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George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

Cotton Comes to Harlem

cover image By: Himes, Chester (male)
Publisher: Dell Publishing Co., Inc. (1513)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 299: PS3515 .I713 C6 1970
Contributor: K. Dykstra


Era: 1960s Author as on Cover: Chester Himes Geographic Locale: New York City, Harlem Date of Publication: 1970  |  Original Date: 1965 Setting: urban Motives: O'Hara's con game, the false Back-to-Africa movement modeled on that of Marcus Garvey; done for the purpose of getting money for O'Hara and his henchmen. Alternate Title: Retour en Afrique (original French title)

Plot Summary

The book opens with a Back to Africa rally. The "Reverend" Deke O'Malley collects $1000 per family from 87 families who hope to move from Harlem (its slum aspects are emphasized in the first chapter) to Africa on O'Malley's shipping line. Before O'Malley can exit with the $87,000 he is robbed by a group of white men speaking Southern American English. By the time the ensuing car/truck chase ends, the thieves are gone with the money, three African-American men are dead, and a mysterious bundle of cotton has landed on a street in Harlem. The Reverend O'Malley, actually an ex-con named Deke O'Hara, goes into hiding and detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson must find him. A strange, not so "benevolent" white Colonel from the South turns up with several assistants to start a "Back-to-the-Southland" movement. Many of these people are looking for the mysterious bale of cotton, which was picked up and re-sold by an ancient junk man named Uncle Bud.

Major Characters

Grave Digger Jones adult male, African-American, "other than for the bullet scars hidden beneath his clothes and the finger-size scar obliterating his hairline at the base of his skull where the first bullet had burned off the hair, he looked much the same. Same dark brown lumpy face with the slowly smoldering reddish-brown eyes; same big, rugged, loosely knit frame of a day laborer in a steel mill, same dark, battered felt hat worn summer and winter perched on the back of his head; same rusty black alpaca suit showing the bulge of the long-barreled, nickel-plated, brass-lined .38 revolver on a .44 frame made to his own specifications...."; NYPD detective

Coffin Ed Johnson adult male, African-American, acid-scarred face with "patches of grafted skin changing shape" with his emotions (Ch. 2). Other than this detail, Coffin Ed is generally described as being quite similar to Grave Digger, his partner and fellow NYPD detective

Deke O'Hara aka "Reverend" Deke O'Malley, adult male, African-American, "smooth brown speaker", con man

Iris adult female, African-American (mixed race), "hard-bodied" and "high yellow," girlfriend of Deke O'Hara

Freddy adult male, African-American, one of Deke O'Hara's henchmen

Four Four adult male, African-American, henchman of Deke O'Hara

John Hill adult male, African-American, "young," recruiting agent for O'Hara's Back-to-Africa movement

Early Gibson aka "Early Riser", adult male, African-American, thief (partner to LoBoy)


while several of Himes' earlier novels emphasize only knives and the occasional handgun, the criminals in this novel start out with a different kind of bang: semiautomatic machine guns. Knives and smaller guns come back later in the novel. Motor vehicles are also seen banging into people and running some of them over. The detectives frequently use their fists to batter uncooperative suspects.

Level of Violence

police brutality is a notable theme; both Coffin Ed and Grave Digger use violence on a regular basis to get their jobs done. Himes takes us into their heads and conversations to find out that they do not think they can maintain order in Harlem without the use of violence. A flip side of this argument is that both of the detectives, especially Coffin Ed, are psychologically fragile -- they can go much too far, much too fast. Thus, they are warned by their immediate supervisor that they are likely to bear the brunt of a departmental anti-brutality campaign. Within two chapters, Coffin Ed has almost killed Iris with his bare hands -- Iris being an unamed woman whose offense was to warn O'Hara that the police were looking for him. Grave Digger has to hit his own partner in order to break him out of the mindless fury of the attack. The murder of O'Hara's young recruiting agent, John Hill, by the white folks stealing the O'Hara money, because Hill makes a move for his gun. There is a hit-and-run killing of "Early Riser" Gibson as he is running off with a purse. Other violent episodes include the murder of the criminal who is passing as a detective with O'Hara's scam and the murder of Mabel Hill by Iris, who is angry that Deke O'Hara has been living with Hill. There is a quadruple murder of Barry (Deke's man) and three of the Colonel's white henchmen, the stabbing of Joshua Peavine, beatings (particularly by Grave Digger and Coffin Ed), and the murder of two policemen by Four Four and Freddy. Overall, violence occurs frequently; sometimes it is described at length, and sometimes it is mentioned more briefly. It is difficult to describe the tone with which the violence is described in this novel. Himes clearly takes the time to include some discomforting and oftern tragic detail, such as this afterview of the first murder: "All that was seen of the dead young man were some teeth still bleeding on the table, before the horrified eyes of the two young secretaries." (Ch. 1)


