“I dreamed I was lying in the middle of Main Street downtown in front of the Federal Building and two poor peckerwoods in overalls were standing over me beating me with lengths of rubber hose. I was sore and numb from the beating and felt like vomiting; I was sick in the stomach and the taste was in my mouth… I was hoping I would become unconscious but I couldn’t. Then I felt myself rolling over in bed, struggling with the covers, but I couldn’t wake up, and the dream kept right on with the two peckerwoods beating me not quite to death” (69).
If He Hollers Let Him Go begins with Bob’s description of his dreams (see page 1). Bob’s dreams are continuously weaved into the body of the novel. In this dream, two white men, following the orders of the president of the shipyard corporation, beat Bob with a rubber hose. In response to the suggestion that Bob can no longer handle further beating, the president says, “ ‘Niggers can take it as long as you give it to them’ ” (69). The white man becomes the “giver” and the black man is supposed to be the passive receiver, capable of taking all of the abuse that the white man gives him. When two people walk by the Federal Building, Bob explains, “I tried to tell the coloured people what he [the president of the shipyard corporation] had been doing before they came but my voice wouldn’t come out and they just looked at him as if he was a good kind god and said, ‘Yassuh, some of these heah boys do git out of their place’" (70).” The witnesses of this crime passively receive the president’s explanation— they “take it as long as you give it to them.” Bob desperately wants to give these witnesses access to the truth, but his voice does not come. He is unable to unmask the racism that nearly kills him (in his dreams and arguably outside of them).
Bob importantly hopes to “become unconscious” but cannot. Consciousness and dreaming are important themes in If He Hollers Let Him Go. Even while dreaming—even while technically unconscious—Bob is conscious of the violence of inequality. Racism invades his waking life as well as his sleeping life. Bob felt himself “…rolling over in bed, struggling with the covers, but… couldn’t wake up, and the dream kept right on with the two peckerwoods beating me not quite to death” (70). In his dreams, Bob wishes to be unconscious yet while he sleeps he desires to wake up. The barrier between nightmare and reality is broken down. This broken barrier asks a question that resurfaces again and again in Himes' novel: how will Bob escape his nightmarish reality?
The Federal Building, the president of the shipyard corporation, and the presence of police act as markers of institutionalized racism. Racism invades not only dreams, but shipyards, war politics, and every level of government authority.