Themes and Meanings
Harlem Shadows is fundamentally Claude McKay’s philosophy of life, even though it was published when he was in his early thirties and had not experienced his infatuation and subsequent disillusionment with communism, had not seen his fame (and subsequent eclipse) as a writer of novels and short stories, and had not suffered poverty, disease, calumny, and ostracism by former friends and colleagues—particularly after espousing Catholicism.
The collection juxtaposes his delight in natural beauty, whether witnessed in individuals, flora, or fauna (and regardless of whether it is to be discovered in the country or the cities), and his despair in discovering the discrimination against the poor, the dark-skinned, and the immigrant in a society that professes itself to be open, nondiscriminatory, and egalitarian. All these negative characteristics of American society he inveighs against, yet not so offensively as to alienate sympathetic liberal or progressive whites. He is aware of and celebrates the achievements of modern American capitalist society, yet he fervently believes that it can be amended to the end of offering all people better lives.
Whites are seen to be in the sun; blacks are presented as in the shadows, both literally—in the crowded streets and buildings of the North—and figuratively. McKay proposes that no group can grow culturally, socially, intellectually, and economically if perpetually assigned to the umbral regions, the Harlems of the nation. While some of his language of protest might seem to be political harangue, it is really not violent in its intent: It is designed to arouse, to foster critical thinking rather than revolt or violence. Harlem Shadows is a noteworthy testament to the serious side of the Roaring Twenties that were just under way and also to the Harlem Renaissance.