“Cotton Comes to Harlem” by Chester Himes (published by Penguin Modern Classics)

Where everything and nothing is black and white

Any aficionado of crime novels and films knows the “good cop, bad cop” routine, where a seething cop batters about a suspect until the accused turns to the sympathetic “good” cop for protection and spills the beans. It’s a cynical trick, of course. But African-American Harlem detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones are different: when they interrogate con man Deke O’Malley there is no “good” cop; they’re both “bad” and he gets a double thumping.
5. June 2021 15:17

Deke takes a battering at the hands of the two cops under the bright lights down in the basement interview room at police headquarters.  “They slapped him back and forth until his brains were addled., but left no bruises.” Both Coffin Ed and Grave Digger have been suspended at different times for what the police commissioner considers unnecessary violence and brutality. But the commissioner knows also that Harlem is a mean rough city and coloured cops have to be meaner and rougher to get the respect of coloured hoodlums. He understands all the evils of segregation.

Welcome to Himes’ Harlem, circa 1965 when this book was published and is now reissued: “The city lived and breathed and slept as normal. People were lying, stealing, cheating, murdering; people were praying, singing, laughing, loving and being loved; and people were being born and people were dying. Its pulse remained the same. New York City. The Big Town.”

Well, it’s just another day in the big bad town, up there at the northern end of Manhattan. It’s only 10pm but look at the police reports: Man kills his wife with an axe for burning his breakfast pork chop … man shoots another man demonstrating a recent shooting he had witnessed … man stabs another man for spilling beer on his new suit… man kills self in a bar playing Russian roulette with a .32 revolver… woman stabs man in stomach fourteen times, no reason given… woman scalds neighbouring woman with pot of boiling water for speaking to her husband … man arrested for threatening to blow up subway train because he entered wrong station and couldn’t get his token back …

Phew! And there’s more: Man sees stranger wearing his own new suit, slashes him with a razor… man dressed as Cherokee Indian splits white bartender’s skull with homemade tomahawk … man arrested on Seventh Avenue for hunting cats with hound dog and shotgun … twenty-five men arrested for trying to chase all the white people out of Harlem.

This last encapsulates what it’s all about for African-American author Chester Himes. The racial tension is everywhere. “This country is being run by niggers,” says a white cop. And further down the same page: “These white mothers can’t let us alone,” says a black. “Now they’re using our brothers against us.” And there’s the nub.

Himes, in self-exile in Europe, wrote a series of nine detective novels centred on his two black cops trying to uphold the law in Harlem, the uptown neighbourhood of New York City synonymous with negro culture. As we can see,  he doesn’t shy away from presenting the seamy and violent side of the place. Himes was pursuing his greater goal: to look at the black-white divide in this country that was partly built on enslaving niggers/darkies/nigras, to use some of the terms in “Cotton Comes to Harlem”.

His Harlem Series was published between 1957 and 1969 after the author had left behind his own unpleasant racial experiences in the United States and moved to France, where all nine books about the exploits of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones were originally written for Gallimard’s “Série Noire” in that country,

In this one, Grave Digger is back, his first night on duty since he was shot up by a hired gun in a caper resulting from the loss of a shipment of heroin. He had been in hospital for three months fighting  a running battle with death, and he had spent three months at home convalescing.

And as we now find out, of course blacks are just as keen as whites to fleece other blacks. The book opens with a scene of a rally in Harlem conducted by black flim-flam man Reverend Deke O’Malley, just out of Atlanta’s state penitentiary and leader of a phony Back-to-Africa movement.

While in the process of amassing $87,000 from 87 Harlem families by selling them the false promise of a glorious new life in Africa, O’Malley’s own operation is hit by white gunmen with machine-guns who steal the proceeds – and send one man’s brain matter flying.

Coffin Ed and Grave Digger pursue the missing $87,000, which winds up hidden in a bale of cotton that suddenly everybody wants to get their hands on. The thief, a white Southerner named Colonel Robert L. Calhoun, is promoting his own crooked repatriation scheme of sorts, a back-to-the-Southland crusade whereby urban African-Americans would “return” to the South as paid agricultural labourers.

Meanwhile, the 87 families who have sunk their savings on a dream of going back to the dark continent lay awake, worrying, wondering if they’ll ever get their money back – people who are already so poor they dream hungry. They want to escape the cheap addicts, stumblebums, blank-eyed whores, twitching junkies, muggers and thieves, listless mothers, dirty streets, hovels, etc.

If they can’t escape their drab existence and be middle class in a big house in the suburbs, they want to leave it all and go back to Africa. This is the big turbulent sea of black humanity as presented by Chester Himes. There are five hundred thousand people in Harlem and so many holes in which to hide that sewer rats are known to have got lost.

When the two detectives finally apprehend Calhoun, they demand that he give them $87,000 from his own bank account to repay the 87 Harlem families their hard-earned money. In the final comic irony of a novel already awash in pandemonium and absurd violence, the original $87,000 turns up in the hands of junkman Uncle Bud, who uses it to move to Africa and buy 500 cattle to exchange for 100 wives, setting himself up as a latter-day Solomon.

It wasn’t until 1965 in the United States that the Voting Rights Act directed the Attorney General to enforce the right to vote for African-Americans.The expatriate Himes died in Spain in 1984 and it would be interesting to see him alive in 2021 when many in the United States still need to be convinced that Black Lives Matter.

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