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Escape from New YorkThe New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem$

Davarian L. Baldwin and Minkah Makalani

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780816677382

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816677382.001.0001

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“Home to Harlem” Again: Claude McKay and the Masculine Imaginary of Black Community

“Home to Harlem” Again: Claude McKay and the Masculine Imaginary of Black Community

(p.361) 15 “Home to Harlem” Again: Claude McKay and the Masculine Imaginary of Black Community
Escape from New York

Thabiti Lewis

University of Minnesota Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter offers a reading of Claude McKay’s 1928 novel Home to Harlem, focusing on the predominately masculine lens through which he explores the variety and scope of black urban diasporic life—its global and multiregional perspectives. It considers Home to Harlem as a literary depiction of the reality of an expansive African diaspora in the early twentieth century. In depicting black life and notions of community in 1920s black America, McKay examines the wonder, excitement, and limits of Harlem through recognition of alternative locations where black community thrived. His complicated and primarily masculinist presentation of modern industrial life utilizes proletarian characters that highlight the divergent diasporic routes of the New Negro reality and the Harlem Renaissance.

Keywords:   novel, Claude McKay, Home to Harlem, African diaspora, black life, Harlem, black community, New Negro, Harlem Renaissance, masculinity

When Claude McKay first set foot in Harlem, he was far from naive or new to America. In fact, when this twenty-one-year-old arrived in the United States from Clarendon Hills, Jamaica, in August 1912, not only was he a fairly well traveled and well educated man of peasant origins but he brought with him a distinct outsider perspective. This worldly intellectual man of working-class sensibilities possessed not only a global black diasporic perspective of the world but an interest in what he termed “the lust to wander and wonder.” After a stay in the Midwest, he set out for New York City, pursuing business opportunities (owning a restaurant) he felt existed there. The failure of McKay’s business venture and marriage cleared space for him to devote attention to his art. To support himself while he wrote, he worked a series of odd jobs available to black men in American cities, such as a porter, janitor, bar boy, coal shoveler, houseman, butler, and waiter. McKay later wrote that he “waded through the muck and scum” so that he could become a writer. So from 1914 to 1919, McKay’s “leisure was divided between the experiment of daily living and the experiment of essays in writing,”1 and these experiences not only shaped his political radicalism but also provided ample material for his first novel, Home to Harlem (1928), which targeted the common man.

This essay discusses McKay’s Home to Harlem with an eye toward the predominately masculine lens through which he explores the variety and scope of black urban diasporic life—its global and multiregional perspectives. McKay’s depiction of black life and notions of community in 1920s black America examines the wonder, excitement, and limits of Harlem through recognition of alternative locations where black community thrived. In the spirit of this collection, I am reading Home to Harlem as a literary depiction of an expansive African diasporic reality in the early twentieth century. McKay’s complicated and primarily masculinist presentation of modern industrial life focuses on proletarian characters that map out the divergent diasporic routes of the New Negro reality and Renaissance. (p.362) His global and working-class perspective in Home to Harlem is unique and stems from his Caribbean roots and peasant origins to reveal black space, place, and cultural production in the person of the “common man” (who is also decidedly his own man). This approach is a subtle alternative to the official Renaissance and its focus on either pastoral notions of “folk” or the “Talented Tenth.” Thus this essay explores McKay’s novel as an alternative or a renewed understanding of the New Negro. To be sure, it is an “understanding” that attempts to engage a culturally diverse notion of African American community while expanding notions of race by traveling through the divergent contours of urban space and the folk inhabiting these oppressive spaces.

Home to Harlem is dynamic in its range of perspectives and experiences from which to explore African American notions of beauty, politics, and cultural production of the New Negro. Indeed, McKay is interested in a wider lens through which to view the New Negro—one that embraced a working-class perspective and an individual sense of respectability. The novel does more than capture Harlem’s creativity; it also embraces the jazz of black culture. Indeed, it captures the wretchedness, crime, poverty, unemployment, and overcrowding of Harlem that forced people to alternate locations such as Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Harlem is essentially one nodal point in the protagonist Jake Brown’s navigation of a wider black experience. His tour of black life in low places throughout the African diaspora in multiple cities is a riff on the jazz of black culture. For McKay, the New Negro is both international and regional; he is individual soloist and a representative of communal aspects of black life.

McKay’s narrative, adroitly powered by jazz, the meanderings of a soldier, and the locomotive symbolism of a train, reflects his modernist proclivities toward fragmentation that delicately balances the communal and individualism. The rhythms of black life are diverse in this story. Thus McKay effectively absorbs a popular symbol of black progress during this era—the black soldier—to show the myriad ways in which masculinity imagines and performs community. Home to Harlem is a novel that has several tentacles. Its plot feels episodic and lost at sea as Jake Brown meanders from the backside of World War I to Harlem, then from woman to woman, job to job, and city to city. However, to view Home to Harlem this way is a mistake. What feels like a disjointed narrative is a virtual jazz piece that is cogent for it riffs on the notion of global, multiregional, black diasporic life. And, like jazz, McKay’s narrative resists being static or compromised because it ruptures the elite brokerage politics that sought to limit New Negro era notions of masculinity and black culture.

