Cotton Comes to Harlem (novel)
Cotton Comes to Harlem is a hardboiled crime fiction novel written by Chester Himes in 1965. It is the sixth and best known of the Grave Digger Jones & Coffin Ed Johnson Mysteries. It was later adapted into a film of the same name in 1970 starring Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques, and Redd Foxx. The novel plays with thoughts of Blaxploitation and is a monumental novel that started the African-American cop-and-detective phase of the 1960s-'70s.
First UK edition
|Cover artist||Terrance Cummings|
|Series||Grave Digger Jones & Coffin Ed Johnson Mysteries|
|Genre||Hardboiled crime fiction|
|Publisher||G. P. Putnam's Sons (US)|
|Media type||Print paperback|
|LC Class||PS3515.I713 C68 1988|
|Preceded by||The Big Gold Dream|
|Followed by||The Heat's On|
This novel begins with the Back-to-Africa rally, which is run by Reverend Deke O’Malley. The rally is interrupted by masked white hijackers who come armed to steal the collected money, which amounts to $87,000. A large amount of shooting occurs and one man is killed as the hijackers make their getaway with the money in a large truck.
Investigation starts, in order to find the murderer, and so the main characters, "Grave Digger" Jones and "Coffin Ed" Johnson, are called in to investigate. Uncle Bud, a homeless junk collector, finds a bale of cotton that fell off the white hijackers’ get-away truck and eventually ends up selling it to a junkyard run by a man named Goodman. Reverend O’Malley is not who everyone thinks he is; Grave Digger and Coffin Ed know this and suspect that the whole Back-to-Africa movement is a cover for some kind of swindle. They question Iris, O’Malley’s girlfriend, but get no answers and keep her under surveillance.
Colonel Robert Calhoun opens up his Back-to-the-Southland movement, asking the Black people of Harlem to come back South to make a living picking cotton. Deke hides out at the apartment of Mabel Hill, the widow to the man that was shot at the hijacking, believing that no one will try to locate him there. Meanwhile, Iris escapes the police surveillance, tracks O'Malley to Mabel's and catches Deke there wearing nothing but his underwear. During a cat-fight between Iris and Mabel, Iris gets hold of a gun and kills Mabel out of jealousy. Deke knocks Iris unconscious and escapes. Iris is arrested for Mabel's murder, but when she says she can prove Deke is a con-man, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed agree to break her from jail to find where Deke is hiding. She ends up using them to get away instead.
Deke uses henchman to arrange a meeting with Colonel Calhoun, who for some unknown reason is advertising for a bale of cotton. Josh, an employee at Goodman’s junkyard, tells the Colonel he knows where the bale is. He agrees to bring the bale to the Colonel late at night. Deke has a secret meeting that goes wrong where the Colonel’s henchmen are killed and everyone gets away except Deke. Josh is found dead and the bale of cotton is gone.
The ending of the novel comes in great energy as Grave Digger and Coffin Ed use their wits to trick everyone into working against one another, while it benefits them. Iris finds Deke being held by his supposed accomplices, but gets tied up along with him. The henchmen holding them get into a fiery fight with Grave Digger and Coffin Ed, and Deke and Iris are “rescued”. The bale of cotton is found with Iris’s friend Billie, an exotic dancer using it in her act, and she sells it to the Colonel for $1,000. Grave Digger and Coffin Ed then arrest the colonel for the murder of Josh. The money is not in the bale, so Grave Digger and Coffin Ed make a deal with the colonel: the colonel will hand over $87,000 to pay back the money stolen from the Black citizens in return for Grave Digger and Coffin Ed looking the other way while the colonel and his henchmen "escape" from New York. The deal is made. After looking into the disappearance of the money, news comes in from Air France that Uncle Bud had taken a flight from New York to Dakar, Senegal; further inquiries reveal that Uncle Bud is living a life of luxury in the African bush, which seems to prove that he found and removed the stolen money before secretly selling the cotton bale to Billie.
Grave Digger Jones - ace black detective in Harlem working with Coffin Ed to find out who the hijackers were and get back the people's money.
Coffin Ed Johnson - ace black detective in Harlem working with Grave Digger to find out who the hijackers were and get back the people's money as well. His face is scarred by thrown acid, giving him an explosive bad temper that causes him to need time to calm down.
