Author: Claude McKay
First published: 1928
Locale: Harlem, New York, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Plot: Social realism
Time: Immediately after World War I
Jake Brown, a black man from Petersburg, Virginia, who went absent without leave from the Army because he was assigned menial noncombat duties in Europe. He lived with a white woman in London before returning to New York as a stoker and has established a social hierarchy of whites, blacks, and Arabs. He finds Harlem amenable; there he is “happy as a kid” and makes love for love's sake, steering away from the hate, violence, sadism, and commercialism associated with sex in the Black Belt. His love is warm and generous. His first affair, with Felice, pleases both, and he searches for her in earnest after she declines to keep his money. He is honest and versatile, neat and orderly, loyal, streetwise, and principled. He refuses to be a strikebreaker even though he is out of work. He seeks swift satisfactions, but although he is a “free, coarse thing,” he avoids drugs, gambling, and exploitation of women. He is stable, moderate, of strong pro-American feelings, and always able to cope. His short time with Congo Rose (for whom he felt no desire) was an act of compassion toward her and her need for a man. His continuing need is for Felice, and eventually he finds her and leaves with her for Chicago, optimistic about a new life there.
Felice, “a burning little brownskin” prostitute who likes Jake and declines to keep his fifty dollars. She is “too nice to be mean” and is honest about her professional activities. As frisky as a kitten, she is the embodiment of natural happiness and joy. Her attachment to Jake appears to be sincere and permanent.
Congo Rose, an entertainer at the nightspot of that name. She takes Jake as a lover when he is broke. When Jake slaps her on the face, she is delighted, but Jake is revolted at her masochism.
Ray, a bookish, serious, deliberate, pessimistic, and cynical Haitian who has been made “impotent by thought.” He has attended Howard University but derides its curriculum as deficient in teaching black racial self-consciousness. He is semipuritanical and advocates only responsible sexual relations, though he can be outgoing and emotional. He takes cocaine experimentally with Jake when on a railroad layover in Pittsburgh. He tends to be didactic and antimaterialistic. His pessimism is seen in his dictum, “Civilization is rotten,” derived from his extensive reading in race relations, history, and economics, as well as world literature. He needs a serious attachment to a woman and sees Agatha as the one, yet he cannot make a permanent commitment and therefore leaves her. He does not want to be “a contented hog in the pigpen of Harlem.” He ships off to Europe as a mess boy.
Agatha, a beauty parlor assistant who is eager to marry Ray, who would meet her physical and intellectual needs. She has been in Harlem for two years, having come from Baltimore. She is “a rich brown girl with soft, amorous eyes,” a straight, beautiful girl full of “simple self-assurance and charm.” Although neither elegant nor formally educated, she radiates integrity, sincerity, and genuine attachment. Sent by Ray to visit Jake during his sickness, she impresses him with her seriousness, refinement, and honesty. In many ways, she is a Harlem paragon.
Zeddy Plummer, a compulsive gambler who vindictively reports Jake to the authorities for having deserted the Army. As a gambler, informer, strikebreaker, and social parasite who is always broke, he deserves little respect. This “bad-acting, razor-flashing” black man, who had watched over Felice during Jake's two years overseas, is saved by Jake in a fight with an unpaid loan shark. His fleshy lips and salacious laugh are noteworthy.
Susy, a possessive, compulsive prostitute who keeps Zeddy. He describes her as loving and a good cook—compensations for her poor figure and looks. Jake describes her as “fat and ugly as a turkey.” She is broad and aggressive. She believes in free love, but not for the man she possesses and supports. She is the matriarch of Myrtle Avenue, and when she learns of Zeddy's visit to another woman, she packs his clothes (minus her gifts to him) and throws them out.
Billy Biasse, a friend of Jake who operates a longshoremen's gambling apartment. A realist, he advises Jake that life in Harlem is dangerous and gives him a gun, which he uses to save himself. He deplores those who gamble beyond their means.