An Analysis of Racism and Double-Consciousness in Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man
By Wiley Reiver
N.B.: This essay inaugurates an occasional series at Reckon Review in which we dive deeply into crime or noir works of note.
One of the least useful, or even interesting, debates in contemporary literary criticism concerns whether a fiction writer can effectively present characters outside the writer’s direct experience in connection with such salient aspects of personhood as gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and so on. In fact, to my mind, any per se objection against writers depicting characters radically different from themselves is simply a nonstarter. The reason why is succinctly expressed by crime writer S.A. Cosby, who tweeted recently that “[i]t’s not about whether you have permission to write about characters outside your experience. It’s about whether you’re doing it well. Are you reinforcing stereotypes or are you deconstructing them.”
But if I were pressed to cite specific examples of literature that depend on an author meaningfully and effectively stepping into worldviews radically different from their own, I would immediately point to An Expendable Man (1963), the last novel by MWA Grand Master Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-1993). A white cishet woman originally from the Midwest who lived most of her life in New Mexico, she published fifteen crime novels, a well regarded biography of Erle Stanley Gardner, as well as four decades of reviews and criticism for the Los Angeles Times and other major newspapers. In An Expendable Man she shows a remarkable capacity to write with a fine-grained insight about the outlook and experiences of Dr. Hugh Densmore, a Black medical intern from Los Angeles who travels to Phoenix to celebrate his niece’s wedding. He impulsively picks up a young white woman hitchhiking along a desert highway; in consequence, he soon finds himself accused of murdering her through a botched abortion. The balance of the novel involves Densmore’s efforts to prove his innocence. Despite the novel’s setting in the early-1960s, when America was inching toward appreciable measures of formal equality between the races, Hughes convincingly depicts the miasma of racism still poisoning both the social environment in which Densmore moves as well as his self-perception.
To be sure, previous commentators have noted the centrality of race in Hughes’ later novels. Lawrence J. Oliver, Jr. observes that like many modern American noir writers, who depict “the contest between Good and Evil,” this struggle is clearly intrinsic to Hughes’ writing. However, Hughes is distinguishable from writers such as Hammett and Chandler in her “focus on a form of evil they either ignore or help perpetuate–racism” (27). Moreover, Oliver goes on to say that while such concerns are present in even Hughes’ early novels, An Expendable Man is “[Hughes’] most explicit attack on bigotry and injustice in the United States” (35). Walter Mosley agrees that Hughes’ later work, above all, An Expendable Man, “captures an unease under the skin of everyday life that is all her own” (249-50). Set in the early-1960s, just as accumulating civil rights laws were starting to achieve a measure of formal equality in American society, An Expendable Man gradually reveals how much danger and violence remain just beneath the surface of its characters’ lives: “Hughes captures in her seemingly straightforward mystery a signal truth of mid- twentieth century American life: under the facade of equality the uglier divisions of racism have their owns story to tell about who will pay for the death of a runaway white teen” (250). Such commentary is sound, so far as it goes. But in my view there’s more to say about race in An Expendable Man. Specifically, Hughes powerfully depicts the corrosive social and existential consequences of what sociologist and activist W.E.B. Du Bois termed “double-consciousness.” As a result, Hughes proves herself superbly capable of depicting the inner realities of a character radically different than herself.
So what is “double-consciousness”? W.E.B. Du Bois first wrote about the concept in an 1897 article that set forth his belief that the white-dominant American culture creates an inner division and conflict in African-Americans. This subjective sundering is the result of the African-American being ineluctably aware of the racist beliefs and practices they are surrounded by. Du Bois famously elaborates the experience as follows:
[T]he Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second sight in this American world,–a world which yields him no self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelations of the other [i.e., white] world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.