The story begins with the protagonist Jake, who has just deserted the military during World War I over his disgust at being excluded from participating in battle. Jake is “disappointed” because he “had enlisted to fight,” but black (p.363) men were discriminated against and therefore relegated to domestic chores. Soon after his desertion, he spends some time living with an English woman in London before heading back to a Harlem that he is impatient to reach. Soon upon arriving, Jake visits a cabaret and meets the beautiful Felice, with whom he spends one glorious night, instantly falling in love. However, he soon loses contact with her. After an unsuccessful search for Felice, he shacks up with the cabaret singer Congo Rose in Brooklyn. He works briefly as a longshoreman but quits when he discovers that he is being accused of scabbing—crossing the picket line to work (and many times the only way black laborers gained access to factory work). Jake then hangs out with his new friend Zeddy, who embraces the “sweet life” (also known as “sweetbacking” or being kept by a woman in exchange for sexual services or companionship). When Congo Rose wants Jake to be her sweetback, he refuses (because he is an independent, “respectable” man) and leaves her to work and live away from Harlem as a laborer on the Pennsylvania Railroad. From here the plot makes several episodic stops and starts in cities such as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C., during Jake’s service on the railroad. However, Jake eventually returns to New York, where he miraculously finds his lost love Felice, gets into a brawl over her, avoids a violent outcome, and then finally flees with Felice to escape the chaos and danger threatening him in Harlem.

It is important to note that despite its provocative treatment of everyday black life, McKay saw his novel as situated somewhere in between the more sensational primitivism of Carl Van Vechten’s provocative Nigger Heaven and the “cultured” literary respectability of New Negro leaders, urging for civility and decorum in all things black. To be sure, McKay’s goal was not to correct or replicate the primitivism found in Van Vechten’s novel. As Marlon Ross correctly discerns in Manning the Race: Reforming Black Men in the Jim Crow Era, McKay sought to distinguish his approach from the “footloose … [of ] Van Vechten’s treatment of these topics. Instead of merely pandering to commercial tastes or conforming to primitivists’ vogue, McKay has a genuine interest in the sociopolitical potential of these unconventional sexual relationships.”2 Though the focus here is not unconventional sexual relationships, Jake’s rejection of racial stereotypes and middleclass masculine convention deserves intense discussion. McKay understood that the acceptance from many white reviewers of both his novel and Van Vechten’s stemmed from a comfort with caricatures of black laziness, hypersexuality, and violence.3 Moreover, as Nathan Huggins suggests in Harlem Renaissance, McKay was perhaps disappointed that many of these same reviewers of his novel missed his intent to convey a sense of “gentility and propriety” in black folk beyond the middle class “that was absent from Nigger Heaven.”4

The larger racial backdrop, of course, troubles McKay’s narrative decisions in Home to Harlem to examine the so-called underside of black life. The novel (p.364) received mixed reviews, ranging from intense condemnation to intense praise.5 Although McKay’s treatment of Harlem may have made W. E. B. Du Bois feel “unclean,” the writer was unfazed. Rather than bitterness, he felt pity and sympathy for Du Bois, who seemed to be “forced by circumstances into the role of racial propagandist,” which limited his “contact with real life.”6 Others, such as Langston Hughes, wrote to McKay praising the work as “the finest thing we’ve done yet…. Your novel ought to give a second youth to the Negro Vogue … and even those who dislike it say it is well written.”7 Even James Weldon Johnson, a member of the older generation, thought it was a “wonderful book.”8

McKay’s aim, absent from what many of the critics suspected, was to tap into the unworked mines of black life to produce literature that reflected a more complex portrait of that life. He locates black humanity, heroism, culture, and artistry in the image of the rank and file, which differed from what the black elite advocated. Indeed, as literary scholar Jerry Ward Jr. points out, “McKay was writing about normal ordinary people. Van Vechten was writing about talented savages.”9 McKay’s desire to write about ordinary people endeared him to younger Renaissance era artists. His decision to produce an art more broadly representative of mass desires is largely what made Home to Harlem extremely popular—even in controversy.10 From the shores of France, McKay enjoyed the attention his novel received back home.

His choice of a soldier as the central protagonist is also not incidental to the masculine lens through which he explores black community. Military men were central physical and symbolic figures in the larger New Negro struggle for black humanity in the early twentieth century. Jake Brown’s desertion because of the military’s racial discrimination rejects, if not directly challenges, the military as an acceptable space to cultivate black masculinity in America. The World War I promise of equality elided blacks as whites, angered by the sight of black soldiers, violently upheld racist notions of separation. Thus Jake’s desertion demonstrates an alternate expression of courage and defiance against militarist representations of black manhood within New Negro fiction.

The presence of the black soldier during this era was thorny at best. Though often depicted in mainstream fiction as disappointed, dejected, isolated, angry, disillusioned, rejected, docile, and dangerous, black men’s participation in the U.S. military, alongside being coercive or demeaning, played a central role in working through ideas of both race pride and national belonging. Many soldiers reported experiencing a sense of manhood for the first time while in France, when soldiers and citizens abroad treated them with a relative level of respect and fairness.11 This was starkly different from treatment back home in the United States, where World War I black soldiers returned home expecting a hero’s welcome but received a rude awakening. Instead, these veterans were often greeted with (p.365) violence and ingratitude. Racial tensions were high because many whites feared that African Americans would return home demanding equality and would try to attain it by employing their military training. During summer and fall 1919, antiblack race riots erupted in twenty-six cities across America. The lynching of blacks also increased from fifty-eight in 1918 to seventy-seven in 1919. At least ten of those victims were war veterans, and some were lynched while in uniform.

Despite this treatment, African American men continued to enlist in the military. And as historian Sarah-Jane Mathieu points out, “the specter of the black soldier cast a shadow over African Americans’ cultural, social, and political lives.”12 McKay was acutely aware of the military’s impact. Like many black writers, he chooses a soldier as his heroic protagonist. However, his protagonist is antithetical to the notion of soldier as loyal follower of an organization or as willing to serve. On the contrary, Jake Brown deserts limiting racial and social politics and demands equality. Thus he explains to Felice that he left Brest because the military wanted black men as servants instead of soldiers. Moreover, he represents a brand of New Negro heroism and respectability committed to serving self and community. The armed service experience in Europe undermines his manhood and hence his humanity rather than elevating it.

