Portrayal of Young Men in Claude Mckay's Home to Harlem

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About this sample


Words: 3057 |

Pages: 7|

16 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Words: 3057|Pages: 7|16 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem is the most popular picaresque novel, which has won the Harman Gold award for literature. McKay is a famous twentieth-century African American writer, who is an American poet, novelist, short story writer, journalist, essayist, and also an autobiographer. He was born in central Jamaican in 15 September 1889, to a peasant parents. He died on 22 May 1948 in Chicago, Illinois. McKay has written four novels. Home to Harlem is his first novel which is published in 1928. It is one of the most notable novels of McKay. Even though this novel criticized negatively by the prominent African American writers likes W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Lock, because McKay gives realistic fiction rather than uplifting fiction. Through his realistic writing W.E.B Dubois and Alain lock can realise the unpleasant sides of Harlem’s growing population of working class blacks’ real life. So later it was well received and appreciated for unbiased portrayal of black’s life and Harlem. Therefore through the novel foreword Wayne F. Cooper described: McKay remained abroad, a younger generation of black writers had began to break the restraints of the genteel protest tradition prescribed by an older African American leadership. Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Rudolph Fisher, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nella Larsen had begun to expand the boundaries of African American literature in the face of conservative African American criticism. At the same time, a Negro vogue among New York critics had begun to make Harlem cabarets and night spots and African American music and literature increasingly attractive to the literature white public, especially in New York City. 

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Through the quotation Wayne F. Cooper says that its explicit depiction of the unpleasant sides of Harlem’s proletarian blacks’ life. Home to Harlem sparks even more critical commentary. It quickly reap both exaggerate praise and condemnation. Conservative black critics condemned it as strictly commercial work that pandered to the worst stereotypes of African-Americans held by white America, while some white critics praised it uncritically as “the real thing in rightness... the lowdown on Harlem, the dope from the inside”. For instance, Langston Hughes declared to McKay that “undoubtedly it is the finest thing ‘we’ve’ done yet.... your novel ought to give a second youth to the Negro vague”. 

Through the novel McKay depicts the life of working class black people in Harlem, and Europe. Likewise the novelist portrays how the young black men are leads their life in the white society and what are the problems they have faced in their life and also he shows how they are rediscover their black identity with the white society. These are all the important components of the novel Home to Harlem. 

Therefore, Burton Rascoe’s essay entitled “The seamy side” delineates about the novel Home to Harlem, is not a successful Negroes who have done well in the trades and professions and have build themselves homes, sent their children to school, and engaged in civil and social pursuits of a sober and respectable nature. It is the story of the working class longshoremen and roustabouts, house-maids and Pullman porters, waiters and wash-room attendants, cooks and scullery maids, “dime-snatchers,” and all those who compensate for defeat in life in a white man’s world by a savage intensity among themselves at night. The article focuses on the portrayal of young men in Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem. Hence, the novel described about the chief character Jake brown, he is a young man and also an attractive, handsome man, with dark brown skin. He is an easy going person from Petersburg in Virginia. He is runs from the military without taking proper leave, because he forced to be a menial labour rather than a soldier. The only reason since he belongs to the black race. Therefore, he has experienced racial prejudice as well as alienation. So he deserted from the army at the time of World War I and he reaches and stays in London. Where he works as a cook in a ship, at the same time he has relationship with a white girlfriend. Their relationship is unpleasant because he is not satisfied with the white woman. Because, Jake views about the white woman, she is a creature of another race of another world. When, he starts to longing for the bodies of the black and brown women in Harlem. Jake’s longing to reach Harlem as quickly as possible is revealed through his crazy conversation with the ship. He knows very well that ship is an inanimate thing which never head to his words, but still, he expresses his wish to it. This explores his urge to visit Harlem: 

Take me Home to Harlem, mister ship! 

Take me the brown gals waiting for 

The brown boys that done show their mettle over there. 

Take me home, mister ship. 

Put your beak right into that water and just move along.... 

Therefore, when he reaches Harlem, Jake feels nostalgia and boredom. He has an unquenchable thirst for joy in the form of sex, alcohol, and music. Likewise he is excited to see the sights of Harlem again when he walks down at Seventh Avenue. When his blood is hot, His eyes and nose are alert as smelled the street like a hound and he feels Seventh Avenue is nice, a little too nice that night. After that, Jake comeback to Lenox Avenue to amorous women, then he goes to Baltimore. Baltimore is a cabaret in Harlem, where he meets his beloved brown women. This cabaret is famous with both black and the white people. For a long time, it is closed due to the law and order action taken by the police squad for including and encouraging gambling, pornography, prostitution, and the illegal use of liquor and narcotics. In the cabaret, a girl who is impressed by the tailoring of his gray suit, which stitched in England, makes eye contact with him. She is attracted to him, by his attitudes and, by his hungry wolf eyes. The author says about the brown girl, her name is Felice. She is brown, but has tinted her leaf like face to an attractive chestnut, and beautifully dresses. Jake orders a scotch and soda, but she just wants a ginger ale. A cabaret singer comes to their table to sing. Jake gives a big tip, fifty cents. Then they walk along Lenox Avenue. He holds her arm; both are overwhelmed by each other. Despite her response to him, she begins to bargain with him over the price of having intercourse with her. Jake agrees to a generous twenty dollars in the end, and he is glad to pay it because she is so beautiful. They go to a buffet flat to pay. It is a private home that serves food and is open to guest only by invitation. 

