Portrayal Of Young Men In Claude McKay’s Home To Harlem

Claude McKay, a notable Jamaican writer, a pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance, articulates the sufferings of the black immigrants in his literary compositions. He is a radical writer, who constantly focuses on racial and political prejudices faced by the African-Americans. His first novel Home to Harlem is a picaresque and a cyclical novel, which gives an exact picture of the life of Black people in Harlem and how they are socially and economically segregated by the white society. This article focuses on the portrayal of young men in Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem. The novel deals with the life of major male characters like Jake brown, Ray, and Zeddy Plummer, and their life in Harlem. Each male character has its own individualities and passions. Jake wants to serve the country by becoming a soldier in army. Ray aspires to become a good writer. However, finally both of them are unfortunate to achieve their goals due to various social issues. Likewise, Zeddy Plummer, an ex-army man, is a gambler, an informer, and a social parasite. In the novel, McKay depicts how these young men are suppressed and oppressed by the white society and on the other hand highlights how women are treated by these young men. The novel portrays these young men as self-esteemed youngsters who find immense pride and pleasure in retaining their racial identity.

McKay is a famous twentieth-century African American poet, novelist, short story writer, journalist, essayist, and autobiographer. His Home to Harlem, the most popular picaresque novel, won the Harman Gold award for literature in 1928. He was born in Central Jamaica on 15 September 1889 to peasant parents. He has written four novels. Home to Harlem is his first novel which got published in 1928. It is an important piece of social realistic fiction and also one of the most notable novels of McKay. Initially, the novel received negative criticism from prominent African American writers like Alain Locke and W.E.B. Du Bois. The writers felt that the work, though a realistic fiction, did not focus on the plight of the African- Americans and hence failed to contribute to the upliftment of the blacks. Later, the novel was well received and appreciated for its realism. In the foreword of the novel, Wayne F. Cooper shares the explorations of the younger generation of black writers:

McKay remained abroad, a younger generation of black writers had began to break the restraints of the genteel protest tradition prescribed by an older African American leadership. Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Rudolph Fisher, and Nella Larsen had begun to expand the boundaries of African American literature in the face of conservative African American criticism. At the same time, a Negro vogue among New York critics had begun to make Harlem cabarets and night spots and African American music and literature increasingly attractive to the literature white public, especially in New York City. (Foreword xvii)

This statement of Wayne F. Cooper highlights McKay’s depiction of the unpleasant sides of the proletarian blacks in Harlem. Home to Harlem sparks even more critical commentary. It has received both condemnation and praise. While archconservative black critics denounced it as a purely commercial work that pandered to the worst stereotypes of African-Americans, some white critics praised it uncritically as “the real thing in rightness. . . the lowdown on Harlem, the dope from the inside” (xviii). Langston Hughes admits McKay’s novel to be “the finest thing ‘we’ve’ done yet. . . . your novel ought to give a second youth to the Negro vague” (xix).

Through the novel, the novelist depicts the life of the proletarian black people in Harlem and Europe. He also delineates their life style, struggles, trials and tribulations, and their attempts to rediscover their cultural identity in the White society. Burton Rascoe in “The Seamy Side,” claims that the novel Home to Harlem is not about well settled Negroes who have done well in their careers and their lives, and are still engaged in sober, moral and responsible social pursuits. Instead, it is the narrative of the proletarian “longshoremen, roustabouts, house-maids, and pullman porters, waiters and wash-room attendants, cooks and scullery maids, dime-snatchers, and all those who compensate for loss in life in white man’s world by brutal strength among themselves at night” (455).

This article attempts to focus on the social life of young men in Home to Harlem. Jake Brown, a handsome young man with dark brown skin, escapes from military for he is forced to be a menial labour rather than a soldier, simply because he is a black. Experiencing racial prejudice and alienation in various forms, Jake feels his self-esteem being tossed by the hegemonistic white society. Hence, he deserts army and goes to London, where he works on the docks and lives with a white woman. However, his relationship with the white woman gets estranged for he views her as a “creature of another race-of another world” (8). Through this instance, the novelist effectively asserts the fact that a white woman can never be a comfortress to a black. Racial affiliation brings Jake back to Harlem. This gets revealed through the crazy conversation of Jake with the ship. Well aware of the fact that the ship is an inanimate thing which cannot respond to his feelings, he expresses his wish to return to homeland to it as if it is a living thing:

Take me Home to Harlem, mister ship!

Take me the brown gals waiting for

The brown boys that done show their mettle over there.

Take me home, mister ship.

Put your beak right into that water and just move along. . . . (HH 9)

However, when Jake reaches Harlem, he feels nostalgic and bored. He has an unquenchable thirst for joy in the form of sex, alcohol, and music. He is excited to see Harlem again particularly when he walks down near the Seventh Avenue. When the auras of the brown and black women are in the air, he could smell them in the street like a hunting dog. He finds Seventh Avenue as the right place to spend the night with the brown and black girls, alcohol, and music. In a cabaret in Harlem, he meets his beloved brown woman named Felice. Earlier, since the cabaret encouraged gambling, pornography, prostitution, and the illegal use of liquor and narcotics, legal action was taken by the police and hence it remained closed.

Felice, impressed by the tailoring of Jake’s gray suit stitched in England, tries to establish a relationship with him: “She is brown, but has tinted her leaf like face to a ravishing chestnut. She had on an orange scarf over a green frock, which was way above her knees, giving an adequate view of legs lovely in fine champagne-colored stockings” (11). Jake’s attitudes and his hungry wolf eyes attract her. Felice and Jake walk along the Lenox Avenue holding hands together. Being overwhelmed in each other’s company, despite her response to him, she begins to bargain with him over the price of having intercourse with him. Jake agrees to pay twenty dollars to Felice for spending time together and for fulfilling one of his fantasies. In the next morning, Jake shoves his hand into his pocket and pulls out a fifty dollar note and a note which reads “just a little gift from a baby girl to a honey boy!” (16). Jake always thinks about Felice and wishes to be with her. However he changes his mind because he perceives that a man should never follow a woman. This reveals Jake’s patriarchal perspectives on woman. It is a hint for his male chauvinistic nature.