Although McKay’s deserter soldier may seem antiheroic, or an odd choice when so much black hope during the early twentieth century hinged on heroic black soldiers, the prideful deserter is a powerful alternative symbol of black manhood. Jake is independent and unreconstructed, which represents a different brand of heroic black masculinity and respectability that is divergent from the black soldier seeking approval. The emergence of an uncompromising soldier impatient with the pace of change, honest about the shortcomings of America, and critical of the military’s insufficient horizon of change for black Americans is important. Although impatient, Jake is not immoral, docile, or dangerous. On the contrary, the thing that most angers him or makes him somewhat dangerous is the military’s failure to deliver its promised democracy. “Jake was disappointed. He had enlisted to fight. For what else had he been sticking a bayonet in the guts of a stuffed man and aiming bullets straight into a bull’s-eye? Toting planks and getting into rows with White comrades at Bal Musette were not adventure…. They didn’t seem to want us niggers foh no soldiers. We was just a bunch a despised hod-carriers.”13 This New Negro soldier-hero is unconcerned with being a neat, uncomplicated symbol of black progress. Thus he rejects the unfairness and disrespect black soldiers face by abandoning the military as a viable option for exerting his manhood.

Despite his complex circumstances, what Jake desires is quite simple. As he explains in the first few pages of the narratives, he merely desires an opportunity to prove himself a man by getting “a crack at the Germans,”14 just like the other (p.366) men fighting for their country. However, discrimination strips Jake of this opportunity. What is interesting about the language in the opening scene is that Jake’s use of the term comrade makes clear that he sees himself as equal to his fellow white soldiers—even if the whites running the military do not treat him as such. Jake’s status as military man who will not accept unethical or unfair orders foreshadows McKay’s personal belief that progress for black folk required a desertion of sorts from conventional approaches to equity, democracy, notions of community, and even gender. Jake’s desertion of Europe also foreshadows the primacy of only his own culture (Harlem and other enclaves) as a suitable route to the prideful masculine existence he desires.

McKay is not keen on the notion of the military providing the New Negro with opportunity, equity, or status as American. On the surface, though McKay follows the convention of using Great War veterans as heroes, his narrative does not neatly fit the mode of African American unsung heroes representing humanity through military sacrifice, tenacity, and strength.15 And he conveys this to readers early on, when Jake complains about patiently waiting two years for an opportunity to fight and prove his manhood. We are immediately introduced to an angry and disillusioned Jake, a man unwilling to make any more sacrifices and regretting his decision to join the military: “Why did I ever enlist and come over here? Why did I want to mix myself up in a white folks’ war?”16 The point here is that although African Americans were earning higher positions in the army, that did not necessarily mean they were getting equal treatment. Black draftees endured extreme hostility from white men refusing to salute black officers, while black officers were often barred from the officers’ clubs and quarters. The War Department’s refusal to intercede to halt discrimination caused extreme frustration, compelling men like Jake to desert the military for alternative routes to masculinity and humanity—separate from white norms and social structures.

Even Jake’s eagerness to return to the creative expressiveness of black culture in Harlem can be read as a rejection of stifling black conservatism in favor of the jazz nature of notions of blackness. Hence we are informed that Jake’s “steel-gray English suit” fits him “loosely and well.”17 McKay’s decision to drape Jake in a loose “steel-gray English suit” suggests black humanity with space to move freely in one’s own personal and cultural aesthetics. This idea is punctuated in Jake’s exclamation, upon boarding a ship that will take him out of Europe, “Harlem for mine! … Take me home to Harlem, Mister Ship.”18 Moreover, the looseness of Jake’s suit is a metaphor for his willingness throughout the narrative to grow, to discover and explore alternative sites of black cultural production for the New Negro. Jake’s rebellion bucks norms, while also positioning him as a new variant on the black hero soldier; he is a combatant in the war against racism and narrow notions of black representation.

(p.367) Therefore Jake’s chant of “Take me home … Mister Ship! Take me home to the brown girls waiting for the brown boys”19 as he is fleeing Europe serves two functions. It positions Harlem’s black culture and women as a partial salve for his wounded masculinity, and it poses a critical question that the narrative attempts to answer:

Jake danced with the girl. They shuffled warmly, gloriously about the room. He encircled her waist with both hands, and she put both of hers up to his shoulders and laid her head against his breast. And they shuffled around. “Harlem! Harlem!” thought Jake. “Where else could I have all this life but Harlem? Good old Harlem! Chocolate Harlem! Sweet Harlem!”20

Jake’s revelry in the sounds and sights of black folk when he returns to Harlem soothes his soul, which undergoes a rebirth. The blues music, Harlem, a beautiful woman, and “sweet liquor” wash the anger from Europe and at the military away. This scene is essential for framing the question, “Where else could I have all this life but Harlem?”21

