Home to Harlem
Home to Harlem
by Claude McKay
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set fn Harlem, New York, around 1919; published in 1928.
Born in Jamaica in 1890, Claude McKay immigrated to America at the age of twentytwo to study scientific farming at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He transferred to Kansas State College before he left school altogether in 1914 and moved to New York. Settling in Harlem, McKay worked at menial jobs while writing poetry, as he had done before leaving Jamaica. He wrote colorfully about Harlem, describing its cabarets, jazz scene, and community life during the World War I era. In 1922 McKay left the United States, partly to escape “the suffocating ghetto of color consciousness” (Anderson, p. 221). He professed to have gained precious perspective on his experiences while abroad, which allowed him to do his best writing on Harlem. Written during this time, Home to Harlem draws on McKay’s memories of the black American community.
In Home to Harlem, the main character, Jake, recounts the migration northward of his friend Zeddy, who originally lived in Petersburg, Virginia. Between 1916 and 1930, nearly one million African Americans made such a move, leaving their homes in the South to migrate to northern cities such as New York and Chicago. Those who became part of this “Great Migration,” as it came to be called, believed that the North held better job opportunities and more political freedom. Many were soon disillusioned. White homeowners and landlords resisted black movements into their communities, and businesses showed a preference for white job-seekers. In New York City, black migrants streamed into an area named Haarlem (by its earliest Dutch settlers). This area, whose main thoroughfare was 125th Street, became one of the few places in which blacks could find housing.
In the 1910s African Americans became the dominant population in Harlem. Their population included a middle-class as well as a working-class sector. There were black doctors and intellectuals (such as the character Ray in Home to Harlem), and some fine houses, apartments, and churches in the neighborhood. Its black residents, remembered the African American leader A. Philip Randolph, exhibited a sense of urgency. They “were trying to do things, trying to achieve status for the race. You had the underworld, to be sure, but you had some good types of people. They set the tone of the community” (Randolph in Anderson, p. 117). By the early 1920s almost every black institution—from social service agencies to the major churches to black journals—had relocated to Harlem, turning it into a solidly black community.
With the beginning of World War I in 1914 came a rush of war manufacturing and many new job opportunities for blacks. When America entered the war in 1917, still more jobs were vacated as white laborers left to join the fight. For a while, blacks would not have to compete so fiercely with poor whites for jobs. But in the long run, America’s entry into the war would do little to bring equality to its black citizens. There was racial violence even at the outset as America readied itself for war in 1917. A riot in St. Louis, Missouri, resulted in the deaths of forty blacks and half a dozen whites. And in Houston, Texas, thirteen black soldiers were convicted of killing seventeen whites who provoked them into a fight.
Blacks in World War I
When the United States entered World War 1, the army recruited black Americans and placed them into segregated regiments headed by white commanders. At first, these units were not allowed to fight; the army instead restricted them to support tasks—loading and unloading cargo or stoking the fires on ships, for example. In Home to Harlem, Jake, a resident of Harlem, enlists in the army with the intention of fighting on the front lines. Instead he and his regiment first unload a ship, then construct huts in France to house American soldiers.
Eventually some units out of the more than 300,000 black soldiers were assigned to combat duty and became distinguished for their valor. One of the most famous of these fighting units was the Fifteenth Regiment, formed in Harlem. Its formation created a great deal of controversy in the community—some argued that blacks should not fight in a war for the United States, a nation that treated them as inferior people. Others, by contrast, felt that the use of black soldiers in the war would benefit the race by demonstrating its equality to whites. In 1917, the Fifteenth Regiment sailed for France and was assigned to fight alongside the French soldiers. It would be one of the few black regiments that saw combat.
Cited for bravery, the Fifteenth Regiment returned to cheering crowds at the beginning of 1919. By summer this welcoming mood had dampened. More than twenty race riots broke out across the nation in 1919, resulting in the shooting, lynching, and beating of scores of blacks. So shaken was Claude McKay that he responded to the violence with a poem: “If we must die, let it not be like hogs … / Like men well face the murderous, cowardly pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!” (McKay in Anderson, p. 196).
During the early part of the twentieth century, Harlem became the most militant community in black America. Among other movements, it became a center for Marcus Garvey’s black nationalism organization. In the 1910s Garvey, who was Jamaican-born like McKay, established the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which advocated black separatism. Garvey argued that blacks should respond to the inequality in the United States by leaving its shores and building their own new republic in Africa. Finding wisdom in Garvey’s message, McKay would eventually work for the UNIA and write many articles for its magazine, Negro World. He was not alone in his sympathies. After the race riots of 1919 a rising number of black Americans, in fact, agreed with Garvey. Disheartened and seeing little promise of future equality in the United States, scores of blacks joined the UNIA. Garvey went on to organize in 1920 the first International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World, which further boosted UNIA membership to 4 million worldwide.
