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Teaching Guide: Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem

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Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem

Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk:
Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's Home to
Harlem

Wayne F. Cooper's forward to Claude McKay's Home to Harlem
states, "Of all the major Afro American writers who emerged in
the 1920's, Claude McKay remains the most controversial and
least understood" (ix). In many ways this statement explains
the motivation for this project. It is our hope that this project
could be used by instructors and students alike to explore
McKay's work, bringing more interest and understanding to the
role of McKay in the formative cannon of the New Negro
Renaissance. Particularly of interest to us has been an
exploration of the sexual themes of McKay's novel Home to
Harlem. This book was the recipient of harsh criticism from a
collection of important figure of the Harlem Renaissance,
foremost being W.E.B Du Bois. At issue was the representation
of an emerging African American society and culture. McKay is
central to this issue as he fails to back away from what many
African American leaders at the time considered base and
vulgar behavior, in short speak-easies, night clubs, blues and
jazz and their role in the cabaret.

We feel that the best way to address the interrelated issues of class, sexuality, and folk aesthetics
in McKay is to focus on McKay's choice to represent the folk as urban and in particular to locate
the core of that urban folk culture in cabarets and clubs where blues was played. These places
were not only sites where sexuality was expressed but also where queer sexuality in particular
was expressed. By combining folk elements in the tradition of African American representation
with the fast pace black entertainment district of Harlem in the 1920s, McKay is able to comment
on diverse and queer sexualities, leftist politics, and burgeoning notions of a black diaspora in a
way that contemporary scholarship often cannot, given its tendencies to separate these ideas into
separate and exclusive fields of study. We hope to show McKay's usefulness in a variety of fields
of study, but most importantly, we want to prompt scholarship on McKay that will attempt to
identify and imagine the creative possibilities of McKay's elaborate diversity represented in his
life, the language of his poetry, and (as is our preliminary focus) his narrative representations of
black experiences (emphasis on the plural).

The pages below are designed to help develop ideas and discussions on Claude McKay's use
and representation of diverse, black sexualities with the hope that these ideas and discussion will
open new avenues of inquiry and scholarly work.

Components:
Overview and Analysis of Secondary Material
Cultural Context Material, Sexuality and the Blues
Teaching/Reading Sexuality in Home to Harlem







Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem


Overview and Analysis of Secondary Material

It is important to note that the writings of Claude McKay are used in a variety of different ways by
scholars and teachers from a wide range of fields. Our focus is clearly gender and sexuality;
therefore, first we offer a selective annotated bibliography of sources that were particularly
influential in our study of Claude McKay's Home to Harlem. We feel that these particular sources
speak expertly for issues of sex and sexuality found in McKay's work, and any or all of these
would be useful for student projects, supplementary reading material for a class on McKay, or for
that matter anyone who is interested in McKay's diverse and productive representations of
sexuality.

Next, we felt it would be pedagogically useful to also outline some of the more basic research and
topic possibilities in regards to McKay's texts as well as his important inclusion in discussions
about African-American/Caribbean studies and transnationalism, modernism and urbanity,
psychoanalysis, as well as interests in class and his engagement with Marxism. Of course any
such list has limitations and ours is certainly not meant to be representative of all work being
done on McKay. Nevertheless, we hope that by locating these broad categories and offering
what we feel to be quality representations of these varying publications, students and instructors
will be able to expand their interests and research on McKay, providing more inroads to other
primary texts, secondary material, subjects, courses, and ultimately reinforcing the appeal and
importance of this complicated figure within American Literature.

Next we will provide a fairly up-to-date (as of 2007) inventory of the secondary material that has
been influential in our close readings of Claude McKay's Home to Harlem, as well as other
primary sources such as lyrics from blues and jazz songs with photographs of the famous cabaret
and blues performers that may provide context for McKay's setting of 1920s Harlem. All of these
selections are meant to enrich the reading experience of McKay's work and all could be
considered for inclusion on a secondary or optional reading list for a class concerned with
McKay's creative uses of gender and sexuality.







Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem


Annotated Bibliography: Sexuality and the Urban Folk

Carby, Hazel. "It Jus Be's Dat Way Sometime: The Sexual Politics of Women's Blues."
Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Eds. Robyn R. Warhol and
Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1991.

This essay, published in 1986, remains an integral piece of scholarship in the study of the
intersection between women's blues and sexuality. Carby suggests that through the study of the
blues in the 1920s, scholars can begin to provide representations of middle-class black women,
in contrast to the more critically-recognized (and notably more upper-class) figures of the era
(e.g., Nella Larsen and Jessie Fauset). Specifically, the author argues that the blues in the 1920s
allowed black women to exercise "power and control over sexuality" (757), claiming that blues
and its performance created a site that offered women such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey a
geographical as well as sexual mobility.

Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and
Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.

Davis' study examines the life and work of three prominent women blues singers, arguing that
this biographical, literary, and musical analysis uncovers tenets of feminism specifically for
"working-class black communities" (xi). Davis goes on to claim that blues expression permits Ma
Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday to construct their own lyrical and performative
sexualities-a reaction against the practices in slavery where women's bodies became the
properties of others as well as the numerous sexualities imposed upon women by male society.
The author also focuses on the parallel theme of lesbianism that occurs in the lives and music of
each of the three blues performers.

Holcomb, Gary E. Claude McKay, code name Sasha: queer Black Marxism and the Harlem
Renaissance. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2007.