Consequently, there is no integrated, coherent self-image in the black victims of white oppression. Therefore, Du Bois claims that in the inner black self there arises “A sickening despair” (197. In The Souls of Black Folks, Du Bois refines the notion of double-consciousness to say that those blacks who have achieved a measure of educational, economic, or social status not otherwise available to their brothers and sisters are most susceptible to it (185). As we will see, if Du Bois is right about that, then the central character of An Expendable Man is well primed to be a victim of double-consciousness.
Turning now to the text of An Expendable Man, using the concept of double-consciousness as a hermeneutical key yields rich insights into the consciousness and actions of the story’s protagonist, Dr. Hugh Densmore. He’s a successful medical resident at a prestigious Los Angeles hospital and the son of a professionally and socially successful family. When the novel opens, he’s approaching the California-Arizona border, driving his mother’s white Cadillac to attend his niece’s wedding in Phoenix, Arizona. After briefly stopping for a meal, Densmore encounters a white teenager waiting on the side of the highway for a ride. His immediate reaction reveals contradictory impulses in regard to this decision to offer her a ride: “Even as he slowed the car, he was against doing it. But her possible peril if left here alone forced his hand. . . . He had sisters as young as this” (5). Even before the girl climbs into his car, his worry about driving with her burgeons into a “chill sense of apprehension” (5).
The girl, whose name turns out to be Iris Croom, reminds me of a Snopes descendant whose family somehow made its west from Mississippi. She’s not pretty, with a “young, thin, petulant face” beneath self-bleached hair held by a “gaudy orange and green scarf.” She’s also wearing tight slacks, a dirty, oversized men’s shirt, and “white wedgie sandals, the kind his younger sister said only the cheap girls wore” (5). Hughes thereby sets up a telling dichotomy between Densmore and Croom: Densmore counts by conventional standards as the more trustworthy, respectable person, given their disparities in social status, economic class, professional accomplishments, and so on. But racial difference, and the white supremacist construals of that difference, trumps all these other considerations. And what’s vital for us to understand is that it’s Densmore himself who is continually afraid of how he’d be viewed by whites who see Croom sitting in the front seat of a Cadillac next to him.
This is why, for example, he’s unnerved when a carful of teenagers pass him on the highway soon after picking up Croom. Only after the car disappears over the horizon does he calm down enough to “relax and immediately feel the fool. It was surprising what old experiences remembered could do to a presumably educated civilized man” (6). It’s to Hughes’ credit that she doesn’t indicate whether those “old experiences” were directly Densmore’s own or instead refer to the communal tragedy of black men caught in “inappropriate” situations with a white girl or woman. It’s enough that these experiences are in Densmore’s consciousness; the resulting awareness of how whites would view his choice to drive Croom conflicts with his own understanding of why he did. Similarly, he knows it’s imperative that he not cross with her from California into Arizona, which would open him to charges of transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes. A crime that is on its face racially neutral, but also one that exposes Densmore to significantly greater danger than it would a white male, given the vile racist tropes about black male sexuality he knows can be weaponized against him. These are, in sum, quintessential moments of double-consciousness, and Hughes masterfully depicts the psychological distress and disorientation Densmore suffers in consequence.
Because he’s by now virtually frantic to get rid of Croom, Densmore buys her a bus ticket and leaves her at the depot before traveling on to stay overnight in another small California town. (And even the simple of act of deciding where to stay involves an instance of double-consciousness, as he’s aware that he’s a perfectly respectable guest who might, nonetheless, be denied lodging on the pretext that the motel with a Vacancy sign out had just filled the last room before he showed up (17)). The next morning, though, Croom is waiting for him at an inspection station at the Arizona border. Even before she confronts him, though, he’s faced with white inspectors who, he understands, “resent the big white Cadillac the moment that Densmore drove up in it” (19). Croom flies up to Densmore as he’s engaging the inspectors, pretends to know him well, and asks for a ride, ostensibly, to work. Densmore is aware that the white men are watching him carefully, “suspicion like hoods over their faces” (20). Densmore feels he has no choices but to let her back into his car; a few minutes later, as they’re driving into Arizona, they have an exchange that shows Densmore’s enmeshment in double-consciousness:
What about those inspection officers? What do you think they thought? [asked Densmore.]
