On Saturday, Yuriko and I went to see a production of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, at the Arden Theatre in Old City, Philadelphia. My viewing of the play just happened to coincide, thematically, with two texts that I am teaching this week. Today, my American Lit students and I will be finishing up our discussion of Chester Himes's 1945 novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go. In ENG 100, we will be looking at the introduction to Michelle Alexander's study of mass incarceration in contemporary America, The New Jim Crow.
The protagonist of If He Hollers, Bob Jones, is driven to the brink of madness by the day-to-day prejudice he encounters in 1940s Los Angeles. After being demoted for cursing out a white woman at work who called him a "n****r", he feels emasculated, and desperate to reassert his manhood in some way such that the white world must recognize it. While much of this desperation ends up expressing itself in fantasies of violence and sexual domination, Himes shows his reader that these destructive impulses are a result of Bob's thwarted ambition. He wanted to be somebody, and America told him "No" because of his race.
A Raisin in the Sun features a similar male lead (though not nearly as extreme), Walter Younger, who works as a chauffeur and lives in a crowded, roach-infested apartment with his wife, son, sister, and mother. He dreams of being a business owner and a better provider for his family, and his failure to do so makes him feel like a failure as a man. In a reckless move to try to realize his dream, he invests $6,000 of his family's money--half of which is supposed to go toward paying for medical school for his sister, who wants to be a doctor--with a "business partner" who turns out to be con-man. While this dream is lost, Walter manages to reclaim his manhood at the play's end, by standing up to a white man who wants to pressure him not to move into a white neighborhood in Chicago, and by acknowledging and supporting the professional ambition of his sister.
In The New Jim Crow (which I've taught and blogged about previously), Alexander argues that although the explicit racism highlighted in works such as Raisin and Hollers is no longer common or accepted in American society, there still exists a system of racialized social control: the system of mass incarceration. By labeling a vast subset of people of color--especially black men--as "criminals," our so-called "justice system" effectively enables profound legal discrimination, creating a permanent "under-caste" of individuals who are unable to find a place in mainstream society: people whose dreams are permanently deferred. What can we do to pull this system apart--before it explodes?