Academic journal article African American Review

Haiti and Black Transnationalism: Remapping the Migrant Geography of Home to Harlem

Academic journal article African American Review

Haiti and Black Transnationalism: Remapping the Migrant Geography of Home to Harlem

Article excerpt

Why did Occupation & Uplift come in? As a capitalistic empire, we needed surplus markets; and Haiti lay at our side entrance. Moreover, it fell within the allotted sphere of influence of the National City Bank of New York. The history of Haiti during the first quarter of the twentieth century is a footnote to the annals of that bank. (Clement Wood, "The American Uplift in Haiti" 189)

"Home to Harlem" ... for the most part nauseates me, and after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath. (W. E. B. Du Bois, "Two Novels" 202)

The June 1928 issue of The Crisis featured the second installment of Clement Wood's expose of United States policy in occupied Haiti. His article reflected a renewed African American interest in the brutal hypocrisy of an occupation that had already lasted more than a decade. After years of decreasing attention to Haiti, articles denouncing United States policy had begun to reappear with greater frequency in journals such as The Nation, Opportunity. The Messenger, and The Crisis, anticipating the resurgence of widespread strikes and uprisings that would take place in Haiti the following year. It is ironic, then, that the same 1928 issue of The Crisis that criticized United States imperial policy in Haiti also included what has become the most notorious book review of Claude McKay's first and most popular novel, Home to Harlem. One would hardly suspect in reading this review by Du Bois that McKay's fiction would have such an important impact on anti-imperialist black intellectuals in the Caribbean, West Africa , and Europe. Du Bois castigates McKay for catering to "that prurient demand on the part of white folk for a portrayal in Negroes of that utter licentiousness which conventional civilization holds white folk back from enjoying," a demand that McKay met amply with his scenes of "drunkenness, fighting, lascivious sexual promiscuity and utter absence of restraint." He is quick to point out, however, that McKay is "too great a poet" to write a book that is totally worthless. "The chief character, Jake," he writes, "has something appealing, and the glimpses of the Haitian, Ray, have all the materials of a great piece of fiction" (202). Yet nothing more is said in this review about the Haitian intellectual whose narrative illustrates the destructive impact of an imperial policy that the same issue of The Crisis protests. Despite such renewed criticism of the United States occupation of Haiti in the later 1920s, the story of a Haitian migrant appears to have little place in a novel about Harlem.

Given Du Bois's advocacy of pan-Africanist unity during the 1920s, his exclusive attention to the African American context of Home to Harlem might seem surprising. His review, however, represented the response of many African American intellectuals, especially of his generation, who ignored McKay's Haitian protagonist and instead questioned the author's motivation for a book that bore a disturbing resemblance to Carl Van Vechten's controversial Nigger Heaven (1926). [1] Most readers of Home to Harlem have followed its initial reception by Harlem Renaissance critics, concentrating on McKay's primitivist portrayal of Jake, debating the racial politics of his gritty but romantic depiction of his Harlem "semi-underworld." [2] I would like to suggest that McKay's representation of a transnational black Harlem is more politically complex than most accounts of him as a "Harlem Renaissance" writer indicate. [3] I will concentrate primarily on the cross-cultural dynamic of Home to Harlem's two migrant narratives. The first is Jake's African American migrant narrative, which assumes a rural South-urban North geographical trajectory familiar to Harlem Renaissance fiction. Significantly, though, Jake's narrative journey to Harlem begins not in his native Virginia but on a trans-Atlantic freighter from London, shortly after he had left the United States Army in France, frustrated by the demeaning treatment of black soldiers who had enlisted to fight in the "white folks' war" (McKay, Home 8). …

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