Life in Harlem
Nearly two-thirds of the blacks living in New York resided in Harlem by 1920, an area bounded by Eighth Avenue and the East and Harlem Rivers above 106th Street. They settled first in two black areas, one on Seventh Avenue and the other on Lenox Avenue. As their populations grew, the two areas merged to form the black community of Harlem.
Housing was often expensive, because landlords took advantage of the white racism that limited the options where blacks might live. A study released in 1927 showed that nearly 50 percent of black renters spent over twice the amount of their income on housing than whites. To afford the rent, tenants would sometimes throw rent parties, charging partygoers a small amount of money in order to pay what was owed on the apartment. There were other strategies as well. Harlem families would often sublet one of their rooms to single men or women. Some households even operated a “hot bed” policy in which two lodgers with different work shifts shared the same mattress. In Home to Harlem, Jake rents a room at the home of a woman named Ma Lawton, along with a number of other tenants.
Black residents labored at various kinds of jobs after settling in Harlem. Its male residents sometimes found work as longshoremen, unloading and loading cargo on the ships, or as railroad porters or waiters.
You were going all the time. The work was very hard. You know, you got a bale of cotton on a [hand] truck that weighs six or seven hundred pounds and if you didn’t know how to handle it, you flew up in the air and lost your load. Somehow, no matter what you did, the son of a bitch boss was always standing there.... No free time. As soon as they got to the pier, bam, right to the gate without even taking off their coats.
(Bailey in Kimeldorf, p. 19)
The average employer got away with treating the dock workers poorly because there was such a large supply of them, which also resulted in their salaries being dismally low. In 1915 New York City dock workers earned between $520 and $624 a year, far less than the annual income of $800 that the U.S. government said was necessary to support the average family.
Harlem’s women worked as maids, hair-dressers, or in some cases as prostitutes, an occupation pursued by Jake’s girlfriend, Felice, in Home to Harlem. Other women, like Congo Rose, another character in the novel, worked as dancers in cabarets. Night life bustled along 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, featuring jazz clubs, cabaret shows, and speakeasies, in which alcohol was illegally served.
By 1919 Harlem clubs, cabarets and dance halls were playing jazz music. Four-, five-, or six-piece bands played improvised blues. One of the most famous of the Harlem jazz spots was the Lenox Club on Lenox Avenue (a boundary between black and white areas) at 143rd Street:
Here [at the Lenox Club] the crowd is usually about 90 per cent colored, and the 7 o’clock whistles that call the faithful back to work on Monday morning find the boys and girls of both races drinking briskly.
(Anderson, p. 169)
LONGSHOREMEN OF NEW YORK
In Home to Harlem, Jake returns from the war to take a job he had learned during his military service—working as a longshoreman unloading cargo from ships. He quits the job after learning that he was hired as a strikebreaker. In the real world of New York there was actually a dock workers’ walkout in 1919, the year in which the novel is set. New York’s longshoremen, whatever their ethnic background (many were white Irish or Italian immigrants) suffered miserable working conditions, maintained Bill Bailey, a longshoreman of the day.
People went to clubs like the Lenox to listen to music, dine, drink, and meet with friends. Musicians performed on the dining room floor, close to where the patrons danced. In Home to Harlem, Jake dresses up to go out to Lenox Avenue and drink at the bar, and the character Rose dances with her date at the Congo Club in a way described as “an exercise of rhythmical exactness for two” (McKay, Home to Harlem, p. 93).
Harlemites also attended theaters such as the Apollo and Lafayette, which presented black stage shows; midnight performances at the Lafayette included comedy, dance, and music. The era featured movie houses too, at which jazz music was sometimes played between screenings.
Home to Harlem tells the story of a black American soldier in World War I named Jake Brown, who is assigned not to fight but to unload ships. Described as tall and brawny, Jake returns home to Harlem after deserting his post in Europe. At home, he falls in love with a former prostitute named Felice and goes out with her to nightclubs and cabarets each evening, where the two drink and listen to jazz music.
Jake takes a job as a longshoreman, but after learning that he was hired as a strikebreaker, quits and finds a job as a chef on the Pennsylvania Railroad. On the job, Jake meets and befriends a man named Ray, who works as a waiter.
JAZZ IN HARLEM
Jazz emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, growing out of black American musical traditions and characterized by the musicians’ use of solos during the course of songs. As many blacks moved northward and settled in Harlem, they brought their knowledge and experience of jazz with them, playing it in theaters along Broadway Avenue as well as in nightclubs and cabarets. Listeners were greatly excited by the long, intense improvisational solos by members of the various bands, which usually featured drums, piano, bass, and horns. In Home to Harlem, Jake listens to jazz at all of the clubs that he frequents and mentions specifically the master jazz player James Reese Europe, who led the 369th Division Band in Paris, then returned to play in Harlem.
