For a class project, we were split up into groups to create a Wikipedia article. Each group was then assigned a book to read either, The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett, Indemnity Only by Sarah Paretsky, Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes, or Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley. My group of four students was assigned to research and create a Wikipedia article for Chester Himes’ Cotton Comes to Harlem.
The Wikipedia article was to include a plot summary, a character list, a list and explanations of important themes and how they were shown in the book, how the public reacted to the book when it was released, publication history, and a list of references. Once we were divided into groups we then divided the work up amongst ourselves in order to get things done more efficiently. When all of the information was collected we edited it all on our communal document in order to shape it into a Wikipedia article.
I was put in charge of summarizing and explaining the themes for the book using events from the novel to back up my explanations. One of the bigger themes I covered in Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes was the theme of poverty that is ever so prominent in the novel. Without the immense poverty of the city of Harlem and the hardships that come with it, this novel would not have been possibly to write. The story is based upon the need for money and other luxuries that cannot legally be obtained by the average citizen of Harlem. It is no surprise that Chester Himes wrote of poverty as he himself was put in jail for armed robbery. In a paper written by David George Howard on the hardboiled genre, on page 51, we can see that Himes uses his books to portray issues he find important, such as the racial tension between African Americans and white people, and poverty. These “semi-autobiographical” allow the reader to get a better understanding of what was important to Chester Himes.
The theme of poverty and financial struggle is first seen in the beginning of the book when Reverend Deke O’Malley runs a gambit to fool the African American citizens of Harlem into giving him there money in order to sail to Africa. O’Malley promises the African Americans that Africa will be a much better home and that they can pay him in cash for tickets to a boat which will take them home. The theme can be seen through O’Malley’s stunt as many of the people whom he was hoodwinking were writing him IOU’s.
The second instance that this theme can be seen is when the two African American men try and steal a purse out from a woman’s pants by cutting a whole through her clothing. This instance is somewhat similar to an action that put Himes in the Ohio State Penitentiary for seven and a half years. From this we can see that Himes understand the conditions of poverty and how it affects the surrounding neighborhood. I cannot imagine having to steal a woman’s purse in order to put food on a table or afford to pay the rent for the month. Much less cutting through her clothes in order to get to it. However, to the people of the rough neighborhoods in Cotton Comes to Harlem, invading a stranger’s pants for a purse is nothing short of a common occurrence.
Without poverty and financial problems, this story would not be able to reside in Harlem, it wouldn’t be a Blaxploitation novel, and it wouldn’t be as much about the money stolen from the poor people of Harlem. The poverty aspect of this novel puts emphasis on what is right and wrong by amplifying how horrible Deke O’Malley’s scheme was. Robbing from poor people draws much more attention and creates greater emotions than a story about rich people being scammed out of a few dollars. Perhaps Himes was apologizing for the robbery that he committed in 1928, according to David George Howard on page 52 of his Hard-Boiled report.
Aside from explaining some of the themes of the book with my group, I also worked on researching reviews for Cotton Comes to Harlem, and how the consumers accepted it. The reviews are important to note because that can show the potential racial bias towards the book if there were any at the time, as it is a book exploiting the tension between races. From there we can further understand the environment that this book takes place in because the book takes place in the time that it was written.
When the book was released in 1965, in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement with Martin Luther King Jr., it took a while for it to start selling in the United States, although it sold quickly in France, according to Volume 1 of the Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. Ossie Davis in fact, easily turned the book into a Blaxploitation film in 1970, which is why it so greatly appealed to the African American urban community. The purpose of the Blaxploitation genre, after all, was to promote the African American community by the black community.
Being a Blaxploitation story, the African Americans were promoted while the “white man” was made to look evil. In Chester Himes’ Cotton Comes to Harlem, the heroes are two African American men who are larger than life. On the other side, the few white people in the plot are bums or the epitome of the devil, and stealing the poor African American’s money. By creating such images depicting the two races in the midst of a Civil Rights Movement was sure to draw the support of the African American community and very little support from the “white man” in the United States.
In Cotton Comes to Harlem, African Americans are overly depicted as larger than life figures that will go to the end of the world to do the right thing. Gravedigger and Coffin Ed will stop at nothing to return the stolen money to its rightful owners. They appear invincible, even though they bicker at times and seem unprofessional and violent at times. The people of Harlem love Gravedigger and Coffin and they are feared and greatly respected by the white men in the novel, with the exception of The Colonel and his white friends, who eventually “obeys” the two detectives when they find the stolen $87,000 in the barrel of cotton, according to Howard’s work on page 57. Eventually all of the white men in the novel begin to fear and loathe, or greatly respect and adore the two detectives, Gravedigger and Coffin Ed.
During the Wikipedia article project, I learned how to and began to appreciate breaking books down in order to fully understand their meaning and what the author had intended when writing them. I also learned how to search for information in the library to help me do so. Over the course of the article, my group and I broke down the main components of the plot, the themes of the novel, how it was received by the public of the time period in which it was released, what was going on in the time period in which the novel was released, and the publication history of Cotton Comes to Harlem. The Blaxploitation novel featured several themes including poverty and its affect on its area and the role reversal between the white man and African Americans in the novel. Picking the novel apart the way that we did actually made the book much more enjoyable because ewe were ale to pick up on things that we normally would not have.