A racially mixed woman who runs the home seems to know the girl. The Proprietress serves beer, wine, record it feels to be in Harlem and on Lenox Avenue. After the drinks, Jake has only a fifty dollar bill, which he gives to the girl. They are sleep together that night, fulfilling one of Jake’s fantasies about returning to Harlem. The next morning, Jake wakes, have his breakfast, and gets dressed. Afterward, he wanders down the Lenox Avenue, where he shoved his hand in his pocket and pulled out a fifty dollar note. A piece of paper is pinned to it on which is written in pencil, in that paper she writes “just a little gift from a baby girl to a honey boy!”. Jake always thinks about her and tries to go back to her, but he changes his mind because he thinks he is a man who should never let a woman to think too crazy about her. This shows Jake’s patriarchal perspectives on women. It is a hint for his male characteristic nature. Jack walks to Uncle Doc’s saloon, where he left his suitcase, then has a scotch and soda. As he drinks, his friend Zeddy Plummer comes upon him and slaps him on the back. Zeddy, who finished his military service, is an informer, a sweet man, a strike-breaker, a gambler, a heavy drinker, and an in-depth hustler. The author describes Zeddy as: “stocky, thick-shoulder, flat-footed”. Jake tells him he has to find someplace to stay, grabs his suitcase, and then goes to a poolroom, where he beats Zeddy at the game. Afterward, they get a chicken dinner from Aunt Hattie. She is wife of Uncle Doc. 

Zeddy and Jake remember about Brest, where they are stationed. Zeddy talks about the severity work they did to build the soldiers’ huts. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) where only the white soldiers could stay, the fight between the black and the white men use to get into the brothels on the main drag, burying one of the Zeddy’s close friends who is killed by Americans in the cemetery there. The black man says Brest is always defensive against the white Americans and not the Germans. Zeddy asks where Jake went, and Jake tells him that he went to London. Zeddy tells to Jake that he cannot tell anyone about his secret. The government seriously searches the deserters and people avoid the military draft. Jake says Zeddy that he should not reveal about his whereabouts and his status. Anyway, black people should be dumb about his place. Moreover Zeddy says they “will just to vomiting their guts to the white person about one another”. Zeddy says Jake must have been eager for black women’s company while in Europe. 

Jake is in search of incomparable woman of Harlem however, Jake says that the women also brought him home and he finds exactly what he is looking for after he landed. He hopes to find the woman of the night before. The two men part with the promises to meet at Uncle Doc’s tomorrow night. Jake also learns from two other old friends that there is ample work for longshoremen. After leaving Doc’s, Jake walks through the streets in search of the girl’s apartment and talks to and about the city. He works on the shore now and goes to hold the ships. In the essay entitled “Claude McKay and the Cult of Primitivism” by Michael B. Stoff claims that the novel is a vivid glimpse of the lower depths of black life in urban America. Its peripatetic plot and dialect oriented style are consistent with its thematic emphasis on the black man as the unrestrained child of civilization. Set in New York’s black ghetto, the novel establishes Harlem as a carnal jungle. While searching the brown girl Felice, Jake visits the popular cabaret Congo. Where he meets the singer namely Congo Rose, both are involved in intercourse. After sharing her bed she proposes her love to him. He could not feel about her as he did for his little lost the brown girl of the Baltimore. So he rejects her proposal even after his enjoyment with bed. Therefore McKay depicts this kind of sexual relationship is the based on economic necessity. Because, Jake need money from the girl Congo Rose. Through the events readers can understand how the money is exploited from the Congo cabaret girl Rose. After a long conversation between them Jake slaps her on the face. While she is happy instead get anger. When, Jake is shock of her enjoyment of pain. From her clear masochism, Jake stops to buy money from her. It is impel to Jake, takes a job on the Pennsylvania railroad as a dining car waiter. Where, he meets a Haitian namely Ray, who also working as a railroad dining car waiter in Pittsburg. It is a name of the city in Pennsylvania. Who attended Howard University before working on the railroad. His desire becomes a famous writer but he could not get success with his dream. During the French Revolution he lost his father and brother. So he has economical problems to continue his education. Hence, he fails to become a good writer. He is a cynical Haitian immigrant, and a bookish, deliberate, serious man. And also he is a second protagonist of the novel. Ray intent wants to introduce to his colleagues about politics, literature, and black achievements in the world. For the reason, he is proud of the black cultural heritage so that he has eager to teach his companions to their social and cultural background. Through the character reader can understand McKay portrays the character Ray as himself in the novel. Similarly, Benjamin Brawley’s essay entitled “The New Realists” says about the importance attaches to the novel second protagonist Ray a character of superior intellect that might be taken for the novelist himself. And the result of the novel, Home to Harlem that sold thousands of copies but that with its emphasis on certain degraded aspects of life hardly did justice to the gifts of the writer. Jake Brown, on his first night home from France, meets in the cabaret the brown girl, and the book is largely concerned with his search until he finds her again. There is not much of a story, but the realism is stark, the color vivid, and there is an impressionistic view of the crowds in the Harlem streets. Therefore, through the events audience can analysis the character Ray is surely a version of the McKay himself. 

