Home to Harlem Summary
by Claude McKay

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Home to Harlem Summary

Home to Harlem, written by Claude McKay, was published in 1928, during the Harlem Renaissance.

Home to Harlem tells the story of Jake Brown, who, as the book opens, has deserted the United States Army during World War I. Jake lives in London for a while, before he returns home to his Harlem neighborhood in New York City. On his first night back, he runs into Zeddy, an army friend. He also meets a woman named Felice, to whom he becomes instantly enamored. To Jake’s great sadness and frustration, he cannot seem to find Felice again after that first night, as he doesn’t remember exactly where she lives.

After a period of time spent carelessly carousing around town, Jake decides to take a job as a cook on the Pennsylvania Railroad. There he meets a waiter in the dining car named Ray, who is a college dropout with big dreams of becoming a writer. The two party so much that Ray ends up overdosing on drugs, although he does recover. Jake returns to Harlem where, after all that time, he finally finds Felice, only to learn that she’d been involved with his old army friend Zeddy. The two men fight. Zeddy then outs Jake as an army deserter.

The book ends as Jake and Felice, together at last, finally leave for Chicago to escape their pasts and build a new life together.

Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The title Home to Harlem suggests that the famous New York “Black Belt” is the place to which African Americans return when they want to find true comfort and harmony, when they want to be among their “family” and friends, even though, like most of the characters, they have migrated from elsewhere—from Haiti, from Virginia, from Maryland (as in the cases of Ray, Jake and Zeddy, and Agatha, respectively). The novel is essentially an account of life in Harlem as seen through the experiences of Jake, who (though not a native New Yorker) has come to regard Harlem as his hometown and is constantly comparing it with other places in his experience. Though the brief sojourn of Jake gives a linear development to the plot, Home to Harlem is actually a cyclical novel, for it is apparent that Jake has opened and closed one episode of his life in Petersburg, Virginia, another in Europe (with the Army), and a third in Harlem, before entering on yet another in Chicago with Felice.

The story opens with Jake working as a stoker aboard a freighter en route from Cardiff, Wales, to New York. He had joined the Army with patriotic motives, but when he was assigned to carrying building materials for barracks, he became disillusioned, donned civilian clothes, and went to London, where he worked on the docks and lived in the East End. He was horrified by the race riots of 1919, so he shipped out for America, for Harlem, for brown lips “full and pouted for sweet kissing. Brown breasts throbbing with love.” His London mistress was now just “a creature of another race—of another world.” It is this antithesis of the white and black cultures that informs the whole novel: McKay emphasizes the difference between the controlled, puritanical behavior of white society and the free, spontaneous, libidinous life of the black ghetto, in which sex, drugs, alcohol, knives, guns, unemployment, and poverty are pervasive. The several chapters are essentially episodes in Jake’s life that describe his contacts with these aspects of Harlem life.

Back in Harlem, Jake visits saloons, restaurants, and a cabaret, the Baltimore, where he meets Felice, a young prostitute, and he spends the night with her. As her name suggests, she is the personification of happiness—in herself and for Jake—and is instinctively warm and responsive. Jake also meets Zeddy Plummer, a “stocky, thick-shouldered, flat-footed” former Army buddy who knows that Jake deserted and advises him to be circumspect. Zeddy’s life is saved by Jake during a fight with a loan shark, but Zeddy later threatens to inform the police that Jake is an Army deserter, proving his contention that in Harlem friendships are often temporary and...

(The entire section is 2,104 words.)