"How Shall the Negro Be Portrayed?" and Home to Harlem
AS MCKAY prepared to leave Russia, back in the United States the Harlem Renaissance was gradually gaining momentum. "If We Must Die" had established McKay as one of the pioneers of the infant literary movement. With the publication of Harlem Shadows in 1922, African Americans eagerly awaited more from the gifted poet. However, they would have to wait six years before McKay again made literary headlines. His preoccupation with Negro radicalism had, in his words, "become a detriment to his poetical temperament."1 During the interim, his reputation suffered, and many thought him well on his way to early literary oblivion.2
But in 1928 he published Home to Harlem, which became the first novel written by a black author to make the best-seller list. The novel also marked a departure from McKay's poetic literary style and earned him the reputation as a leader among a group of emerging young black writers who were in revolt against the traditional, genteel treatment of black life in African-American fiction.3 The genesis of Home to Harlem reveals much about the motives for McKay's literary change of direction, and also illuminates the Harlem Renaissance.
McKay arrived in Germany early in 1923 to seek medical aid for his syphilis. After three months of medical attention, but without much improvement, he left Germany and went to France for additional treatment. In Paris physicians informed him that such an advanced stage of syphilis normally required two to three years of treatment but, because of his excellent overall health, he would require medication for only a year.4 He convalesced, but the "dreadful disease" in combination with the long period of literary inactivity in Russia sapped much of his creative vitality. However, he did compose the following poems, which vividly reflect his state of mind at the time: