Claude McKay and the Harlem Renaissance: Critical Essay

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Currently, a persistent and highly structured racial hierarchy exists in the United States. Such a hierarchy has been central in the country’s political development, from the country’s founding, the longevity of African American slavery and Native American genocide, and the existence of Jim Crow laws and immigrant social segregation. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s fought against oppressive and legal racial exclusions. Because racial exclusions persisted throughout the 1970s, race-conscious policies (affirmative action procedures) were enacted in order to assist in the enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, a conservative backlash was swift in challenging these race-conscious measures, and launching an attack on what was called, “deviant minority cultures.”

In the essay “The Browsing Reader: ‘Home to Harlem’,” W.E.B. DuBois states that the novel beautiful and fascinating the theme of the beauty of colored skins; the portrayal of the fascination of their new yearnings for each other which Negroes are developing.

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Home to Harlem is the most popular picaresque novel. The term ‘picaresque’ is derived from the Spanish ‘picaro’ meaning an anti-hero or rogue. A picaresque novel is generally an autobiographical account of the hero’s fortunes, sufferings, and wanderings. It is a combination of episodic tales arranged as journeys. The episodes generally depict low life in a rambling manner and come to an abrupt ending. Similarly, John Lowney’s article entitled “Haiti and Black Transnationalism: Ramping the Migrant Geography of Home to Harlem” delineates McKay’s biographers have noted, there are elements of the author in both protagonists of Home to Harlem. Like Jake, he is the first protagonist of the novel. He had experienced the exhausting work and intense nightlife of migrant laborers living in Harlem, like Ray, who is the second protagonist of the novel. He was disaffected with African American intellectual life and American society more generally.

However, McKay given an insistent critique of American and European imperialism throughout his career, it is surprising how few readers have addressed the significance of Ray’s nationality in McKay’s Harlem novel. The novel protagonist Jack Brown is an attractive, tall, and handsome man with dark brown skin. Through the character, readers can realize how the blacks are rediscovering their black identity through their transnational proletarian life. Because, the novel is essentially an account of life in Harlem as seen through the transnational experiences of Jack, who has come to regard Harlem as his hometown and is constantly comparing it with other places in his experience. When one who has such kind of longing for their homeland those who started to realize about their race, color, and class. The people start too proud of their country often with the belief that is better and more convenient than other countries after the experiences of transnational life they can realize.

Michelle Ann Stephens’ Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914-1962 claims McKay’s primary contribution to a black transnational imaginary during this period was to write the world’s story from the perspective of a traveling black subject. With all the various internationalist and nationalist narratives organizing world history and culture in the 1910s and 1920s, McKay provided an account of global events informed by his unique position as a colonial subject assigned to the margins of these new narratives.

McKay’s visions of black social mobility and domestic content captured in the national romance are reinterpreted, as Home to Harlem explores how heterosexuality fundamentally shapes both the global drama of race war and the story of the black search for a home. McKay’s novels must be read not only through the lens of a gender analysis but also through the lens of a queer reading that explores how constructions and discourses of sexuality shape McKay’s ultimate turn away from stories of home.

McKay was not fully a member of the literary formation known as the Harlem Renaissance in the sense that his views on black identity, politics, and culture were generated out of his experiences of the world and the African diaspora throughout his travels in the 1920s and early 1930s. McKay’s autobiography and his earlier novels were works whose implications went beyond the consolidation of a national African American culture.

Cheryl A. Wall’s The Harlem Renaissance A Very Short Introduction, describes what McKay wrote to James Weldon Johnson, “I consider Home to Harlem a real proletarian novel, but I don’t expect the nice radicals to see that it is” (63). Home to Harlem has a feather of a plot. When the novel opens, the protagonist Jake is working on a European freighter while taking a circuitous journey home after the Great War. Jake has enlisted in the war, although the novel represents this as an impulsive decision. Black and brawny, Jake acts intuitively, not reflectively. On his first night back in Harlem, he hooks up with a prostitute, loses her, and spends the rest of the novel in search of her. Only in the end does the novel reveal her name, Felice. Were the novel more structured, it would collapse under the weight of this symbolic quest for happiness. But as is true of its protagonist, the novel’s attention is easily distracted. It takes its readers to bars, speakeasies, and buffet flats, which were private apartments that offered food, liquor, music, and sex. The characters mainly drink, dance, smoke dope and copulate.

Ray, is the second main character in the novel, a Haitian-born intellectual, atheist, and reluctant race man who stands apart. He meets up with Jake on a train, and they travel together for the last two-thirds of the novel. The novel constantly plays up the contrast between them. An inveterate reader and aspiring writer, Ray is strongly anti-colonialist, although he feels helpless to affect events. Unlike the charismatic Jake, Ray fails with women, and his experiment with drugs lands him in the hospital. He rues the fact that he is unable to be the “natural man” that Jake is; his intellect and bourgeois morality inhibit him.

The idea that intellect gets in the way of feeling was at the heart of the primitivism that gained broad credence during the 1920s. Blacks, free of the inhibitions of civilization, had direct access to feelings, while whites were repressed by their intellects and consciences. McKay was not alone among black writers to try to glean something positive from primitivism. But, like others who tried, he ended up reinforcing stereotypes that were all too prevalent.

In Home to Harlem primitivism is politicized by McKay’s race awareness and leftist radicalism. It consequently becomes a way of revaluing and recuperating that which is positive and particular to African American consciousness; it is a critique of the culture and morality of the white American and therefore a political expression of black identity. However, in the exclusion of women from its discourse, and despite McKay's radical leanings, primitivism also betrays the novel's entrenchment in the white patriarchal ideology of individualism fundamental to the American myth.