Gary Holcomb provides excellent scholarship that addresses the multilayered queer black
Marxism the New Negro author's writing. He aims to create a common ground in often
exclusively discreet critical spheres of African American literary scholarship including postcolonial
studies, Caribbean literature, Marxism and class politics, and queer and gender studies.
Holcomb appropriately situates McKay within the tension of these diverse fields while proposing
new ways of approaching the notions of a black diaspora literature, with a particular link between
sexual (mis)behaving, leftist radical politics, and how black modernism is often linked with both of
these.

Spencer, Suzette. "Swerving at a Different Angle and Flying in the Face of Tradition: Excavating
the Homoerotic Subtext in Home to Harlem." CLA Journal 42.2 (1998): 164-93.

Suzette Spencer responds to an elision of homosexual themes in African American literary
criticism that predates this article by performing a close reading of Home to Harlem's gay
subtexts. Spencer's textual and historical analysis of the ties between black folk culture and
queer sexuality, exemplified most tellingly in the blues tradition, comprises an important
contribution to literary scholarship on folk sexuality as well as the field of black queer studies.







Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem


Sources Exploring Transnationalism

Philipson, Robert. "The Harlem Renaissance as Postcolonial Phenomenon." African American
Review. 40 (2006): 145-60.

Ramesh, Kotti Sree. Claude McKay: The Literary Identity from Jamaica to Harlem and Beyond.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006.

Modernism

Kalaidjian, Walter. The Edge of Modernism: American Poetry and the Traumatic Past. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins UP, 2006.

Rosenberg, Leah. "Caribbean Models for Modernism in the Work of Claude McKay and Jean
Rhys." MoMo 2 (2004): 219-38.

Psychoanalysis

Comprone, Raphael. Poetry, Desire, and Fantasy in the Harlem Renaissance. Lanham: UP of
America, 2006.

Marxism and Class

Holcomb, Gary E. "Diaspora Cruises: Queer Black Proletarianism in Claude McKay's a Long
Way Home." Modern Fiction Studies 49 (2003): 714-45.

Maiwald, Michael. "Race, Capitalism, and the Third-Sex Ideal: Clauce McKay's Home to Harlem
and the Legacy of Edward Carpenter." Modern Fiction Studies. 48 (2002): 825-57.

Blues and Jazz

Albertson, Chris. Bessie. Revised and expanded edition. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003.

Braziel, Jana Evans. "'Bye, Bye Baby': Race, Bisexuality, and the Blues in the Music of Bessie
Smith and Janis Joplin." Popular Music and Society 27.1 (February 2004): 3-26.

Garber, Eric. "A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem.
Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Eds. Martin Baumi
Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr. New York: NAL, 1989. 318-31.

Jackson, Buzzy. A Bad Woman Feeling Good: Blues and the Women Who Sing Them. New
York: Norton, 2005.

Jones, Hettie. Big Star Fallin' Mama: Five Women in Black Music. New York: Viking Press, 1974.

Lewis, Nghana tamu. "In a Different Chord: Interpreting the Relations among Black Female
Sexuality, Agency, and the Blues." African American Review 37.4 (Winter 2003): 599-
609.

Lieb, Sandra R. Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P,
1981.







Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem

Lutz, Tom. "Claude McKay: Music, Sexuality, and Literary Cosmopolitan." Black Orpheus: Music
in African American Fiction from the Harlem Renaissance to Toni Morrison. Ed. Saadi A.
Simawe. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000: 41-64.

Oakley, Giles. The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues. 2nd edition. New York: Da Capo Press,
1997.

Rubin, Rachel and Jeffrey Melnick. New Approaches to the Twentieth Century: American
Popular Music. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2001.

Spencer, Jon Michael. The Rhythms of Black Folk: Race, Religion, and Pan-Africanism.
Trenton: Africa World Press, Inc., 1995.

V, Maria. "'Jelly Jelly Jellyroll': Lesbian Sexuality and Identity in Women's Blues." Women &
Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture 7 (2003): 31-52.

Ward, Geoffrey C. and Ken Burns. Jazz: A History of America's Music. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Lyrics:

Bogan, Lucille. "B.D. Woman's Blues." Harry's Blues Lyrics & Tabs Online. 09 Aug. 2007.
.

Rainey, Ma. "Prove It on Me Blues." Davis 238.

---. "Sissy Blues." Davis 242-3.

Smith, Bessie. "Foolish Man Blues." Davis 280.

Recordings:

Bogan Lucille. "B.D. Woman's Blues." Shave 'Em Dry: The Best of Lucille Bogan.
Columbia/Legacy, 2004.

Rainey, Ma. "Prove It on Me Blues." Hustlin' Blues. United States Dist., 2005.

Rainey, Ma. "Sissy Blues." Hustlin'Blues. United States Dist., 2005.

Smith, Bessie. "Foolish Man Blues." Young Woman Blues. Proper, 2004.

Various Artists. Sissy Man Blues: Straight & Gay Blues. Vintage Jazz, 1989.


Images:

"Gladys Bentley in Top Hat." Queer Music Heritage. J.D. Doyle. 09 Aug. 2007.
.






Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem

Sexuality, the Blues, and Claude McKay's Home to
Harlem

In reading Claude McKay's novel Home to Harlem, you may be struck by the reoccurrence of jazz
and blues throughout. The novel's setting of Harlem teems with bustling jazz clubs, haunting
blues lyrics, and colorful caricatures of blues singers. Thus, an examination of the blues and jazz
of the novel's era provides a vivid context for Harlem in 1928; however, recent scholarship on
blues in the early twentieth century has revealed the even more complex many facets to what
was once seen as vulgar burlesque.

