Welcome to today’s stop in the Harlem Renaissance Circuit!
Home to Harlem by Claude McKay, originally published in 1928, was the first novel written by an African-American to become a best-seller. That is a somewhat (pleasant) surprise, not because of the quality of the book, but because of the fact that for it to have become a best-seller I’m sure a fair number of white people would have had to buy it.
The novel does not have a plot to speak of, but its central character is Jake, a man just returning from Europe after serving in World War I. Upset that he wasn’t able to see real “action”, he deserted his unit, travelled through France and up to England where he found work and settled into the East End of London. However once the Armistice ended the war and life returned to some semblance of normal, Jake became homesick for Harlem and headed back:
“Take me home to Harlem, Mister Ship! Take me home to the brown gals waiting for the brown boys that done show their mettle over there. Take me home Mister Ship.”
Once back in Harlem, Jake heads to a bar and meets a cabaret singer, who disappears after their one-night stand. Other lovers come and go, but throughout the book Jake is constantly searching for his “heart-breaking brown of the Baltimore”.
McKay’s description of Harlem is not pretty, perhaps offensive, but it is realistic. Men and women drink too much, fall in with the wrong sorts of people, spend money frivolously, fight – but they seem to be happy. They are where they feel comfortable. It was a shock to see words that I view with an extremely negative connotation being thrown about almost as terms of endearment, but thinking about it a bit more I wonder if this combined with the classification of fellow blacks by their shade of blackness is a feeling of inferiority that has been rooted in their minds after so many years of oppression.
Reading this novel over eighty years after its publication, I received a glimpse into a society unfamiliar to me. This was a novel definitely outside of my comfort zone, and perhaps that was McKay’s aim: to make readers uncomfortable with a depiction of how life really was for black people in urban America during that period.