Harlem Renaissance Analytical Essay: Nathan Huggins and Claude McKay

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Home to Harlem sold eleven thousand copies in the first two weeks of its publication, fifty thousand during its first year, and was the first best-seller written by a black writer in America. Nevertheless, its depiction of lower-class Harlemites did appall some of the American black leaders, most notoriously W.E.B. Du Bois. In his 1928 Crisis review, he wrote of Home to Harlem: 'After the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath' (359). For DuBois the novel's emphasis on the instinctual, the sensual, and the animal worked against the genteel image of respectability which, as a black leader, had strived to attain for his people; it reinforced many of the stereotypes associated with black, especially -- although the word did not appear in Du Bois's review-- their 'primitivism.'

During the 1920s, as well as in later critical literature, the central issue of controversy around which the debate on Home to Harlem revolved was precisely this one of primitivism. For RobertBone, for instance, according to James Giles was the first to treat McKay's novel seriously (9), and the one who, with his publication of The Negro Novel in 1958, set the parameters for much of the future critical debate on McKay's fiction, Home to Harlem represented the glorification of the 'primitive Negro' and the apotheosis of instinct over reason (69). If primitivism was part of the larger fascination with the 'savage' that characterized Modernism and the work of white artists such as Pablo Picasso, Joseph Conrad, and D.H. Lawrence, just to mention a few, in McKay's novel primitivism is necessarily intertwined with his racial identity and needs to be addressed within this context. What happens when the writer who is engaged with the idea of primitivism is black and by descent connected to Africa and to primitive culture? Further, what if these images and ideas of the primitive are adopted by a writer on the political left?

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 middle class and therefore apolitical 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.

Claude McKay’s first novel Home to Harlem is the most popular cyclical novel, which has won the Harlem gold award for literature. 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 identity through the 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 to be proud of their country often with the belief that is better and more convenient than other countries after the experiences of the transnational life they can realize.

Harlem was the largest Negro ghetto. It was a community densely populated by Negroes- As such, it was named after Harlem. Gradually,' the New Negro turned to African and Afro-American folklore for a usable past. The nineteenth-century image of Africa as a primitive land, as a source of shame and self-hatred for many black Americans, was transformed into a symbol of pride by many developments.

The association of Harlem and the blacks who inhabit it with the primitive was not new when McKay published his novel.

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Primitivism was a recurrent motif in many American writers of the twenties, both white and black. Carl Van Vechten'sNigger Heaven, for instance, published two years before McKay's novel, in 1926, exploiting the ideas of the primitive and the favorable popularity being enjoyed by the black culture at the time. This was the height of the Harlem Renaissance, 'when Harlem was in vogue,' in the words of Langston Hughes. Although McKay wrote his novel while in Europe, after having spent several years away from the United States, he, too, addressed issues central to this Renaissance and his voice was influential in the 'New Negro' movement.

Nathan Huggins has located three major factors that contributed to a heightened awareness of, and interest in, the primitive among Americans during the early twentieth century: a popularized Freudianism that regarded civilization as the main reason for neurosis; a rediscovery of African art thanks particularly to post-impressionist painters and sculptors; a widespread disillusion for Western civilization that the Great War had shown at its worst (Huggins 87-88). Another factor contributing to the growth of primitivism during the Twenties was the liberation of postwar-American society from Puritan sexual ethics. The Twenties are remembered as the 'Jazz Age' and their spirit brought a radical change to New York, for whites as well as for blacks, who were streaming into this and other major northern cities from the South.

For the thousands of blacks who left the impoverished, racist South, Harlem represented a less prejudiced, more auspicious environment; an opportunity to work, to crawl out from under the influence of the church, and an opportunity to escape small-minded, provincial America. For whites, Harlem and the new urban blacks of New York were exoticized as primitive. More than ever, African Americans became an integral part of what MariannaTorgovnick calls 'primitivist discourse.'Within this discourse, the primitive is largely identified with subaltern communities -- East-European Jews, Irish, African Americans, women, and the working class -- who are relegated to the condition of 'Others.' These Others are collapsed into one, monolithic mass and, through a variety of tropes, they are associated with intuition, spontaneity, irrationality, and uncontrolled sexuality. Western culture creates different versions of the primitive according to its own needs and in order to overcome its own obsessions (Torgovnick 18). After the First World War, when the discontent with Western values was at its highest level, the new urban blacks, in America, came to represent the white middle class as an alternative to the degeneracy of Western civilization.

These social and cultural changes coincided with the rise of a new African American radicalism. Although there have been moments and currents of radicalism scattered throughout African American history, according to historian Wilson Moses, its widespread expression in the 1920s was a new phenomenon. Moses claims that 'the 1920's ... mark the growth of a spirit of radicalism in black America such as had not been seen since the Civil War'(247). The 'accommodationist' policy of Booker T.Washington and Du Bois that conforms to white society, according to Moses, was superseded by a postwar African American consciousness, less concerned with the assimilation of white values than with the articulation of specifically black culture and black values. World War I witnessed the decline of the 'civilizationistic'pattern among African Americans. In other words, for blacks, theGreat War was the event that marked the end of the belief in European civilization that was more advanced than other civilizations; the end of the belief in a backward black people who, in order to improve their status, had to conform and adjust to white society. On the contrary, 'if [the postwar African American] did not find the world hospitable as it was, he would seek to change the world to suit himself rather than keeping his peace and adjusting to conditions as he found them' (Moses 247).

McKay's work participated in this new black ethos. After arriving in New York, his political views became decidedly radical and he was very critical of the politics of Du Bois and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)whose leaders he compared to 'liberal capitalists ... ignorant of the fact that the Negro question is primarily an economic one'('Socialism and the Negro' 51).

Traces of McKay's polemical distance from the NAACP and his political radicalism emerge in Home to Harlem. Its protagonist, Jake, deserts the army in France because he comes to realize that World War I is a white folk war and that 'it ain't ever was any of black folks' affair' (8). This opinion was also held by radical African Americans at the time of World War I, people like A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, who befriended McKay and who set themselves against the Tuskegee Machine, Du Bois and their belief that African Americans had to fight beside the Allies against the Germans. Quite unlike McKay and other black radicals, the older generation of black leaders felt that by proving their loyalty to America, by demonstrating that blacks were 'real' American nationals, they would improve their second-class social status.

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Harlem Renaissance Analytical Essay: Nathan Huggins and Claude McKay. (2023, November 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/harlem-renaissance-analytical-essay-nathan-huggins-and-claude-mckay/
“Harlem Renaissance Analytical Essay: Nathan Huggins and Claude McKay.” Edubirdie, 15 Nov. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/harlem-renaissance-analytical-essay-nathan-huggins-and-claude-mckay/
Harlem Renaissance Analytical Essay: Nathan Huggins and Claude McKay. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/harlem-renaissance-analytical-essay-nathan-huggins-and-claude-mckay/> [Accessed 26 May 2024].
Harlem Renaissance Analytical Essay: Nathan Huggins and Claude McKay [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Nov 15 [cited 2024 May 26]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/harlem-renaissance-analytical-essay-nathan-huggins-and-claude-mckay/
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