Paper on If He Hollers, Let Him Go by Chester Himes
In Chester Himes’s If He Hollers, Let Him Go, Bob Jones goes through many tantrums of anger over the four-day period in which the novel spans. Bob Jones reacts reflexively to racist acts with violent thoughts and even murderous intentions. He experiences episodes of hatred and rage due to unfair treatment from whites and blacks, males and females from various socioeconomic castes. However, the emotion of rage in this story is only encapsulates the surface. His outward explosions of rage only illustrate how he copes with his problems with identity. All of Bob’s anger and irritability stem from uncertainty about his masculine identity.
Bob’s confusion leads him to question his identity, which dictates many of his outbursts of anger. Bob says, “I wonder what’s the matter with me, myself. Everything I do or say seems wrong (166).” His maladjustment comes from his confusion on whether he believes here is a strong, masculine person versus a lower-class pitiful human. Bob feels like he is a machine being run by white people and it causes him to question his identity, and it angers him. Removed from society, he believes he is a powerful person. When he is a part of the system that is society however, he knows he is powerless and he fights against this. In Chapter 4, Bob was feeling powerful after winning in a dice game. When the whites started denying him his winnings, Bob snapped and kicked the guy who called him “nigger” despite being outnumbered. He knows he cannot win, but he fights as if he believes he can win. Bob loses all self-restraint whenever his personal belief of power comes into question.
The impetus behind most of Bob’s outward expressions of rage and hate stem from his confusion about his notion of power and masculinity in regards to his sexual identity. Bob uses his sexual conquests to affirm his masculinity and any threat to this is met with irritation. He first used Ella Mae sexually as a release for his frustrations, but resented her when he discovered that she only did it out of pity; it damages his masculinity as he is not the one in control. Bob lost himself to rage when he assumed Alice was a lesbian. Alice being a lesbian is a major blow to his masculinity, as Alice was his prize conquest, a “trophy girl” that proves his masculinity. Again, he reacted violently without a second thought. Bob also loses self-restraint when Tom Leighton starts questioning Bob. Bob is not confused in that he does not want to be white. He only wants the respect that comes from being white, which he feels he is entitled to. But when Tom starts questioning Bob in a condescending tone and acting superior, trying to damage Bob’s credibility and masculinity, Bob reacted with a violent gesture that ended the conversation.
And I wasn’t going to have this peckerwood coming down here among my people, playing a great white god, sitting on his ass, solving the Negro problem with a flow of diction and making me look like a goddamned fool in front of my girl
Bob loses all sense of reason whenever he feels his sexual masculinity being threatened.
The climax of the book originates from Bob’s need to recover and reaffirm his reservations about his masculinity through sexual conquest. He desires to have sex with Madge only because she flaunts her “whiteness,” the source of all her power. Although Madge can ultimately control Bob’s fate with the word, “rape,” Bob feels that he can be in physical control during sex. Chapter 17 depicts Bob as cold and commanding as an attempt to assert his authority. The sexual conquest is an act of retaliation against whites and a symbol of social standing as even the poorest white has more social standing than the richest white.
His desire to conquer Madge conflicts with his desire for Alice. Choosing Alice over Madge meant that he would have to deny his opportunity to directly go against supposed white supremacy. Alice surpasses Madge in every way – she is more intelligent, beautiful, and her family is wealthier. Regardless, Bob still has a sexual attraction to Madge just because she is white and knows how to use it to her advantage, whereas Alice will always be limited by her race. To go against Madge is to go against the social norm and white ideology, the reason for Bob’s attraction to Madge. His choices are to go against white ideology or to stay with the girl who is the next best thing to being white. His choices puzzle him. He can go against white ideology by choosing Madge and regain his masculinity through sexual conquest, or he can yield to it by choosing Alice, who desperately tries to integrate with whites, therein losing his identity even further. At first, Bob believes he doesn’t have a choice (99). Choosing a great girl like Alice does reaffirm his masculinity as he believes she is a great catch who white men also envy, but it comes at the price of losing his masculinity when it comes to whites. This leads Bob to be snappy towards Alice, frequently cutting her off, belittling her, and at times downright ignoring her.
Bob’s petulance and violent actions originate from his confused masculine identity. He reacts to threats against his masculinity with open frustration, violent thoughts, and violence against all perpetrators white or black, male or female. His tantrums only stop when he makes a firm resolution to marry Alice, where he decides that the affirmation of his masculinity through fighting white ideology comes second to his desire to marry Alice. Bob considers the masculinity assured from marrying Alice trumps everything else and only then does he start acting more deliberately and cautiously.