Writers such as Hazel Carby and Angela Y. Davis have studied the music and lives of blues and
its singers and both argue that blues provides a special insight into the era's sexual identities. As
Hazel Carby explains in her landmark essay "It Jus Be's Dat Way Sometime: The Sexual Politics
of Women's Blues," "Blues Women reclaimed black women's bodies from male objectification" as
well as the minstrel stereotypes of the mammy or "loose" woman 0.

Not only do these writers suggest that blues music and singing provides women with a forum to
explore a freedom and sexuality often denied them by male society, they also recognize the
alternative sexualities that emerge through blues lyrics and performance. Jana Evans Braziel
explains in her essay "'Bye, Bye Baby': Race, Bisexuality, and the Blues in the Music of Bessie
Smith and Janis Joplin," that "blues offered an audible, if not always heard, site for mapping
queerness within blackness" (15). Indeed, Harlem in the 1920s contained a thriving gay and
lesbian subculture in its various drag balls, rent parties, gay bars, and buffet flats. So, through
this lens, readers can now align the dandies, pansies, and sweetmen that populate Claude
McKay's Home to Harlem to the sexualities depicted in the blues songs McKay would have
listened to himself.






Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem

Gertrude "Ma" Rainey

SOne of the first blues stars, Ma Rainey was equally
famous for her gritty, bawdy singing and songwriting
and her overly-elaborate stage shows as for her
backstage exploits, which often included run-ins with
the law and promiscuous and drunken encounters
with both men and women. Also part of her
popularity was her music and performance's
emphasis on the rural and the South (Rainey avoided
touring farther north than Virginia until her fame
forced her to expand her tour routes). This emphasis
of Rainey's folk qualities speaks to the theory,
delineated by Hazel Carby, that blues arose from the
.. tradition of the black traditions of slavery and the
working class: "The blues were certainly a communal
expression of black experience which had developed
out of the call and response patterns of work songs
S 'from the nineteenth century" (750). Blues here
becomes a tool of the lower/working class in order to
explore sexuality.

Probably Rainey's most famous songs is her self-
S. penned "Prove It on Me Blues." Rainey's lyric
blatantly discusses lesbianism when she boldly
asserts, "Went out last night with a crowd of my
friends / They must've been women, 'cause I don't
like no men" 0. She also declares, "It's true I wear collar and a tie" 0, alluding to the drag
performances prominent in the gay clubs and buffet flats of 1920s Harlem. Seen here is another
blues singer, Gladys Bentley, who became famous for her drag king persona, often queering
popular blues songs by changing pronouns:
These depictions of same-sex (specifically lesbian)
relationships are paralleled in the burgeoning
relationship between Jake and Ray. In fact, when
Jake first meets Ray on the train, Ray is reading
Sapho and comments that "Her story gave two lovely
words to modern language.... Sapphic and Lesbian."
(129)
Jake responds with the colloquial name for lesbians in
Harlem, "bulldyker" (129). This reference was a common
Parlance of the times, and blues singer Lucille Bogan even
wrote a song about this lesbian figure entitled "B.D. Woman's
Blues" ("B.D." standing for "bulldagger" or "bulldyker," both
terms for a butch lesbian).

These verbal cues also recur with the use of the word "sissy."
Ma Rainey's "Sissy Blues" (1926) tells of a woman who has
lost her man to another man-a "sissy." This term pointedly
surfaces in McKay's Home to Harlem in reference to the
character of Jake. Berated by Congo Rose (herself a blues-
style singer) for his passive and nonviolent behavior towards
\ her, Jake eventually hits Rose, after which he overhears her
confiding to a friend, "A hefty-looking one like him, always
Acting so nice and proper. I almost thought he was getting
sissy" (117). Our reading of the word "sissy" takes on even







Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem

more weight through the lens of Rainey's song, alluding to the homoerotic relationship that occurs
between Jake and Ray in the second part of the book.

So, these songs provide us for a cultural context that brings the issues of homosexuality McKay
explores in his novel to the fore. By reading these lyrics and listening to these songs, the
audience can now hear the slang and the music that not only McKay but also his readers would
have been familiar with and understood.

Resources
"Prove it On Me Blues" on Rhapsody, Red Hot Jazz, and Jazz-on-line
"B.D. Woman's Blues" on Rhapsody, Red Hot Jazz, and Yahoo
"Sissy Blues" on Rhapsody, Queer Music Heritage, and Amazon


Bessie Smith
-
The blues of the 1920s and 1930s was utterly
dominated by the presence of Bessie Smith.
A prot6g6 of Ma Rainey, Smith eventually
eclipsed Rainey in fame, popularity, as well as
Sa-- in her hard-living.










Much like the initial reception of Home to Harlem by the Harlem Renaissance intelligentsia
(W.E.B. Du Bois, in particular, felt the urge to bath after finishing McKay's novel), Bessie Smith
was seen as common and crude, often rejected by upper-middle class blacks:
Bessie Smith signified a version of American blackness [many wealthy, educated African
Americans] had yet to confront. She was the summation of all the stereotypes, all the
prejudices, all the projected racial and sexual fantasies, all the watermelons and
pickaninnies and dialectic speech, and all the externally imposed self-hate. It was Bessie
who, in her first studio test in 1922, was rejected for being 'too rough'; it was Bessie
whom both Okeh and Black Swan-the black label for which W.C. Handy and W.E.B. Du
Bois sat on the board-turned down because her voice was too rough, too Negro, too
black; it was Bessie who had been born in abject poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee;
and it was Bessie who was the most popular singer of 'classic blues,' which many
educated, upwardly mobile blacks in the 1920s condemned as a crude art form and,
ultimately, a 'racial embarrassment.' (Kun 312)
Indeed, the story goes that Smith was ousted from the Black Swan label when she stopped a
recording session to declare, "Hold on, let me spit!" (Jones 48)

