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  • "I Could Always Feel Race Trouble . . . Never More Than Two Feet Off":Chester Himes's Melancholic Perception
  • Tyrone Simpson II (bio)

In the summer of 1950, having been fraudulently arrested and jailed for causing a minor automobile accident with a moneyed white woman, Chester Himes steeled himself for yet another round of the ongoing anxiety he believed to typify and organize African American psychic experience. "Don't let it throw you," Himes encouraged himself. "Despair is characteristic of the black race" (Quality 112). Though the circumstances that surrounded the writer's brief incarceration at the time seemed bleak and unfair, this kind of unbridled pessimism about what he construed as the psychological condition of all blacks—and the incessant personal struggle to fight off such malaise—was not uncharacteristic of Himes. His published memoirs reveal the artist to be poignantly aware that racism exacted a heavy psychological cost on black people, and that he himself may have been chief among its victims.

Late in The Quality of Hurt (1972), the first volume of his autobiography, Himes declares the black man to be "the most neurotic, complicated, schizophrenic . . . specimen of mankind" (285) after stating earlier in the account that his "entire life had conditioned [him] to a constant expectation of catastrophe" (249). After all of the accomplishments Himes had earned by the early seventies, including a fiction-writing career that spanned a quarter century and had gained him international literary renown, why would the writer feel compelled to foreground "the quality of [his] hurt"? Why, at a moment when he seemed most existentially at peace, while writing his memoirs by the Spanish seaside, did Himes commit his pen to documenting what appears to be his lifelong unrest? In the following essay, I argue that the answers to these questions lie in Himes's theory of melancholia. Himes's ideas about melancholia, I argue, represent a sustained meditation on the interminable mourning for loss first conceptualized by Freud in 1917, and which Ann Cheng and others have recently revised in the study of race in the United States. Focusing on his late memoir, as well as his early novel If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), I will show that Himes was as much a theorist as he was a victim of racial melancholia. What Himes saw as the eternal mourning of black Americans over the impossibility of being white could be understood not merely as a paralyzing pathology but as a necessary strategy for endurance and engagement within spaces defined by white supremacy. Whereas racial paranoia and the epistemology of prediction it implies may have stood for Himes as a virtually inevitable consequence of black life in the United States, it was racial melancholia that furnished him with a viable theory of black political subjectivity.

What makes Freud's theory of melancholia responsive to the predicament of race in the United States is that it seems directly to address how intersubjective—and thus social—estrangement may produce in persons an unending experience of emotional strife. Since racialization is fundamentally a process of separation and subsequent objectification of human beings, a theory predicated on object loss is likely to provide some insight on race's psychic affects. Such is the thinking of Anne [End Page 233] Anlin Cheng, as she articulates it in The Melancholy of Race (2001). Cheng explains that melancholia is a condition in which both white and nonwhite subjects participate. This is possible because both subject positions take on the other as an ambivalently desired object that is destined to be lost through the uneven distribution of racial privilege and power. For whiteness, melancholia manifests itself in what Cheng calls the "exclusion-yet-retention of racialized others" (Cheng 10). The codification of whiteness as a national ideal engenders the exclusion, and thus the loss of which Cheng speaks, yet national needs have historically worked to counterbalance this ban since nonwhites often provide the human capital that enables economic growth. Though nonwhites are integral to the reproduction of American life, the attempts to circumscribe their privileges of citizenship—despite their contributions—have been incessant. Thus in important symbolic ways, these nonwhite subjects remain in U. S. culture, but not completely...


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pp. 233-245
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