Learning the difference between black and white: The racial struggle between black and white Americans as represented in a selection of Chester Himes’ short stories

Term Paper 2007 23 Pages

American Studies - Literature



1 Introduction

2 Struggling for an Identity: The Situation of African Americans From the Beginning of the 20th Century to the Era of the Civil Rights Movement
2.1. From the Beginning of the Century to World War I
2.2. The Post War Period
2.3. Harlem Renaissance and the Great Depression
2.4. Desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement

3 Learning What it Means to Be Black: Biographical Overview of Himes’ Life

4 Writing About the Difference: Two Short Stories
4.1. Accusing the Difference: “All God’s Chillun Got Pride”
4.2. Mocking the Difference: “The Ghost of Rufus Jones”

5 Conclusion

6 Works Cited

“Why did God make me an outcast

and a stranger in mine own house?”

W.E.B. DuBois[1]

1 Introduction

The history of the racial struggle between black and white Americans is older than the United States itself. It took centuries of fighting for the black population to gain first freedom and then equal rights. Despite major breakthroughs like the abolition of slavery in the wake of the Civil War and the promotion of a black identity that reached its first peak in the Harlem Renaissance and culminated in the Civil Rights Movement, the fight for acceptance was tedious and often demoralizing. The prejudices of old made their way even into the 20th century surviving both World Wars. It was not until the late 1960s that discrimination on the grounds of race became illegal in the otherwise very progressive United States.

This long struggle has been and still is one of the most important subjects in U.S. literature. When thinking about its most famous representatives in the 20th century, one will soon remember names of authors such as W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Etheridge Knight, Toni Morrison, and many more. All of them are known all over the world for their active rejection of discrimination and oppression of African Americans. However, there are also other authors, who are not necessarily associated with these subjects. One of them is Chester Himes.

Despite the ferocious anti-racism of his early works, Himes is best known and appreciated for his detective stories. Whereas these were very successful especially in Europe, the bitterness of his first books did not find approval at first. His short stories, however, were popular enough to sell mostly to black newspapers and magazines but also to Esquire[2]. The stories treated in this paper were published posthumously in the anthology The Collected Stories of Chester Himes[3]. These short stories, written between 1933 and 1978, deal with themes ranging from women and poverty to life in prison, war, and, above all, racism. Some of them could be considered semi-autobiographical. They are Himes’ way of dealing with his situation as a black American in a white segregationist society and reflect his anger and hopelessness.

This paper will concentrate on two short stories treating the subject of racism against African Americans which is omnipresent in Himes’ works. Whereas in “All God’s Chillun Got Pride” Himes emphasizes that the inferiority of blacks is not a natural phenomenon but a tradition forcibly imposed on them by the whites, “Rufus Jones” is a bitter-sweet humorous attempt to unveil the absurdity of racial stereotypes. To understand the bitterness and cynicism of Himes’ short stories it is necessary both to recall the historical developments that influenced them and to look at the author’s biography. Therefore, I will first introduce a short historical and biographical overview, to then focus on the selected short stories and finally sum up the outcome.

2 Struggling for an Identity: The Situation of African Americans From the Beginning of the 20th Century to the Era of the Civil Rights Movement

2.1. From the Beginning of the Century to World War I

The most important consequences of the Civil War as regards to black history were the abolition of slavery anchored in the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Fourteenth Amendment that includes equal rights, and the right to vote for any citizen given in the Fifteenth Amendment. However, right from the beginning, the rights of African Americans were seriously abridged by legal decisions supporting white supremacy and terror[4].

The situation of the black population remains poor even into the 20th century, triggering a growing resistance against the oppressive legislation. There are two movements led by two very different men: Booker T. Washington, born 1856 as son of slaves, an advocate of the slow assimilation of African Americans into the white society, and W.E.B. DuBois, born 1868 as son of free parents, an intellectual and the initiator of political action demanding equal rights. Whereas Washington believes in integration and acceptance through accommodation, hard work, and patience, DuBois supports the idea of educating an intellectual elite – which he calls “the Talented Tenth” – to guarantee the success of a civil rights agenda[5]. These two positions are continued in the Civil Rights Movement. After his death, Washington’s conservative, non-violent strategy influences Martin Luther King, while DuBois’ militant position is shared by Malcolm X.

