Chester Himes wrote his 1945 novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, while living in the home of Mary Oyama Mittwer, a Japanese American author who, along with her family, was incarcerated at Heart Mountain in Wyoming then relocated to Denver in 1943. In 1944, Himes wrote “Democracy is for the Unafraid,” which appeared in Common Ground. Himes saw Japanese incarceration firsthand, and he included condemnations of it in If He Hollers Let Him Go. “Democracy is for the Unafraid” directly confronts the anti-Asian sentiment of Executive Order 9066 and it details the ways that fear, stoked by a minority of individuals, leads to widespread violence, xenophobia, and racism. If one chooses fear, then, as Himes argues, democracy will ultimately fail.
Reading Himes’ essay, I could not help and think about today, namely the whitewashing of January 6, the constructed fear of government overreach with gun control, the rhetoric surrounding abortion and LGBTQ right, and much more. All of this traces back to white supremacy and the maintaining of power. Himes begins by pointing out the ways that fear works to undercut democracy and pit individuals against one another based on the false perceptions that the fear stokes within the “white man’s . . . consciousness.” This fear leads to Japanese incarceration. This fear leads to propaganda. This fear leads to, as Himes writes, “the policeman who is afraid shoot[ing] the manacled prisoner who bends over to tie his shoelace” (think Freddie Gray or Sandra Bland). Himes points out, too, that this fear leads to industrialists hiring “thugs and murderers to fight unionists” (this the rhetorical attacks on Chris Smalls and the unionization of Amazon workers in New York). If a capitalist is afraid, the capitalist “sabotages public welfare” (think about any of the tactics against unionization, universal healthcare, gun control, etc.).
Democracy cannot survive with this fear because “[p]eople who are afraid are cruel, vicious, furtive, dangerous; they are dishonest, malicious, vindictive; they destroy the things of which they are afraid, or are destroyed by them.” The fear works the same way as victimhood. It backs the person in a “perceived” corner, and the person feels that in order to escape the corner, or to maintain a social position of power, they must fight back by any means necessary. This fear creates a constant need to fight, a constant need to construct a threat and to concoct a fear around that supposed threat. In this manner, the fear allows for the reproduction and “justification” of violence to “protect” one’s interests.
The fear, and the stoking of that fear, shows cowardice because, as Himes writes, “Only cowards seek to destroy ‘minority’ groups; courageous people are not afraid of them.” The “cowardly” individuals alone, in and of themselves, “are never dangerous,” but “when they become representative of the majority race within a nation, they infect the entire body with their own cowardice, then a complete breakdown of law and decency follows, and all persons not contained in that race suffer the most cruel oppression.” We can expand this discussion to LGBTQ individuals, especially transgender individuals. Look at the laws in Florida, Texas, and elsewhere for proof. Instead of being afraid, hiding in cowardice behind rhetoric and legislation that relies on fear, we need to be unafraid because when we do that, we fight back.
Fear ruled much of the United States in the 1940s,. Fear of integration. Fear of interracial intimacy. Fear of Japanese Americans and a non-existent fifth column. These fears propagated because, as Himes puts it, “the cowardice of a relatively small percentage of white Americans is seeping into the consciousness of the majority and making them all afraid of the darker races.” The proliferation of fear covers cowardice and it metastasizes within the society, seeping into the ground and finding ways to replicate at sometimes exorbitant speed. This replication spreads the fear, and the way to counter that proliferation is to live a life where we are unafraid.
Himes argues that one of the ways to fight back is to be unafraid, to not buy into the propaganda of fear. “It is imperative,” Himes writes, “that he be unafraid.” Being unafraid, sifting through the fears that have collected within our psyches, is never really an easy proposition, but it is perhaps the most important thing, apart from taking an assessment of ourselves, we can do. Being unafraid means reading about individuals and groups you “fear.” It means befriending people. It means having conversations. It means feeling uncomfortable. It means, ultimately, working towards a democracy for all, not just a few cowardly, afraid people who want to maintain or grab power.
“When the white man banishes his fear,” Himes writes, “he will banish with it all the bugaboos of race; and he himself will for the first time be free.” Being unafraid doesn’t just provide for a functioning democracy and equality and equity across the board, it frees the person who expresses fear because the person doesn’t have to exert energy on always fighting what they perceive as a threat to themselves. It’s a self-liberating thing to be unafraid. This is what Lillian Smith constantly gets at. In order to truly live, we cannot go through life being stalked by the giants and pygmies that have so long inhabited our minds. We must rid ourselves of them in order to be truly free and live our lives to the fullest.
If we don’d do this, if we are like those “who nurture race hatreds and dedicate their lives to the proposition that they are superior are never free,” everything we do will influence our “thoughts, efforts, and aims,” and we will be “limited and hindered by the necessity of proving” our superiority. This is no way to live. It’s an all-consuming fear that stems from cowardice. It’s an all-consuming fear that strips individuals of their humanity. It’s an all-consuming fear that leads to violence. It’s unsustainable.
What is sustainable, though, is being unafraid and working towards equality because “bravery does not consist in persecuting the few and the weak (for then all our enemies would be the bravest of nations) but of protecting them.” If we believe that we must treat our neighbor as ourselves, then shouldn’t our goal be to protect our neighbor? Shouldn’t we do everything in our power to make sure that our neighbor has shelter? Food? Healthcare? Happiness? If that is our goal, then being unafraid helps us towards that goal. It tears down the fears that others have used to pollute our society. It fosters a beloved community where we work together, striving for the benefit and welfare of all, not just a few.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.