U.S.A. / 1927
Claude McKay was born in Jamaica in 1890. While in Jamaica, he established himself as a poet. He traveled all over the world, spending time in England, Russia, North Africa and Paris. His strong Communist leanings and his devotion to advocating for Black art motivated much of his work. He moved to the U.S. in 1912 and his writing eventually shifted from poetry to fiction. Home to Harlem was and has been considered one of the literary jewels of the Harlem Renaissance.
The novel focuses on Jake Brown, a young Black man who has just returned to his native Harlem from enlistment in World War I. Filled with nostalgia and boredom, Jake's adventures are characterized by his transience and his search for joy in the forms of sex, alcohol, music, and women.
In 1928, when many Black people were interested in shedding their blackness to gain white approval, this novel was controversial. It was raw, it was written in the vernacular, and it offered a brutally honest portrait of working class Black folks in Harlem. It was not the type of "dirty laundry" that the Black elite wanted to be aired out.
However, Claude McKay boldly shunned these respectability politics. He refused to gloss over the real-life concerns and activities of people like Jake. More importantly, he did not partake in sensationalism—this novel is not an exposé for the white gaze. He was just being real. As this excerpt reveals, Home to Harlem is ultimately just a tale of one man's love affair with Harlem - place where he can feel radically at home. I really love this quote, and I highly recommending reading the whole novel.