Claude McKay’s first Novel Home to Harlem

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 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 Africa and Afro-American folklore for a usable past. The nineteenth century image of Africa as a primitive land, a source of shame and self-hatred for many black Americans, was transformed into a symbol of pride by many developments.

In addition to the influence of modern science and white artists, there were four pan-African Congresses convened between 1919 and 1927 by DuBois, the pioneer studies on Africa and Afro-American history by DuBois and Carter G. Woodson, the Back-to-Africa movement of Marcus Garvey, a charismatic Jamaican black nationalist who fired the imagination of the masses with his grand design for the redemption of black people, and the flowering of Afro-American art.

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On the other hand, the frustration coping with an alien urban environment and industrial society encouraged many transplanted black Southerners to cling tenaciously to their folk root. Seeking to identify with the folk race-conscious intellectuals and writers began to tap the roots of their ethnic heritage with varying degrees of ambivalence. In the vanguard of the New Negro artists who began their literary careers by looking to Africa for inspiration were Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Hughes’s The Negro speaks of Rivers and Cullen’s Heritage are excellent examples of the function and meaning of Africa to black American writers of the twenties. Both poems reveal the romantic attraction of a place remote in time and space, a place the artists has been taught to reject,_ a place whose landscape and rhythms of life evoked primitive images and ambivalent passions.

In much of their later work including their novels — Hughes’s Not Without Laughter (1930) and Cullen’s One Way Ticket to Heaven (1932) — both artists shift their concern to the everyday lives of ordinary black folk and the church-centered culture that represents the marrow of the Afro-American tradition.

Home to Harlem tells the story of the longshoreman Jake Brown who returns to Harlem in 1919 after having spent some time in Europe as a soldier and later as a worker in a variety of odd jobs. McKay’s decision to focus his novel largely on working class Blacks in Harlem after World War I certainly predetermines his choice of possible plot elements to some extent. To show a character like Jake attending an opera performance in New York and afterwards discussing it in Standard English would have been hardly appropriate and would have deprived McKay’s novel of its credibility as a ‘local color’ story. Unless one questions McKay’s initial choice of subject, it would seem beside the point to criticize him for introducing characters that speak in Black dialect and prefer cheaper forms of amusement to the offers of ‘high culture.’ However, even if one grants all this to McKay, there remain some elements in the novel which strike the reader as questionable and seem unnecessarily to reinforce highly stereotypical presentations of Black life.

In the novel, the novelist started with the first chapter entitled as Going Back Home. From the chapter title McKay clearly shows the protagonist has the nostalgia for the homeland by the transnational experiences in Virginia and Europe. Through the experiences of transnational life, jack has experienced racial prejudice as well as alienation. These kinds of prejudice and alienations are stimulated to rediscover their identity and feel proudly about their native is better than any other places for them their native country as paradise.

Therefore, the author includes such kinds of events in the novel for instance, the novel hero jack who worked as a stoker aboard a freighter in route from Cardiff, Wales to New York. When America declares war upon Germany in 1917, as he joined the Army with patriotic motives, but when he was assigned to carrying building materials for barracks, he was disappointed, because even it exists in the army and there is a discrimination against the blacks. Instead of sending him to fight, he is relegated to tedious manual work like lumber-boards, planks, posts, rafters-for the hundreds of huts that were build around the walls of Brest and along cost between Brest and saint-Pierre, to house the united states soldiers. He therefore decides to desert the army, claiming that he will have nothing to do with the conflict of the white economic and political imperialism. He reflects this, while going to home saying, “Why did I ever enlist and come over here?” he asked himself. “Why did I mix mahself up in a white folks war? It aint ever was any of black folks’ affair. Niggers em evah always such fools, anyhow. Always thinking they’ve got something to do with white folks business.”

Jake strongly feels the stigma of bitterness in the discriminations inflicted on the blacks during the World War. He is resentful over the way the Yankees address the blacks as ‘darky’ or ‘niggers’. According to McKay,

He knew that when a Yankee said Nigger, he meant hatred for the Negroes, whereas when he said ‘darky’, he meant friendly contempt. He preferred white folks’ hatred to their friendly contempt. To feel their hatred made him strong and aggressive, while their friendly contempt made him ridiculously angry, even against his own will. (5)

Therefore McKay’s contemporary writers W.E.B Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk and Richard Righter’s Native Son also have such kind of incident handled in their works.

