Cotton Comes to Harlem Study Guide

Cotton Comes to Harlem

Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes

This novel begins with the Back-to-Africa rally, which is run by Reverend Deke O’Malley. The rally is interrupted by masked white hijackers who come armed to steal the collected money, which amounts to $87,000. A large amount of shooting occurs and one man is killed as the hijackers make their getaway with the money in a large truck.

Investigation starts, in order to find the murderer, and so the main characters, "Grave Digger" Jones and "Coffin Ed" Johnson, are called in to investigate. Uncle Bud, a homeless junk collector, finds a bale of cotton that fell off the white hijackers’ get-away truck and eventually ends up selling it to a junkyard run by a man named Goodman. Reverend O’Malley is not who everyone thinks he is; Grave Digger and Coffin Ed know this and suspect that the whole Back-to-Africa movement is a cover for some kind of swindle. They question Iris, O’Malley’s girlfriend, but get no answers and keep her under surveillance.

Colonel Robert Calhoun opens up his Back-to-the-Southland movement, asking the Black people of Harlem to come back South to make a living picking cotton. Deke hides out at the apartment of Mabel Hill, the widow to the man that was shot at the hijacking, believing that no one will try to locate him there. Meanwhile, Iris escapes the police surveillance, tracks O'Malley to Mabel's and catches Deke there wearing nothing but his underwear. During a cat-fight between Iris and Mabel, Iris gets hold of a gun and kills Mabel out of jealousy. Deke knocks Iris unconscious and escapes. Iris is arrested for Mabel's murder, but when she says she can prove Deke is a con-man, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed agree to break her from jail to find where Deke is hiding. She ends up using them to get away instead.

Deke uses henchman to arrange a meeting with Colonel Calhoun, who for some unknown reason is advertising for a bale of cotton. Josh, an employee at Goodman’s junkyard, tells the Colonel he knows where the bale is. He agrees to bring the bale to the Colonel late at night. Deke has a secret meeting that goes wrong where the Colonel’s henchmen are killed and everyone gets away except Deke. Josh is found dead and the bale of cotton is gone.

The ending of the novel comes in great energy as Grave Digger and Coffin Ed use their wits to trick everyone into working against one another, while it benefits them. Iris finds Deke being held by his supposed accomplices, but gets tied up along with him. The henchmen holding them get into a fiery fight with Grave Digger and Coffin Ed, and Deke and Iris are“rescued”. The bale of cotton is found with Iris’s friend Billie, an exotic dancer using it in her act, and she sells it to the Colonel for $1,000. Grave Digger and Coffin Ed then arrest the colonel for the murder of Josh. The money is not in the bale, so Grave Digger and Coffin Ed make a dealwith the colonel: the colonel will hand over $87,000 to pay back the money stolen from the Black citizens in return for Grave Digger and Coffin Ed looking the other way while the colonel and his henchmen "escape" from New York. The deal is made. After looking into the disappearance of the money, news comes in from Air France that Uncle Bud had taken a flight from New York to Dakar, Africa; further inquiries reveal that Uncle Bud is living a life of luxury in the African bush, which seems to prove that he found and removed the stolen money before secretly selling the cotton bale to Billie.

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