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...
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