They thought I was waiting for some friends to give me a ride to work. They you came along–you heard me.
Do you think they believed you?
Who cares? Blobs they were. Both of them. Blobs. I’ll never see them again. (21).
For Croom, the two white men in positions of authority are harmless, easily manipulated fools. For Densmore, they are capable of easily casting him into a pit of trouble, no matter what Densmore knows simultaneously about his actions and real intentions.
Eventually, though, Densmore is able to drop Croom off at the bus station in Glendale, Arizona. He tells himself that “the bad dream was over” (26), but of course we as readers know better. She tracks him down to the motel he’s staying at in Phoenix and asks for his help because she’s pregnant, has been abandoned by her married boyfriend, and has come to Arizona to secure an illegal abortion. He turns Croom away, threatening to call the police if she ever contacts him again. But that threat is undermined by another experience of double-consciousness in Densmore’s tortured mind. Despite being trained in a prestigious UCLA hospital, “with that awful sickness of heart, he knew she could say things which would ruin his hopes of remaining at the university, much less being granted a research scholarship” (36). And this awareness, I stress, is possible only because of how starkly in his own mind Densmore is aware of how racist whites could easily resconstrue his actions toward Croom to make him a (Black) sexual predator thinly disguised as a respectable professional.
Densmore’s troubles intensify when shortly thereafter Croom is discovered dead. After reading of her death in the newspaper, Densmore concludes that the abortion must have been botched and that the police would likely consider him a suspect. He’s right. At the conclusion of a celebratory dinner for the wedding party, Densmore is confronted by two white detectives. He tries to tell himself that he’s safe because of the national attention being paid at that time to “police brutality and the rights of all citizens” (52). But this thought is eaten away by the acid of double-consciousness when Densmore is accused of picking Croom up and that a witness had seen “a nigger doc in a big white Cadillac” bringing a teenaged girl to Phoenix (54-5). That he has to remind himself to breathe deeply and speak slowly testifies to Densmore’s awareness that the police are making a case against him based, at least, on racist assumptions about his sexuality. Therefore, the division in his mind between his status as an innocent man entangled in a death he’s not responsible for and how he fears he’ll be treated is yet another manifestation of his double-consciousness. So much so that when Densmore thinks to himself that he can’t be charged for murder when there’s no evidence of it because “[t]his wasn’t the Deep South. This was Arizona” (57) has the character of a fervid wish rather than a declaration of reliable fact.
It isn’t necessary for the purposes of this essay to detail the plot from this point forward. It suffices to say that Densmore concludes he has to find Croom’s killer–who is either, he thinks, the abortionist or a mysterious man who might be Croom’s lover–and he has to do so without expecting help or fair treatment from the police. This gamble is prompted by the convictions derived from repeated experiences of double-consciousness in his mind. For example, when the detectives drive him to the morgue to view Croom’s body, he’s made apprehensive by the unfamiliar route they take. As they turn down a dark road, “[o]nly his pride kept him from crying out, demanding to know where they were taking him. Pride and fear. He’d never known fear before, he’d only thought he had” (58). This terrible moment results from the clash in Densmore’s mind between the conviction that he deserves the same fair treatment as all citizens and the realization that he could easily be prey to the extrajudicial predations of two white detectives.
