white person who comes along? Let the white people get some goddamned unity” (115). With this statement, Jones is saying that the racism he encounters is what prevents him from caring about unity. The phrase “kicked around by every white person who comes along” emphasizes the amount of racism Jones encounters. He feels that in every single interaction he has with a white, he is being “kicked around”, or racially abused in some way. Because of this, Jones does not have the motivation to “care about unity, or the war either”. This instance is an example of how Jones’ racial condition affects the way he views the war. He is unable to see the war from Herbie’s perspective, because unity with whites is something he could not possibly imagine.

Further into the chapter, Jones considers what the effects would be if African Americans rejected the war by refusing to work in the military or war industries. He says, “I wondered what would happen if all the Negroes in America would refuse to serve in the armed forces, refuse to work in war production until the Jim Crow pattern was abolished” (116). With this comment, Jones is showing how the racism he is subjected to every day, “the Jim Crow pattern” affects his perspective of World War II. It prevents him from wanting to support the war. Then, he speculates that “the white folks would no doubt go right on fighting the war without us. They’d kill us maybe; but they couldn’t kill us all. And if they did they’d have one hell of a job of burying us” (116). Here, Jones is explaining that he feels that white people are indifferent to blacks, and would not care if every African American were to completely abandon the war effort. Again, this shows how Jones’ racial condition influences his attitude towards the war. The racism he feels from whites makes him consider neglecting the war effort altogether. This is another reason why he protests Herbie’s reaction to his complaint. Jones fears that if he loses his position at his job, he could be drafted. As mentioned previously, Jones’ attitude towards the war demonstrates that he does not support it, and to be drafted would be to support a cause he does not believe in.

Although African Americans were not the direct enemy of America in World War II, many blacks felt victimized by the events of the war. The novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, by Chester Himes discusses this idea. In the novel, the protagonist, Bob Jones feels this way. He makes a connection between the mistreatment of the Japanese and the racism he encounters in his daily life. When the Japanese were put in internment camps, Jones began to fear that such extreme racism treatment could also be inflicted upon him. This leads him to view the war in a fearful way. Later in the novel, Jones is confronted by a white man who encourages him to see the war as a reason to unite with his fellow Americans, black and white. However, because of Jones’ racial condition, he could only see the racist aspects of World War II. Modern writers have explained that many other African Americans during the war also felt this way.

Even today, many African Americans’s racial condition influences their perception of current events. For example, the riots in Ferguson stemming from the grand jury decision not to charge a white police man who shot and killed a black man are a similar to the events in If He Hollers Let Him Go. Many African Americans feel they are not well represented by the American justice system, and believe that the jury favored the white police man because of his race. Because of the racism many African Americans feel is still prevalent in society, they view the incident as an extension of racism. Others, however believe the case is simply a criminal justice issue, and not one that pertains to race. Wether or not the the decision was fair, the racial condition of onlookers affects their perception of the case in the same way that Jones’ and Herbie’s race affected their view on World War II.

Works Cited

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “What Was Black America’s Double War?” PBS. PBS, 2013. Web. 21 Nov. 2014. .

Himes, Chester B. If He Hollers Let Him Go. New York: Da Capo, 1945. Print.

Itagaki, Lynn M. “Transgressing Race and Community in Chester Himes’s “If He Hollers Let Him Go”” African American Review 37.1 (2003): 65-80. JSTOR. Web. 23 Nov. 2014. .