(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...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Home to Harlem opens, appropriately, with Jake working as a stoker aboard a freighter “that stank between sea and sky” en route from Cardiff to New York. He had joined the Army from patriotic motives, but when he was assigned noncombat duties in Brest, he went AWOL—first to Havre and then to London, where he lived with a white woman in the East End until race riots convinced him that his true home was in Harlem. Aboard ship, Jake begins to despise the Arabs who are his fellow stokers: their eating practices, their lack of concern for hygiene, their “thought that a sleeping quarters could also serve as a garbage can” revolts him. Yet he overlooks the racial segregation that dictates that he should be a stoker, with Arabs, rather than a deckhand, with whites—as he does the hordes of lice—because the boat is “taking him back home—that was all he cared about.”

Back in Harlem, Jake visits saloons, restaurants, and a cabaret, where he meets Felice, a prostitute, with whom he spends the night after having agreed to pay her fifty dollars (all that he has), though his initial proposal is only five dollars. In the morning, he is serene and discovers that Felice has put his fifty-dollar bill in his trousers pocket with a note that reads “Just a little gift from a baby girl to a honey boy!” The rest of the novel is an account of events that transpire before Jake and Felice are reunited.

Looking for Felice, Jake meets Zeddy Plummer (who, like Jake, has come from Petersburg, Virginia), “a bad-acting, razor-flashing nigger,” a compulsive gambler who is always impecunious, and the sometime lover of Felice during Jake’s two years...

(The entire section is 687 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bone, Robert A. The Negro Novel in America. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965. Argues that the “Harlem School” of novelists portrayed the distinctive culture of black America in a distinctive language, which included slang and dialect. Bone argues that Jake represents instinct, while Ray is the inhibited, overcivilized thinker, a figure for McKay himself.

Cooper, Wayne F. Claude McKay, Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987. This prize-winning study is the authoritative source of information on the writer’s life. Almost every article on McKay is considered, and the documentation is authoritative and exhaustive.

Draper, James P., ed. Black Literature Criticism. 3 vols. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Includes an extensive biographical profile of McKay and excerpts from criticism on his works.

Giles, James R. Claude McKay. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Giles provides a critical and interpretive study of McKay with a close reading of his major works, a solid bibliography, and complete notes and references.

Hegler, Charles J. “Claude McKay’s If We Must Die,’ Home to Harlem, and the Hog Trope.” ANQ 8 (Summer, 1995): 22-26. Hegler points out that McKay uses the same symbolic...

(The entire section is 488 words.)