Tyrone Tillery’s Claude McKay: A Black Poet’s Struggle for Identity describes the black renaissance of the 1920s as marked by a widespread tendency toward self-analysis. For many of the Renaissance writers, such self-analysis provides to be a painful experience. The debates over the many questions surrounding the literary movement forced many of the writers to struggle with the question of their own identity.

The novel foreword Wayne F. Cooper says about McKay’s Home to Harlem is consciously attempted to portray what he described as “the semi-underworld” of single, black, working-class men in the industrial Northeast in the years just after World War I. They were all migrants from the American South or the West Indies, with whom he worked and fraternized in New York City between 1914 and 1919. McKay describes their work, their play, and their relationships with women, each other, and their community.

Within the larger Harlem community, as within American society, McKay’s characters in Home to Harlem occupied a marginal position. They were largely uneducated. They lived in boarding houses and in what today might be called “single-room occupancy” hotels. Their love affairs tended to be brief and fraught with ambivalence; they often ended abruptly, sometimes violently. The women with whom they became involved had their own incomes as cooks, domestics, entertainers, waitresses, or clerks; some worked as part-time prostitutes. The problem of prostitution among black women is one which McKay treats with a great deal of sensitivity. Many of the black women whom he treats are in fact engaged in this profession. McKay regarded this type of black woman as commonplace; and felt that he ought to render her significance within his work. He recognized that the frequency of the necessity for the black woman to involve herself in this type of life lay in the economic situation of the race. In order to live the black woman, whether in America or in Europe, must often find herself on the streets. Yet McKay notes that the shackles of prostitution need not rob the black woman of that spontaneity and warmth that he, particularly values. These two assessments are the problem of prostitution from important bases in his total conception of the role of the black woman. Between the men and women in Home to Harlem, there existed both passionate tenderness and competitiveness, a mutually jealous independence of spirit that often resulted in antagonism and separation.

Their places of entertainment were cabarets, nightclubs, saloons, pool halls, gambling dens, buffet flats, and houses of prostitution. They imbibed alcohol freely; some sniffed cocaine or smoked opium. They lived with a potential for violence emanating from white society and from their own desperate desire for a freer life. Self-hatred, color complexes, sexual struggle, corruption, drug addiction, ghetto congestion, and class divisions within Afro-America can be found in Home to Harlem. McKay was aware of these problems, and he neither ignored nor apologized for them as simply the consequences of the white injustices committed against Afro-America.

In Home to Harlem, as in all his fiction, McKay chose to demonstrate that despite all the horrors visited upon Afro-Americans by white oppression there exited among even the least privileged Afro-Americans a healthy determination to live and to enjoy the fruits of life. It is this passionate embrace of life that sometimes justified in their minds the negative aspects of their existence. When the novel’s hero, Jake Brown, tells his fellow black longshoremen that it is wrong to cross picket lines and work as “scabs,” one black man angrily retorts that black workers were often shut out of union jobs and Jake asserts that:

Talking death, that’s what you sure is. One thing I know is niggers are made for life. And I want to live, boh, and feel plenty o’ the juice of life in mah blood. I want a life and I want to love. And niggers am got to work hard for that. Buddy, I’ll tell you this and I’ll tell it to the world-all the crackers, and all them poah white trash, all the nigger-hitting and nigger-breaking white folks-I loves life and I got to live and I’ll scab through hell to live. (xxiii)

Jake listens but demurs; he is Claude McKay’s symbol of primitive Afro-American decency and vitality. It is Jake’s picaresque journey through “the semi-underworld” of black working-class America that follows in Home to Harlem. After he joins the Pennsylvania railroad as a third cook in their dining-car service, he meets the waiter, Ray, a displaced Haitian intellectual. A friendship develops that allows McKay to complement and contrast their respective strengths and weaknesses against a background of rough and tumble work and nightlife.

It is a life that is entirely black, and despite its severe limitations of both Jake and Ray recognize, it achieves certain positive expressions that emerge most clearly in the music, dance, and laughter of black men and women together at night. They are lost in the enjoyment of themselves, revealing their own hard-won creativity, color, and joy in life:

“Black lovers of life caught up in their own free native rhythm, threaded to a remote scarce-remembered past, for themselves, of themselves, in a house in Fifteenth Street, Philadelphia....”(Foreword xxiv).

Against such lyrical aspects of Afro-American life as a dining-car waiter on the Pennsylvania Railroad during World War I, there is also in Home to Harlem a less optimistic recognition that Afro-American life in Harlem and in other developing Northeast ghettoes was too confined and congested. Frustration and self-hatred often resulted from such conditions, and self-inflicted violence was a constant threat to everyone in the community. In-Home to Harlem, McKay celebrated the potential of the Afro-America community but remained aware of the pressures within it that threatened its future.

With Home to Harlem, McKay began a fictional search for value, meaning, and self-direction in modern Afro-American existence that would preoccupy him in future works. Despite all the brave assertions of Afro-American's vitality and joy in the novel, it was a troubled book by an author whose own tensions and doubts were never far from the surface. Nevertheless, McKay’s portraits of Jake and Ray were positive ones. Threads of affirmation and hope to pervade their story that, with few exceptions, have remained constant in black fiction, despite the enormity of the problems that still beset America’s black inner cities today. McKay believed that the black folk wisdom brought to the nation’s cities in the Great.

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Claude McKay and the Harlem Renaissance: Critical Essay. (2023, November 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from
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