Reverend Deke O'Malley - charismatic black leader and former convict, real name Deke O'Hara; uses religion as a disguise to swindle poor African-Americans out of their money for a Back-to-Africa movement.
Iris - main squeeze to Deke, strong and cunning woman, was in love with Deke, easily made angry and jealous, she has a short temper, and can be considered the novel’s femme fatale.
Uncle Bud - homeless black man who find the bale of cotton the $87,000 was hidden in from the heist, and ultimately flees the country with it.
Mabel Hill - attractive wife of one of O'Malley's henchmen who is killed in Back-to-Africa rally; used by O'Malley for information, a place to stay, and sex, ultimately killed in jealous rage by Iris.
Josh Bryce - worker at the junkyard (Goodman’s) who tries to sell the bale of cotton to Col. Calhoun, ultimately killed when the Colonel believes he knows/saw too much.
Goodman - owner of the junkyard where uncle Bud originally sells the bale of cotton. Helps detectives with clues as to where the bale could have possibly ended up.
Lieutenant Anderson - in charge of the detective branch of the police precinct that Gravedigger and Coffin Ed work, who makes orders for most things that they do.
Colonel Calhoun - wealthy southern white man with many high-up connections, planned the hijacking to steal all the money, also sets up a Back-to-South movement in the middle of Harlem, causes a ruckus, tries to get bale of cotton back unsuccessfully.
Billie - mysterious friend of Iris, exotic dancer, ends up with the bale of cotton from Uncle Bud to use in her dance routine, sells the bale to Col. Calhoun for $1k.
Lo Boy - ordinary con-man who worked with Early Riser (a gangster) to do petty crimes; the main witness to the Hijacker vehicle crash.
Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones’ roles as black police officers in a white-dominated and racist New York City precinct are unique in how they are treated. Both detectives face racism dealt to them on all sides, however they also wield significant power even though it is not typical of the time. Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones are the officers that patrol and take care of Harlem, not just as a job but also a strong feeling of commitment to its black population. This commitment showed in how they dealt out the law; cracking skulls and taking names to ensure that the criminals were stopped and the innocent protected. Their white counterparts in the precinct saw how they operated, and it earned them some respect, but more importantly power. The white officers felt that because of their brutal tactics and how they seemed to follow their own law, that they should steer clear of them, not make racial comments, and perhaps a small amount of fear has been instilled to them by Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones. This idea that a black officer could have more power or be feared by a white officer in the 1960s is a reversed idea from the conventional brutal white cop.
Sexual deception is something that prevails in multiple places throughout the novel, and by both races. Reverend Deke O’Malley uses his power as a reverend to deceive Mabel. Shortly after the death of Mabel’s husband, a man working under Deke for the Back-to-Africa movement, Deke visits Mabel at her home. Deke starts off saying how unfortunate the whole event was, and if he could help her in any way. He sees his opportunity as she is at her most vulnerable and lonely, and pushes the envelope to get her in bed. A reverend comforting a recently widowed woman is not out of the norm, but Deke visited her to use her house as a base, but also use her body, which is described as more than inviting. Iris also uses her feminine charm to deceive a police officer. While one of the white police officers is keeping watch on Iris, she decides to “have some fun” with him. She jokes about him being ugly, working at the man’s self-image, and eventually strips down and seduces him, but requires he wear a bag over his head. While he is stark naked and bagged, she makes a quick dash out of the apartment, with him chasing after her. She loses him and he ends up locked out of the apartment, naked. Iris manipulates the cop into feeling uncomfortable about his masculinity, his looks, and his manhood. She uses her body to get what she wants; an escape, to find Deke is sexually deceiving her with Mabel. The way Iris is presented is an interesting one. A black woman surviving in a male-dominated society, but that is just it, she is surviving. Iris is strong in the sense that she fights and fights up until she can’t fight it anymore, and even then she still tries. She gives the black detectives an extremely hard time when they are only trying to help. She is a strong, independent woman not typically seen in non-main characters, especially those that are black and female in the 1960s.
