Chester Himes and Americo Paredes tell stories that compel readers to be concerned about structural racism in America. Though the settings are circa 1900s and 1940s, the stranglehold that bigotry has on America -- particularly in the South -- has not been eliminated. Certainly bigotry -- or the overt expression of bigotry -- has abated some, but one wonders if Himes would still conclude that society is characterized by hypocrisy and contradiction. Racial hatred and racial violence find expression today, just as they did in Los Angeles in the 1940s.
With His Pistol in His Hand by Americo Paredes is a Texan tall tale -- and an American true story. The book was first a doctoral dissertation by a University of Texas student in the Department of English. It came to fame as a lead story published in Dallas in 1957 by Mody C. Boatright (ed.) in Chapter II, "The Legend," of Mesquite and Willow. The time is the Texas Revolution, with references including up until World War II. The place is the Texas -- Mexico border. The problem is the persecution of Mexicans by Anglo-Americans.
Chester Himes' story, If He Hollers, Let Him Go, doesn't begin with Bob Jones building Liberty ships in the shipyards of Los Angeles. Quite obviously, the story has its roots in the antebellum South, from which it was just a hop, skip, and a jump to the 1940s. The years before World War II were characterized by such narrowly defined nationalism and such deep suspicions of difference that these sentiments nearly kept the United States out of the war -- in fact, they did for some time, as Wilson resisted aiding the Europeans. On these fears, were piled increasing immigration rates and further erosion of domestic homogeneity. The prejudices of Americans -- white Americans -- were raw and incendiary -- as Bob Jones knew, violence could flare from the embers of bias -- anytime, anywhere.
Arguing the Long-Term Consequences of Racism
In 1942, the forced relocation and internment of Japanese-Americans was testimony to the widespread and irrational distrust of "the other." This was a manifestation of official, systematic, and unjustified racial prejudice. It was a clear demonstration of the stranglehold that racial prejudice had on the American public -- and worse -- on officials in high places, who should know better and do better. When, in June of 1943, widespread violence erupted against Mexican-American youth in the Zoot Suit Riots, men like Bob Jones recognized that nothing had changed in their move to the North, to the West, to the coasts. Bigotry followed them like a cloak they couldn't shake off, remove, or discard.
If He Hollers, Let Him Go is a Bildungsroman gone wrong. Bob Jones starts out at odds with society and end there -- and perhaps even in a worse place because he is constantly in danger of transgressing the rules. Bob Jones does not start out a misfit in a place, navigate the hazards, and at last find a place where he is not a transgressor. He has no place, no safe home, and he will not find protection from the racial violence that threatens him at every corner in the Los Angeles metropolis -- or at least not the one that he sought as part of the American Dream promised by the Golden State. As illustration, when Bob and Alice are stopped and arrested for driving in Santa Monica by the police, they are told by the station desk sergeant to "get back where you belong and stay there." The constraints on Bob's freedom and ability to attain any sort of vertical mobility are less tangible than those imposed on the Japanese-Americans, but they are not any less real or frightening.
Because it was wartime, when paranoia can find a sound base, white Americans conflated the identities of foreign enemies with what they perceived to be the enemies within. In this, Himes demonstrated that structural racism borrows from the seed of irrationality and penetrates any reasonable barrier erected against it. Given the slightest provocation, racism consumes any progress made among the people in this story, who are richly diverse but tragically caught by their inherited past. Bob Jones looses everything he has gained when the lower class white women -- that he clashes with and is attracted to -- protects her reputation as a virtuous white woman by claiming that Jones tried to rape her. She later withdraws her charges, preventing even deeper harm to Bob Jones, but the end result is that he must move on. Without a job in the shipyards to keep him from induction, Jones is drafted into the Army -- a microcosm of the society he has endured and can never leave.
Persuading Readers to Activism
Himes writes a story based on facts -- some of which come directly from his own experience. This is the kind of storytelling most readers know and understand. If it is compelling and persuasive, it is because the story is taken from the writers' observations and emotions. Paredes tells the reader another kind of story in With His Pistol in His Hand. Americo Peredes takes us on a journey that begins in fact, is translated into folklore, and then is celebrated as ballad. The hardship comes as the reader realizes that the altercation described in the story is factually represented in court testimony and bears little resemblance to the narrative version in the book. The public records [see Texas Criminal Reports, XLIV, 169-183, and Southwestern Reporter, LXIX, 536-541] stand out in bold relief next to the smoothed interpretive rendition of the book narrative (Dunn, 1960).
Paredes wants the reader to appreciate that the protagonists were persecuted by the establishment -- the institutionally sanctioned bigots that, in this border town, wear badges. Violence is not incidental to the story -- fact and fiction -- in With His Pistol in His Hand -- it is central to it. The book consists of two parts: The first is an account of Gregorio Cortez Lira who lived from 1875 to 1916. Our hero is known as Cortez. The remainder of the book -- the second part -- is a story-ballad known as El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez that was derived from a single astonishing example representative of the Old West. Imagine cavalier guitarreros -- perhaps errant -- singing about a dramatic misunderstanding between our hero Cortez and the local bad-news Sheriff W.T. Morris of Karnes County. In a story line worthy of the silver screen, and in a style reminiscent of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, our two main characters are involved in no less than "two western-type gun fights, four homicides, an extended manhunt, a sea-saw court siege, and a dramatic lynch-mob scene" (Dunn, 1960).
Perhaps it is the story's similarity to that of spaghetti Westerns that tempers any possible call to action by readers. Still, the story has all the elements of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the Hole in the Wall Gang -- and the protagonists are equally agreeable. In one of the largest manhunts known, for 10 days from the time of the shooting, Cortez was chased by a posse of upwards to 300 hundred men, and he is reported to have traveled 400 miles on horseback and 100 miles on foot -- this is the stuff of legends. On the sidelines, Anglo-Americans committed violent acts against Mexican communities in the border towns and counties. The San Antonio Express helped to instill Texan admiration of Cortez, commenting on his "remarkable powers of endurance and skill in eluding pursuit" by the Texas Rangers.
Cortez was a member of the Border Mexicans who "directed their energies not toward being accepted into the majority but toward maintaining their own individual rights as members of an aloof enclave struggling to keep its own identity…[developing] the Border heroic corridor" [or ballad] out of past conflicts (Dunn, 1960, p. 106). History tells us that the dominant society is conflicted about minorities that keep themselves apart -- minority cultures are penalized being separatist, especially if they are successful when doing so, and they are punished for trying to assimilate, although not necessarily blatantly. Himes made a point of writing about hidden discrimination, hurt and betrayal when he encountered a very resilient brand of prejudice.
Although Cortez discovered the truth about two different sets of laws for Anglo-Texans and Texas Mexicans, he demonstrated the grit that is necessary to become a folk-hero. The question then becomes whether Cortez cold be sufficiently inspiring of other so as to motivate them to become involved in civil disobedience on behalf of a cause. Just as Americans still sing about Casey going to bat and Paul Bunyan, in cantinas lining both sides of the Rio Grande River, voices are raised in praise of the maize farmer who became the renowned sheriff-killer.
Cortez became the most famous border town Mexican -- through happenstance and misunderstanding, rather than through some grand plan to represent…