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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Claude McKay: "Home To Harlem"

     Another great " gay" author Claude McKay wrote "Home to Harlem" .With sensual, often brutal accuracy, Claude McKay traces the parallel paths of two very different young men struggling to find their way through the suspicion and prejudice of American society. At the same time, this stark but moving story touches on the central themes of the Harlem Renaissance, including the urgent need for unity and identity among blacks. This was also part of the same African American Literature class that I am in right now and I think should be consider a must read for anyone who is wanting to experience "unknown gay authors" or to grow their "gay library".

     Often cited as the first African-American best-seller, “Home to Harlem” is the first work of writer Claude McKay's. Perhaps most widely recognized for his sonnet "If We Must Die" (1919), which was written in response to the widespread black lynchings, McKay originally wrote “Home to Harlem” as a short story illustrating the "so-called semi-underworld" of the urban American black in the 1920s, "leaving no subject, however degraded, untouched".              

     McKay's novel, which depicts the seamier sides of life for Harlem's working-class blacks, was published at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, at a time when other black writers, such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen had begun to expand the boundaries of African-American literature, and black music and writing were becoming exotically appealing to the literate white public in New York and beyond. While McKay's earlier poetic works vividly portrayed blacks as an alienated, besieged, and tormented minority, “Home to Harlem” adds greater depth and texture to that image through both its characters' struggles for individual and racial identity and the relationships and sense of community that arose from them and gave life to Harlem.
            The novel opens with a journey and a metaphor. Jake, the hero, is a veteran traveling from post-World War I Europe, headed "Home to Harlem" on a freighter, with Harlem serving as both a geographically specific place and an embodiment of racial consciousness. Jake, who had been a longshoreman in Harlem, had enlisted in the army for a good manly fight in World War I. He was quickly disillusioned by the military's racial policies, which didn't allow blacks on the front lines, so he deserted and took refuge in the sociability of London's East End. But as postwar tensions grew, the racial divide in the East End felt tangible and suffocating to Jake--his life in this predominantly white world felt like a fraud--and McKay's readers first encounter him desperately voyaging back to ground himself in Harlem. Working the freighter with a crew of Arabs that he despises, Jake responds to their customs with disdain and more closely aligns himself with the white members of the crew, whose culture he shares. But when one of the sailors flatters Jake by saying, "You're the same like us chaps. You ain't like them dirty jabbering coolies”, Jake reminds himself that the divide still exists and yearns for home and sameness. McKay uses these powerful early moments of social and cultural difference to establish a focus on racial hierarchy that will shape the characters' lives and experiences throughout the novel.
            Jake arrives back in Harlem and is greeted by a vibrant sense of energy and exuberance, music, dance, laughter, including all the sounds, textures, and odors of authentic, passionate life: "The deep-dyed color, the thickness, the closeness of it. The sugared laughter . . . Oh, the contagious fever of Harlem. Burning everywhere". Jake falls in with a loosely interwoven group of friends, rivals, and lovers: Zeddy, Strawberry Lips, Gin-head Susy, and Miss Curdy--all hell-bent to enjoy the fruits of life in the face of poverty, loneliness, and misfortune. As Jake drifts through the clubs, cabarets, and house parties, his journey continues. He weaves in and out of a world of sweetmen and hussies, where layers of brown--"high yaller," low brown, redbrown, maroon, "chocolate-to-the-bone"--are every bit as divisive as black and white. McKay's focus stays centered on his male characters, as Jake and his compatriots explore various facets of what it means to be a black man in Harlem in the 1920s, perhaps in search of what Marcellus Blount has referred to as an "ideal racial self."
            Jake serves as a symbol of primitive African-American vitality--spontaneous, direct, easygoing, likable--while those around him represent McKay's interpretation of the black male experience in other ways. While working on the Pennsylvania Railroad as a cook, Jake meets Ray, a waiter and intellectual Haitian expatriate. In contrast to Jake's easygoing affability, Ray worries constantly and feels isolated from the African-American community because of his European education. His sensitivity and political passion set him apart from what he perceives as Harlem's "roughness" and abandon. Ultimately, both Ray and Jake flee the grasp of Harlem's rough-and-tumble life. “Home to Harlem” mirrors McKay's own experiences, Ray signs on to a freighter in hopes of working his way to Europe, while Jake finds a different kind of escape--on the train to Chicago with the woman he loves.
            Home to Harlem” as you can imagine drew both praise and criticism for its frank depiction of African Americans and use of strong, vernacular dialect. Some, such as Langston Hughes, applauded McKay's realism and integrity, while others deemed it exploitation. Black leaders W. E. B. DuBois and Dewey Jones condemned McKay's explicit portrayals as damaging to the social and political struggles of African Americans: "white people think we are buffoons, thugs, and rotters anyway. Why should we waste so much time trying to prove it? That's what Claude McKay has done". McKay concluded that "it will take the Negro in America another thirty or forty years to see “Home to Harlem” in its true light--to appreciate it in the spirit in which I wrote it".

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