“The real prison was the prison in his mind.” This one sentence set the tone for this entire novel for me. It defined the misconceptions of prison being a dead place where no one grows and futures are dim. It also defines thoughts of prison being filled with hard, cold, killing machines who don’t offer any human characteristics. On the other hand, it also provides insight into the white male’s fear of emasculation.
To use the words of Bob Marley, Jimmy is under mental slavery. Jimmy heard stories about prison and so he was guided by these notions. When he entered the prison he was, although still dealing with the shock of being behind bars, surprised. Society painted a picture of prison being filled with animals but he was astonished to hear laughter behind the prison walls. On the other hand, “the hazard of friendship” warning is enough to make a person prepare for the worse. Himes lets us know it’s okay to explore friendships even in the worse places. In my opinion, Himes wanted his audience to see that even in such tough situations there is still a tender side to things. Namely being able to build a friendship. To be able to relate to someone is a natural human characteristic, and to be able to hold on to this characteristic even in the worst of situations has a humanizing effect on others.
Jimmy Monroe, scared of allowing himself to be himself, is in a mental prison while trying to adapt to a physical one. On the other hand, I believe this book is as much about the emasculation of the white male, as it is about growing a rose in a concrete field. In terms of his sexuality, with a society that constantly paints a picture of what it means to be a masculine white man, it’s almost as if emasculation is the culprit and what’s ultimately nauseating to Jimmy. Jimmy doesn’t even think to run when the pawn broker calls the cops on him for fear of being depicted as “cowardly.” There is even a reference to convicts being looked at as if they are the “lowest form of animal life.” To me I see this as Chester Himes addressing the deep-rooted fear of a white male – to be seen as less of a man or lacking dominance in society. Jimmy being a college-educated white male in prison strips him of his ability to be in control of his situation. For him even assuming he can join in on the warden’s poker game, makes one think about his mental slavery to privilege. In any event, this isn’t a situation that happens often and this is what makes this noteworthy for me.