According to McKay’s autobiographical work entitled A Long Way from Home also has the evidence McKay is a Jamaican who attended Tuskegee institute and worked on the New York in Pittsburg as a railroad employee and worked on the New York in Pittsburgh rout as a railroad employee. Moreover, the character Ray is voice for McKay’s social and political opinions. And also who is sermonic, a propagandist for McKay’s philosophy of the need for blacks to retain their outgoing, emotional, non hypocritical, sensual ways, of the need for racial self confidence through an awareness of the 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. Likewise, he is remarkably pessimistic like “civilization is rotten,” and he says he could see 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. 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 his philosophical position, to accept the challenges that life in Harlem presents. So he ships out for Europe, a convenient escape. It is clearly shows Ray is an inadequate foil for Jake. Who though lacking in formal education or in any discernible understanding of sociology, politics and economics decides to tackle the challenges with the support of Felice. 

Nathan Irvin Huggins’ essay entitled “Heart of Darkness” described that Ray as McKay’s voice, attacks with genuine bitterness of the United States, white men’s civilization, and European domination of dark people. The focus of the novel is elsewhere on Jake’s search for Felice but there is a foreshadowing of dark people. The focus of the novel elsewhere on Jake’s search for Felice but there is a foreshadowing of a radical, racial primitivism. Therefore, Jake can finally see his brown girl in Shaba palace. Jake dances to the sensual music with a girl. When he dances, he looks around and sees the little brown girl. He has been looking for all time. Jake drops the tall girl he is dancing with her falling down so quickly, and he has going for his woman. She cries out when he reaches her and instantly recognizes him. She is happy to see him and tells to Jake that she only wants him. Where both are introduces their self. Jake tells the woman his name, and she introduces herself as Felice. Jake takes Felice back to his Fortieth Street house, and she recalls having to get her things out of the room of her ex-date. She forgets her grandmother’s lucky necklace. When, Jake informs to her that going to get it is too dangerous. They are spends together the next week in a daze of love. Jake and Felice go to a new, fancy dance club. They were joined by Billy and his date. He is a friend of Jake and who operates longshoremen’s gambling apartment. He tells to Jake that life is dangerous in Harlem and gives a gun to him, which he uses to save himself. While the girls talk, Jake and Billy go to the bar for a drink. Where Jake is hearing a cry, and he can realize it is Felice. Zeddy’s wrists have Felice and she is trying to force her to leave with him. Zeddy is the man that Felice left at the Sheba Palace. As Jake asks him to let Felice to go, Zeddy threatens to cut Jake up with a razor. When, Jake has the gun that Billy gave to him, and he pulls it out, aiming it at Zeddy. Zeddy leaves in a huff, but he says loudly that Jake is a draft dodger and an army deserter. 

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In conclusion, the novel is a vivid glimpse of the lower depths of black life in urban America. Its peripatetic plot and dialect oriented style are consistent with its thematic emphasis on the black man as the unrestrained child of civilization. Set in New York’s black ghetto, the novel establishes Harlem as a carnal jungle. Jake is terrified that he will be caught by police, who in Harlem have been rounding up deserters. Jake and Felice go to the house of Jake and agree that night to go for Chicago. Zeddy shows up to apologize to Jake for try to kill him and inform him that his secret about deserting the army is not going to be spilled. Jake and Felice go to the Baltimore for dance, and Felice is not there when the club closes. Jake stands with their suitcases and worries that she left him, but Felice comes out of breathe running down the road. She went back to necklace for her good luck. They are going to the subway station, leaving Harlem for Chicago together. Therefore, McKay portrays the young men in Home to Harlem as self esteemed persons who are proud about their race. 

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Portrayal Of Young Men In Claude Mckay’s Home To Harlem. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 17, 2024, from
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