As said in the book, “Harlem is the city of the homeless,” Harlem was an all white community, until the blacks were sent here and given cheap living arrangements. In Cotton Comes to Harlem, the criminals must be made to pay for the crimes or the citizens should be able to afford better living arrangements. The poverty in the city is shown not just by the living standards of the people, but in the number and type of crimes. In the book, the people of Harlem will even steal purses out of the back of a woman’s dress to get what today is considered enough money to live off of. In the literary article, The Shape of Poverty in 1966, the author goes into specific details of what the means of living were at that time. It goes on to say that the “majority of the country” was in better standards than it was seven years ago in 1959, but there are actually 1 out of 7 people in America were in “households with money incomes for the year lower than the poverty line”. This can be seen in the hard-boiled novel of this era when there is a distinct difference between the Colonel and his white friends that had enough money to easily tide over their spending to support the Back-to-South movement, while Deke and even the two main detectives had to use impromptu settings to support themselves. The crimes definitely show that drastic measures of the time were needed to fulfill the gap that is within the constant poverty some had, but, as seen by most of the characters, that does not stop them from fighting for what they believe in.
Chester Himes is referred to as “the black Raymond Chandler” and “the father of the black crime fiction novel”. Some describe this book as “rollicking funny book”. The New York Times on February 5, 1965, says it has some weaknesses including sex exploitation and plot confusion, but has good, weird conceptions of the Back to Africa and Back to the South schemes and the plot of the bale of cotton. Since it was first published in France, the French seem to hold this level of violence as a true conception of Harlem during this time, but the Americans are a bit more reserved and disturbed. But some of his French readers “thought Black life in America was exciting”. Also in February 1965, the Library Journal calls it the book to watch that month. They explain the humor as rough, sex rampant and dialogue authentic. They say it may shock some people with it being about a Harlem that has many junkies and some quiet people. And in the following month that year, Best Sellers says that “discriminating adults” can untwist the morality of the characters featured in Cotton Comes to Harlem. All the reviews during this time describe the book as something people should read, but none of them really seem to capture the essence of the time period it was in and how it was reflected. With the race riots going on all over the country, at least people still looked at this book as something good to read.
The book was adapted into a movie of the same name co-written by Ossie Davis and Arnold Perl, released on May 26, 1970. The cast includes Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge as Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones respectively, as well as Calvin Lockhart, Redd Foxx and Judy Pace. While staying true to the hard-boiled theme, the film does play into the blaxploitation that was a popular genre at the time. Chester Himes said he wanted the movie to focus more on Reverend Deke O’Malley, but the studio wanted it to “center on the Harlem policemen,” for purposes of a possible film franchise, according to an article in Jet magazine (the accuracy of which is somewhat called into question by a reference to "Cotton Ed Johnson." Ossie Davis planned on making multiple movies about the characters Grave Digger and Coffin Ed since there were already multiple books based on them. This difference in the movie enhances the humor to degrees that seem to exceed the acceptable amounts in real conversations and this causes the reception of the movie to be an overnight phenomenon.
The reviews at the time show different opinions of how viewers perceived the movie. Film critic Howard Thompson expresses gratitude for the movie as he is excited to say that the cast was “marvelous” and that the general plot of a “sly caper” that “tilts a neighborhood” is so excellent that it will be remembered for a long time. On the other hand, a disapproving review in the Times claims that the film is a “meretricious thriller that should offend the sensibilities of any audience—black or white”. These reviews may not be typical of every person who saw it at the time, but are understandable as an indication of some viewers’ initial reaction to the racial jokes and blaxploitation, since this was only one of the first Black-featuring movies that started a craze later on in the 1970s.
Large differences between the movie and the book are very apparent because for the most part the characters and the plot have remained the same. As mentioned earlier, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed have the same detective roles, but are seen as more comedic characters in the film adaptation. Iris is still a femme fatale who does her own hard work in order to get what she wants and she still becomes jealous of Mabel, Deke O’Malley’s friend, and kills her. The relationship between Deke and Mabel is much shorter; in fact, in the film they never actually sleep together. The largest difference, however, is that there was no Back-to-Southland or a Colonel Calhoun, so the main plot changed to focus on Grave Digger and Coffin Ed trying to discover who stole the Back-to-Africa money. The ending is similar, but there is no bidding for the bale of cotton. Instead, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed grab the criminals and arrest them in front of the crowd. There is no money to be found and Uncle Bud still gets away, but in the movie we actually see him in paradise in a postcard. Overall, the film and novel have the same general plot and main characters, but there are large things that Ossie Davis excluded in order for the film to maintain a humorous, blaxploitative effect.
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