Home To Harlem Summary

Claude McKay

Home To Harlem

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Home To Harlem Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Home To Harlem by Claude McKay.

Jamaican poet, essayist, and novelist Claude McKay (Festus Claudius McKay was his legal name) was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. His modern classic, Home to Harlem (1928) won the prestigious Harmon Award, which provided the money black artists in the 1920s and 1930s needed to continue to make innovative work. Home to Harlem is rich with themes, including the primacy of self-respect, the joy of art and intellect, and the power of love through various obstacles.

Home to Harlem follows a young man, Jake Brown, who eventually travels back to his hometown of Harlem, New York. But first, the novel opens with Jake’s less than stellar experience with the US military during WW1. Unlike his contemporaries, who are mostly white, Jake is forced to do some disgusting work,such as changing out bedpans. He thinks this work is reminiscent of slavery and operates the same way as slavery: he is chosen for demoralizing work solely based on his skin color.The war effort asks for him to sacrifice his life for his country, yet his country does not treat him as a full human or citizen. Consequently, Jake leaves the army without permission to be a neutral participant in London. He is living with a white woman when he hears that race riots have sparked around major US cities, including Harlem. He returns home to join the fight for equal rights.

Many of Jake’s friends are intellectual, though they often are too human for their own good: they drink a lot, take drugs, and hire prostitutes. In the various cities Jake eventually travels through,

he meets more and more people who drink a lot, want to have sex frequently, and are willing to bully others to achieve what they want. McKay draws on concepts from classical European texts,such as the bacchanal and Machiavellian impulses,to represent life in Harlem.

His first night back in Harlem, Jake meets Felice, an attractive brown woman who is smart and working as a prostitute. For the rest of the novel, Jake will not be able to forget her. He pays her fifty dollars. After sex, Felice returns the money because she likes him. To his horror, he loses her address.

Jake presses on, living his young life to the fullest in Harlem. He meets an Army friend, Zeddy, at the famous Congo cabaret. There, he also meets Rose, an attractive singer, and ends up living with her, though he considers her more of a passing fling than a permanent love object.

Through Zeddy, Jake gets a job on the dockyard. He quits on his first day, because he discovers the workers are on strike, and he is hurting their cause for higher wages and better treatment.Two days later, Zeddy and Jake are at a gambling joint when Zeddy is attacked by Nije. Nije, wielding a knife, yells at him to repay his debt. Nije would have killed Zeddy had Jake not intervened. Zeddy finds a money source in the form of “Ginhead Susy” in Brooklyn. Zeddy is happy to pay back his debts to Nije, but grows indignant toward Susy, who has all the money and fiscal power over him. When Susy discovers that Zeddy has been dating other women, she throws him out.

Meanwhile,Jake (with help from Rose’s prestige) gains access to the owner of the elite cabaret club, The Baltimore. But, as Home to Harlem takes place in the beginning stages of Prohibition, drinking is illegal, and the vice squad shuts down the club.Rose and Jake, sensing a major rift in their relationship, get into a physical altercation. When Jake slaps Rose, he is so disgusted by his own behavior that he leaves her right then and there.

Jake finds employment as a railroad cook. He meets Ray, a college educated intellectual, who is a waiter in the mobile restaurant.In Pittsburgh, Jake and Ray invite women to their hotel. Ray overdoses and has to go to the ER. He recovers, though now Jake has gained a notorious reputation among the kitchen staff.

In Philadelphia, Jake and Ray visit a brothel called Madame Laura’s. Despite his lust, Jake has trouble being with prostitutes and thinks back to his first meeting with Felice.

Jake returns to New York City. He develops a liver condition from drinking too much. He tries to give up alcohol and, for a time, succeeds. But one day, he has a small drink and relapses. While battling his alcoholism, Jake has a series of visitors, including Ray and Ray’s girlfriend, and a pimp named Yaller Prince. Ray relates a story of a former pimp named Jerco who, after his lover-prostitute was murdered, committed suicide. One day, Jake sees Yaller Prince punched by another man who wants to take over one of his prostitutes. Jake gets a gun from Billy the Wolf; he wants one in what he sees as an increasingly dangerous environment.

At a cabaret, during a boisterous jazz number, Jake spots Felice. The two spend a weekend together and restart their love affair. The next weekend, Jake learns that Zeddy, his former Army peer, used to date Felice. The two fight over Felice, and Zeddy pulls out a razor. Jake ultimately wins the battle after pulling out a gun. Zeddy yells for everyone to hear that Jake deserted the army, which is a crime punishable by years in prison.

Felice and Jake decide to resettle in Chicago. With both of their pasts well known in New York, they cannot hope to live a normal life there; in Chicago, there is hope.