White Is and White Ain’t: Representations and Analyses of Whiteness in the Novels of Chester Himes
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
American Culture Studies/English
This dissertation borrows and paraphrases for its title from the marijuana-dream sermon in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. As Ellison avers that "Black is, an’ black ain’t," so too, I contend, "White is, and white ain’t." Racial constructions are irrevocably embedded in each other. I trace this through selected novels of Chester Himes, who offers a specific way of reading whiteness, through his deployment and ultimate disruption of hard-boiled conventions, a style that other scholars have convincingly argued is a literary epitome of white male perspective. Chapter One is a biographical sketch, focusing upon those points in Himes’s life which best inform his representations and analysis of whiteness. Chapter Two engages Himes’s first published novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go in order to locate those tropes and figures of whiteness in both narrative and style which will later manifest themselves in his Harlem Cycle. Chapter Three moves to the Harlem Cycle itself. A Rage in Harlem is a transitional text of sorts, from the "social protest" conventions to the more absurdist aspects of the later novels. These stylistic departures are discussed alongside the later Harlem novels, in order to demonstrate how they result in texts more fully able to address the trope of whiteness. Chapter Four examines the last novel of the Cycle, Blind Man With A Pistol. Here Himes unleashes his most unsparing critique and unmasking of the effects of whiteness, moving effectively past the mere personification of white mannerisms into a clear assault on structural aspects. In doing so, he effectively deconstructs the hardboiled and detective genres, as there is no resolution available to the "crime" he narrates. The text itself devolves from the epistemological nature of the detective narrative into a more encompassing (and despairing) meditation on the ontologic character of the construction of race, particularly the construction and maintenance of whiteness. Some attention is given to the "last" of the Harlem novels, Plan B. This text, unfinished and unpublished in Himes’s lifetime, is the fictive rendering of his observation that "the only way the black man can solve [the "race problem]" is through organized violence.
Walter, Scott, "White Is and White Ain’t: Representations and Analyses of Whiteness in the Novels of Chester Himes" (2005). American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations. 27.