Themes and Meanings
Banana Bottom is based on a less simplistic view of the black experience than some critics have assumed. A close look at the novel shows how far McKay’s underlying meaning is from the easy dichotomy between a white society of repression, which is evil, and a black culture of expression, which is good, with all the characters lined up on one side or the other.
One of McKay’s major themes has little to do with that kind of dichotomy. His Jamaica is almost entirely black, and the social hierarchy that he finds so stultifying is maintained by blacks, not by whites. The reason that the highly educated, intelligent, charming Bita can aspire no higher than her seminarian is that, in the view of her own society, no one so dark in skin color can marry a professional man or a government official. Granted, the Jamaican system is based on the old white colonial belief in black inferiority; however, it is not whites who enforce this social stratification. By showing how this system traps people of unquestionable ability at an arbitrary level in society, McKay is arguing for a change of mind within the black community itself.
An even more important theme of Banana Bottom is the issue of what lifestyle is most fulfilling for a black person, specifically for an intelligent, well-educated individual such as Bita. Again, it has been easy for critics to see the prudish and repressed Priscilla Craig as the representative of white society and Herald Newton Day as an example of a black man destroyed when he attempts, like his white sponsor, to repress his black sexual vitality. McKay, however, does not make arbitrary classifications of either his whites or his blacks. In Malcolm Craig’s dedication to black freedom and autonomy and in Squire Gensir’s...
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