Once while Jake goes to Uncle Doc’s saloon, he meets his friend Zeddy Plummer. Zeddy who completed his military service is an informer, a strike-breaker, a gambler, a heavy drunkard, and an in-depth hustler. He looks “stocky, thick-shoulder, flat-footed” (18). Zeddy and Jake recall the army events in Brest, where once they had stationed. Zeddy recollects the unpleasant work they did to build the soldiers’ huts. They see Brest as the place where the blacks have to be more defensive than the Germans with whom they were actually fighting. Jake requests Zeddy not to reveal his whereabouts and status for the government seriously searches for the deserters. Moreover, Zeddy highlights the miserable condition of the Harlem people who “will just to vomiting their guts to the white person about one another” (23).

Meanwhile, Jake searches for Felice in Harlem. He believes that it was she who brought him back to his home, where he always wanted to be. Zeddy and Jake part with promises to meet at Uncle Doc’s saloon the next night. While walking through the streets in search of Felice’s apartment, Jake vividly describes the city. He visits the popular cabaret Congo where he meets a singer named Congo Rose with whom he establishes a relationship. When Rose proposes her love to Jake, he refuses her love because he could not feel her as the lost little brown girl of Baltimore. Later, when Jake finds Rose feeling happy instead of getting anger or upset for being slapped by him, he realises Rose’s madness on him. Unable to continue his relationship with her, he deserts her and finds a new job as a dining car waiter in Pennsylvania railway station.

In Pennsylvania railway, Jake meets a Haitian named Ray who also works as a railway dining car waiter at Pennsylvania in Pittsburg. Ray, the second protagonist of the novel had pursued his education in Howard University before finding a job in the railway. His aim is to spread awareness to his slack colleagues about politics, literature, and black’s achievements across the world. Being proud of his black cultural heritage, he wishes every black to know the values and richness of the black culture. The readers could easily identify Ray with the author himself in insisting the retention of cultural identity and voicing social issues. He is a cynical Haitian immigrant, a bookish, deliberate, and serious man. His desire is to become a writer but he fails in accomplishing his goal. During the French Revolution, he lost his father and brother. The irreplaceable loss lands him in financial crisis and mental trauma. Hence, he drops his studies. McKay in his autobiographical work A Long Way from Home reveals the fact that he too went to Tuskegee Institute and worked as a railway employee in the New York city.

Moreover, Ray voices McKay’s social and political concerns. He is pessimistic in attitude. He views civilization being “rotten” (243). He does not want to be “one of the contented hogs in the pigpen of Harlem” (263). Hence, he hates his lover Agatha, who works as an assistant in a beauty salon and is eager to marry Ray. He decides to get a job as a mess boy in Europe. From these instances, McKay presents the pitiable plight of the black people in Harlem who were overcrowded and were treated like animals. In this regard, Nathan Irvin Huggins in “Heart of Darkness,” observes that Ray voices McKay’s genuine concern for the betterment of the blacks who remain fettered by the Europeans. The novel focuses on Jake’s quest for Felice but there is a foreshadowing of his radical and racial primitivism (466).

Jake finally finds Felice in Shaba Palace, a cabaret. He dances to the sensual music with a girl. While dancing, he notices around and sees the little brown girl. She cries out when he reaches her and she instantly recognizes him. She is excited about the unexpected meeting and reveals her passionate love for him. Jake takes Felice back to his Fortieth Street house and she recalls getting her things out of the room. They share their lovable time together for a week. In their next date, Jake and Felice go to a new dance club where they are accompanied by Billy Biasse. Billy, a friend of Jake, works as an operator of Longshoremen’s gambling apartment. He cautions Jake that life in Harlem is too dangerous and gives him a gun to protect himself. While Jake and Billy go to the bar for drink, Jake finds Felice crying. Zeddy wrists Felice and forces her to live with him for he too loves her. As Jake asks him to let Felice go, Zeddy threatens to cut Jake with a razor. Jake aims at Zeddy with the gun Billy had given him. Zeddy leaves the place calling Jake “a draft dodger and an army deserter” (22). Jake is terrified that he will be caught by police in Harlem and hence he decides to leave Harlem and settle in Chicago, with Felice.

Thus, McKay skillfully presents the social life of the young men in Harlem and depicts them as self esteemed persons who are proud of their race and culture. Even though Jake is a social reformer, his self esteemed nature does not allow him to serve for his nation. So he escapes from the army and tries to find his racial pride in his homeland. Ray too feels proud of his race and color. He seems to be the mouthpiece of Claude McKay in voicing his contemporary social issues. He wants to create awareness among his people through his education and racial history.

Works Cited:

  1. McKay, Claude. A Long Way from Home. New York: Lee Furman, 1937. Print.
  2. ---. Home to Harlem. Boston: Harper, 1928. Print.
  3. Cooper, Wayne F. Foreword. Home to Harlem. By Claude McKay. Boston: Harper, 1928. xvii-xix. Print.
  4. Huggins, Nathan Irvin. “Heart of Darkness.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Sharon K. Hall, et al. Vol. 7. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982. 465-466. Print.
  5. Rascoe, Burton. “The Seamy Side.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Sharon K.
  6. Hall, et al. Vol. 7. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982. 455. Print.
07 July 2022
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