The Harlem Renaissance is my favorite historical era and I love reading books written during or about this period. Recently, I read a novel that I had heard and read about over the years whenever I studied this historical era.
Written in 1928, Claude McKay's novel, Home to Harlem was created as an answer to its white counterpart, Ni***r Harlem (not to offend, but it's the real title of the book), written by Carl Van Vechten. Both books feature the booze, drugs, sex and prostitution of the Roaring 20s, especially the clubs and cabarets (among other places) set in Harlem (and McKay includes Clinton Hill, Brooklyn).
In this book, Claude McKay attempts to show the underground and working-class life of African Americans in Harlem during the 1920s. And he does so in a brutally honest manner. The novel centers around two black men, Jake, an ex-soldier and working stiff, and Ray, a college man turned working stiff from the Caribbean. Through these characters and other minor characters, McKay shows us life in Harlem for the working class and working rebels (aka criminals) during this time.
Condemned for its blatant focus on sex, drugs, alcohol (this was the Prohibition Era) and prostitution by the elite of Harlem's Renaissance (W.E.B. DuBois included), McKay and others like him, were rebels for this period. And thankfully so!
The elite-conscious of the era cared more about the depictions and portrayals of African Americans at a time when we were only decades from slavery and the brutal coon-like stereotypes that we abhor today were used and displayed everywhere. There was this conscious need and effort to “uplift the race” through the arts, culture, education and professionalism of our people. The elite critics of this era were horrified by McKay’s novel and the underground life that he wrote about.
Coming from a generation that his benefited from the Civil Rights Movement, I can appreciate the growth and progress that we have made as a people. For me, this novel presents another glimpse into an era that fascinates me and another slice of old Harlem culture.
Claude McKay, himself is also a fascinating figure. A native of Jamaica, was born and raised in the Parish to well-to-do farmers. He was educated in Jamaica and began writing there, eventually being published as a young man. He worked as an apprentice to a cabinet and carriage maker before coming to the United States to further his education. He attended Tuskegee Institute and the Kansas State University but left without completing his degree. McKay was stunned and horrified by the intense racism of the Jim Crow South.
He came to New York where he worked as a laborer and joined the Communist movement. He continued writing establishing himself as a literary talent, publishing several volumes of poetry and novels. Despite the criticism of his first novel, Home To Harlem, McKay won the Harmon Gold Medal and went on to further success. McKay parted ways with the Communist movement but joined other progressive black political movements of this time. Eventually he left political life, became a Catholic and moved from Harlem to Chicago where he worked for a Catholic organization until his death.
While Home To Harlem contains language and literary tools and functions that would seem stilted and perhaps archaic by today's standards, it still remains a classic.
A word of warning, however: McKay's descriptions of persons of color rely heavily on what modern people would consider very, very color-struck. If you can overlook this, it is a wonderful examination of life in the underground decadent culture of Harlem's Jazz Age.
Here’s to more reading,