If this "vulgarity" allowed Bessie Smith to exercise a more liberated sexuality in the raunchy
double-entendres in songs like "Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl" ("I need a little hot dog on my
roll" [Davis 319]), it also allowed her to the alternative sexualities present and visible in 1920s
Harlem. In "Foolish Man Blues," written in 1927, Smith decries the suspicious behavior of men, in
particular, lamenting that "There's two things got me puzzled, there's two things I can't
understand / A mannish actin' woman and a skipping' twisting' woman actin' man" 0. McKay mimics
this line almost verbatim in Home to Harlem, when Jake hears a blues tune that runs, "And there







Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem

is just two things in Harlem I don't understand' / It is a bulldycking woman and a faggotty man"
(36). (The same chapter that contains these lyrics also includes a scene with a cabaret singer
naed "Bess" [31].) The similar lyrics not only reinforce the fact that McKay and his writing was
influenced the music of Bessie Smith, but that his purposeful placement of this particular song
adds an extra layer to the complex sexual relationships that occur throughout the novel
(especially the central relationship between Jake and Ray).

So, by examining these 1920s blues songs in concert with the text of Claude McKay's Home to
Harlem, the sounds of the eponymous city can literally be heard. By hearing what McKay and his
audiences would be hearing, we, as modern readers, are now privy to the attitudes and coded
language that defined the sexuality of the era-a sexuality that plays no small part in McKay's life
and work.


Resources
"Foolish Man Blues," on Rhapsody and on Amazon







Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem



Teaching/Reading Sexuality in Home to Harlem

Note to Instructors

This handout provides a few structuring questions for a classroom discussion on situating the
African American folk tradition within an urban context by focusing on themes such as migration,
mobility, and sexuality in Claude McKay's Home to Harlem. The themes of travel and migration
are particularly important and interconnected for McKay, who was bisexual, and whose own
migration from Jamaica to Harlem facilitated a freer exploration of non-heteronormative lifestyles.
While the novel's title and narrative structure situate Harlem as the place to which travelers
return, thus placing it in opposition to travel, Harlem itself is represented as constantly in motion.
Though Harlem may be "home," it is also a meeting place for migrants and locus of migration; a
center for cultural collision among West Indians from various islands, black Americans of various
shades, and white exoticists with various agendas.

McKay inscribes the physical proximity of Harlem's cross-cultural and cross-class inhabitants
within the realm of Harlem nightlife and its characterization by sexual mores that defy bourgeois
conventions, provoking racial uplift advocate W.E.B Du Bois to remark that the novel made him
want to take a bath. For McKay, then, the urban folk allows for the representation of a certain
sexual freedom and non-normative sexual possibilities that the rural folk arguably elides. The
questions below can be used to start a class discussion on the relationship between migration
and sexuality in the urban folk, using Home to Harlem as a case study.

Dandies, Pansies, and Other Urban Sexualities

McKay's descriptions of pansies and dandies in cabarets are a prime example of the text's
cursory treatment of queer sexuality within the ostensibly hyper-heterosexualized world of Harlem
nightlife. When Jake returns to the Baltimore to look for his "honey brown gal," the club's strutting
songstress sings about being "plumb crazy about a man, mah man," as a result of which "the
pansies stared and tightened their grips on the dandies [and] the dandies tightened their grips on
themselves" (32). Pansy and dandy, as Suzette Spencer points out, are slang terms for,
respectively, effeminate and manly homosexual men. Here McKay explicitly inscribes the pansy-
dandy dynamic in terms of excess sexuality-an asymmetrical flow of erotic energy, which leaves
the more masculine partner oversexualized. Interestingly, when the text abandons the pansies
and dandies, Jake, whom the novel for the most part represents as entirely comfortable with his
masculinity and sexuality, becomes the main locus for uneasy and excessive sexuality in this
scene. Listening to the "moaning" saxophone and watching the dancing in the club, "Jake was
going crazy. A hot fever was burning him up" (32-3).

What is Jake's relationship to dandies and pansies? Is his masculinity compromised here, and if
so, how so? How would Ray feel in this kind of atmosphere? Compare this scene to Jake and
Ray's "One Night in Philly," particularly the party scene beginning with "Ray suddenly felt a violent
dislike for the atmosphere" (192) and Jake and Ray's conversation the following morning. Is the
relationship between hetero and queer sexuality reversed in the latter scene or is it the same as
in the former scene? How does the night in Philly differ from the multiple nights in Harlem
depicted in the novel? What kind of variation in the urban folk does McKay present us with and
why?


The Folk in the City

While maintaining a faithfulness to the African American folk tradition-where the folk is typically
represented as rural, agricultural and spiritual-may seem antithetical to representing alternative
sexualities, cultural historian Eric Garber suggests otherwise: "The social and sexual attitudes of







Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem

Harlem's new immigrants were best reflected in the blues, a distinctly Afro-American folk music
that was open to countless subtleties" (320). Here Garber is describing a distinctly urban "folk"
atmosphere, one which McKay addresses in his defense of Home to Harlem. In the urban black
working class McKay finds "physical and sensuous delights, the loose freedom in contrast to the
definite peasant patterns by which I had been raised-all [of which] served to feed the riotous
sentiments smoldering in me" (135), a statement that clearly aligns McKay's attitudes with those
of his character Ray.

What does this division between urban and rural cultural landscapes suggest about the definition
of "folk"? Does blues music represent a combination of a folk and urban aesthetic or is it simply
folk music? In other words, are the folk and urbanity opposed? Is urban folk "authentic" folk?

