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  • “You Wouldn’t Want One of ‘Em Dancing With Your Wife”: Racialized Bodies on the Job in World War II
  • Eileen Boris (bio)

There were a lot of women workers on board, mostly white. Whenever I passed the white women looked at me, some curiously, some coyly, some with open hostility. Some just stared with blank hard eyes. Few ever moved aside to let me pass. . . . Now and then some of the young white women gave me an opening to make a pass, but I’d never made one: at first because the coloured workers seemed as intent on protecting the white women from the coloured men as the white men were, probably because they wanted to prove to the white folks they could work with white women without trying to make them. . . .

—Bob Jones in Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, 1945

Racialized bodies dominate Chester Himes’ homefront novel of social rage just as they provided a terrain of struggle in the wartime industry that forms its setting. 1 Obsessed with manhood and color, protaganist Bob Jones chafes under cultural notions of gender and race. This angry young African American migrant from Cleveland is a leaderman at a Los Angeles shipyard. Yet whites constantly undermine his authority as a supervisor. A white woman secretary keeps his blueprints locked away. A white Georgian foreman refuses to release a white woman tacker to Jones’s all-black crew. Madge, “a peroxide blonde with a large-featured, overly made-up face” from Texas, taunts him through her whiteness, sure that white men “had to protect her [End Page 77] from black rapists.” 2 Her insulting refusal to work for Jones (she calls him “nigger”) provokes him to curse her (“screw you then, you cracker bitch!”), leading to his demotion. 3

At the novel’s climax, Madge locks Jones into a cabin berth, crying “rape” when inspectors discover them. Though rejecting the sexual overtures of this southern temptress, he becomes ensnarled anyway in the rape-lynching complex that has colonized his mind as well as the imagination of white co-workers. 4 The novel ends when Madge withdraws her charge of rape—”a patriotic gesture comparable only to the heroism of men in battle,” the shipyard President explains, that would avoid the racial conflict ever threatening to disrupt industrial output. 5 Jones is forced to enter the army, a no-choice plea bargain for possessing a concealed gun.

Jones views himself trapped by forces of whiteness blocking his dream “to be accepted as a man—without ambition, without distinction, either of race, creed, or colour. . . without any other identifying characteristics but weight, height, and gender.” 6 This was the promise of federal employment policy during the war: an executive order against discrimination passionately embraced by African Americans. 7 The President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practice (FEPC) omitted sex as a covered category, sharing the mode of thought expressed by Jones whose listing of acceptable “identifying characteristics” naturalizes gender even as he questions the significance of racial difference. In keeping with the cultural pluralism of American social science, Jones holds contradictory positions. On the one hand, race is nothing but biology, so unimportant when it comes to the rights of citizenship. On the other hand, African Americans possess a culture and history that generates both racial pride and victimization. So race matters most of all. 8

Caught in fantasies of revenge, marking his manhood through violence, Jones vacillates over accepting the integrationist accomodation proposed by his light-skinned and “better class” social worker girlfriend. He feels betrayed by the American creed of “liberty and justice and equality,” 9 the set of national ideals upon which A. Philip Randolph based black demands for defense jobs and the end of the Jim Crow army, which Gunnar Myrdal placed at the center of The American Dilemma. 10 Blackness negates Jones’s masculinity, challenged on the highways and in the ship’s hole, symbolized by the workman’s overalls and hardhat that “made me feel rugged, bigger than the average citizen, [End Page 78] stronger than a white-collar worker—stronger even than an executive.” 11 Difference mocks African American male claims to citizenship—claims...