If He Hollers Let Him Go, first published in 1945, is written from the perspective of Robert Jones, an African-American working in the defence shipyards in California. The book is full of anger about racial inequalities and Himes pulls no punches in his depiction of the life of a young black man in a white world. It must have been shocking at the time of publication, but how does it stand up in today's more racially integrated world?
This is the latest in the Serpent's Tail Classics series. Each book is given a brief new, modern introduction, in this case by Jake Arnott and this is particularly helpful in placing the book into context. This adds much to the reading of the book.
Arnott explains that the author Himes had certain elements in common with his main character. Both escaped from Cleveland attracted by the apparently more racially integrated offerings of California. In Himes' case, this initially went well as he gained a writing job with Warner Brothers only to be crassly dismissed by Jack Warner on purely racial grounds. He went to work in the shipyards where recent events in Pearl Harbour meant that employers couldn't be too fussy about the colour of your skin due to the volumes of work. It's not surprising that Himes would be angry with this outcome. And if there's one thing that his main character, Robert Jones, is it would be angry.
It's easy to forget how very different life was for African Americans just a few decades ago, even outside of the South. And there's no doubt that much of Jones' anger is due to the circumstances in which he finds himself, but while we might want to have an intrinsic sympathy with his plight, he doesn't always make it easy for the reader to take his side.
In fact, Jones has it relatively good. He has a steady job in a position of some authority as a `Leaderman' of a small group of workers in the yard. He has a steady girlfriend from a well respected family. And yet, he is on a path of seemingly unstoppable self-destruction from the first few pages of the book, whose action takes place over just four days. Indeed, he is just as guilty about judging on appearance as his white oppressors. At each point, Jones either thinks the constructive, non-violent solutions, or is guided there by his friends or his girlfriend, and yet, even as he knows it's happening, he continues to take decisions that will put his precarious position in more and more dangerous jeopardy. Will he end up the agent of his own outcome, or will social conditions take the decision out of his hands? The chances of each ebb and flow and you are never quite sure which one will determine the outcome.
Is Himes trying to say `treat people like dirt and even the most reasonable will react violently'? Or is it a call to arms? Either way, it's shocking and not easy to read. It was a brutal and ugly time, and Himes tells it like it is with terrifying honesty. But while social conditions have thankfully changed in the years since this book was first published, many of these issues continue to be present either implicitly or explicitly.
This edition also concludes with a short `manifesto' for African Americans, written a year earlier which is communist in tone, but calls for `martyrs' to the cause to create incidents that will incite the required `revolution'. Perhaps this suggests that Himes saw Jones as just such a martyr to the cause.
One of the more interesting characters in the book is Jones's girlfriend, Alice. Light enough to pass for white in Caucasian company, she's clearly attracted to Jones' bad boy side and wants a better future for him, certainly in line with what her Mother expects. Whether she'll go to martyr or to Mater or just call the whole thing off is an on-going issue with perhaps a surprising outcome.
Be prepared from some terms that may not be familiar to you, but most of all, be prepared for a brash, violent and at times insulting, angry read. But be in no doubt, this is an important work of African American fiction, and well worth reading.