Beating and lynching of blacks by whites at the slightest provocation was a constant occurrence. There was segregation and discrimination against the blacks by the whites, this continued after the great declaration According to W.E.B. Du Bois (1903),

A black stranger in a Baker Country, Georgia, for instance, is liable to be stopped anywhere on the public highway and made to state his business to the satisfaction of any white interrogator. If he fails to give a suitable answer, or seem too independent or ‘sassy’, he may be arrested or summarily driven away. (p. 133)

This hatred is equally noted in Richard Wrights’ Native Son where the muggers filled with loathsome dislike for the blacks, exhibit terror. Wright states that, ‘being dragged over the snow, his feet were up in the air, grasped by strong hands. ‘Kill ‘im!’ ‘Lynch ‘im!’ ‘That black son of a bitch!’ ‘Kill black ape!’ (301). the situation in America is such that blacks feel that it is right to accept anything thrown at them by the whites.

After the racial prejudice experiences of army, Jake donned civilian clothes, and went to London, where he worked on the docks. He spends the rest of the war time there, he with a white girlfriend. Their relationship is unpleasant, because he feels unsatisfied with the white woman, due to Jake’s view about the white woman when he considers only a creature of another race of another world. He starts to long for the bodies of the black and brown women of Harlem. Jake’s longing to reach Harlem as quickly as possible is revealed through his crazy conversation with the ship. He knows very well that ship is on inanimate thing which never head to his words, but still, he expresses his wish to it.

However, when he reaches Harlem, Jake feels nostalgia and boredom. He has an unquenchable thirst for joy in the form of sex, alcohol, music, and women. Through the event McKay explained about the opposite of the white and black cultures that informs the whole novel, McKay emphasizes the difference between the controlled, puritanical behavior of white society and the free, spontaneous, libidinous life of black ghetto, in which sex, drugs, alcohol, knives, guns, unemployment, and poverty are pervasive. Back in Harlem, Jack visits saloon, restaurants, and a cabaret, the Baltimore, where he meets beloved brown woman Felice, a young prostitute, and he spends the night with her. As her name suggests personification of happiness in herself. This cabaret is famous with both the black and white people. For a long time it is closed due to the law and order action taken by the police squad for including and encouraging gambling, pornography, prostitution, and the illegal use of liquor and narcotics.

In the cabaret, a girl who is impressed by the tailoring of his gray suit, which stitched in England, makes an eye contact with him. She is attracted to him, by his attitudes and, by his hungry wolf eyes. Author says about the brown girl, she is brown, but has tinted her leaf like face to an attractive chestnut, and beautifully dressed. Jake orders a scotch and soda, but she just wants a ginger ale. A cabaret singer comes to their table to sing. Jake gives a big tip, fifty cents. Then they walk Lenox Avenue. He holds her arm, Jake and the girl are overwhelmed by each other. Despite her response to him, she begins to bargain with him over the price of having intercourse with her.

Jake agrees to generous twenty dollars in the end, and he is glad to pay it because, she is so beautiful. They go to buffet flat to pay. It is a private home that serves food and is open to guest only by invitation.

After the drinks, Jake only has a fifty dollar bill, which he gives to the girl. The two sleep together that night, fulfilling one of Jake’s fantasies about returning to Harlem. The next morning, Jake wakes, have his breakfast, and gets dressed. Afterward, he wanders down the Lenox Avenue, where he shoved his hand in his pocket and pulled out a fifty dollar note. A piece of paper is pinned to it on which is write in pencil, in that paper she writes “just a little gift from a baby girl to a honey boy!” (16).

