Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

By placing the story in Marseilles, McKay is able to draw together a variety of blacks, just as he had done in Home to Harlem. Yet because all of the blacks in Marseilles are expatriates, mere temporary residents, and beachboys, there is a smaller and less interesting range with which to work. Nevertheless, the novel reiterates McKay’s constant themes: that the folk rather than the black intelligentsia represent the best in the race; that blacks should have a high regard for their heritage and hence a racial self-esteem; that the ideal life is one of vagabondage, of natural gusto and emotional response, allowing one to “laugh and love and jazz and fight.” The breakup of the beachboys at the end of parts 2 and 3 suggests that cohesiveness is less powerful among McKay’s favorite people than individualism—the very characteristic of the materialistic, commercial class that Ray inveighs against in his numerous diatribes and asides. Ironically, it is this assertion of individuality (which is, however, always punctuated by examples of group concern for others in distress) that plays into the arms of those classes and attitudes that Ray sees as inimical to racial betterment.

Ray is the mouthpiece for an unrelenting indictment of white civilization. In his eyes, its chief shortcomings are crass commercialism (one shipping line is called the Dollar Line); an unwarranted sense of racial superiority; hypocrisy (white Europeans assert that they make the best pornographic films, yet they condemn the uninhibited—even justifiable—sexuality of the blacks); nauseous...

(The entire section is 649 words.)