Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Many themes intertwine throughout Hunting in Harlem. One thread is the relative irrelevance of civil rights issues—class warfare seems more meaningful than racism in the contemporary, fragmented, multi-ethnic environment. Another matter is the myriad complications associated with the characters’ attempts at gentrification: Is it worth the effort, or in the context of the original Harlem Renaissance are such schemes cyclical and doomed to eventual failure? A third theme is the examination of individual African Americans not as racial exemplars but as mere humans subject to the typical flaws of the species.

However, the most compelling theme concerns the basic nature of evil, especially as demonstrated through dark deeds that are done in the name of the greater good. In order to create a safer, more harmonious, more culturally rich community, Cyrus Marks is willing to use any means necessary to weed out the disruptive elements in Harlem. His initial belief in the project has devolved into fanatacism, and through this fanaticism, Johnson reveals that intangible beliefs can become a powerful driving force in human action. In the face of fanaticism, reason, ethics, and humanity can quickly disappear—and true believers do not always realize they have lost such qualities until it is too late.