In the first half of the 20th century, several incidents lead to the development of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. Starting in 1905 with DuBois’ Niagara Movement – which in 1909 becomes the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) after merging with a white group – many groups emerge to improve the condition of the black community physically and morally: The National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes (National Urban League), the African National Congress, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL)[6]. At the same time, the terror against African Americans and the lynching persist in the Southern States, leading to the Great Migration between 1916 and 1970. In the course of the migratory wave, about six million African Americans move to the North and the West fostering cultural and intellectual activity in the urban centres[7].

World War I introduces a change for African American identity. ‘White’ jobs left behind by white soldiers become available to African Americans making it possible for them to improve their economical situation. Moreover, many black soldiers are deployed overseas[8]. Despite fighting for the same country as white soldiers, black servicemen encounter racism even in operational theatres. The most infamous case is that of the black 369th Infantry Regiment. After landing in France, a number of its members are killed by intentional friendly fire and assigned to different units which reject them because of their colour. They are then sent to fight for the French 4th Army, for which they fight so bravely that they are awarded France's highest military honour, the Croix de Guerre with star and palm[9]. Both the improving economical conditions and the recognition of their efforts in the war boost African American self-confidence.

2.2. The Post War Period

When the war finishes, the returning black soldiers and the black workers face an increased resentment against them. The first years after the war are marked by an explosion of racial violence that causes a large number of fatalities. In 1917, forty blacks and eight whites die – the official reports state thirty-nine blacks and nine whites although it is believed that there were more than hundred black victims[10] – and about 6,000 African Americans are forced to leave their homes when white rioters attack them[11]. Black soldiers wearing uniform come under the attack of conservative whites. Race riots all over the U.S. during the “Red Summer” of 1919 leave many blacks dead and thousands homeless. At the same time, the resistance grows headed by Marcus Garvey, the leader of the UNIA-ACL, which has become increasingly popular[12]. Although after Garvey’s conviction for mail fraud his organization loses most of its members, it is a major step towards a unified black identity[13].

2.3. Harlem Renaissance and the Great Depression

The new identity is fostered during the 1920s when the increasing interest of whites in black music, literature, and art leads to the cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Black novelist and poets like Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, and Wallace Thurman publish enormously successful works; jazz, blues, and all-black performances become fashionable amongst whites. Moreover, African Americans become successful in sports and business.

The era ends in the wake of the crash of the stock markets in 1929 that causes the Great Depression. Unemployment and poverty amongst both black and whites lead to a renewed wave of hatred against African Americans, especially in the Southern States. The two most notorious incidents of this time, the Scottsboro case and the Tuskegee experiment, both take place in Alabama[14]. In 1931, nine black men aged between 13 and 21 are accused of raping two white women on a freight train. Despite medical evidence stating that no rape occurred, they are sentenced to death (except for the youngest). The sentences are later recurred in two landmark Supreme Court rulings but, although the trials end in 1937, the last man will not leave jail until 1950[15]. In the Tuskegee experiment that lasts from 1932 until 1972, more than 600 African American men are part of a U.S. Public Health syphilis study. Almost 400 of the probands are infected with the disease, but left untreated for doctors to watch its progress[16].

2.4. Desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement

In the 1940s, the pressure on the government to change the situation of African Americans increases as discrimination of both civilians and soldiers persists even during WWII. The broad media coverage of both violent and non-violent protests and legal action against racial discrimination encourages the resistance among the population[17]. In 1941, this situation causes President Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 to ensure that there is “no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin, and […] that it is the duty of employers and of labor organizations, in furtherance of said policy and of this order, to provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries, without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin.”[18] In the wake of this order, the exclusionist attitude in many public environments starts to relax. Blacks become increasingly powerful in the traditionally white field of politics[19] and successful in formerly white sports[20]. Moreover, the Brown decision in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 mark the beginning of a new era in which African Americans finally have the same rights as any other American citizen[21]. By that time, however, Chester Himes has already left the United States never to return.