Camouflage at Home and Abroad

During Jake and Ray's "One Night in Philly," Jake expresses his distaste for French courtesans,
who are "all straight raw business and no camoflage" (201). Jake has set ideas about women at
home and abroad, preferring the former for being less mercenary and dealing more subtly with
sexual matters. Evoking military occupation, the word camouflage is an interesting choice for war
deserter Jake. The trope of camouflage appears in a number of contexts in the novel: Jake's
philandering, Ray's marriage to Agatha, and the operations of Harlem speakeasies during
Prohibition are just a few examples. Furthermore, travel and migration function as ways of living
"under the radar" for characters such as Jake, Felice, Ray, and Maunie Whitewing, "a traveled
woman of the world [who] had been abroad several times with and without her husband" (324),
and whom we meet at Billy Biasse's party in the final chapter.

With these examples in mind, how does the trope of travel and migration relate to McKay's
depiction of a spectrum of sexualities? Does travel broaden or narrow this realm of possibilities?
In light of Ray's cosmopolitanism, what do we make of his comment that all women are the same
to him, regardless of race? (202)


McKay, Claude. Home to Harlem. 1928. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1987.




Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00076717/00001
 Material Information
Title: Teaching Guide: Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: D’Ettore, Peter
Manolova, Velina
Bell, Daniel
Publisher: Digital Library of the Caribbean ( dLOC )
Place of Publication: Miami, FL
Publication Date: 2007
 Subjects
Subjects / Keywords: Teaching guide or lesson plan
McKay, Claude (1890-1948). Road to Harlem
African Americans—Folklore
African Americans--Sexual behavior--History--20th century
African Americans--New York (State)—Harlem
Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1940
Genre: teaching guide
 Record Information
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
System ID: UF00076717:00001

Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00076717/00001
 Material Information
Title: Teaching Guide: Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: D’Ettore, Peter
Manolova, Velina
Bell, Daniel
Publisher: Digital Library of the Caribbean ( dLOC )
Place of Publication: Miami, FL
Publication Date: 2007
 Subjects
Subjects / Keywords: Teaching guide or lesson plan
McKay, Claude (1890-1948). Road to Harlem
African Americans—Folklore
African Americans--Sexual behavior--History--20th century
African Americans--New York (State)—Harlem
Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1940
Genre: teaching guide
 Record Information
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
System ID: UF00076717:00001


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Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem

Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk:
Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's Home to
Harlem

Wayne F. Cooper's forward to Claude McKay's Home to Harlem
states, "Of all the major Afro American writers who emerged in
the 1920's, Claude McKay remains the most controversial and
least understood" (ix). In many ways this statement explains
the motivation for this project. It is our hope that this project
could be used by instructors and students alike to explore
McKay's work, bringing more interest and understanding to the
role of McKay in the formative cannon of the New Negro
Renaissance. Particularly of interest to us has been an
exploration of the sexual themes of McKay's novel Home to
Harlem. This book was the recipient of harsh criticism from a
collection of important figure of the Harlem Renaissance,
foremost being W.E.B Du Bois. At issue was the representation
of an emerging African American society and culture. McKay is
central to this issue as he fails to back away from what many
African American leaders at the time considered base and
vulgar behavior, in short speak-easies, night clubs, blues and
jazz and their role in the cabaret.

We feel that the best way to address the interrelated issues of class, sexuality, and folk aesthetics
in McKay is to focus on McKay's choice to represent the folk as urban and in particular to locate
the core of that urban folk culture in cabarets and clubs where blues was played. These places
were not only sites where sexuality was expressed but also where queer sexuality in particular
was expressed. By combining folk elements in the tradition of African American representation
with the fast pace black entertainment district of Harlem in the 1920s, McKay is able to comment
on diverse and queer sexualities, leftist politics, and burgeoning notions of a black diaspora in a
way that contemporary scholarship often cannot, given its tendencies to separate these ideas into
separate and exclusive fields of study. We hope to show McKay's usefulness in a variety of fields
of study, but most importantly, we want to prompt scholarship on McKay that will attempt to
identify and imagine the creative possibilities of McKay's elaborate diversity represented in his
life, the language of his poetry, and (as is our preliminary focus) his narrative representations of
black experiences (emphasis on the plural).

The pages below are designed to help develop ideas and discussions on Claude McKay's use
and representation of diverse, black sexualities with the hope that these ideas and discussion will
open new avenues of inquiry and scholarly work.

Components:
Overview and Analysis of Secondary Material
Cultural Context Material, Sexuality and the Blues
Teaching/Reading Sexuality in Home to Harlem







Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem


Overview and Analysis of Secondary Material

It is important to note that the writings of Claude McKay are used in a variety of different ways by
scholars and teachers from a wide range of fields. Our focus is clearly gender and sexuality;
therefore, first we offer a selective annotated bibliography of sources that were particularly
influential in our study of Claude McKay's Home to Harlem. We feel that these particular sources
speak expertly for issues of sex and sexuality found in McKay's work, and any or all of these
would be useful for student projects, supplementary reading material for a class on McKay, or for
that matter anyone who is interested in McKay's diverse and productive representations of
sexuality.

Next, we felt it would be pedagogically useful to also outline some of the more basic research and
topic possibilities in regards to McKay's texts as well as his important inclusion in discussions
about African-American/Caribbean studies and transnationalism, modernism and urbanity,
psychoanalysis, as well as interests in class and his engagement with Marxism. Of course any
such list has limitations and ours is certainly not meant to be representative of all work being
done on McKay. Nevertheless, we hope that by locating these broad categories and offering
what we feel to be quality representations of these varying publications, students and instructors
will be able to expand their interests and research on McKay, providing more inroads to other
primary texts, secondary material, subjects, courses, and ultimately reinforcing the appeal and
importance of this complicated figure within American Literature.

