Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

The initial reception of Home to Harlem was extraordinary. The novel was praised by white critics and condemned by most black ones. It was the first book by an African American to receive the gold medal of the Institute of Arts and Sciences. It was praised by The New York Times for the verisimilitude of the speech of the characters and by The Bookman for the accurate transcription of Harlem slang and dialect, as well as for its evocation of the terror lingering in the streets and apartments of the Black Belt. The New York Herald-Tribune commended McKay for his stark realism, and for his ability to present sordid truths about black life in New York “with the same simplicity that a child tells his mother” of what has happened.

Many readers, especially black ones, thought that McKay was merely trying to present the life of Harlem in a manner that would be of interest to white readers. The high-minded W. E. B. Du Bois, the leading voice of the black intelligentsia at the time (and a cultivated mulatto who spent his summers in Paris) attacked Home to Harlem in The Crisis, his influential magazine. In the June, 1928, issue, Du Bois wrote:“Home to Harlem for the most part nauseates me, and after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath. . . . It looks as though McKay has set out to cater to that prurient demand on the part of the white folk for a portrayal in Negroes...

(The entire section is 586 words.)