As Densmore gradually comes closer to discovering who performed the abortion on Croom, he continues to experience moments of radical inner division in his consciousness. At the wedding reception, he reflects on the fact that the party is integrated; he and his family have close friendships with whites as well as people of color. He indulges in a fantasy that the detectives were at the party because then “[t]hey might realize that poor shoddy little Iris couldn’t have been the outworn cliche of sexual interest to [him]” (71). That is, he imagines that the detectives could be persuaded of Densmore’s innocence by seeing what his life is “really like,” thereby dissolving the racist caricature he believes exists in the minds of the detectives and which he struggles against in his own. Later, in discussion with a white attorney that family connections helped him secure the services of, Densmore bitterly reflects on the fact that “[a]t least a white doctor would have been given the benefit of the doubt. . .. It wouldn’t be taken for granted that a quixotic act had a sexual base” (131). And when Densmore confesses to his brother his involvement with Croom, the brother realizes from Densmore’s voice that he’s prey to “[t]he fear of trouble . . . so close to the surface in even the most secure of them” (103).
But eventually a critically vital shift occurs in Densmore’s consciousness and actions. He becomes less burdened by the psychic rivening caused by double-consciousness. Instead, he marshals his energy to seek out the man responsible for Croom’s pregnancy (and also, possibly, her death) as well as the abortionist (who might be the one who killed her). That is, he asserts his agency in a singularly focused way. For example, when a detective mocks Densmore’s efforts to track down Croom’s killer, “[o]ut of sick anger, Hugh asked, ‘Why aren’t you chasing [the suspect] instead of standing here cracking lousy jokes?’ He was past caring about [the detective’s] reaction” (207-08), this being someone Densmore previously had been too nervous to smoke in front of for fear it somehow pointed toward his guilt. Moreover, to entrap the alcoholic doctor responsible for the botched abortion, Densmore affects a mush-mouthed, subservient “colored boy” attitude to win the abortionist’s confidence: “He mustn’t let the doctor reject him, not this near to success. Hugh was quickly obsequious, the way he should be. ‘Oh, nossuh, nossuh.’ He made the accent strong. ‘I don’t want no hospital, nossuh” (233). Racist attitudes, that is, don’t distort Densmore’s consciousness in this instance; in fact, employing them against the doctor are a means by which Densmore confirms who he is. Only because he’s not a shuffling fool, and can affirm by action that he’s not, can he pretend to be one. Near the conclusion of the novel, in a passage that demonstrates just how complete is the reversal Densmore’s undergone, he can anticipate the coming trial of Croom’s killer, confident that he “wouldn’t be afraid to speak up then. He was no longer the expendable man” (244).
To conclude, Densmore’s transformation puts me in mind of several controversial assertions by Derrick Bell, one of the Critical Race Theory’s leading scholars. In his essay “Racial Realism” he argues that it’s a mistake to rely on “the courts and judiciary [as] the vehicle to better the social position of blacks” (363). The reason why is that after decades of legal action to promote equality, “black Americans are by no means equal to whites. Racial equality is, in fact, not a realistic goal” (363, emphasis added). Why not? Bell offers two reasons: First, available demographic data show that across a wide spectrum of measures, black Americans suffer from multiple modes of oppression (n. 4, 365; see also n. 30, 374). Second, the nature of legal decision-making allows for deeply rooted forms of injustice to be validated in a guise of formal equality (e.g., the visceration of affirmative action protocols).
So what is to be done? What is for Bell a “new and more realistic goal for our civil rights activism” (377)? Bell’s discussion is perhaps a bit thin on this vital question, but his essay makes clear that at the very least he thinks that “[t]he fight in itself has meaning and should give us hope for the future” (378). He concludes by telling the story of a woman he knew in Mississippi in 1964, who he queried one night as to why she kept up the fight in the face of such violent resistance. “I am an old woman,” she answered. “I lives to harass white folks” (378). As a result, she possessed “the strength and determination in a society that relentlessly attempted to wear her down” (379). In resisting her oppression, Bell asserts, she was a victor. Not all scholars or activists would agree with Bell’s analysis. But I am sure he and that old Mississippi freedom fighter would welcome Dr. Hugh Densmore as a strong ally in the struggle against ineliminable oppression.
