Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 727 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In this more than in his other fiction, Claude McKay concurrently develops a number of themes: Principal among them are the merging of intellect and instinct (or emotion and reason, the physical and the mental) in the younger members of an agricultural, colonial community to the end that a characteristic, natural, local personality will develop; also that in the maturation of the “natural” self, one has to choose between hypocrisy and instinct. Bita’s discarding her clothes to have a swim in her favorite mountain pool is symbolic of her casting off the veneer of acquired tastes and values: She displays her body and admires those of the bathing boys nearby without embarrassment or shame; likewise, she is not ashamed to display her inner self, her natural instincts.

In addition, McKay shows the debilitating effects of traditional Christian morality: The Craigs’ denial of sexuality has resulted in an only child who is unable to speak (and is therefore named Patou, dialect for “screech-owl”), and who dies of “knot-guts” just when he reaches adulthood; they try to hide any sign of their intimacy from their housekeeper; they denigrate affection and reproduction. By way of contrast, McKay imbues the rural folk with a sense of joy, sharing, and wholesomeness that is admirable. Ultimately, these themes coalesce into praise for the distinctive, unrepressed behavior of the Jamaican (and hence Third World) peasants and disdain for the paternalistic and dampening influence of Western, Eurocentric civilization. Primitive positiveness survives, though it benefits from training, cultivation, and hybridization, no matter where it is planted.