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Reflection and Analysis of Karsten H. Piep's “Home to Harlem, Away From Harlem”

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Presents literary criticism for the novels "Jews Without Money" by Michael Gold and "Home to Harlem" by Claude McKay and their views of Jewish and African American ethnicity in early 20th-century New York City. Each book is said to have undergone analysis and criticism since their publication between 1928 and 1930. The article notes distinctions between Jews and African Americans in the way that they assimilated into U.S. culture

Whereas Jews are said to have moved from the margins to the mainstream, African Americans are said to have created an oppositional identity.

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In Home to Harlem, the Jamaican-born author Claude McKay, who admonished criticsof the novel “to look alittle into my obscure life”(2005: 301), tells a similar migration story that depicts the struggles of Ray, a young Haitianintellectual, who is at once fascinated by the vitalityof Harlem and repulsed by the parochialism of its inhabitants, few of whomare aware of the recent US occupation of his homeland

Fearful that he might become “one of the contented hogs in the pigpen of Harlem,”Ray leaves his US American girlfriend and heads for an uncertain future in Europe(196).Central to both novelsis the perilous quest for a transnational identity that transcends not just national parochialisms, but ethnic and racial stereotypesas well. Though under different circumstances, both Larsen’s Helga and McKay’sRay come to embody the promises as well as thepitfalls inherent in Alain Locke’ sproclamation of Harlem as “a race capital,”where “Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination".

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In another publication, Claude McKay and Harlem, Black Belt of the Metropolis, Michelle Stephens (2005) extends on her earlier observations. She writes that “McKay’s autobiography and his earlier novels were works whose implications went beyond the consolidation of a national African American culture. If anything, they represented his attempts to effect a “reconciliation between his internationalism and his desire for cultural belonging” (p. 132)

And a few pages later, “In Home to Harlem McKay wrestled with these tensions between free mobility and the New Negro’s desire to feel at home in both the city and in the state” (p. 137). I have added the emphases in these two quotes because they express precisely the fruitful paradox I want to trace in the novel. In Home to Harlem, this paradoxical longing for both security in and freedom from national belonging is what preoccupies Jake, the main character, a young black man from Harlem. We learn that he is “very American in spirit” (McKay, 1987, p. 134) and that he goes to Europe to fight for America in WWI (p. 4)

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In fact, the urgent sensation of a pull from elsewhere, when not fulfilled, stitutes diaspora culture at its most curious, eccentric, and I would argue, paradigmatic”. Simply bringing McKay in line with this argument because he had relationships with both men and women would certainly miss Ellis’ point

But whatever role his sexual preferences may have played for his understanding of identity, an unfulfilled “pull from elsewhere” is surely inherent in the quality I have described as “dwellingin-travel.” In this sense, the paradoxical place Ellis describes as “queerness” might well be the only one McKay’s poetics could be said to be “dwelling” in.

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Stephens, M. (2005). Claude McKay and Harlem, black belt of the metropolis. In M. Stephens. Black empire: The masculine global imaginary of caribbean intellectuals in the United States, 1914-1962 (pp. 129–165). Durham, NC: Duke University Press

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