The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

As in almost all of his fiction, Claude McKay offers in Home to Harlem characters who represent the polarities that he attempted to bridge: the intellectual and the emotional, the potent and the impotent, the hardworking and the indolent, the caring and the carefree, the permanent and the transient. (All these were ultimately fused in Bita Plant, the protagonist of McKay’s 1933 novel Banana Bottom. )

Jake, having been separated from black women for two years while in Europe, is keen to resume his physical contact with them upon his return to Harlem; however, he is not one of the unthinking, faceless men of the crowd. Rather, he is a hardworking man with leadership qualities (as demonstrated by his leading a longshoremen’s team), with a keen sense of duty (as he shows by enlisting in the Army), with a quick perception of being deceived (as he shows when he is made to lug lumber instead of being given front-line combat duty), with a sense of self-esteem (he is unwilling to be kept as a sweetman), and with a desire to improve his lot within the existing social and political system. That is, he is generally conservative yet ambitious; he is not a reactionary and not a progressive. He bonds well and readily with other African Americans, yet he is not dependent; he listens and learns and has confidence in being able to cope and to endure. In many ways, he is a most admirable character: He is resilient and resourceful, adaptable and yet not flaccid.

Ray, on the other hand, is a lonely adventurer, and his principal trait is his inability to come to terms with the existing social situation. He is an intellectual, a reader (while stopping over in Pittsburgh, he buys and reads four...

(The entire section is 702 words.)

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

As in almost all of his fiction, Claude McKay offers in Home to Harlem characters who represent the two polarities that he attempted to bridge: the intellectual and the emotional. Ray (who is Haitian and who attended Howard University before working on the railroad) is clearly a version of McKay himself (a Jamaican who attended Tuskegee Institute and worked on the New York-Pittsburgh route as a railroad employee), and in some respects he is unsatisfactorily drawn. Though almost all first novels are largely autobiographical, few are reliable or effective as autobiographies: They lack critical distance and psychological penetration of motives and actions and so become too straightforwardly narrative. Ray is little more than a voice for McKay’s social and political opinions: He almost becomes Jake’s close friend, but he never really manages to go beyond being a comrade, an associate. He is didactic, a propagandist for McKay’s philosophy of the need for blacks to retain their outgoing, nonhypocritical, emotional, sensual ways, of the need for racial self-confidence through an awareness of the past glories of black civilizations, and of the need to struggle within the existing social framework for the speedy amelioration of the conditions under which they lived.

Ray, however, is not really a role model for Jake or for his race. He is remarkably pessimistic: “Civilization is rotten,” he says; he sees World War I as “totally evil”; he regards his Howard University education as essentially “white education” and basically unsuitable for an aspiring writer of social realism. “The more I learn, the less I understand and love life,” he tells Agatha on one occasion; and both are described by McKay as “slaves of the civilized tradition.” Inexplicably, he cannot accept marriage to her, though he needs her physically and intellectually. His explanation is that he does not want to be “one of the contented hogs in the pigpen of Harlem,” but this is specious: He is unable, even with whatever confidence he has in...

(The entire section is 836 words.)