But Jake soon learns that “all this life” in Harlem is not sweet and good, as he experiences several obstacles. Jake embodies notions of individualism and independence that influenced the spirit of defiance that World War I black soldiers brought back with them from abroad and cast into African American life. Jake’s attempt to define and express his masculinity as a longshoreman is as unsatisfactory as his military experience and relationship with a white woman in Europe. When he learns that his job is considered scabbing, he initially defends his manhood by asserting his honesty and work ethic. His sense of masculine pride compels him to tell the white man confronting him, “I’ve don worked through a tur’lble assortaments o’ jobs in mah lifetime, but I ain’t nevah yet scabbed on any man.”22 Jake’s code of personal integrity is rooted in a masculine sense of honesty and integrity but also independence and social consciousness. However, he lacks faith in white integrity, which is why he tells the union recruiter, “I ain’t no joiner kind of fellah…. I ain’t no white folks’ nigger and I ain’t no poah white’s fool…. No, pardner, keep you’ card. I take the best I k’n get as I goes mah way.”23 This is an important scene, for it captures the essence of Jake’s prideful and independent “mah way” mantra. He rejects alliances with whites because his history with the military has taught him to distrust them, or as Jake explains to the union man, “Things ain’t none at all lovely between white and black in this heah Gawd’s own country.”24 Still, despite Jake’s distrust and hostility, his sense of honor and pride keep him from “scab[bing] on … even the orneriest crackers.”25 Decency, honesty, independence, and pride personify McKay’s black imaginary. Unfortunately, the expression of these traits is too often reserved for the novel’s male characters.

(p.368) Black Masculinity and Women

Jake’s sense of pride and honor compels him to leave the longshoreman job. Once again, he seeks Harlem’s nightlife for refuge. The Harlem cabaret scene that Jake enters is a colorful and expansive space representing a divergent diasporic black reality. Far from a static space, it is vibrant with “Dandies and Pansies, chocolate, chestnut, coffee, ebony, cream, yellow, everybody … teased up to the high point of excitement.”26 Jake is smitten by a “moaning” saxophone “and feet and hands and mouths were acting it. Dancing. Some jigged, some shuffled, some walked, and some were glued together swaying on the dance floor,”27 being driven crazy by the energy in the room. The atmosphere is blissful, disrupted only by a wild and angry woman “jazzing” a table “into the drum,” knocking down the cabaret singer and ending the entertainment for the evening.28 McKay’s Harlem scene has two significant roles in the story: not only is Harlem the standard by which other cities are compared but it also foreshadows the problematic place women occupy in McKay’s imaginary of black life and culture.

Jake’s return to the familiar sights and sounds of Harlem is an important step toward establishing his sense of respectability and masculinity but also echoes McKay’s personal belief in privileging the beauty found in black life and culture. It is easy to surmise this because, early in the novel, Jake informs the reader that the English woman with whom he lives after his military desertion is not ample salve for his wounded masculinity: “Jake’s woman could do nothing to please him now. She tried hard to get down into his thoughts…. But for Jake this woman was now only a creature of another race—of another world. He brooded day and night.”29 McKay suggests that neither Europe nor sex across the color line will heal racial wounds or appease his aesthetic sensibilities.

After reconnecting to the jazz and revelry of black culture found in Harlem, which includes Jake’s evening with Felice, the soldier’s wounded manhood begins to mend. After an evening with her, “he woke up in the morning in a state of perfect peace…. He was satisfied…. He sniffed the fine dry air. Happy, familiar Harlem.”30 Felice is his felicity, bringing him joy; she is an elixir that restores him. He is so blissful that he muses, “I ain’t got a cent to my name, but ahm as happy as a prince, al the same.”31 Felice more so than Harlem seems to have restored his sense of pride and manliness. His interaction with her allows him to stroll down Lennox Avenue in ecstasy, feeling a “handful o’ luck shot stright outa heaven.”32 This is in stark contrast to his intimacy with the anonymous English woman he deserted. She, like the military, did not fulfill his sense of manhood. However, his encounter with Felice has him floating inside the “bear” Harlem.33

The restorative encounter with Felice foreshadows a trend in the novel whereby black women are, for the most part, minimized as tools or props against which (p.369) New Negro manliness is measured, satisfied, or finds expression. Perhaps this explains why Jake spends the bulk of the novel passively searching for Felice and in the blissful company of males. Although Felice offers him something that a “creature of another race”34 (the woman in England) cannot, she is noticeably absent in the narrative until the very end. Like the other female characters, her presence is peripheral.

McKay is not shy in his pronouncement that there is no space for New Negro women in conversations about black humanity. The pattern for women in this narrative is that they are a bothersome but necessary impediment men must endure while trying to discover their individual identities:

[Jake] had concluded that a woman could always go farther than a man in coarseness, depravity, and sheer cupidity. Men were ugly and brutal. But beside women they were merely vicious children. Ignorant about the aim and meaning and fulfillment of life; uncertain and indeterminate; weak. Rude children who loved excelling in spectacular acts to win the applause of women.35

He offers excuses for the behavior of men. Women, Jake informs us, are “the real controlling force of life,” the reason “men fought, hurt, wounded, killed each other.”36 The men of the narrative are but innocent “victims of sex … foolish apelike blunderers in their pools of blood,”37 unaware of the cause of battle, “except it was to gratify some vague feeling about women.”38 McKay sacrifices female characters to expand the scope of black humanity and community. In McKay’s New Negro world, women serve as mere allegories for larger ethical decisions. They are either obstacles or pawns for masculine elevation and personal fulfillment.

More often than not, the function of all the women characters is to appease or assist the exertion of McKay’s masculine imaginary—tools for solidifying prideful masculine existence. Despite his search for Felice, Jake seems to desire male companions most. Although black women offer what the “creature of another” race cannot, their true value is specious; there is not enough to convince the reader that their value is more than sexual or that they function as a contrast to male humanity. Women are usually disruptive forces that must be tolerated. In an early scene, after a fight closes a club, Jake stands on the sidewalk with his pal Zeddy and shares his opinion of women: “Sometimes they turn mah stomach, the womens…. Ain’t no peace on earth with the womens and there ain’t no life anywhere without them.”39 And while the women in the novel are part of the life of the story, their role is always to function as contrasts that resituate and propel Jake toward pursuing higher levels of masculine integrity and security.

