Authors: Chester Himes
THER BOOKS BY
The Heat’s On
The Real Cool Killers
Copyright © 1965 by Chester Himes
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published, in hardcover, in the United States by G.P Putnam in 1965.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Himes, Chester B., 1909–1984 Cotton comes to Harlem.
68 1988 813′.54 88-40045
DISPLAY TYPOGRAPHY BY BARBARA M. BACHMAN
The voice from the sound truck said:
“Each family, no matter how big it is, will be asked to put up one thousand dollars. You will get your transportation free, five acres of fertile land in Africa, a mule and a plow and all the seed you need, free. Cows, pigs and chickens cost extra, but at the minimum. No profit on this deal.”
A sea of dark faces wavered before the speaker’s long table, rapturous and intent.
“Ain’t it wonderful, honey?” said a big black woman with eyes like stars. “We’re going back to Africa.”
Her tall lean husband shook his head in awe. “After all these four hundred years.”
“Here I is been cooking in white folk’s kitchens for more than thirty years. Lord, can it be true?” A stooped old woman voiced a lingering doubt.
The smooth brown speaker with the honest eyes and earnest face heard her. “It’s true all right,” he said. “Just step right up and give us the particulars and deposit your thousand dollars and you’ll have a place on the first boat going over.”
A grumpy old man with a head of white hair shuffled forward to fill out a form and deposit his thousand dollars, muttering to himself, “It sure took long enough.”
The two pretty black girls taking applications looked up with dazzling smiles.
“Look how long it took the Jews to get out of Egypt,” one said.
“The hand of God is slow but sure,” said the other.
It was a big night in the lives of all these assembled colored people. Now at last, after months of flaming denouncements of the injustice and hypocrisy of white people, hurled from the pulpit of his church; after months of eulogy heaped upon the holy land of Africa, young Reverend Deke O’Malley was at last putting words into action. Tonight he was signing up the people to go on his three ships back to Africa. Huge hand-drawings of the ships stood in prominent view behind the speaker’s table, appearing to have the size and design of the
SS Queen Elizabeth.
Before them stood Reverend O’Malley, his tall lithe body clad in dark summer worsted, his fresh handsome face exuding benign authority and
inspiring total confidence, flanked by his secretaries and the two young men most active in recruiting applicants.
A vacant lot in the “Valley” of Harlem near the railroad tracks, where slum tenements had been razed for a new housing development, had been taken over for the occasion. More than a thousand people milled about the patches of old, uneven concrete amid the baked, cindery earth littered with stones, piles of rubbish, dog droppings, broken glass, scattered rags and clusters of stinkweed.
The hot summer night was lit by flashes of sheet lightning, threatening rain, and the air was oppressive with dust, density and motor fumes. Stink drifted from the surrounding slums, now more overcrowded than ever due to the relocation of families from the site of the new buildings to be erected to relieve the overcrowding. But nothing troubled the jubilance of these dark people filled with faith and hope.
The meeting was well organized. The speaker’s table stood at one end, draped with a banner reading:
BACK TO AFRICA — LAST CHANCE
!!! Behind it, beside the drawings of the ships, stood an armored truck, its back doors open, flanked by two black guards wearing khaki uniforms and side arms. To the other side stood the sound truck with amplifiers atop. Tee-shirted young men in tight-fitting jeans roamed about with solemn, unsmiling expressions, swelled with a sense of importance ready to eject any doubters.
But for many of these true-believers it was also a picnic. Bottles of wine, beer and whisky were passed about. Here and there a soul-brother cut a dance step. White teeth flashed in black, laughing faces. Eyes spoke. Bodies promised. They were all charged with anticipation.
A pit had been dug in the center of the lot, housing a charcoal fire covered with an iron grill. Rows of pork ribs were slowly cooking on the grill, dripping fat into the hot coals with a sizzling of pungent smoke, turned from time to time by four “hook-men” with long iron hooks. A white-uniformed chef with a long-handled ladle basted the ribs with hot sauce as they cooked, supervising the turning, his tall white chef’s cap bobbing over his sweating black face. Two matronly women clad in white nurses’ uniforms sat at a kitchen table, placing the cooked ribs into paper plates, adding bread and potato salad, and selling them for one dollar a serving.
The tempting, tantalizing smell of barbecued ribs rose in the air above the stink. Shirt-sleeved men, thinly clad women and halfnaked children jostled each other good-naturedly, eating the spicy meat and dropping the bones underfoot.
Above the din of transistor radios broadcasting the night’s baseball games, and the bursts of laughter, the sudden shrieks, the other loud voices, came the blaring voice of Reverend Deke O’Malley from the sound truck: “Africa is our native land and we are going back. No more picking cotton for the white folks and living on fatback and corn pone.…”
“Yea, baby, yea.”
