Cotton Came to Harlem

Published: 2021-09-12 18:45:11
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Category: Racism, Culture, Harlem Renaissance

Type of paper: Essay

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Chester Himes Cotton Comes to Harlem was a great work of art, a detective novel of the American blaxploitation era in which the characters would be considered flamboyantly “super black” individuals. In the days where everyone was a ‘soul brother’ and ‘jive turkey’, or ‘bad mamma jamma’. The case to be solved in the book surrounded the accidental “delivery” of a bale of cotton to a neighborhood in Harlem, New York, far too set in the north for there to have ever been raw, unprocessed cotton there.

The bale of cotton is used to steal nearly one hundred thousand dollars swindled from the Harlem constituency of a dirty, underhanded, slick talking preacher and after the bale is stuffed with the money and misplaced it is found by a beggar and then chased throughout the tale. Although there was a ridiculous amount of racism present in this work there was also some fairly hidden aspects of racial solidarity.

Whereas all of the white police officers and detectives were racists against and clearly suspicious of Detectives “Coffin” and “Gravedigger” their immediate supervisor, the Sergeant whose name escapes me, was immensely supportive and understanding. He realized the situation that their department was dealing with and how important it was for Coffin and Gravedigger to be the ones to handle it, asserting that it was just their type of justice that was needed in such an instance and that they had a very particular way of going about the duties of their position.
What is like the most controversial portion of this work is the underlying discussion of the Back to Africa Movement and the theme of African American solidarity (my second favorite part). I was extremely impressed with the attention that Himes gave to distinguishing the importance of finding and returning the money that was stolen because it was the hard-earned money of impoverished African Americans who had given all that they had and more; literally their last dollars or penny, to this preacher with a silver tongue because they felt he was the person to lead them to the “promised land”.
They believed in this man and put a lot of stock in his words and alleged beliefs. He gave them hope and a vision that they felt they could have faith in. The Back to Africa Movement is an unfortunate dilemma which caught my attention having done some research on and not being a fan of Marcus Garvey for having turned out to be quite similar to the pastor in this tale. An immeasurably flawed being of great charisma in search of every dime he could get. I was disappointed in the “selling of a dream” but very pleased with the way in which Himes formed, developed and presented this character.
The thing that I by far loved most about this book was the fact that it was a bale of cotton full of money. It could have been anything on this earth, a steal bucket sealed shut, a large suitcase or locked box but it wasn’t, it was a bale of cotton - the same soft and beautiful substance that kept African Americans oppressed for so many years working on plantations to harvest it. I thought the symbolism in the young lady dancing; celebrating what it meant was absolutely beautiful. It meant the overcoming of subjugation and inferiority.
This longstanding symbol of oppression had turned into a symbol of hope, not for an entire race but at least for the impoverished community where it had been “lost”. I would guess that not many people saw the significance in Himes using a bale of cotton, or the fact that he was the one to write the book at all, but I did. Chester Himes was born in 1909, right after the turn of the century, soon after the abolition of slavery and right there during peak sharecropping times. I felt like cotton was something that had a stronghold on so many people for so long.
Working in cotton fields was among African Americans greatest struggles, if not the greatest of African American struggles. Cotton throughout history has signified African American oppression, but when cotton came to Harlem, it signified hope and financial freedom. I didn’t like the movie when I saw it years ago, but I am now glad that I was able to read the book. I thought it was great ad I would definitely recommended it to anyone who is interested in the underlying aspects of the African American struggle being celebrated as they are overcome.

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