Next we will provide a fairly up-to-date (as of 2007) inventory of the secondary material that has
been influential in our close readings of Claude McKay's Home to Harlem, as well as other
primary sources such as lyrics from blues and jazz songs with photographs of the famous cabaret
and blues performers that may provide context for McKay's setting of 1920s Harlem. All of these
selections are meant to enrich the reading experience of McKay's work and all could be
considered for inclusion on a secondary or optional reading list for a class concerned with
McKay's creative uses of gender and sexuality.







Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem


Annotated Bibliography: Sexuality and the Urban Folk

Carby, Hazel. "It Jus Be's Dat Way Sometime: The Sexual Politics of Women's Blues."
Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Eds. Robyn R. Warhol and
Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1991.

This essay, published in 1986, remains an integral piece of scholarship in the study of the
intersection between women's blues and sexuality. Carby suggests that through the study of the
blues in the 1920s, scholars can begin to provide representations of middle-class black women,
in contrast to the more critically-recognized (and notably more upper-class) figures of the era
(e.g., Nella Larsen and Jessie Fauset). Specifically, the author argues that the blues in the 1920s
allowed black women to exercise "power and control over sexuality" (757), claiming that blues
and its performance created a site that offered women such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey a
geographical as well as sexual mobility.

Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and
Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.

Davis' study examines the life and work of three prominent women blues singers, arguing that
this biographical, literary, and musical analysis uncovers tenets of feminism specifically for
"working-class black communities" (xi). Davis goes on to claim that blues expression permits Ma
Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday to construct their own lyrical and performative
sexualities-a reaction against the practices in slavery where women's bodies became the
properties of others as well as the numerous sexualities imposed upon women by male society.
The author also focuses on the parallel theme of lesbianism that occurs in the lives and music of
each of the three blues performers.

Holcomb, Gary E. Claude McKay, code name Sasha: queer Black Marxism and the Harlem
Renaissance. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2007.

Gary Holcomb provides excellent scholarship that addresses the multilayered queer black
Marxism the New Negro author's writing. He aims to create a common ground in often
exclusively discreet critical spheres of African American literary scholarship including postcolonial
studies, Caribbean literature, Marxism and class politics, and queer and gender studies.
Holcomb appropriately situates McKay within the tension of these diverse fields while proposing
new ways of approaching the notions of a black diaspora literature, with a particular link between
sexual (mis)behaving, leftist radical politics, and how black modernism is often linked with both of
these.

Spencer, Suzette. "Swerving at a Different Angle and Flying in the Face of Tradition: Excavating
the Homoerotic Subtext in Home to Harlem." CLA Journal 42.2 (1998): 164-93.

Suzette Spencer responds to an elision of homosexual themes in African American literary
criticism that predates this article by performing a close reading of Home to Harlem's gay
subtexts. Spencer's textual and historical analysis of the ties between black folk culture and
queer sexuality, exemplified most tellingly in the blues tradition, comprises an important
contribution to literary scholarship on folk sexuality as well as the field of black queer studies.







Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem


Sources Exploring Transnationalism

Philipson, Robert. "The Harlem Renaissance as Postcolonial Phenomenon." African American
Review. 40 (2006): 145-60.

Ramesh, Kotti Sree. Claude McKay: The Literary Identity from Jamaica to Harlem and Beyond.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006.

Modernism

Kalaidjian, Walter. The Edge of Modernism: American Poetry and the Traumatic Past. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins UP, 2006.

Rosenberg, Leah. "Caribbean Models for Modernism in the Work of Claude McKay and Jean
Rhys." MoMo 2 (2004): 219-38.

Psychoanalysis

Comprone, Raphael. Poetry, Desire, and Fantasy in the Harlem Renaissance. Lanham: UP of
America, 2006.

Marxism and Class

Holcomb, Gary E. "Diaspora Cruises: Queer Black Proletarianism in Claude McKay's a Long
Way Home." Modern Fiction Studies 49 (2003): 714-45.

Maiwald, Michael. "Race, Capitalism, and the Third-Sex Ideal: Clauce McKay's Home to Harlem
and the Legacy of Edward Carpenter." Modern Fiction Studies. 48 (2002): 825-57.

Blues and Jazz

Albertson, Chris. Bessie. Revised and expanded edition. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003.

Braziel, Jana Evans. "'Bye, Bye Baby': Race, Bisexuality, and the Blues in the Music of Bessie
Smith and Janis Joplin." Popular Music and Society 27.1 (February 2004): 3-26.

Garber, Eric. "A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem.
Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Eds. Martin Baumi
Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr. New York: NAL, 1989. 318-31.

Jackson, Buzzy. A Bad Woman Feeling Good: Blues and the Women Who Sing Them. New
York: Norton, 2005.

Jones, Hettie. Big Star Fallin' Mama: Five Women in Black Music. New York: Viking Press, 1974.

Lewis, Nghana tamu. "In a Different Chord: Interpreting the Relations among Black Female
Sexuality, Agency, and the Blues." African American Review 37.4 (Winter 2003): 599-
609.

Lieb, Sandra R. Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P,
1981.







Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem

Lutz, Tom. "Claude McKay: Music, Sexuality, and Literary Cosmopolitan." Black Orpheus: Music
in African American Fiction from the Harlem Renaissance to Toni Morrison. Ed. Saadi A.
Simawe. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000: 41-64.