Jake thinks about turning around to go back to her but changes his mind because he thinks a man should never led women think too crazy about her. This shows Jake’s perspective of men and women. It is a hint for his male characteristic nature. Jake walks to uncle doc’s saloon, where he left his suitcase, then has a scotch and soda, when Doc says he learned abroad that it is better for his belly. As he drinks, his, friend Zeddy Plummer comes upon him and slaps him on the back. Zeddy, who finished his military service, is an informer, a sweet man, a strike-breaker, a gambler, a heavy drinker, and an in-depth hustler. Author describes Zeddy as: “stocky, thick-shoulder, flat-footed” (18). Jake tells him he has to find some place to stay, grabs his suitcase, and then goes to a poolroom, where he beats Zeddy at the game. Afterward they get a chicken dinner from aunt Hattie.

Zeddy and Jake remember about Brest, France, where they are stationed. Zeddy talks about the severity work they did to build the soldiers’ huts, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) where only the white soldiers could stay, the fights that black and white men used to get into in the brothels on the main drag, burying one of the Zeddy’s close friends killed by Americans in the cemetery there.

The black men, Brest is always on the defensive against the white Americans and, not the Germans. Zeddy asks where Jake went, and Jake tells him he went to London. Zeddy tells to that he can’t tell anyone that he is a deserter. The government seriously search the deserters, i.e. people who avoide the military draft. Jake says zeddy that he should not reveal about his whereabouts his status. Anyway, black people should be close-mouthed about his status other times, zeddy says they “will just to vomiting their guts to the white person about one another “(23).

Throughout the quotation the author portrays how the character Jake is in search of incomparable women of Harlem, however, Jake says that the women also brought him home and he finds exactly what he is looking for after he landed. He hopes to find the women of night before. The two men part with the promises to meet at Doc’s tomorrow night. Jake also learns from two other old friends that there is ample work for longs shore men. After leaving Doc’s, Jake walks through the streets in search of the girl’s apartment and talks to and about the city. He works on the shore now and go to hold the ships.

Jake says, New York is the same, but now that he has been to Europe, he is struck by now much meaner and stiffer the white Americans are than the white Europeans. It’s warmer in American air and it is as intoxicating as scotch. However “Lawdy, lawdy! Exclaims Jake, who wants to live to a hundred and finish his days in New York” (25).

Jake notices that Harlem is darker and noisier and smellier, but is still Harlem despite pushing through the racial boundaries all the way to Eight Avenue. These words throw light on the real condition of Harlem.

Jake has never seen so many bourgeois black with their fancy cars, and there are many shops owned by blacks in Eighth Avenue. The Seventh Avenue is more genteel, as he remarked earlier and the Seventh Avenue done gone high brown. Harlem is “bigger, better and sweeter” (26). At some point, Jake realizes, he is lost. The sweeter names all based on numbers and have got him turned around, and they all look the same. He can’t find the girl’s street, doesn’t even know her name, infect. “I ain’t gwine to know no peace till, I lay those here hands on man tantalizing brown again” (27).

Jake says, so he decides to head back to the Baltimore, where he first met her. So Jake starts his search for his girl at the Baltimore but cures himself as a fool, where he does not see her. All over the Baltimore, the sweet men first with their potential customers search for a while a girl with a deep voice sings. The cabaret singer sings a jazz song and dances provocatively in front of Jake after he gives her fifty cents, but he is unmoved by her.

Although she eventually moves on, everyone else is caught up in her passionate singing and the sound of the saxophones. Jake feels as if he is going crazy, as if he has a fever as he wonders where the girl he spent the night with is suddenly, a fight break. The owner throws everyone out of the cabaret.

Out on the street, Jake runs into Zeddy, who asks if he is in the cabared during the fight. Jake tells him that he was and expresses his disgust about the fighting over women across the world. Zeddy agrees and asks Jake why he isn’t with his women. Jake tells him, he can’t remember her address, and that he feels aroused by Bess’s singing back in the Baltimore. Zeddy says they should go to the Congo to see if they can find someone for Jake the Baltimore, he explains, is the place where all the new girls go, so they are more likely to be unspoiled by their sex work as yet.

There’s a girl, a high yeller entertainer, whom zeddy likes, has yet to return his attraction in light-skinned black women, zeddy, tells him that, he is missing out because such Women have something white women don’t something nigger. In the congo, the crowd dances to and laughs at a blues song so explicit that it is banned in the some places. At a blues song he explicit that it is banned in some places. Jake and zeddy pick up two girls and listen to the loud, exciting music.

