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The hero of Lonely Crusade, the last of the realist novels Chester Himes wrote before he created his own brand of surreal crime fiction, is not a hero until the last page. Until then he is merely the protagonist and not a very attractive one at that. ‘He did not like people that much, anyway,’ we are told, early in the novel, ‘neither Negro people nor any people. He did not feel that much involved in humanity or in the struggle of humanity.’
By the time we reach his moment of heroism, we know Lee Gordon very well. Like most of the other characters, we know him better than he knows himself. They manipulate him, make use of him, try to help him, trust him, abuse him, love him, betray him. They are able to do this, Chester Himes shows us, because Lee Gordon’s sense of himself has been so distorted by racial prejudice that he is incapable of acting in his own or anyone else’s best interests.
‘Let people go to hell in their own particular way was one thing America had taught him.’
When Lee was still at school, his father was shot by a policeman who mistook him for a burglar. ‘The Negro churches organised a protest demanding that the officer be punished. But the city administration contended that it had been a natural mistake, and nothing was done about it.’ It is characteristic of Chester Himes that he uses this incident, not to make his readers sympathy for the bereaved child, but to tell them that it was not the bereavement that mattered. ‘Lee had never loved his father,’ he goes on, ‘nor greatly respected him and was not deeply grieved by his death, but he felt an actual degradation by the callousness of those responsible.’
It’s not the callousness Himes wants us to think about, it’s the degradation. He tells us that a collection was taken up for the family, amounting in total to fifteen hundred dollars. ‘And this too seemed more degrading than charitable.’ He wants us to understand that Lee Gordon, like all black Americans, is literally degraded. If the only way for black people to earn a living in white America is to do the only jobs white America thinks they are fit for and, like Uncle Tom, to thank them for it, the price to be paid is not only loss of self-respect but of moral values too. Why try to be good when the best America has to offer is to let you go to hell in your own particular way?
Lee Gordon’s tragedy is that his degradation prevents him even from loving. He falls in love with Ruth, marries her against her mother’s better judgement (‘It was not that she disliked Lee. Only that she could see no future for a Negro of Lee’s temperament.’) and for Ruth’s sake abandons his principles.
‘Marriage made him break his promise to himself. He worked at many jobs that he had refused before – bus boy in a hotel dining-room, porter in a downtown drugstore, laborer in a cannery during the spinach season.’ The best job he has is serving drinks at a country club, ‘a job where all he had to do to earn fifteen dollars or more each night was just to be a nigger.’ When he gets a job working for a union, his role is to recruit black workers.
The novel is about going to hell. For Lee Gordon the worst of it is losing the ability to love. He loves Ruth but blames her for making him break his promise and learn to accept his degradation as natural and inevitable. He hits her, leaves her, comes back, gets involved with a white woman, spends nights away, comes back, leaves again, gets involved with a murder and is thrown in jail.
His betrayal by the white woman is something else that everyone can see coming except him. It is bound up with his involvement, not just with her, but with the Communists by whom, ironically, she is betrayed as well. The struggle between unions and bosses is portrayed as hopelessly one-sided, little better than that between black and white. The Communists are Stalinists, driven by an ideology that puts party loyalty above everything.
A novel about racial prejudice, unions and Communism, written in 1947 by a black American, was never going to be a best seller in post-war America. While he was writing these early novels, Himes worked for a while as a screen-writer for Warner Brothers, but that came to an end when one of the brothers heard about him and said, “I don’t want no niggers working on this lot.”
The Harlem novels that made his name were written after he had settled in Paris, a congenial home for other black American writers too. They are nothing like Lonely Crusade or his other early novels. His fictional Harlem was a surreal construct, a metaphor for the America that lets people go to hell in their own particular way. Lonely Crusade and the others present America as it then was, and in some respects still is, in the cold light of day. When it comes, we know enough to know that Lee Gordon’s act of heroism will turn out to be futile, heroic but futile.