(p.370) Black Life Beyond Harlem

While Jake is elated with the sights, sounds, and smells of Harlem, McKay is adroit enough to explore Brooklyn as a black spatial alternative to Harlem. Brooklyn, New York, represents a domestic alternative space where black community is performed. Jake, who is open to “any little thing for a change,”40 allows Zeddy to take him there. It is not as commercial, fast paced, or appealing, but Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn is not without some luster. As their pal Strawberry Lips explains, “Myrtle Avenue used to be a be-be itching of a place,” with a cabaret that was “running neck and neck with Marshall’s in Fifty Third Street.”41 McKay, who initially chose Brooklyn to live and grow a business, makes clear that Harlem was not the only space black people desired, nor the only place where they thrived. This is important because often discussions of black America (particularly its literary history) in the 1920s begin and end with a claustrophobic picture of Harlem.

The differences and similarities between Harlem and Brooklyn in this text immediately emerge in the interior of the Myrtle Avenue gin-fest hosted by Miss Curdy and Miss Susy. Like in Harlem, there is dancing, gambling, jazz and blues music, drinking, and a sexual atmosphere on Brooklyn’s Myrtle Avenue. However, the wild and vibrant nature of the scene in Brooklyn pales in comparison to the one in Harlem:

The phonograph was discharging its brassy jazz notes when they entered the apartment. Susy was jerking herself from one side to the other with a potato-skinned boy. Miss Curdy was half-hopping up and down with the only chocolate that was there. Five lads, ranging from brown to yellow in complexion, sat drinking with jaded sneering expressions on their faces.42

The Brooklyn gin-fest party hosted in Susy’s apartment is a calm, smaller, more intimate space that offers free gin, music, gambling, and fun. The music, though jazz and blues, is produced through a phonograph, whereas in Harlem, it is a live production. But unlike the women dancing in Harlem, Susy is “jerking herself from one side to the other,” and Miss Curdy is “half-hopping up and down” with another man.43 Brooklyn’s level of reverie and excitement does not compare to Harlem’s, where nearly all are on their feet or swaying to the music. In the Brooklyn apartment, the “desultory dancing … dice … Blackjack … Poker”44 and the “jaded sneering expressions” the men exude suggest they are displeased with the circumstances of being relegated to two unattractive, older women. The description of the apartment is complicated, at once an intimate and humane “close, live, intense place” but also a “jungle atmosphere driven by two women savagely” (p.371) searching the “eyes of males”45 hoping for sexual liaisons. Here a “savage” woman “jerking herself” around is contrasted against calm, dapper male characters. The preceding is another example of McKay following Western culture’s use of women to position male figures as desirable, humane, civilized figures.

The topic of Brooklyn rivaling Harlem as an alternative black space emerges when Miss Curdy interrupts two chaps arguing about celebrities to inform them that Harlem is not that big a deal and, moreover, is full of fake people. McKay lets us know that the Brooklyn folk are also worldly as Miss Curdy tells them, “I knew Bert Williams and Walker and Adah Overton and Editor Tukslack and all that upstage race gang that wouldn’t touch Jack Johnson with a ten foot pole. I have lived in Washington and had Congressmen for my friends…. Why you can get with the top-crust crowd at any swell ball in Harlem. All you need is the clothes and coin. I know them all, yet I don’t feel a bit haughty mixing here with Susy and you all.”46 In many regards, Miss Curdy is a subtle critique of Renaissance era life in Harlem as lacking substance. She even uses famous boxer and non-Harlemite Jack Johnson (who hails from Chicago) as the ultimate yardstick for her discussion about respectability and consciousness. Her discussion reminds the reader of the multiregional urban reality of black life. Thus, when Zeddy wants to go to Harlem to hang out with Jake, Susy protests with an unflattering depiction of the Harlem scene that raises the status and safety of her Brooklyn apartment gin-fest. She chides Zeddy and others who might consider Harlem the urban pastoral reality for black folk: “What makes you niggers love Harlem so much? Because it’s a bloddy ungodly place.”47 Interestingly, McKay has a female character live in an alternative space and make this powerful statement against Harlem as the only preferred place.

In the Harlem buffet flat, Jake had entered a much larger space churning out blues music in a room filled with “couples … dancing, thick as maggots in a vat of sweet liquor.”48 Though it lacks the intimacy of Myrtle Avenue, the Harlem space is crowded, residents are anonymous, and it is filled with strangers. Also, the food and drink are not free. Finally, while Jake is offered free sex from Miss Curdy, in Harlem he gives Felice “all” the money he “has left in the world.”49 The scenes in Brooklyn and Harlem offer similar things, but McKay suggests that the costs associated with the less intimate space in Harlem are much higher.

Indeed, Harlem has a heavier cost attached to it, reflecting a warning that, although Harlem is electric, it is “ungodly” and not the only location producing vibrant black culture and life. What McKay describes in the cabarets of Harlem is an atmosphere more deadly, chaotic, full of pretensions, and thick sexual intensity. It includes a Fiddler, saxophonist, drummer, and cymbalist, who inspire and catch “inspiration from him.”50 This frenzied music compels Rose to dance in “rhythmical exactness for two” and compels her to “lift[] high her short skirt and (p.372) show[] her green bloomers.”51 But such sexual electricity also provokes violence that does not exist in Brooklyn.