Zeddy drinks, and is excited to see Rose. Rose is a singer in a cabered named Congo, the women on whom he has the crush. She isn’t there for Jake. zeddy wonders if it is the English suit that attracts her. This shows the importance, the black gives to during sense. Jake orders again for his friends, she shows that they are Caribbean immigrants. He leaves with Rose near sown after she offers him a bed. He tells her that he has only a suitcase to get, so they head to her room. She sings him a song about staying home once find the one love and tells jake that she has no man. She loves him, she claims. Jake expresses disbelief, but he is aroused by her. That morning near breakfast time, they wash and dress. Rose tells him that he could be her kept man. Jake rejects the offer. He would never live off a woman and prefers to work. She says he can so anything he wants while he is with her, but work is no good all over.

Although he does not love rose like the women he met on his first day back. Jake stays with her. He enjoys the physical relationship with her, but he feels non spiritual connection with her and refuses to take money from her, instead he chooses to work as a low level, casual longshoreman. When not the rose, Jake goes to cabarets and borrows money from money from Nije gridkey, aloan shark who grew prosperous during the boom years of the war but nevertheless complains about borrowers and making good on their loans. Zeddy tells jakes bout a him to join well-paid job. Jake worked as a job, unloading pine apples on the shore.

Jake completes the day work without any problem but quite on the second day after a white union organization tells him that he is a scab, a replacement worker for people on strike. Jake rejects the organizer’s attempt to recruit him to join the union. He also helps another black scab from the striking workers who assault him, advising the many men with injuries sustained during scuffles with striking workers.

Jake angrily confront Zeddy, who explains that he is paid to recruit men that labor conditions are so unfair for black people that he is fully justified in getting week. Jake is forced to borrow money from Nije. Who finds out from Jake that he will gong to a buffet flat, an apartment in which food sex, and gambling are on offers for a charge. Nije is especially interested when he discovers that Jake will be there with Zeddy. He has been avoiding Nijie because he owes him money.

That night, Jake stops Zeddy from killing Neje with his blade during a confrontation over the outstanding debt. Zeddy is angry with Jake saved him from legal trouble. Other patrons are angry that Nije managed to get into the buffet flat at all dance. He had been married to a light-skinned women back in Petersburg, Virginia, who left him for white man.

However one Saturday Zeddy gets an invitation from a light skinned acquaintance to go to the Brooklyn flat of gin head Susy, a cook who has a dark complexion, a large bosom wears tiny heels and fleshy clothes: she is considered as an unattractive person by her peers. After her light skinned husband left her. That made her surround herself with men who has lighter complexion. She helps financially, but she also tries to control his actions and life. As he doesn’t live by her rules, while, she learns of Zeddy’s visit to another woman. She packs his clothes and throws them out.

Jake has the job on the rail road just to break the hold that Harlem had upon him, and to snap off his relationship with Rose. Abroad the railway car, there is a social line between the gentle waiters, they are important figures in African-American society and the working class cooks. One day after gambling, with his fellow cooks, Jake strikes up a conversation with a waiter reading, a book about a beautiful, promiscuous woman by French writer alphone Daudet. Jake’s curiosity about the book catches the waiter’s attention, while the discovery that the waiter is a French speaking native of Haiti, founded by slaves who revolted against their masters during the age of the French revolution, intrigues Jake. When the waiter tells him about the romantic but a tragic story of the revolution’s leader, Toussaint, Jake is impressed and wishes him to be a part of such an army.

Although Jake, like many African Americans, typically looks down on the black people who is not American the story of the Haiti inspires him. The waiter tells Jake about the history of the black cultures in West Africa, Liberia, and Ethiopia mentioned in the Bible and his desire to white about such places. The waiter is a former student of Howard University. He quit school when his father is jailed for attacking America’s seizure of Haiti during the war and his brother was killed protesting the same. So he is unable to finish his formal studies and hence he trains read and write on his own. Jake tells the waiter, who is nicknamed as “the professor” by his peers. Later Jake learns his name is ray, short for Raymond, who is one of the main characters, and doesn’t resemble any other characters in the novel. He is a Haitian immigrant, who is educated and intelligent, who doesn’t use his native slang and is emotional and critical of the social situation of the African-American community. He teaches Jake a lot about politics, history, and literature. Ray’s dream is to become a writer but at the end of the novel, he leaves Harlem on a ship to Europe as a mess boy.