Nicknamed the “Professor” by his coworkers, Ray is an avid reader. He has come to the United States from Haiti to attend college but cannot pay his tuition. Ray has therefore taken a job on the railroad to earn money for school; he dreams of becoming a writer someday. While working with Jake, Ray teaches his new friend about history, politics, and literature. The two men live in Harlem for a while. Unlike Jake, Ray rarely drinks or visits nightclubs, choosing instead to read newspapers and novels. When Jake is bedridden because of an illness, Ray nurses him back to health.
Eventually both men become restless with Harlem life. Ray decides to take a job as a seaman on a boat headed to Australia and Europe. Jake, too, leaves Harlem and goes to Chicago after being reunited with his girlfriend, Felice.
Black responses to white racism
Jake and Ray portray two opposite approaches not only to life in general, but also to the more specific problem of being black in white America. While Jake generally acts on instinct and emotion, Ray shows a preference for ideas and the intellect.
Ray feels frustrated with life, and his frustration makes him question things in a way Jake does not:
Life burned in Ray perhaps more intensely than in Jake. Ray felt more and his range was wider and he could not be satisfied with the easy, simple things that sufficed for Jake. Sometimes he felt like a tree with roots in the soil and sap flowing out and whispering leaves in the air. But he drank in more of life than he could distill into active animal living. Maybe that was why he felt he had to write.
(Home to Harlem, p. 265)
The novel ultimately portrays Jake in more positive terms than Ray. Toward the end of his stay in the city, Ray complains that his “little education” hasn’t helped him (Home to Harlem, p. 274). On the contrary, it has only made him see the futility of his own dreams. Calling himself a “misfit,” Ray identifies Jake as happier of the two. “The more 1 learn,” he muses, “the less I understand and love life” (Home to Harlem, p. 274).
Toward the end of the novel, Ray feels drawn to Jake’s lifestyle and questions the white education that has robbed him of the ability to act freely. Jake dances, drinks, and goes to the nightclubs lining Lenox Avenue, a free spirit, happily at ease among Harlem’s vibrant crowds in a way that escapes Ray. While Jake is uneducated (in fact, he had never encountered an educated black until his friendship with Ray), he is nevertheless generous, patriotic, and ethical. His character is balanced in a way that allows him to get on with the business of living despite life’s injustices.
In some ways, the contrasts between these two major characters parallel contrasts between two opposing strands in the history of black responses to white racism. In McKay’s time, these two approaches were represented on one hand by the accommodationist philosophy of black educator Booker T. Washington, while another strategy was led by the more militant voice of leading black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois. The two opposing attitudes could be delineated as either a practical, flexible approach of compromise with white society for the sake of overall progress (Washington), or a contrasting insistent, inflexible response that demanded immediate elimination of racist conditions (Du Bois). Related to this second approach but going beyond it to reject not only racism but life in the United States altogether was the tack followed by Marcus Garvey (and for a while by Claude McKay himself). In McKay’s novel, Jake, who builds a life for him self without worrying about injustices, represents the first approach. Ray, whose intellectual preoccupations prevent him from reaching such an easy balance, represents the second, going beyond it as Garvey and McKay did.
Like his character Ray, Claude McKay was an immigrant from the West Indies who came to America for an education and hoped to become a writer. Born and raised in Jamaica, McKay worked as a farmer and constable before moving to Alabama to study agriculture at the Tuskegee Institute in 1912. Feeling drawn to New York City, where he thought he might better pursue his literary ambitions while finding steady work, McKay moved there two years later. He took various menial jobs, including positions as a longshoreman, a porter, and a waiter—all occupations filled by characters in the novel. McKay obviously used his own experiences to help flesh out his characters and to depict their working experiences realistically. Having lived in Harlem during the period in which his novel is set, he also incorporated his own observations of the area in the story.
As increasing numbers of African Americans migrated northward, they began to participate in political activities, which, in turn, led to an acceleration in literary and artistic efforts in Harlem. Claude McKay was the first significant writer of an artistic and literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Created by writers in the movement were works that explored black life and culture, showing and helping to stimulate a new sense of confidence and pride in the African American racial heritage. Though the Harlem Renaissance is often described as beginning in the mid-1920s, it was prefigured during the war years by McKay’s 1917 poem “The Harlem Dancer,” and by his above-mentioned 1919 sonnet “If We Must Die.” McKay’s poems were some of the first to speak directly and compassionately of the mass experience of blacks in cities. Other emerging African American poets, novelists, dramatists, and nonfiction writers of the Harlem Renaissance include Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and James Weldon Johnson.