On one level, the dialogue between Miss Curdy and Susy in the Harlem cabaret best articulates McKay’s belief in the richness of alternative locations of black culture. Unimpressed with the Harlem cabaret, Curdy tries to convince Susy to leave: “Lesh git furthest away from this low-down nice hole…. I never did have any time for Harlem.”52 She goes on to remind Susy that Washington preceded Harlem as a vibrant center of black cultural production: “When I was high up in society all respectable colored people lived in Washington.”53 With this Susy concurs: “There was no Harlem full a niggers then…. I should think the nigger heaven of a theater downtown is better than anything in this heah Harlem.”54 In addition, Susy declares Brooklyn as a heavenly alternative to Harlem. McKay distances his depiction of black life from Carl Van Vechten’s depiction when Susy adds, “It’s good and quiet ovah in Brooklyn…. This here Harlem is a stinking sink of iniquity. Nigger hell.”55 Though some critics thought otherwise, McKay clearly offers an alternative to navel-gazing authors like Van Vechten. McKay avoids a caricatured portrait of black life; this is a comprehensive picture of the daytime struggles, the good-time nightlife, and the alternatives to the vaunted Harlem.

Perhaps McKay is a poor “Talented Tenth” representative—a member of the elite black educated and professional class—a bad New Negro, because he embraced the values found in black diasporic folkways where good and bad are visible and morality is not black and white. McKay, critical of the educated folk and the racial obsession with “civilization,” has Ray instruct Jake “to get something new, we Negroes … get our education like our houses. When the whites move out, we move in and take possession of the old dead stuff. Dead stuff that his age has no use for…. And civilization is rotten. We are all rotten who are touched by it…. All men have the disease of pimps in their hearts…. I have seen your high and mighty civilized people do things that some pimps would be ashamed of.”56 This is not only a direct challenge to the civilized establishment folk of the Harlem Renaissance era but also McKay’s way of directing the New Negro to look inward for morality and valuable cultural models. McKay favored an artistic philosophy that literary scholar Brent Hayes Edward describes as an ethic of “mobility” and “footlooseness.”57 For him, fresh models of cultural representations exist within black culture. As a result, McKay rejects narrow and pretentious notions of respectable black life that are outside of or limit the terms of black possibility for standards for “high culture” or “uplifting channels,” which he deems nothing more than “old dead stuff.”

Because McKay’s sense of black culture is not relegated to a single space or model, it is not surprising that he sets the wandering Jake aboard a train fleeing Harlem and the immoral demands of a woman. Jake’s adventure among a diverse (p.373) group of black men aboard the train extends his self-directed, free vision of black life and black masculinity. The train becomes a powerful locomotive republic of black male fraternity full of dandies, professors, cooks, and roundabouts from across the diaspora, confined in a single space, boarding and exiting at different black urban locations. The second part of Home to Harlem begins with a description of a train as an animate character—“a huge black animal” snorting and roaring through the heart of Pennsylvania, “packed with people and things, trailing on the blue-cold air its white masses of breath” where the chef, cooks, and waiters make the train function.58 This imagery is striking as the mobile republic moves between various spaces throughout the black urban diaspora, from dining car to kitchen, from fresh linens to outhouses. The train rolls in that indeterminate space between racial respectability and primitivism, between middle class and working class, highly educated and illiterate. McKay implodes the notion of a monolithic black male or black community aboard the train.

While imploding notions of monolithic black culture, Home to Harlem also privileges individualism, bonds between black men, and the symbolism of the dynamics surrounding these masculine bonds, suggesting larger possibilities for ideal black community formation. But in an interesting gender twist, McKay explores the complex status of black community as masculine fraternity on the train via a movable kitchen—a space traditionally considered the domain of women. It can be argued that the symbolic importance of the train and kitchen suggests the moveable feast of creative and intellectual black life and community during the Harlem Renaissance era. The pecking order of the workers on the train represents diverse black masculinity, modernity, and racial contradictions of progress in the 1920s. McKay achieves this by relegating black men, regardless of their education or skills, to roles of service traditionally held by women in domestic settings. Perhaps the Chef put it best that “this heah white man’s train service ain’t no nigger picnic.”59 Indeed, modernity is no “picnic” for black Americans, as evidenced by Jake’s numerous disappointments; modernity consistently fails to deliver the social progress and opportunity it promised. Even modern America relegated black men to the kitchen as cooks and waiters. Therefore the black men aboard the train, whether highly educated or working class, are literally in the backrooms providing service, and McKay’s narrative wants to expose this tragedy.

Despite this flaw, aboard the train, Jake’s masculinity is at ease among the diverse display of black manhood. He finds himself in the neutral space of third cook, whose duty is to “hand out the orders.”60 This is a step forward from his previous position as a soldier who was expected to be loyal and follow orders. His position as third cook elides a binary; it is a jazzlike existence that grants him space to formulate his own sense of what it means to be a black man. In this setting Jake’s masculine reality “rubbed smoothly along with the waiters … he (p.374) remain[s] himself and [does] not [try] to imitate the chef.”61 As he had done ever since leaving Europe, Jake seeks a comfortable, individual sense of manhood—one void of mimicry or soldiering.

For McKay, black masculinity is akin to the complicated jazz existence Jake experiences aboard the train. Such existence is also as diverse as the black communities the train visits. Some of the cooks and waiters only spent time together gambling. The “older men were dignified”; the “light-skinned” fellows only hung with their kind in stopovers, while the steward and chef kept distance from them all.62 Aboard the train, there is no singular way of being male. Some are well educated, others are uneducated and irresponsible, and some are notable family men. There are also men from the South and the Caribbean. Nevertheless, what they share in common is the impact of racism, which cramps them all together in a pecking order working on the railroad. Similarly, the salient issue for black men is navigating being men in America.

