Claude McKay, a Jamaica-born, naturalized U.S. citizen, was considered one of the great literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance. The difficulty of being black in white society is one of McKay’s most constant themes, and he is particularly attuned to the divided psyches of his black characters as they seek their own cultural identity.
When Home to Harlem was first published in 1928, it was both praised and condemned for the gritty realism with which it portrays the underbelly of black urban life. The story follows the lives of two very different young black men: Jake, who abruptly leaves the military to return to Harlem where he lives with a former prostitute; and Ray, who struggles as a writer and is so frustrated in dealing with racism in America that he returns to his native Haiti. The characters’ different responses present an impression of limited options, of severe social and psychological pressures, and the difficulty of achieving a sense of unity among the black community. The visceral sense of alienation and the realistic depiction of ghetto life combined to make Home to Harlem a very popular book.
Banana Bottom again takes on the conundrum of establishing black cultural and individual identity in the midst of white society. Bita is a young Jamaican woman who, after having been raped, is rescued by a missionary couple who send her to England. While there, she becomes acculturated to organized religion, western education and other British values, but after seven years, she feels the need to return to the traditional beliefs and rituals of her vibrant Jamaican community where she can share in that heritage and be most truly herself. Banana Bottom is generally considered to be McKay’s strongest and most incisive achievement.