After that, one day Jake goes to aunt Hattie’s and sees Billy and several drunk, singing longshoreman enjoying themselves there. Jake joins in to sing the scraps of an English chantey he remembers, and he starts feelings lonely. Billy tells him that there is bound to be someone in Harlem to give him the company he wants and asks if he would like to go to the Congo. Jake doesn’t want to go there even once he learns Rose has left to go on tour and suggests that they go to the Sheba palace instead. The Sheba palace is a working class dance memorable hall meanwhile, the more elevated class of black workers gets their entertainment at the casino or church dance. The interior of the Sheba is bright green and shiny gold. When Jake steps into the Sheba lace looks many of alcohol, pretty women, and couples who are all but making love in the open. The music that had just stopped, whose men has been stolen by a young girl. The dancers are moved by the crying of this brown girl since it touches something primitive in the dancers, regardless of their skin color.

Jake is dancing to the song with a woman when he catches the sight of his dream girl. He spent the night with when he first came back to Harlem. Jake abandons the girl with whom he is dancing, and when he walks up to his girl, she is so startled to see him that she knocks over her date’s glass of whisky. She enquiries him about his whereabouts so for. She insists that they leave immediately before, a violent man, come back, with whom she dates the broken glass is a symbol of bad luck, in any case. Jake tells her, he can take care of her, so there is no need to worry. They laugh about abandoning their respective partners and leave the Sheba palace.

Jake doesn’t even know her name. He introduces himself at last as Jake Brown, and she in turn tells her name is Felice. The interior of the cabaret is lavishly decorated. The assembled crowd of the well dressed African Americans represents every colour on the spectrum. Felice’s bright, makeup and clothing fit in perfectly against this backdrop. In many places of the novel Claude McKay connects color with the culture of the black colours play a vital role. When Feliece and Jake enter the club, the song that had been playing that night at the Sheba palace is playing once again, they move on the dance floor.

The music stops playing for a performance by a singer who transforms a blues song into something with the melancholy charm of Tchaikovsky in the melody’ (322). The audience, both black and white applaud and throw money at him. Billy comes over to toast the new couple with champagne. The group is later joined by the second cook with whom Jake worked on the railroad. Jake and the cook talk about the chief, who is still mean but less obvious with it now that he is an underling. Later, the men go to the bar for a drink of liquor and time away from the women in their party. As they head out, Madame Mulberry, and Maunie Whitewing Droolover Jake, angering Felice. The three men are sitting at the table when they hear a scream.

When they go back to the main room, they see Zeedy attempting to drag Felies away, loudly proclaiming that she is his woman. Felice denies this and insults Zeddy for his black skin. Jake intervenes, telling Zeddy he met Felice first and Jake tells to Zeddy leave her before they have to fight. This angers Zeddy, so he lets Felice to go and pulls a razor on Jake. The frightened crowd runs for the exits. However, Jake responds by pointing a gun at Zeddy. He disarms Zeddy and, after patting him down, threatens to end him then and there. Zeddy tells him, he is not capable of doing it. After all, he tells Jake and the onlookers, Jake deserted during the war, too scared to fight with the Germans. Jake is hurt and humiliated by these words, and the onlookers look at him in a new way.

Jake tells her that he doesn’t run away from military out of fear. He left because he knew he saw never going to get a chance to fight and would be forced to spend the war in menial labour. Felice agree that he did the right thing. Meanwhile both of them decided to go to Chicago. Felice says, the fight between Zeddy and Jake might never have happened. Finally they walk toward the Lenox Avenue subway to catch the train to Chicago. Therefore, the chapter title focused on the colour prejudice in the novel Home to Harlem. Likewise Jake frankly says about his desire. From the events thesis shows how the writer realistically gives the novel characters in the novel through the events of transnational life.

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Claude McKay’s first Novel Home to Harlem. (2021, Feb 08). Retrieved from

Claude McKay’s first Novel Home to Harlem
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