Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem gave me troubles about a month ago and put this blog on hiatus. This was surprising. Why would a book exploring working class life in Harlem, written by a Jamaican socialist give me such trouble, considering the themes of this blog? I am not entirely sure and I am certain I was as much bothered by my other obligations than the text itself. But, for whatever reason it slowed me down. (Maybe the tropical air is slowing my brain.) I am, thankfully, returning to the work of a few weeks ago on the Library of America’s volume of Harlem Renaissance novels from the 1920s.
Claude McKay began his writing career in Jamaica when he worked in the constabulary. He emigrated to the United States in 1912 for college work but did not complete his degree. He moved to Harlem at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance and was immediately active in labor movements, writing for Communist and labor newspapers. He is most known for injecting a racial critique in the English-speaking left, criticizing those movements of ignoring race in general and specifically racial prejudice within the movement. He spent much of the 1920s abroad, including visiting revolutionary Russia. He did all of this in his late 20s and early 30s. He published Home to Harlem in 1928, but suffered bad reviews from some of the more puritanical participants of black American intellectual life. As I showed earlier in this blog, one of the major debates in the Harlem Renaissance was on how to portray black life and if it should be politically distorted or describe real life. Home to Harlem clearly fits into the gritty, vulgar, and “real” depictions.
I want to stop, however, and suggest that Du Bois and other more moralistic writers are not entirely wrong. The middle class, professional, upwardly mobile, and educated people were no less a part of Harlem than the working class people scraping by on the borders of economic or moral legitimacy. Depicting real life does not necessarily take us to the gutters.
Home to Harlem follows the life of Jake, an African-American returning from fighting in France during the First World War. Like many others, he returned with a slightly more global perspective, a bit of cash, and an eagerness to find a place in America. Jake also returned to a Harlem governed by a new set of rules due to the imposition of Prohibition. While it did not stop anyone from drinking, it did make the police a greater threat to the places that Jake liked to frequent, such as the Congo Rose or the Baltimore.
One thing that the novel makes clear is that Harlem was extremely color-conscious and the legacy of interracial sex was a fully integrated part of everyday life. “Ancient black life rooted upon its base with all its fascination new layers of brown, low-brown, high-brown, nut-brown, lemon, maroon, olive, mauve, gold. Yellow balancing between black and white. Black reaching out beyond yellow. Almost-white on the brink of a change. Sucked back down into the current of black by the terribly sweet rhythm of black blood.” (166) In fact every character, especially the women, seem to be described with careful attention to their color and the metaphors for different shades are bountiful. Jake was not just color-conscious, he was also prejudice about other blacks from different regions of the Atlantic. “And as an American Negro he looked askew at foreign niggers. Africa was a jungle, and Africans bush niggers, cannibals. And West Indians were monkey-chasers.” (201)
Jake has a strong belief in working-class solidarity even if it does not quite reach the level of interracial cooperation. Like McKay, Jake understood that the unions themselves often discriminated against blacks, but that did not mean he would look kindly on scabbing. While working at the docks, he took a job but at the end of his first day he learned that he was scabbing during a wild-cat strike (unauthorized by the union). Jake states that he will look for new work but did not want to join what he assumed was a racist union. Other scabs were less conflicted, vowing to continue working.
Another theme is the strong current of gender politics. Harlem’s working class society is conflicted between sexual liberation and proprietary relationship. This is the fate of Jake’s buddy Zeddy who as, McKay explains, found himself trapped—unwillingly—into the prison on monogamy. And with real honesty, McKay seems to think that money and resources are the primary reasons people sustain these possessive bounds. “To be adored by a Negro lady of means, or of a pseudo grass-widow whose husband worked on the railroad, or of a hard-working laundress or cook. It was much more respectable and enviable to be sweet—to belong to the exotic aristocracy of sweetmen than to be just a common tout. But there were strings to Susy’s largesse. The enjoyment of Harlem’s low night life was prohibited to Zeddy. Susy was jealous of him in the proprietary sense. She believed in free love all right, but not for the man she possessed and supported. She warned him against the ornery hussies of her race.” (177) It suggests the invasion of capitalism into our relationships. Not new, certainly, but perhaps a growing part of life in the vibrant and heavily commercialized and unequal 1920s.
The first half of the novel considers Jake’s life in Harlem after returning from the war. In the second half, Jake takes a job on a diner car of a train, servicing the American northeast. This opens up Jakes world considerable and he learns about the African-American communities in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. This experience also changed his views of other blacks. More so than the experience in the war, Jake’s experience working in the dining car gave him a global perspective and allowed him to place his own history and struggles in that Atlantic context. He learned of Liberia, of ancient African kingdoms, and the legacy of empires white and black. Much of this comes from his talks with the cook, Sam, who was born in Haiti. Jake learned that the U.S. used the war as a cover for expanding their empire in the Caribbean. This seems to me to be the ideological core of the novel. Jakes service to white empires in the war did little to expand his world. Indeed, he immediately returned to his old ways and old neighborhood. Working with Sam opened his eyes.
That said, the novel is not primarily about lessons. It is trying peel off aspects of life for working class blacks in the 1920s: politics, gender, sexuality, work, culture, identity. I found it consistently fascinating and rich in this regard.