“See that sign,” Reverend O’Malley shouted, pointing to a large wooden sign against the wire fence which proclaimed that the low-rent housing development to be erected on that site would be completed within two and one half years, and listed the prices of the apartments, which no family among those assembled there could afford to pay. “Two years you have to wait to move into some boxes — if you can get in, and if you can pay the high rent after you get in. By that time you will be harvesting your second crop in Africa, living in warm sunny houses where the only fire you’ll ever need will be for cooking, where we’ll have our own governments and our own rulers —
, like us —”
“I hear you, baby, I hear you.”
The thousand-dollar subscriptions poured in. The starry-eyed black people were putting their chips on hope. One after another they went forward solemnly and put down their thousand dollars and signed on the dotted line. The armed guards took the money and stacked it carefully into an open safe in the armored truck.
“How many?” Reverend O’Malley asked one of his secretaries in a whisper.
“Eighty-seven,” she whispered in reply.
“Tonight might be your last chance,” Reverend O’Malley said over the amplifiers. “Next week I must go elsewhere and give all of our brothers a chance to return to our native land. God said the meek shall inherit the earth; we have been meek long enough; now we shall come into our inheritance.”
“Amen, Reverend! Amen!”
Sad-eyed Puerto Ricans from nearby Spanish Harlem and the lost and hungry black people from black Harlem who didn’t have the thousand dollars to return to their native land congregated outside the high wire fence, smelling the tantalizing barbecue, dreaming of the day when they could also go back home in triumph and contentment.
“Who’s that man?” one of them asked.
“Child, he’s the young Communist Christian preacher who’s going to take our folks back to Africa.”
A police cruiser was parked at the curb. Two white cops in the front seat cast sour looks over the assemblage.
“Where you think they got a permit for this meeting?”
“Search me. Lieutenant Anderson said leave them alone.”
“This country is being run by niggers.”
They lit cigarettes and smoked in sullen silence.
Inside the fence, three colored cops patrolled the assemblage, swapping jokes with their soul-brothers, exchanging grins, relaxed and friendly.
During a lull in the speaker’s voice, two big colored men in dark rumpled suits approached the speaker’s table. Bulges from pistols in shoulder slings showed beneath their coats. The guards of the armored truck became alert. The two young recruiting agents, flanking the table, pushed back their chairs.
But the two big men were polite and smiled easily.
“We’re detectives from the D.A.’s office,” one said to O’Malley apologetically, as both presented their identifications. “We have orders to bring you in for questioning.”
The two young recruiting agents came to their feet, tense and angry.
“These white mothers can’t let us alone,” one said. “Now they’re using our brothers against us.”
Reverend O’Malley waved them down and spoke to the detectives, “Have you got a warrant?”
“No, but it would save you a lot of trouble if you came peacefully.”
The second detective added, “You can take your time and finish with your people, but I’d advise you to talk to the D.A.”
“All right,” Reverend O’Malley said calmly. “Later.”
The detectives moved to one side. Everyone relaxed. One of the recruiting agents ordered a serving of barbecue.
For a moment attention was centered on a meat delivery truck which had entered the lot. It had been passed by the zealous volunteers guarding the gate.
“You’re just in time, boy,” the black chef called to the white driver as the truck approached. “We’re running out of ribs.”
A flash of lightning spotlighted the grinning faces of the two white men on the front seat.
“Wait ’til we turn around, boss,” the driver’s helper called in a southern voice.
The truck went forward towards the speaker’s table. Eyes watched it indifferently. The truck turned, backed, gently plowing a path through the milling mob.
Ignoring the slight commotion, Reverend O’Malley continued speaking from the amplifiers: “These damn southern white folks have worked us like dogs for four hundred years and when we ask
them to pay off, they ship us up to the North.…”
“Ain’t it the truth!” a sister shouted.
“And these damn northern white folks don’t want us —” But he never finished. He broke off in mid-sentence at the sight of two masked white men stepping from the back of the meat delivery truck with two black deadly-looking submachine guns in their hands. “Unh!!!” he grunted as though someone had hit him in the stomach.
For the brief instant following, silence reigned. The scene became a tableau of suspended motion. Eyes were riveted on the black holes of death at the front ends of the machine guns. Muscles became paralysed. Brains stopped thinking.
Then a voice that sounded as though it had come from the backwoods of Mississippi said thickly: “Everybody freeze an’ nobody’ll git hurt.”
The black men guarding the armored truck raised their hands in reflex action. Black faces broke out with a rash of white eyes. Reverend Deke O’Malley slid quickly beneath the table. The two big colored detectives froze as ordered.