Oakley, Giles. The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues. 2nd edition. New York: Da Capo Press,
1997.

Rubin, Rachel and Jeffrey Melnick. New Approaches to the Twentieth Century: American
Popular Music. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2001.

Spencer, Jon Michael. The Rhythms of Black Folk: Race, Religion, and Pan-Africanism.
Trenton: Africa World Press, Inc., 1995.

V, Maria. "'Jelly Jelly Jellyroll': Lesbian Sexuality and Identity in Women's Blues." Women &
Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture 7 (2003): 31-52.

Ward, Geoffrey C. and Ken Burns. Jazz: A History of America's Music. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Lyrics:

Bogan, Lucille. "B.D. Woman's Blues." Harry's Blues Lyrics & Tabs Online. 09 Aug. 2007.
.

Rainey, Ma. "Prove It on Me Blues." Davis 238.

---. "Sissy Blues." Davis 242-3.

Smith, Bessie. "Foolish Man Blues." Davis 280.

Recordings:

Bogan Lucille. "B.D. Woman's Blues." Shave 'Em Dry: The Best of Lucille Bogan.
Columbia/Legacy, 2004.

Rainey, Ma. "Prove It on Me Blues." Hustlin' Blues. United States Dist., 2005.

Rainey, Ma. "Sissy Blues." Hustlin'Blues. United States Dist., 2005.

Smith, Bessie. "Foolish Man Blues." Young Woman Blues. Proper, 2004.

Various Artists. Sissy Man Blues: Straight & Gay Blues. Vintage Jazz, 1989.


Images:

"Gladys Bentley in Top Hat." Queer Music Heritage. J.D. Doyle. 09 Aug. 2007.
.






Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem

Sexuality, the Blues, and Claude McKay's Home to
Harlem

In reading Claude McKay's novel Home to Harlem, you may be struck by the reoccurrence of jazz
and blues throughout. The novel's setting of Harlem teems with bustling jazz clubs, haunting
blues lyrics, and colorful caricatures of blues singers. Thus, an examination of the blues and jazz
of the novel's era provides a vivid context for Harlem in 1928; however, recent scholarship on
blues in the early twentieth century has revealed the even more complex many facets to what
was once seen as vulgar burlesque.

Writers such as Hazel Carby and Angela Y. Davis have studied the music and lives of blues and
its singers and both argue that blues provides a special insight into the era's sexual identities. As
Hazel Carby explains in her landmark essay "It Jus Be's Dat Way Sometime: The Sexual Politics
of Women's Blues," "Blues Women reclaimed black women's bodies from male objectification" as
well as the minstrel stereotypes of the mammy or "loose" woman 0.

Not only do these writers suggest that blues music and singing provides women with a forum to
explore a freedom and sexuality often denied them by male society, they also recognize the
alternative sexualities that emerge through blues lyrics and performance. Jana Evans Braziel
explains in her essay "'Bye, Bye Baby': Race, Bisexuality, and the Blues in the Music of Bessie
Smith and Janis Joplin," that "blues offered an audible, if not always heard, site for mapping
queerness within blackness" (15). Indeed, Harlem in the 1920s contained a thriving gay and
lesbian subculture in its various drag balls, rent parties, gay bars, and buffet flats. So, through
this lens, readers can now align the dandies, pansies, and sweetmen that populate Claude
McKay's Home to Harlem to the sexualities depicted in the blues songs McKay would have
listened to himself.






Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem

Gertrude "Ma" Rainey

SOne of the first blues stars, Ma Rainey was equally
famous for her gritty, bawdy singing and songwriting
and her overly-elaborate stage shows as for her
backstage exploits, which often included run-ins with
the law and promiscuous and drunken encounters
with both men and women. Also part of her
popularity was her music and performance's
emphasis on the rural and the South (Rainey avoided
touring farther north than Virginia until her fame
forced her to expand her tour routes). This emphasis
of Rainey's folk qualities speaks to the theory,
delineated by Hazel Carby, that blues arose from the
.. tradition of the black traditions of slavery and the
working class: "The blues were certainly a communal
expression of black experience which had developed
out of the call and response patterns of work songs
S 'from the nineteenth century" (750). Blues here
becomes a tool of the lower/working class in order to
explore sexuality.

Probably Rainey's most famous songs is her self-
S. penned "Prove It on Me Blues." Rainey's lyric
blatantly discusses lesbianism when she boldly
asserts, "Went out last night with a crowd of my
friends / They must've been women, 'cause I don't
like no men" 0. She also declares, "It's true I wear collar and a tie" 0, alluding to the drag
performances prominent in the gay clubs and buffet flats of 1920s Harlem. Seen here is another
blues singer, Gladys Bentley, who became famous for her drag king persona, often queering
popular blues songs by changing pronouns:
These depictions of same-sex (specifically lesbian)
relationships are paralleled in the burgeoning
relationship between Jake and Ray. In fact, when
Jake first meets Ray on the train, Ray is reading
Sapho and comments that "Her story gave two lovely
words to modern language.... Sapphic and Lesbian."
(129)
Jake responds with the colloquial name for lesbians in
Harlem, "bulldyker" (129). This reference was a common
Parlance of the times, and blues singer Lucille Bogan even
wrote a song about this lesbian figure entitled "B.D. Woman's
Blues" ("B.D." standing for "bulldagger" or "bulldyker," both
terms for a butch lesbian).

