Cotton Comes To Harlem Summary
by Chester Himes

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Cotton Comes To Harlem Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The seventh novel in Himes’s detective series, Cotton Comes to Harlem, is generally considered the best of the set, ranking with the works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Like the others in the series—and like the stories of Chandler—this follows a standard pattern. A public scene in Harlem is visited by an act of overt violence, which catalyzes the major characters to restore the status quo and reassert their control. Meanwhile, the official representatives of the law that supposedly governs the streets, black detectives Coffin Ed Jones and Grave Digger Johnson, carry on a formal investigation, which eventually explains the mystery—but only after the principal actors have already worked it out in their own way. Ultimately, Harlem proves to possess its own self-generating and self-protective powers of restoration, which reside in the spirits of the black people who live there.

The opening scene of this novel is explosive. Deke O’Hara, a politician and recent convict, is working the streets with an updated, glitzy version of Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa program. He is supposedly selling shares in a colony to be established in Africa for African Americans discontented with America. Because discontent is endemic in Harlem, he has a ready market—but the profits from his scheme, theoretically invested in the company, are intended for his own pockets. Before he can capitalize on his plan, however, his movement is hijacked by a white gang in broad daylight. A frantic chase ensues, scattering innocent bodies in its wake, but the getaway truck escapes, having dropped a bale of cotton that contains the money.

Multiple lines of inquiry spread out: the police want O’Hara, O’Hara wants the hijackers, the hijackers want to recover the lost bale, the common people want to recover the money they have invested. In their quests, the various characters make contact with others, who set off on quests of their own. In the middle of everything else, another organization sets up shop in Harlem, this one fronted by whites: the Back to the Southland (BTS) movement, supposedly dedicated to establishing protected enclaves in the South for blacks who long to return to the security of plantation life. It is, of course, only a front for the hijackers, who are attempting to recover the bale of cotton.

Himes’s real emphasis is on the endlessly resourceful people of Harlem, from scheming reverends to amoral prostitutes to manipulative grandmothers. A wonderful exuberance pervades this novel, perhaps best represented by Uncle Bud, an itinerant bagman who acquires the bale of cotton without knowing what he has. When asked jokingly what he would do with the missing eighty-seven thousand dollars, he answers that he would probably go to Africa. That is exactly what he does at the end of the novel. By playing dumb when everyone around him is on the make in one form or another, by using exactly what is meant by native wits, he does more than survive; he triumphs.

The novel triumphs equally. It reveals all Himes’s narrative strengths and achieves a surpassing excellence in use of language to create a society. Himes does more than merely catch the unique cadences of the street talk of 1950’s Harlem; he preserves that Harlem by catching its language.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The novel begins at a “Back to Africa” rally sponsored by the Reverend Deke O’Malley, a recently released convict. O’Malley is running a scam on the gullible, to whom he promises free land and livestock back in Africa for one thousand dollars a family. The peace and festivity of the event is shattered when a gang of whites steals the $87,000 O’Malley has collected from the faithful and drives off in a stolen van. Unknown to everyone but the robbers, they stuff the loot into a bale of cotton that falls out of the rear of the van during their getaway at high speed through the city streets. As the police search for the robbers, who have shot one man and run over another in their flight,...

(The entire section is 1,903 words.)