Themes and Meanings
Cotton Comes to Harlem is one of a series of crime novels featuring Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones written by Chester Himes while living in Europe. Known for their tough approach to crime, the two detectives have been assigned to the Harlem precinct because of their toughness and because they know the people and geography of the precinct so well.
In all of his detective writing, Himes focuses as much on the social, political, and economic conditions of the people in Harlem as he does on solving the crimes that take place in the individual novels. Although Himes lived in various locales in Europe while writing the books, he remained committed to the condemnation of American racism and the support of social justice that he had developed in the “protest novels” he wrote before his expatriation.
In Cotton Comes to Harlem as in his other crime fiction, Himes carefully—and, for some, all too painfully—explores the racism and its accompanying economic and social oppression inherent in American culture. Grave Digger and Coffin Ed constantly battle racist attitudes, both conscious and unconscious, within the New York City police force, including those of their watch commander, Lieutenant Anderson, who is generally a sympathetic character and supportive of the detectives. Throughout the series—and Cotton Comes to Harlem provides a particularly good example—the detectives are more frequently interested in dispensing justice than in defending the law. They are willing to overlook petty crimes such as gambling, prostitution, and scams against the relatively well-off, but not violence, particularly against the vulnerable, poor, and gullible, or exploitative crimes that take advantage of the slender hopes and aspirations of the ordinary citizens of Harlem. Throughout the series, Himes chronicles the world of his characters sympathetically; without becoming didactic or preachy, he demonstrates the harmful effects of the oppression and exploitation on African Americans and chronicles the aspirations and failures of their lives.