McKay even inserts a lesson about black diasporic race pride through the Haitian character Ray, who informs the waiters about Haiti and men like Toussaint L’Ouverture and Dessalines. The history Ray shares compels Jake to feel pride as a black man: “He felt like a boy who stands with the map of the world in colors before him, and feels the wonder of the world.”63 As Jake learns about Dessalines and Toussaint L’Ouverture and that “Africa was not the jungle as he had dreamed of it, nor slavery the peculiar role of black folk,”64 his pride swells. This masterful education is meant to deflate popular stereotypes about black culture but is another unfortunate example of narrow masculine imaginary about men told among men. Female humanity and heroism are once again absent. On the train, McKay offers a powerful vision of modern black masculine possibility that unintentionally but noticeably renders women invisible.

What is visible is the symbolism of the railroad, which links and extends diasporic connections as well as notions of modern black community in Home to Harlem. Indeed, “these men claimed kinship…. They were black like him…. They were chain-ganged together and … counted as one link.”65 The reader can literally track connections between Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia in the same way that tracks connect trains to different cities. The cities hum salient themes but have distinct personalities. On each stop during Jake’s railroad adventures, McKay unwraps regions filled with colorful characters, rituals, and innovative music similar to but also different from those of Harlem. For example, Pittsburgh serves as a rich alternative black experience, a thriving cultural space that, like Harlem, has poolrooms, pimps, prostitutes, jazz and blues music, saloons, drugs, gambling, and basement restaurants. However, in Pittsburgh, the poolroom “was a sort of social center for the railroad men and the more intelligent black workmen of the quarter.”66 Meanwhile, in Philadelphia’s buffet flat (p.375) parties, jazz and blues set the pace, just as they do in Harlem and Brooklyn.

McKay’s contention is unabashedly that black people and their behaviors are valuable cultural products ripe to be picked or mined. Moreover, his narrative riffs that black people are far from monolithic. Ray, Jake, and the diverse group of men aboard the train and in numerous cities along the rail lines are iterations of vibrant, progressive black culture existing and thriving in cities outside of Harlem—a point McKay emphasizes by featuring the character Ray, who is from “Hayti” and in possession of “another language and literature.”67 The motif of progressive black cultural production and diverse black reality moves throughout the narrative from the beginning to the very end but is primarily channeled through male bodies or varied perspectives. In Jake’s words, “We may all be niggers aw’right, but we ain’t nonetall all the same.”68 Ray’s railroad soliloquy echoes McKay’s embrace of the beauty of black diasporic culture as the standard of respectability over education, which Ray calls “a prison with white warders.”69 To be sure, the content of Home to Harlem plays on this point to entice middle-class folk to embrace the diversity and beauty of black humanity as an authentic and rich cultural subject.

McKay has been called an internationalist because he unapologetically bathed in the beauty and complexity of black diasporic culture. Brent Hayes Edwards, in his successful book The Practice of Diaspora, tags McKay a “vagabond international” aware of the significant role of blacks in the “logic of modern civilization.”70 And though Du Bois may have felt he needed a bath after reading Home to Harlem, quite possibly he felt equally unclean about vying for “respectability” at the expense of black music, dance, and art produced by working-class folk representing the other 90 percent of black communities in major cities like Harlem, Washington, D.C., or Pittsburgh. To be clear, McKay’s novel demands a rupture from middle-class mimicking of white culture. A great example of this celebration of black life and culture occurs when Jake visits a Philadelphia house party and describes what he sees there as “black lovers of life caught up in their own free native rhythm, threaded to a remote scarce-remembered past, celebrating the midnight hours in themselves, for themselves, of themselves.”71 Of course, the passage echoes Langston Hughes’s famous 1925 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” but also captures the impetus of Home to Harlem.

Certainly the portal through which McKay views black life is wider than a work like Nigger Heaven. Although his perspective is profoundly limited by its gendered vision of black community, his diverse assemblage of black male characters is quite dazzling. And given the struggle to express the frustrations of black masculinity in America at that time, his shortcomings regarding women are somewhat understandable. The characters here challenge the hard lines between respectability and sensationalism set up by Harlem Renaissance artists (p.376) and intellectuals on both sides of the color line. Indeed, not only does McKay orchestrate a jazzlike rupture from notions of Harlem Renaissance location but he also ruptures past perceptions of black male representation, shaping his own iteration of New Negro reality.

As Home to Harlem hurtles toward its conclusion, it selects an alternative space for masculine safety. New York becomes increasingly unsafe, so Jake escapes to Chicago. McKay’s decision to shift the location at the end is important. It cautions readers against stifling notions of the New Negro by relegating them to New York or America. One thing his novel shows is that, although Harlem is a significant black cultural breeding ground for 1920s and 1930s blacks, it was hardly utopic or the only location. Hence the narrative introduces the reader to the cultural bounty of New Negro life in Haiti, in Africa, and in cities such as Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

A February 2011 story in the Wall Street Journal proclaimed Harlem “The Mecca of Black America” and rightfully lauded Harlem as the site of enormous artistic and political energy “for black America.”72 However, Home to Harlem is a gentle reminder that Harlem “ain’t” necessarily the only site for rich artistic and political energy in black America past or present. As McKay’s novel reveals, Harlem offered cramped quarters and limited opportunity. This is a striking point that cannot be ignored because Jake, who could not wait to get to Harlem, flees it twice in search of safety or better opportunity. What does it mean that a novel featuring the name “Harlem” in the title concludes with its protagonist indefinitely headed “foh a little while”73 to Chicago for refuge? Jake remarks to Felice at the conclusion, “This heah country is good and big enough for us to git lost in. You know Chicago? … Why, le’s go to Chicago … I hear it’s a mavhelous place foh niggers.”74 With this, McKay is reminding readers that the wealth of black cultural production does not end in Harlem. We trust Jake’s insights because we know he has traveled to several urban black locations where black artistic and political life is thriving. Felice punctuates this point at the end, instructing readers to follow her, when she concurs with Jake, “Ain’t nothing in Harlem holding me, honey. Come on les pack.”75