[1] DuBois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Bartleby.com: Great Books Online. 1999. 27 February 2007 www.bartleby.com/114/1.html

[2] Polito, Robert. “Hard-Boiled.” Rev. of Chester Himes: A Life, by James Sallis. The New York Times on the Web 18 March 2001. 2 March 2007 http://www.nytimes.com/books/01/03/18/reviews/010318.18politot.html?_r=2&oref=slogin

[3] The edition used in this paper is: Himes, Chester B. The Collected Stories of Chester Himes. London: Allison&Busby, 1993.

[4] “History of the Civil Rights Struggle.” History.com. 2005. History Channel. 26 February 2007 http://www.history.com/minisite.do?content_type=Minisite_Generic&content_type_id=590&display_order=1&sub_display_order=6&mini_id=1071

[5] “Booker T. and W.E.B.: The Debate Between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington.” pbs.org. 1998. Public Broadcasting Service. 27 February 2007 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/race/etc/road.html

[6] Neither History.com nor Encyclopaedia Britannica add “and African Communities League”. The full name is given in “Black History Timeline.” Biography.com. Biography Channel. 26 February 2007 http://www.biography.com/blackhistory/black-history-timeline.jsp

[7] “Timeline: Through the Centuries.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 27 February 2007 http://www.britannica.com/blackhistory/timeline?tocId=9433428

[8] “History of the Civil Rights Struggle.” History.com.

[9] “Famous 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I.” Newcommunity.org. 1998. New Community Corporation. 27 February 2007 http://www.newcommunity.org/clarion/apr98/articles/p8-1.html

[10] Leonard, Mary D. “E. St. Louis Riot.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 13 January 2004. 28 February 2007 http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/news/special/pd125.nsf/0/6898098EFD0019E686256E04005BF0BC?OpenDocument

History.com claims that over 200 African Americans were killed (History.com, 2005); pbs.org speaks of “nine whites and hundreds of African Americans” (“East St. Louis Riot.” pbs.org. 1999-2000. Public Broadcasting Service. 28 February 2007 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/garvey/peopleevents/e_estlouis.html

[11] “East Saint Louis Race Riot of 1917.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 28 February 2007 http://www.britannica.com/blackhistory/article-9031797

[12] “Timeline: Through the Centuries.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.

[13] “History of the Civil Rights Struggle.” History.com.

[14] “Timeline: Through the Centuries.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.

[15] “The Facts of the Case and Scottsboro Today.” USINFO. 2001. U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Information Programs. 28 February 2007 http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itdhr/0701/ijde/pittssdb.htm

[16] “Clinton to Apologize for Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.” CNN.com. 1997. Cable News Network. 28 February 2007 http://www.cnn.com/US/9704/08/tuskegee/

[17] “The Depression, The New Deal, and World War II.” memory.loc.gov. 2007. The Library of Congress. 1 March 2007 http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/aaohtml/exhibit/aopart8.html

[18] Roosevelt, Franklin D. “Prohibition of Discrimination in the Defense Industry.” Executive Order 8802 of 25 June 1941. 1 March 2007 http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=72

[19] Ralph Bunche is the first African American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts as United Nations mediator in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

[20] “Timeline: Through the Centuries.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.

[21] “The Civil Rights Era.” memory.loc.gov. 2007. The Library of Congress. 1 March 2007 http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/aaohtml/exhibit/aopart8.html


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Learning Americans Chester Himes’



Title: Learning the difference between black and white: The racial struggle between black and white Americans as represented in a selection of Chester Himes’ short stories