This book, published in 1965, was listed by Newsweek as one of the fifty books that “define our times.” The article, “What to Read Now. And Why,” explains:
“What we do need, in a world with precious little time to read (and think), is to know which books — new or old, fiction or nonfiction — open a window on the times we live in, whether they deal directly with the issues of today or simply help us see ourselves in new and surprising ways.”
Cotton Comes to Harlem has a somewhat complex plot because of all the characters involved – and I mean characters in the double entendre sense! In Harlem in the 1960’s, the Reverend Deke O’Malley is soliciting $1,000 payments from black families to participate in a Back to Africa Movement. O’Malley got the idea from Marcus Garvey. [Garvey was a historical figure whose own movement, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) included a Liberia project, launched in 1920. It was intended to build colleges, universities, industrial plants, and railroads, but was abandoned in the mid-1920s after opposition from European powers with their own plans for Liberia.]
But the Reverend has no intention of actually helping black folks start new lives in Africa; he is a con man with a police record. The only new life he is intent on starting is his own.
So far, he has collected $87,000. But then the money is robbed at gunpoint and O’Malley runs off. It is unclear if he himself has orchestrated the robbery.
Two black “ace” detectives, partners “Grave Digger” Jones and “Coffin Ed” Johnson, are put on the case. Jones and Johnson are recurring characters in Himes’ “noir black crime fiction series” – they appear in a total of eight books. “Grave Digger” has a “dark brown lumpy face . . . and the big, rugged, loosely knit frame of a day laborer. . . . ” “Coffin Ed” has an acid-scarred face from a past encounter with a hoodlum: “Afterwards he had earned the reputation of being quick on the trigger.”
Jones and Johnson are police in a down and dirty part of Harlem, and so the behavior and language are less than church-approved. (And in fact, the only part really dated in the book is the use of euphemisms for many of the obscenities skirted in the book.) Encounters with loose women are described in detail, and often entail violence.
The two detectives loathe Deke and all he stands for: a lack of concern and respect for his own people. The hard-bitten detectives want above all to get the money back for the 87 families “who had put down their thousand dollar grubstakes on a dream.” They knew that these families had come by their money the hard way:
“They didn’t consider these victims as squares or suckers. They understood them. These people were seeking a home – just the same as the Pilgrim Fathers. … These people had deserted the South because it could never be considered their home. … But they had not found a home in the North. They had not found a home in America. So they looked across the sea to Africa, where other black people were both the ruled and the rulers. … Everyone has to believe in something; and the white people of America had left them nothing to believe in. …”
As Jones and Johnson go about solving the crime, they take us on a tour of the black ghetto of Harlem in the 1960’s – a colorful amalgam of blues and booze, hustlers and peddlers, rascals and saints, and a large core of hard-working people trying to raise their kids and build a future.
The two detectives do not hesitate to use their police power in displays of force to get the information they need. Permeating their behavior is a steady confidence that they will find Deke, they will get the money, and they will restore it to the people who scrimped and saved for the chance of freedom.
A bale of cotton wends its way through the story like a mute Greek chorus, not speaking but standing in for the history of black Americans, from slavery and despair to hope and salvation.
Evaluation: This book has a lot of heart. These detectives love all their people – the good, the bad, and the ugly. (Although they appear to have mixed feelings about women – dividing them into the “traditional” two camps of mother or prostitute. But within this framework they exhibit affection.) There is also a delightful, smack-your-head twist at the end that I, at least, never saw coming. If you can get past the R+ -rated sex and language, there’s a good story here, and an interesting look at an era of change for blacks in the 1960’s.
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1965, and reprinted numerous times thereafter
How does this book reflect the times?
In a 1948 speech entitled “The Dilemma of the Negro Writer in America,” Himes argued that blacks need to tell the truth about the deleterious effects of racism, even if it makes both blacks and whites uncomfortable:
“If this plumbing for the truth reveals within the Negro personality homicidal mania, lust for white women, a pathetic sense of inferiority, paradoxical anti-Semitism, arrogance, Uncle Tomism, hate and fear and self-hate, this then is the effect of oppression on the human personality.”
About Cotton Comes to Harlem he said:
“Whereas most of the blacks of the world don’t particularly insist on having equality in the white community, … the American black doesn’t have any other community. America, which wants to be a white community, is their community, and there is not the fact that they can go home to their own community and be the chief and sons of chiefs or what not. The American black man has to make it or lose it in America; he has no choice. That’s why I wrote Cotton Comes to Harlem.”
Himes himself gave up trying to make it in America. He left the country for good in 1953, found some recognition and prosperity in France, and later moved to Spain, where he died.
Known as “the father of black American crime writing,” Himes was intent on creating an image for blacks other than just as victims of racism, although that theme also permeates his work. His noir creative lenses envisioned scenes now commonplace: crime that operates as pervasively as legitimate commerce; slinky women who are both desired and reviled in a tough man’s world; and officers of the law whose understanding of right and wrong has some fairly fuzzy edges. Combined with the tones and colors of racism of his work (by both blacks and whites); his tendency and even desire to “air dirty laundry;” and his memorable portraits of the denizens of Harlem streets; Himes truly blazed a new path in fiction. I would agree that this is a representative “book for our times.”