White Guilt, American Shame And Racial Violence: Chester Himes’ Plan B

Alice Craven
September 7, 2016
Online Only
Source: Black Lives Matter
I have never felt any attraction to violence. Besides,  black violence against white has never been as important as the American  press pretends to believe. It is obvious to me that blacks had no  chance in an armed confrontation, the odds being 10 to one. It’s through  acting upon white guilt, and by knowing how far to carry their threats,  that Negroes might achieve the greatest revenge.
— Chester Himes[i]

The struggle for recognition on the part of Black American authors in  20th-century literature is most often associated with the likes of  James Baldwin (1924-1987) and Richard Wright (1908-1960), rather than  Chester Himes (1909-1984). As celebrated filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles  put it, “We were only allowed one brilliant Negro per profession and  Richard Wright, soon to be dethroned by Jimmy Baldwin, had beaten  Chester to the wire in the protest novel department.[ii] Despite  the fact that Himes was a mainstream presence in the Parisian circles  of writers such as Baldwin and Wright, he was never taken as seriously  as the they were in the realm of meaningful protest.

Himes wrote with verve but with little hope of his real message being  heard, as time went by. His “protest” novels, such as Cast the First  Stone (1953, later published as Yesterday Will Make You Cry in 1998);  The Third Generation (1954) or The End of a Primitive (1955) were  written during his years in America and indeed in American prisons. They  remained undervalued for quite some time. It was only with Himes’  relocation to Paris and his move away from pure protest that he gained  notoriety. With the help of Marcel Duhamel (1900-1977) and the Série  noire, Himes’ authentic critique of race relations in America found  resonance.[iii]

All three of these authors found their way out of America and into  the Parisian enclaves of Black expatriates which allowed them to analyze  the racial violence of their native country with a distance that  ultimately served to sharpen their critiques across the board. Both  Wright and Baldwin are indeed legendary protest authors whose words  resonate today. On the contrary, Himes slipped into one of the most  undervalued genres of the time period, the detective novel. While some  claim that this move compromised his protest voice, his Harlem detective  series nonetheless reveals an astute and uncompromising critique of  white guilt and racial violence in the United States in the mid to late  20th century.

A key concept throughout the series is that of the absurdity of  racism. The introduction to Himes’ autobiography immortalizes this  obsession of his:

Albert Camus once said that racism is absurd. Racism  introduces absurdity into the human condition. Not only does racism  express the absurdity of the racists, but it generates absurdity in the  victims. …Racism generating from whites is first of all absurd. Racism  creates absurdity among blacks as a defense mechanism. Absurdity to  combat absurdity. So it was for me. I thought [when I wrote The End of a  Primitive] I had struck a great blow against racial prejudice… I was  arrogant in the belief. [vi]

Himes mocks his own arrogance in thinking that he had struck a blow  against racism when he unleashes his talent for absurd expression in the  detective series which has strongly shaped his legacy. In these novels,  all of which were written while he was an expatriate, the discerning  reader finds a biting assessment of white guilt and its role in  perpetuating racial violence of a uniquely American nature, despite the  fact that his attack on racial absurdity was routinely downplayed by the  marketing techniques targeting a white reading public.[v] Himes’  real aim, according to Van Peebles, was to use Harlem as a metaphor for  tracing “the plight of dark-skinned folks in America” (17).

The series consists of nine novels (some sources suggest ten, but Run  Man Run, published in America in 1966, was not considered by Himes to  be part of the series), all featuring his trademark detectives Coffin Ed  Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. The detectives are both Negroes and for  the most part, at an ironic peace with the outrageous lack of justice  for the dark-skinned people of their community. Their deadpan humor  throughout the series makes them the mouthpieces for many of Chester  Himes’ ironic positions, for example, when some young black hoodlums  accuse them of being Uncle Tom cops and further claim that they are cops  who are on whitey’s side. To this Gravedigger responds, “Go home and  grow up. You’ll find there ain’t no other side” (Blind Man with a  Pistol, 140). The remaining characters to be found in the series, in  particular in the debut novel A Rage in Harlem (1958), are Negro  stereotypes ostensibly created to amuse a white reading public and  assuage feelings of white guilt. They were therefore read primarily on a  surface level.

Plan B, the last of the novels, was published posthumously in Paris  in 1984 and only saw the light of day in an English translation 10 years  after Chester Himes’ death, in 1993. Unlike the others, Plan B strongly  resists a surface reading. It is in this novel that Himes wreaks havoc  on his own sustained Harlem metaphor, concluding the narrative with the  two detectives in an irreconcilable dispute about American racism that  brings about the death of both men. One of Plan B’s central episodes is  referred to as the 8th Avenue massacre in which the tenants of a slum  building in Harlem are attacked and untold numbers of blacks are killed  by the police. The episode epitomizes Himes’ analysis of white guilt as a  primary cause in the perpetuation of racial violence. Himes uses the  violence of the massacre as an illustration of the repression of white  guilt which is eventually institutionalized as justified defense against  the fear instilled by Blacks. It is difficult not to think of the  recent instances of Black Lives Matters protests, police violence  against young Blacks, black violence against police officers… In short,  the conundrum of racial violence taking place in the U.S. today.

