African Americans lived under the mask of slavery for a very long time. Even after the end of the actual slavery, these people continued to live more as slave than free people in the American society. Things were made worse when the White American society segregated then and put restrictions that would not allow African Americans to mix freely with them. However, in the 1920s, a few Africa Americans began a revolution in literature and art that would later on become what is known today as Harlem Renaissance. Among these is Claude McKay with his famous work ‘Home to Harlem’. One of the major themes in this work is alienation. Whereas the characters in this book alienated themselves from the way of life of their communities, they were unable to escape the difficult challenges that their communities were going through, either emotionally or physically.
Alienation in Home to Harlem is seen mostly in the two characters that feature from in the most part of this book. To begin with, sex and drinking is one of the issues that most characters in book find solace in, thus being able to escape from the normal way of life and to live in their own world of fantasies that did not embrace reality. According to McKay (1928), Susy was completely alienated from her female counterparts (58). Her party company comprised of men alone and she could not tolerate any other woman in her company. Like many other African Americans in Harlem, the life she was living in this place was seen to her as the most civilized life she could ever live. However, deep within her, she could not escape from emotional drainage in her life as she had been greatly affected emotionally after getting married at a very young age and being deserted before she was even eighteen year old. While she alienated herself from the female company, the author shows that it is only a woman i.e. Miss Curdy, who was able to listen to her problems. He says that when Susy came to know Miss Curdy, she unloaded a quantity of stuff of her breast upon her (60).
Alienation in Home to Harlem is also depicted in the life of Jake. When Jake takes up a job on the railroad, he wanted to break away from the emotional bondage that he had with Harlem (McKay 125). On the other hand, he refused to be influenced psychologically by the chef at the railroad, either through taking his advice or imitating him (125). Instead, he tried in many ways to remain ‘sane’ thus being in a position to interact well with fellow cooks. Yet his mind could not disassociate itself from the lifestyle of Harlem as he kept going back to Harlem once or twice a week. Despite the fact that he alienated himself from the life of Harlem, it was deep within him and he could not avoid. For example, gambling was the norm in Harlem and Jake found himself gambling even when he did not have money and had to borrow in order to gamble, the only game that united the cooks (126).
The waiter that Jake borrows money too was totally alienated from the life of the railroad. Instead, his mind was deeply set in books and spends most of his time reading whenever he was not serving the customers (McKay 128). Whereas the life of Harlem comprised mainly of violence, sex and drinking and gambling, this cook is not swayed by this life and instead concentrates on reading books that belonged not to his people but those that concerned the life of the Caucasian race. Therefore, this waiter or Ray to be specific was soaked deeply in discovering more about the culture and way of life of other races more than his own. His behavior too does not rhyme with those of his kind but was more civilized in such a way that he could treat others in a friendly manner. McKay (1928) asserts that cooks and waiters were never united except while gambling (126). Similarly, those waiters that had a fair skin walked together and refused to be united with the others (126). However, Ray is completely different and does not portray the violent behaviors of his people. Instead, he is friendly and mixes freely with everyone.
Throughout this book, the central theme is alienation. However, it should be noted that inasmuch as the characters try to run away from their past or to separate themselves from their society, they are haunted by the fact that they once lived in these societies. Similarly, the color of their skin does not allow them to alienate completely from their society. For example, while Ray remains as a civilized person in the black society, through the eyes of a Whiteman he was still an uncivilized African American. Similarly, he could not escape the tough lives that African Americans faced each and every day (145).
There are different images that are used throughout the book. To begin with, McKay (1928) refers to the kitchen in which Jake worked as the ‘coffin’. This signified the hard conditions under which the cooks at the railroad worked (McKay 126). Similarly, the chef keeps on referring to his cooks as mules (124). Mules in the real world are used to plough and while referring to his cooks as mules, the chef implies that they are unable to do anything apart from working in the kitchen with their physical strength rather than their brains.
The book ‘Home to Harlem’ by Claude McKay has been seen as one of the best piece of literature that portrays the challenging moments that African Americans were going through before and during the Harlem Renaissance period. Despite these challenges, most of them were alienated from the real issues in their lives and as a result lived plastic lives that did not truly portray their true nature.