 Cosby tweeted in connection with an article on Rebecca F. Kuang’s latest novel, the plot of which turns on a fictional author writing a novel with characters beyond their direct experiences of gender and race. Kuang argues in an interview for her character’s choices by claiming that
[w]e’re storytellers, and the point of storytelling is, among other things, to imagine outside of your lived experience and empathise with people who are not you, and to ideally write truthfully, and with compassion, a whole range of characters,” she continues. “Otherwise all we could ever publish are memoirs and autobiographies and nobody wants that.” For her, more interesting is how authors approach these stories: “Are they engaging critically with tropes and stereotypes that already exist in the genre? Or are they just replicating them? What is their relationship to the people who are being represented?” And, “most importantly, does the work do something interesting? Is it good?”
As far as I’m concerned, QED.
 In contrast, Dwyer Murphy agrees with Mosley about what I call the tonal element of Hughes’s later novels, but doesn’t connect it to matters of race. As he says, “danger . . . finds its way into the lives of her characters and slowly gnaws away at their inadequate defenses as the world around them begins to melt away and all they’re left with is an uncanny, unforgiving darkness.” This effect is most profound in An Expendable Man, making it “as disturbing and insightful as any [novel] she ever wrote” (“Unsettling”). I essentially agree regarding the effects of this novel, but Murphy’s undifferentiated conception of evil in the novel is a significant missed opportunity.
 No, not all whites, if I do in fact need to point this out. But sure as hell enough of them to give warrant to Densmore’s anxiety, especially as he travels through a remote, unfamiliar location with a white girl he doesn’t know at all.
 Similarly, Densmore will realize, too late, his mistake when he tells a detective investigating him for the murder of Croom that he simply pays his parking tickets through the Auto Club: What is a normal service for someone in his socioeconomic class to enjoy, when seen through a racist white’s point of view becomes a form of “uppityness.” The white detectives’ reaction reminds Densmore that “[s]uch conveniences are for white people; Negroes shuffled in line before a judge” (93). Hughes’s use of “shuffled” here is revealing along more than one line.
Bell, Derrick. “Racial Realism.” Connecticut Law Review, vol. 24, no. 2, 1992, pp. 363-79.
Cosby, S.A [@blacklionking1973]. 8:25 am, May 22, 2023, https://twitter.com/blacklionking73/status/1660622990512381952. Tweet.
Du Bois, W.E.B., “Strivings of the Negro People.” The Atlantic Monthly, August 1897, 194-97.
____. The Souls of Black Folks. Dover, 1994.
Hughes, Dorothy B. An Expendable Man. New York Review of Books, 2012.
Liu, Rebecca. Interview. “Rebecca F. Kuang: ‘Who has the right to tell a story? It’s the wrong question to ask.” The Guardian. May 20, 2023. ttps://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/may/20/rebecca-f-kuang-who-has-the-right-to-tell-a-story-its-the-wrong-question-to-ask?. Accessed May 23, 2023.
Mosley, Walter. Afterword. An Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes, New York Review of Books, 2012, pp. 249-52.
Murphy, Dwyer. “The Deeply Unsettling Noir of Dorothy B. Hughes.” CrimeReads, https://crimereads.com/the-unsettling-existential-noir-of-dorothy-b-hughes/. Accessed 20 April 2023.
Oliver, Jr., Lawrence J. “The Dark-Skinned ‘Angels’ of Dorothy B. Hughes’ Thrillers.” MELUS, vol. 11, no. 3, 1984, pp. 27-39.
Read Wiley’s other work here at Reckon.
Wiley Reiver is from the South Carolina Lowcountry but currently lives in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. He works in university administration. He’s also been a picture framer, college English teacher, ESL instructor in Iraq, racetrack bathroom cleaner, and very bad maker of donuts. He holds an MFA from the University of Southern Maine. His fiction and nonfiction work has appeared under other names in the New York Times, Fried Chicken and Coffee, the Civil War Monitor, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. He’s at work on a New Orleans crime novel. Twitter: @SFWriter3.