Information is one of the most valuable assets in the world and it’s something that we use everyday. Whether or not it is using Google, Bing, MSN Search or Wikipedia, we need access to this information, but where does it come from? How do we know that the information presented to us is reliable? Wikipedia is a great example because it is something that is collaborative; anyone can access the webpage and alter or add information as they please, so what is to be trusted? In the creation of my group’s Wikipedia article, I went through a process of gathering and interpreting any information regarding Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes.
In the early stages, I needed an outline of what I was planning on doing. For the first class meeting on the project, I went in to Google Docs and starting making a skeleton of the Wikipedia article. I used the featured wikipedia article regarding The Hunger Games as my model. Since it was featured it meant that it is “considered one of the best articles Wikipedia has to offer.”[i] With this in mind, I created an outline containing these features: character list, plot summary, themes, publication history, critical reception, film adaptation, see also, and references. With this outline started, our group could go ahead and start filling in our respective parts of the article.
Under the character list, I added a short, one to two sentence blurb about every character of significance to the novel. I used my own personal knowledge of the character but also looked up some character lists of the film version, since the actual characters do not change between the two versions.[ii] With the character list in place, I then turned to other parts of the article that had yet to be edited.
In the themes sections, I had listed a few bullet points when I created the outline, including role reversal and sexual deception. I decided that I should start with the role reversal aspect, since it is something that I personally noticed throughout the novel. Using the UMW Library website and the article finder function, I typed in “Cotton Comes to Harlem” just as a starting point. One the first articles that came up was titled “Expatriate Genius” by Tony Lindsay, an article from Black Issues Book Review. Although it is just a review of Chester Himes, there are a couple paragraphs relating to Cotton Comes to Harlem and the two main characters, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones. The paragraphs focused on the issue of power within the police system and their power in their community of Harlem specifically in Cotton Comes to Harlem. With regards to the racism and other issues faced by Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, I decided to do some more investigation into black police officers of the 1960s and some issues/events that were occurring at the time. I came across the book Black Police in America by W. Marvin Dulaney, which gave a detailed history of black police officers in America, including the time frame that I was looking into.[iii] It gave me insight into the relative numbers of black police vs. white police in certain cities, the statistics involving the rise of black police officers, as well as black police unions and issues of race that they dealt with, which gave me incredible context for which to write about the theme of role reversal of black cops and white cops in Cotton Comes to Harlem.
The idea of race and power are intertwined greatly throughout the novel, but mostly with Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones. These two black police officers face racism on the streets but also in their workplace. With the story taking place in the 1960s, a time where racial tensions are at their highest, it is interesting to see how they interact with their white counterparts. Although they hear repeated racial slurs, even from their captain, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger both wield power in a society that allows them very little. Through their sometimes ruthless methods (which earned Ed the nickname ‘Trigger Happy Ed’) they gain power by being feared. The white policemen see how they patrol Harlem, how they police their own kind, and realize that it would be a bad idea to get in their way. Some may think that power through fear is not the best tactic, but Coffin Ed and Grave Digger don’t really have another option. They can’t get power from their white counterparts, so they are forced to be brutal, but only to protect the people of Harlem. If the people of Harlem’s well-being was left in the hands of white cops, especially in the 1960s, it is doubtful that any policing would get done. This is why the people of Harlem respect Coffin Ed and Grave Digger even though they are a little rough around the edges. The people give them the power and the respect to do their jobs, because Harlem knows that with those two cops around, some sense of justice will be brought to light.
For sexual deception, I felt that there was a little more to cover here than in the role reversal section, as I picked up on many moments throughout the novel were sex and deception came up intertwined with one another. In my original outline creation, I found an article that I knew would be helpful later on, which was titled “Survival Strategies: Black Women in Ollie Miss and Cotton Comes to Harlem” by Patricia Kane and Doris Wilkinson that was written in 1974, not too long after the publication of the novel. Both authors cover the idea of a strong independent black woman who does not need to lean on any man, using Iris from Cotton Comes to Harlem as a specific example. The authors also connect another book with a similar theme Ollie Miss, which supports my arguments regarding Iris, and also contextualizes the era in regard to black women. To get more of a context for the time period, I stumbled upon an article titled “Pieces of a (Wo)man: Feminism, Gender and Adulthood in Black Consciousness, 1968-1977” by Daniel Magaziner which talks about the struggle of African American women in the time period just following the publications of Chester Himes’ novel.[iv] With this information in mind, I combined it with my own understanding of the events of the novel to create a sturdy understanding of sexual deception in the novel.
In order to create easily accessible information that others will use, we must be sure that our information is valid and supported by other scholars of the field. Time and effort are probably the most important aspects when it comes to creating a information tool that will be viewed and shared publicly. Without a research process, must like the one that I went through to create the Wikipedia article for Cotton Comes to Harlem, all of the information that we access daily would be shoddy and questionable at best, but thanks to the plethora of people who do research these topics and edit others’ work, we can create easily accessible and accurate information for all.
[i] “Featured Articles.” Wikipedia. N.p., 2012. Web. 5 Dec. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Featured_articles>.
[ii] “Cotton Comes to Harlem.” Internet Movie Database. N.p., 2012. Web. 5 Dec. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065579/>.
[iii] Dulaney, W. Marvin. Black Police in America. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996. Print.
[iv] Magaziner, Daniel R. “Pieces of a (Wo)man: Feminism, Gender and Adulthood in Black Consciousness, 1968-1977.” Journal of Southern African Studies 37.1 (2011): 45-61. Web. 5 Dec. 2012.