Cotton Comes to Harlem

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Chester Himes (1909—1984)

Ossie Davis (1917—2005)


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Chester Himes's sixth detective novel in a series of nine, all written after the author had left the United States for France, was first published in French by Plon under the title Retour en Afrique (1964) and later in the United States by G. P. Putnam's Sons as Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965). Considered by many critics to be Himes's best detective novel, Cotton Comes to Harlem was also produced as a Hollywood film by Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., in 1970, directed by Ossie Davis.

The book opens with a scene of a rally in Harlem conducted by Reverend Deke O'Malley, ex-con and leader of a phony back to Africa movement. While in the process of amassing $87,000 from eighty-seven Harlem families, O'Malley's own operation is robbed by white gunmen. As in all of Himes's detective novels, images of pandemonium and absurd violence are vividly, and often comically, described. Himes's two detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, pursue the missing $87,000, which winds up hidden in a bale of cotton. The thief, a white Southerner named Colonel Robert L. Calhoun, is promoting his own crooked repatriation scheme of sorts, a back-to-the-Southland crusade whereby urban African Americans would “return” to the South as paid agricultural laborers.

When Coffin Ed and Grave Digger finally apprehend Calhoun, they demand that he give them $87,000 from his own bank account to repay the eighty-seven Harlem families their hard-earned money. In the final comic irony of the novel, the original $87,000 turns up in the hands of junkman Uncle Bud, who uses it to move to Africa and buy five hundred cattle to exchange for one hundred wives, setting himself up as a latter-day Solomon. The comical juxtaposition of Calhoun's absurd back-to-the-Southland movement and O'Malley's corrupt back to Africa movement represents Himes's satirical commentary on repatriation in the modern era.

Gilbert H. Muller, Chester Himes, 1989.Robert E. Skinner, Two Guns from Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes, 1989.

Wendy W. Walters

Subjects: Literature.

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