By the mid-1920s the Harlem Renaissance was in full blossom. Black people and customs were, as the journal Vanity Fair pointed out, in vogue at the time. Almost everyone was singing black spirituals or blues. Whites from Park Avenue would spend great sums at Harlem’s night clubs, learning from blacks how to dance the Charleston and other popular dances.
Meanwhile, a different focus emerged among a segment of writers within the black community at the time. Some of the younger black intellectuals ran up against members of the older generation, as one historian observes:
In their apparent break with the aesthetic and cultural attitude of their elders, most of the New Negro writers … could be said to represent in art what the race militants had represented in politics—not an appeal to compassion and social redress but a bold assertion of self.
(Anderson, p. 197)
In March of 1925, articles and poems from these young, self-described “New Negro” writers were published in a journal and then in The New Negro, an anthology often thought to have launched the Harlem Renaissance. McKay’s poems are sometimes described as precursors to the genuine movement. The works of the “New Negro” broke with the genteel style of writing that had been prevalent in black American literature until then.
The Harlem Renaissance would continue through the year the novel was published (1928) until the stock market crash of 1929, which signaled the beginning of the Great Depression in the United States. After this disaster, most people’s dire economic circumstances diverted much of their attention from literature and art to their own day-to-day survival.
A number of blacks involved in the Harlem Renaissance aligned themselves politically with the communist movement, as did many white intellectuals of the era. These blacks hoped to integrate their own goal of racial equality with the communist objective of improving economic conditions for the working class. Like other Americans, blacks were struggling to redefine political and economic goals after World War I. In the midst of that war, radical forces in the Russian Empire were able to overthrow the monarchy and begin the world’s first communist state. To many around the world, this peasant and workers’ revolution that formed Russia’s new order seemed glamorous. It helped focus American attention on a possible alternative to capitalism, which seemed not to be working very well for certain groups, such as the poor and the racially isolated. A group of both black and white Americans—Claude McKay among them—began to look upon communism as a viable solution. Meanwhile, panic set in among other Americans who feared a possible threat to democracy. The United States government initiated an effort to root out communist organizations from its midst in 1919, and the 1920s saw an increase in the general antiradical mood in the country. In this environment, McKay grew increasingly disillusioned with prospects in America. In 1922 he left the country to travel in Russia, Western Europe, and North Africa. Home to Harlem was published while he lived in this state of self-imposed exile.
So stridently was McKay’s book condemned by black critics that he was hesitant to return to the United States. Though Home to Harlem became a bestseller, it was blasted by many prominent members of the black community for its portrayal of life in Harlem. W. E. B. Du Bois, author, teacher, and founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), accused McKay of portraying blacks in a negative light. Du Bois suggested that McKay was appealing to many whites’ racist perceptions of blacks by portraying the drinking, promiscuity, fighting, and absence of restraint in Harlem. According to Du Bois, McKay’s portrayal did not convey a true picture of African American life anywhere; in fact, it made him feel as if he needed a bath. McKay, objecting to what he felt was the personal tone of this criticism, responded by questioning Du Bois’s aesthetic judgment.
Other black critics charged that McKay’s novel betrayed their race and showed a hatred of the black middle class. They feared that white readers would take the seaminess portrayed in the novel as representative of the total scope of black life in Harlem. Critics also found fault with McKay’s style of writing, arguing that his prose was formless and unpolished even if his content had merit. “Despite the fact that this book is badly written,” one reviewer asserted, “it is both interesting and valuable” (Knight, p. 492). Others who objected to the book’s gritty, realistic tone shared this condescending acceptance of its value as a social document but not as a work of art.
Yet from other sources McKay received praise for his novel on artistic grounds. The esteemed British critic Cyril Connolly thought that the book must have been a pleasure to write. “It is hard otherwise to explain the easy charm and assurance that glow upon every chapter” (Connolly in Knight, p. 493). A review in the black journal Opportunity lauded the novel for its frankness. In later years, such reactions would be more widely endorsed, and the book’s stature would grow. Recent critics have found McKay’s portrayal of Harlem positive and affirming of black culture during the 1920s. They defend his work as a lively, realistic reflection of the Harlem experience. Among those who expressed this opinion as early as 1928 was Langston Hughes, who shared his enthusiasm for the work in a letter to the black scholar Alain Locke, a respected leader of the Harlem Renaissance. Telling Locke that Home to Harlem was the finest low-life novel he had ever read, Hughes said it should be called “Nigger Hell,” then went on to describe it as “the flower of the Negro Renaissance, even if it is no lovely lily” (Hughes in Tillery, p. 88).
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Cooper, Wayne F. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner inthe Harlem Renaissance. A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Kimeldorf, Howard. Reds or Rackets? The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Knight, Marion A., et al, eds. Book Review Digest. Vol. 24. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1929.
McKay, Claude. Home to Harlem. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987.
Tillery, Tyrone. Claude McKay: A Black Poet’s Struggle for Identity. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.