The Killing Joke of Sympathy: Chester Himes's "End of a Primitive" Sounds the Limits of Midcentury Racial Liberalism

Document Type




Format of Original

29 p.

Publication Date



Duke University Press

Source Publication

American Literature

Source ISSN


Original Item ID

doi: 10.1215/00029831-2008-038


“The Killing Joke of Sympathy” reconstructs the centrality of the “race novel” for the consolidation of racial liberalism as an official and limited state of antiracism in the United States after World War II. In particular, it considers the evidentiary and emotional values ascribed to literature by the Julius Rosenwald Fund, arguably the most influential philanthropy at mid-century dedicated to race relations. For the fund, literature was a privileged tool for antiracist social transformation because of its unique capability to arouse white sympathies. Jodi Melamed argues that such ideas shaped a dominant practice of reading that had a regulative effect, narrowing what counted as acceptable antiracism.

Melamed reads Chester Himes's End of a Primitive as a novel where we see satire deliberately misfired in an attempt to dehegemonize racial liberal meanings secured through the discourse of “the race novel.” Featuring the murder of a white, female race relations professional by an African American author resembling Himes, End of a Primitive “predicts” (through metafictional address) that the force of racial liberal reading practices will cause the novel to be misread by white liberal readers as protest, rather than satire. At the same time, the novel constructs an imaginative exercise that dares readers to go against the grain of such reading practices, to experience the novel's humor, and to “get the handle to the joke” of their own confinement. For the reader who fails the imaginative exercise, End of a Primitive nonetheless debunks liberal ideas of sympathy as a guarantee of racial progress.


American Literature, Volume 80, Issue 4, pp 769-797 (2008). DOI.