Black Attack, White Defense or White Attack, Black Defense? A Microcosm of Chester Himes’ Harlem

The 8th Avenue massacre begins as a reverse parody of Whites in black  face. The sequence of events is as follows: a lone sniper (later  identified as a Negro) is deemed responsible for the killing of five  policemen in Harlem. This shootout is followed by an attempt on the part  of the armed forces to locate and eliminate the sniper. In their fervor  to eradicate the black man, they bring in a tank which explodes an  entire rotting slum building inhabited by Negroes. The explosion causes  burnt white ashes to spray out and cover the faces of the black tenement  dwellers. Black face, a tradition of ridicule and condescension towards  Blacks, is inverted and then imposed upon the Negro community, adding  insult to injury. In addition, the overblown nature of bringing in a  tank to eliminate one sniper gives new meaning to the term ‘use of  excessive force’. This term is indeed prevalent in contemporary news  reports about police violence against Blacks and has helped to fuel the  Black Lives Matter movement in recent years.

Who’s to blame?

The initial reaction from the white community in the face of this  desecration of a large proportion of the black community by white police  forces is one of outrage, guilt and remorse, but this is a short-lived  reaction. To assuage the heavy guilt felt by white people, the ironic  narrative voice analyzes the causes of the massacre in order to make  decisions about where to lay blame. In the process of dissecting the  events, many practices so fundamental to Jim Crow America in the ‘age of  the Negro’ are evoked. As is stated in the novel[vi]:

No one had the slightest idea why he (the Black gunman)  would suddenly attack and kill white policemen who had always been good  and kind to black people. They could not imagine him doing a thing like  that; none of them would even think of killing a kindly white cop. Not  one of them had seen him fire at the patrol car or at any of the other  police cars that appeared subsequently. None of them knew anything, had  seen anything, had heard anything, or said anything of importance. It  was as though they had spent the night on another planet (111).

Himes catalogs the ways in which Negro behavior in a white public is  almost always in conformity with how Whites want to be seen by Blacks,  that is, as beneficent and well-meaning towards the black communities.  For example, pantomiming acquiescence is a stock in trade for American  minstrel shows and other stereotypical depictions of American blacks.  The reference to living on another planet from the Whites is a fairly  accurate description of life in Jim Crow America.

To believe that the behavior described in this quote was authentic  helped in alleviating repressed white guilt. Any departure from this  kind of behavior could quickly bring on a reaction of surprise,  disbelief, indignation and more often than not, instances of white on  black violence. According to the white mind-set being parodies, a Negro  who could even imagine that a white policeman could harm them, or who  failed to praise the white community, would be considered uppity.  Genuine dissent on the part of the Negro community cannot go unpunished.  Thus it is better not to see, hear or even say anything about the  events leading up to the violence, or else risk succumbing to the wrath  of the white man.

Nonetheless, the initial reaction of the white community to the  massacre is a profound sense of quilt about what has happened to these  innocent black bystanders. Though such racist dynamics might be gleaned  in many national contexts, Himes emphasizes the unique American context  in his subsequent description of the analysis in such passages as:

The citizens of other nations in the world found it  difficult to reconcile this excessive display of guilt by America’s  white community with its traditional treatment of blacks. What the  citizens of the world didn’t understand was that American whites are a  traditionally masochistic people, and their sense of guilt towards  blacks is an integral part of the national character [my emphasis]  (107).

As the events leading up to the massacre are further scrutinized and  reported upon, the extent to which white guilt quickly morphs into acts  of violence born of repeated repressive gestures becomes apparent. And  the real justification for the final outcome of this novel, triggered by  the 8th Avenue massacre, is a fusion of actions prompted by white guilt  and self-identification by white Americans as members of a superior  group.

Justifying White on Black violence – the courts and the press

The legal investigation into the 8th Avenue massacre bears this out. The  massacre is initially seen as atrocious and guilt-inducing for Whites.

Never had the white community projected such mawkish  feelings of guilt. White men, crying unrestrainedly, confessed to deeds  and emotions they had kept concealed and had denied for centuries. They  were heard to confess to beating blacks, oppressing blacks, corrupting  blacks, lusting after blacks and most violently of all, to hating  blacks. …And they contended that they were indeed devils, as certain  blacks had contended all along and declared that they should be punished  for their wickedness (105).

The massacre is perceived as an event so shocking and horrifying  that, in the initial shock of the moment, they forgot that the original  act of violence was indeed the fault of one Black man. But the formal  conclusion on the part of the courts and the press is that the attack on  the Negroes was actually a legitimate defense on the part of Whites  against a black man who singlehandedly killed five white policemen. This  outcry is quickly transformed as is so often the case in these  scenarios. By the end of the chapter, the groundwork for future acts of  violence against the Negro community is laid:

Uneasiness grew as the press published detailed reports of the wanton killing of five white policemen by the black killer.  Visions stirred in the minds of white citizens of blacks running amok  with mystery guns. Trepidation supplanted their orgy of guilt.  Trepidation grew to anger. Were they asking too much to feel safe in  their own country, in their own homes, living their own lives?  …Civilization would be a shambles if the sins of the fathers were  visited upon the children to untold generations. They were fed up with  these unwanted blacks with their impossible demands (112).