Perhaps McKay was correct that it would take many decades for “the Negro in America to appreciate” the “spirit” of Home to Harlem. Not only did he open fresh areas of exploration for black literary artists but his novel stands as a testament that thriving communities and artistic production were taking place throughout the New Negro world. McKay imagines and crafts a brand of heroic masculinity whereby men like Jake fearlessly desert soldiering roles that will not let them fight to be men on their own terms. This brand of heroism rejects a litany of conscripted notions of black masculinity from scabbing to beating women. Jake is an honorable working-class New Negro hero determined to be a man on his own terms. He is the antithesis of notions of black people as brutal, (p.377) lazy, violent, or hypersexual. In the end, McKay peels back the skin of his motley crew of male characters aboard trains, in bistros, at rent parties, and in backrooms to reveal a complex world of gender relations, class struggle, white primitivism, and diasporic exile and belonging. Jake rebukes white expectations and black intellectual notions of what black masculinity was or could be. And though his New Negro lens extends well beyond Harlem, it still does not extend far enough because it inadvertently excludes women from the frame, or they occupy a minor trajectory on the landscape.

Throughout Home to Harlem, McKay urges readers to appreciate the “peasant matrix” of black life as the model, or at least the richest element, from which to extract art and humanity. What some critics deemed a nefarious cast of characters betraying secrets McKay saw more as a celebration of the liberating reality of the rich black culture he knew and embraced. Jake, the men on the dock, the people in cabarets, and the workers on the train do not care what whites or the black middle class think. Their pleasures and obsessions are their own, unfettered by strivings to measure up for white approval of their humanity.




Bibliography references:

Cooper, Wayne. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Schocken Books/LSU Press, 1987.

Edwards, Brent Hayes. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. Updated ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Lewis, David Levering, ed. The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Mathieu, Sarah-Jane. “Great Expectations: African Americans and the Great War Era.” American Quarterly 63, no. 2 (2011): 410–17.

McKay, Claude. “Claude McKay Letters and Manuscripts 1915–1952.” Schomburg Collection, Schomburg Library, Harlem, New York.

———. Home to Harlem. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987.

Ross, Marlon B. Manning the Race: Reforming Black Masculinity in the Jim Crow Era. New York: New York University Press, 2004. (p.380)


(1) Cooper, Claude McKay, 77.

(2) Ross, Manning the Race, 334.

(3) Cooper, Claude McKay, 238.

(4) Huggins, Harlem Renaissance, 121.

(5) Cooper, Claude McKay, 241.

(6) Ibid., 244.

(7) Ibid., 243.

(8) Ibid., 243–44.

(9) Quoted from Jerry Ward Jr. during a telephone conversation while he was in New Orleans about the importance of McKay’s novel on July 6, 2011. Ward lauds McKay for focusing on Harlem as a great location but also as a city riddled with the same social problems blacks endured in other cities.

(10) McKay explains the core of Color Scheme in a letter to H. L. Mencken. In this letter, he admits that the book is uneven, then he goes on to describe it as “a realistic comedy of life” as he “saw it among Negroes on the railroad and in Harlem.” Although Home to Harlem is void of the uninhibited colloquial language that kept Color Scheme from being published, it includes topics from Color Scheme, such as blacks on the railroad and in Harlem. So although McKay may have burned Color Scheme after it became clear that it would not be published, he kept many embers of the ideas from it alive, using them to lay the groundwork for Home to Harlem. Cooper, Claude McKay, 221.

(11) Mathieu, “Great Expectations,” 411.

(12) Ibid., 410.

(13) McKay, Home to Harlem, 4, 331.

(14) Ibid., 4.

(15) Mathieu, “Great Expectations,” 412.

(16) McKay, Home to Harlem, 7–8.

(17) Ibid., 11.

(18) Ibid., 8–9.

(19) Ibid., 9.

(20) Ibid., 14.

(22) Ibid., 45.

(23) Ibid., 45–46.

(24) Ibid., 46.

(25) Ibid., 48.

(26) Ibid., 32.

(28) Ibid., 33–34.

(29) Ibid., 8.

(30) Ibid., 15.

(32) Ibid., 16.

(33) Ibid., 14.

(34) Ibid., 8.

(35) Ibid., 69–70.

(36) Ibid., 70.

(39) Ibid., 34.

(40) Ibid., 65.

(41) Ibid., 64.

(42) Ibid., 65.

(44) Ibid., 68.

(46) Ibid., 67–68.

(47) Ibid., 79.

(48) Ibid., 14.

(50) Ibid., 92.

(51) Ibid., 93.

(52) Ibid., 98.

(55) Ibid., 98–99.

(56) Ibid., 243–44.

(57) Edwards, Practice of Diaspora, 206.

(58) McKay, Home to Harlem, 123.

(59) Ibid., 124.

(60) Ibid., 125.

(62) Ibid., 126.

(63) Ibid., 134.

(65) Ibid., 153.

(66) Ibid., 142.

(67) Ibid., 154–55.

(68) Ibid., 159.

(69) Ibid., 157.

(70) Edwards, Practice of Diaspora, 198.

(71) McKay, Home to Harlem, 197.

(72) Edward Kosner, “The Mecca of Black America,” Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2011, C5.

(73) McKay, Home to Harlem, 335.

(74) Ibid., 332–33.

(75) Ibid., 333.