Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Home to Harlem is essentially a story without a plot. There is no story line in the strict sense; Felice is lost for a time and then found by chance. Everything else in the novel is introduced to let readers know what life is like in Harlem, and this the book does with noteworthy verisimilitude. The story is not linear, because life in the Black Belt is not shown to proceed in a logical, cause-and-effect fashion; rather, it is depicted as serendipitous, often unfair, and certainly unpredictable and dangerous. Ray’s participation in the life of Jake is short-lived and fundamentally ineffective. In this, McKay seems to suggest that there is no possibility of amelioration from the outside and from would-be saviors who are transient and not from within the social structure.

On the other hand, Jake, who is part of Harlem and who has become accustomed to its harshness and brutality, can see the possibility of finding love, affection, and even self-satisfaction and self-improvement by leaving it all behind. Prostitution, he seems to suggest, is nothing to hold against a woman if society has forced her into it for survival.

McKay was a longtime resident of Harlem after he migrated from Jamaica (which he saw as Edenic), and he thought of Harlem as dehumanizing in the extreme. His attitude is reflected in Ray’s comment that if he married Agatha he soon “would become one of the contented hogs in the pigpen of Harlem, getting ready to litter little black piggies.” It is this image that McKay presents throughout the novel: Where people are overcrowded and treated like animals, they...

(The entire section is 660 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Home to Harlem is structured around contrasts between opposing philosophies of life, and it is clear that Ray and his outlook are subordinated to the person and philosophy of Jake. Jake’s traits—honesty, versatility, perseverance, optimism—are highlighted, while those of Ray—deliberateness, cynicism, retrospection, pessimism— are downplayed. “Jake was as happy as a kid. . . . But Ray was not happy,” the reader is told; in fact, Ray is made “impotent by thought.” Jake’s fortunes go down and out: downtown to the Pennsylvania Station and out to Pittsburgh. Yet he is irrepressible and positive. He undergoes initiation into the adult black life of Harlem, survives the rites of passage, and departs on a quest for the good life with a good woman in a distant (perhaps unrealistically imagined as Edenic) location.

Jake is a symbol of order, stability, and moderation. He has generally admirable qualities and an unusual intuition for correct decisions and actions. He is willing to forgo employment if it means strikebreaking. He is willing to share a room, but not to live off the earnings of a street girl. He can see that the white world is one of materialism and opportunism, but he does not want to be a part of it: He becomes almost a paragon, yet one with great joie de vivre, loyalty, and self-esteem.

The two principal nightclubs, the Baltimore and the Congo, serve as representatives of the two ways of life that...

(The entire section is 481 words.)