In short, the feelings of guilt that threaten the order and sanctity  of the law in America must be assuaged and in the process give way to a  justification for violence against Negroes. Such is the mechanism of  perpetuating racial violence in America as illustrated by Himes in the  episode of the 8th Avenue massacre of Plan B.

Strangely enough, writing at the end of his life, Himes excuses  American whites for very little, but his sympathy for Blacks in short  supply as well. In the final chapter of Plan B, an all-out confrontation  between Whites and Blacks takes place. In this apocalyptic  confrontation which ends the novel, Himes writes that “in the wake of  this bloody massacre, the stock market crashed. The dollar fell on the  world market. The very structure of capitalism began to crumble.  Confidence in the capitalistic system had an almost fatal shock” (182).  Just as his narrator had earlier noted that white guilt was part of the  national character of America, he asserts in this later section that  American self-interest is rooted in the institutionalization of the  capitalist system. That system maintains its power through the continual  reaffirmation of white supremacy as the grounding for law, order and  the American way. The repression of white guilt is thus represented as a  mechanism for perpetuating violence, and as long as the black community  is unable to turn that white guilt against itself, it will be a  community continually victimized by the righteous wrath of the  supremacists. As my opening quote from Himes attests, Himes believed  that the only recourse to action for the Negro was through the  manipulation of white guilt. There are no heroes in Plan B. There is  only a condemnation of the mythologies which allow for racism to become  self-perpetuating and impossible to eradicate.

Himes and America today

Himes’ Harlem is an elaborate and surreal nightmare about the absurdity  of racial relations in America and it reflects uncannily upon the racist  nature of contemporary events. For the mainstream American press, such  ironic incidents are written up as tragedies. The words of legendary  protest authors Baldwin and Wright are evoked time and again as a way of  parsing and protesting the injustices resulting from these tragedies.  They too had the opportunity to distance themselves from their own  suffering in the United States and therefore comment more forcefully on  the dysfunction of America and its race relations. Their writings have  indeed stood the test of time. But we should no longer be living in an  age where only one brilliant Negro at a time can be allowed to speak.  Himes’ metaphoric Harlem, though seemingly lost in an ironic haze, is  nonetheless drawn with candor and precision. It behooves us to recognize  the value and relevance of his texts as the unconquered protests they  ultimately prove to be when read with precision.


[I] From Michel Fabre’s “Chester Himes Direct” In Hard Boiled Dicks, (December 1983): Volumes 8-9, 5-21. Reprinted In Conversations With Chester Himes.  Edited By Michel Fabre And Robert E. Skinner. Jackson: University Of  Mississippi Press. 1995. 125-142. 136. Print.  The Use Of The Word Negro  Throughout This Article Is In Conformity With Himes’ Own Use Of The  Term.

[Ii] Introduction To Himes’ Yesterday Will Make You Cry. New York: W.W. Norton. 1998. 16-17. Print.

[Iii] One Example Of The Ease With Which Himes’ Protest Literature Was Dismissed Comes From The New York Times 1959 Book Review (1959) “Himes Is A Small Man With A Little Moustache And A Big Dog Who Has Written Such Unsuccessful Books As The Primitive, Cast The First StoneIf He Hollers Let Him Go And The Third Generation And Is Now Writing Detective Stories For The French Série Noire.” Quoted In My Life Of Absurdity, 1976, 195-196.

[Vi] My Life Of Absurdity. New York: Paragon House. 1976. Print.

[V] One Example Of Racist Marketing Is Seen In The Cover Publicity Of The Dell Publication Of Chester Himes’ Novel Run Man Run.  The Female Protagonist Is Purported To Be A Singer But “Men Were Her Trade. She Never  Discriminated!” Of This Marketing Tactic Himes Wrote “Who Are They  Talking About?  I Wrote A Book About A Psychopathic White Detective  Killing Two Brothers And Trying To Kill A Third.  And They Put This Shit  Down About Some Black Sister Out Of Her Mind (Margolies And Fabre 149,  Quoted In My “A Victim In Need Is A Victim In Deed: The Ritual Consumer  And Self-fashioning In Chester Himes’ Run Man Run”, Question Of Identity In Detective Fiction, Ed. Linda Martz And Anita Higgie. Newcastle: Cambridge. 2007. 37-58. 47.

[Vi]  For Those Unfamiliar With The Laws Of Jim Crow Society In America, A  Useful And Responsibly Done Website Is From The Ferris State University  Jim Crow Museum Of Racist Memorabilia, <Http://Www.Ferris.Edu/Jim Crow/What.Html> Accessed 23 March, 2016.

All by
Alice Craven