sexuality is an important feature of the novel. A white policeman's sexuality is turned against him while he is keeping watch over Iris, O'Hara's girlfriend, who seduces him in a lengthy scene and then escapes, leaving the detective nude with a pillowcase over his head (see Ch. 10 and details of the cover illustration). In fact, Iris is apparently designed to appeal to all heterosexual males. In Chapter 4, we learn that "she was a hard-bodied high-yellow woman with a perfect figure. She never wore a girdle and her jiggling buttocks gave all men amorous ideas. She had a heart-shaped face with the high cheekbones, big wide red-painted mouth, and long-lashed speckled brown etes of a sexpot and she was thirty-three years old, which gave her the experience." Iris meets and kills her rival, Mabel Hill, the widow of John Hill. Mabel Hill has seduced O'Hara, and/or vice versa. O'Hara's attraction to Mabel includes the assumption that he thoroughly understands her identity, dislikes her, and can manipulate her as he likes. Women's sexuality is frequently described by the narrative voice, which tends to be identified with male characters. A scene worthy of attention happens in Chapter 7 in a brothel: the women "were all light-complexioned Puerto Rican girls with hair shades ranging from blonde to black; all were young. They looked gay and natural and picturesque flitting about the room, peddling their bodies." Himes manages to naturalize this sex-for-money scene in a way that supports misogyny and negative readings of Puerto Ricans (especially given his treatment of Spanish Harlem as a "dirty" place). At the same time, though, Himes could be read as writing ironic social criticism, in which broader naturalistic forces create the conditions for places like the brothel. The character Billie is a lesbian (Himes capitalizes the term: Lesbian) who seems to have had relations with Iris at some point. Billie is also an erotic dancer whose performance at the Cotton Club includes her "seduction" by the same bale of cotton that turns up at crime scenes throughout the novel: "Dead silence reigned in the audience. Women stared at her greedily, enviously, with glittering eyes. Men stared lustfully, lids lowered to hide their thoughts. The dance quickened and people squirmed. Billie threw her body against the cotton with mad desire. Bodies of women in the audience shook uncontrollably from compulsive motivation. Lust rose in the room like miasma" (Ch. 21). Later, we hear that without her stage makeup, "she looked young and demure, almost innocent, without it, like all Lesbian sexpots."

Gender Roles

women tend to fall into categories of virgin/whore or some unflattering combination of the two. Mabel Hill is more or less a housewife, a virgin in the sense that she tries to live in a middle-class fashion and distinguish herself from "street whores" like Iris. Mabel's love and sexuality, in Deke O'Hara's perspective, become so strong and cloying that they probably would have killed John Hill if Hill hadn't been gunned down first. Iris is strong as a horse but clearly created to satisfy voyeuristic impulses, undressing slowly in front of a detective and the readers. The catfight between Mabel and Iris, witnessed by Deke O'Hara, is another voyeuristic scene. The tough guys (the detectives) are far from ideal in this novel, even if we are privy to their desire to be ethical. Their violence is a problem, as the discussion of police brutality makes clear. Their need to commit violence seems to be part of their need to maintain some kind of power; they comment bitterly in Chapter 5 on their wishes to be God for a day.


race is a theme that saturates this novel, quite consciously, from beginning to end. The discussions, arguments, doubts and sympathies surrounding Back-to-Africa movements past and present are worth reviewing. For example, O'Hara is unmistakenly a con man, as we learn when we enter his head in Chapter 4. He has read about Marcus Garvey's organization of the earlier movement, and he is impressed by "the fact that [Garvey's] followers had still believed in him" after he went to jail. But in the same chapter, we see Coffin Ed and Grave Digger meditating about the importance of the Back-to-Africa dream for their community. One of their combined reasons for sympathizing with the victims of the con game is presented in careful prose that unifies the themes of the novel as a whole: "Harlem is a city of the homeless. These people had deserted the South because it could never be considered their home. Many had been sent north by the white southerners in revenge for the desegregation ruling. Others had fled, thinking the North was better. 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." Himes plays off this Back-to-Africa theme against the cotton that comes to Harlem in the book's title. Chapter 8 is striking for its portrait of a white, Southern Colonel and his blonde henchman setting up a storefront in Harlem to recruit African-American cotton pickers to move to the South. The windows of the shop are full of pictures, and Himes describes these white-generated images with relish, as here: "One scene showed.happy darkies at the end of the day celebrating in a clearing in front of ranch-type cabins, dancing the twist, their teeth gleaming in the setting sun, their hips rolling in the playful shadows, to the music of a banjo player in a candy-striped suit; while the elders looked on with approval, bobbing their nappy white heads and clapping their manicured hands." Needless to say, the effrontery horrifies Harlem residents, who organize a more or less peaceful protest under Bill Davis, the surviving friend of the slain John Hill, who had helped to organize O'Hara's Back-to-Africa recruits. Davis confronts the colonel in his office to express his displeasure. Iris is the mixed-race woman whose race seems associated in many Himes' novels with a particular form of sexuality and power -- and danger.

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

fairly minimal role

Law Enforcement

the NYPD officers are honest; they believe that they have to bend parts of the law in order to uphold it.

Added Features

conversation between Grave Digger and Coffin Ed produces an interesting discussion of the "language of jazz" (Chapter 5). 'Let's split,' Coffin Ed said. 'Jazz talks too much to me.' 'It ain't so much what it says,' Grave Digger agreed. 'It's what you can't do about it.'" With so many bodies to dispose of at the end of this novel, Himes throws in a brief note that the undertaker's business is going well. This allows his assistant, Jackson, to marry his long-time girlfriend Imabelle. Jackson and Imabelle are main characters from Himes' earlier novel, For Love of Imabelle. There is an apparent reference to Rudolph Fisher's novel, The Conjure-Man Dies, in Chapter 15. A minor character sings, "I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal you; I'll be standing at Broad and High when they bring your dead ass by, I'll be glad when you're dead." This is a variation on the song that recurs throughout Fisher's novel. Humor: perhaps the funniest twist occurs at the end, when the detectives realize that someone really has been sent back to Africa in expensive glory. It's Uncle Bud, the junk man, who is last heard to be buying enough cattle to purchase one hundred wives.

Subject Headings

African-Americans/ New York (N.Y.) - Harlem/ Police/ Swindlers and swindling

Psychological Elements

criminality is widespread in Himes' novels and this one is no exception, with a wide array of different characters committing robbery and murder. The main characters, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed, are pressured from many directions at once. Their points of view emerge more in this novel than in many of Himes' earlier novels, emphasizing the affect-oriented element of the narrative that leaves the reader uncomfortable.