These verbal cues also recur with the use of the word "sissy."
Ma Rainey's "Sissy Blues" (1926) tells of a woman who has
lost her man to another man-a "sissy." This term pointedly
surfaces in McKay's Home to Harlem in reference to the
character of Jake. Berated by Congo Rose (herself a blues-
style singer) for his passive and nonviolent behavior towards
\ her, Jake eventually hits Rose, after which he overhears her
confiding to a friend, "A hefty-looking one like him, always
Acting so nice and proper. I almost thought he was getting
sissy" (117). Our reading of the word "sissy" takes on even







Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem

more weight through the lens of Rainey's song, alluding to the homoerotic relationship that occurs
between Jake and Ray in the second part of the book.

So, these songs provide us for a cultural context that brings the issues of homosexuality McKay
explores in his novel to the fore. By reading these lyrics and listening to these songs, the
audience can now hear the slang and the music that not only McKay but also his readers would
have been familiar with and understood.

Resources
"Prove it On Me Blues" on Rhapsody, Red Hot Jazz, and Jazz-on-line
"B.D. Woman's Blues" on Rhapsody, Red Hot Jazz, and Yahoo
"Sissy Blues" on Rhapsody, Queer Music Heritage, and Amazon


Bessie Smith
-
The blues of the 1920s and 1930s was utterly
dominated by the presence of Bessie Smith.
A prot6g6 of Ma Rainey, Smith eventually
eclipsed Rainey in fame, popularity, as well as
Sa-- in her hard-living.










Much like the initial reception of Home to Harlem by the Harlem Renaissance intelligentsia
(W.E.B. Du Bois, in particular, felt the urge to bath after finishing McKay's novel), Bessie Smith
was seen as common and crude, often rejected by upper-middle class blacks:
Bessie Smith signified a version of American blackness [many wealthy, educated African
Americans] had yet to confront. She was the summation of all the stereotypes, all the
prejudices, all the projected racial and sexual fantasies, all the watermelons and
pickaninnies and dialectic speech, and all the externally imposed self-hate. It was Bessie
who, in her first studio test in 1922, was rejected for being 'too rough'; it was Bessie
whom both Okeh and Black Swan-the black label for which W.C. Handy and W.E.B. Du
Bois sat on the board-turned down because her voice was too rough, too Negro, too
black; it was Bessie who had been born in abject poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee;
and it was Bessie who was the most popular singer of 'classic blues,' which many
educated, upwardly mobile blacks in the 1920s condemned as a crude art form and,
ultimately, a 'racial embarrassment.' (Kun 312)
Indeed, the story goes that Smith was ousted from the Black Swan label when she stopped a
recording session to declare, "Hold on, let me spit!" (Jones 48)

If this "vulgarity" allowed Bessie Smith to exercise a more liberated sexuality in the raunchy
double-entendres in songs like "Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl" ("I need a little hot dog on my
roll" [Davis 319]), it also allowed her to the alternative sexualities present and visible in 1920s
Harlem. In "Foolish Man Blues," written in 1927, Smith decries the suspicious behavior of men, in
particular, lamenting that "There's two things got me puzzled, there's two things I can't
understand / A mannish actin' woman and a skipping' twisting' woman actin' man" 0. McKay mimics
this line almost verbatim in Home to Harlem, when Jake hears a blues tune that runs, "And there







Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem

is just two things in Harlem I don't understand' / It is a bulldycking woman and a faggotty man"
(36). (The same chapter that contains these lyrics also includes a scene with a cabaret singer
naed "Bess" [31].) The similar lyrics not only reinforce the fact that McKay and his writing was
influenced the music of Bessie Smith, but that his purposeful placement of this particular song
adds an extra layer to the complex sexual relationships that occur throughout the novel
(especially the central relationship between Jake and Ray).

So, by examining these 1920s blues songs in concert with the text of Claude McKay's Home to
Harlem, the sounds of the eponymous city can literally be heard. By hearing what McKay and his
audiences would be hearing, we, as modern readers, are now privy to the attitudes and coded
language that defined the sexuality of the era-a sexuality that plays no small part in McKay's life
and work.


Resources
"Foolish Man Blues," on Rhapsody and on Amazon







Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem



Teaching/Reading Sexuality in Home to Harlem

Note to Instructors

This handout provides a few structuring questions for a classroom discussion on situating the
African American folk tradition within an urban context by focusing on themes such as migration,
mobility, and sexuality in Claude McKay's Home to Harlem. The themes of travel and migration
are particularly important and interconnected for McKay, who was bisexual, and whose own
migration from Jamaica to Harlem facilitated a freer exploration of non-heteronormative lifestyles.
While the novel's title and narrative structure situate Harlem as the place to which travelers
return, thus placing it in opposition to travel, Harlem itself is represented as constantly in motion.
Though Harlem may be "home," it is also a meeting place for migrants and locus of migration; a
center for cultural collision among West Indians from various islands, black Americans of various
shades, and white exoticists with various agendas.

McKay inscribes the physical proximity of Harlem's cross-cultural and cross-class inhabitants
within the realm of Harlem nightlife and its characterization by sexual mores that defy bourgeois
conventions, provoking racial uplift advocate W.E.B Du Bois to remark that the novel made him
want to take a bath. For McKay, then, the urban folk allows for the representation of a certain
sexual freedom and non-normative sexual possibilities that the rural folk arguably elides. The
questions below can be used to start a class discussion on the relationship between migration
and sexuality in the urban folk, using Home to Harlem as a case study.

Dandies, Pansies, and Other Urban Sexualities

McKay's descriptions of pansies and dandies in cabarets are a prime example of the text's
cursory treatment of queer sexuality within the ostensibly hyper-heterosexualized world of Harlem
nightlife. When Jake returns to the Baltimore to look for his "honey brown gal," the club's strutting
songstress sings about being "plumb crazy about a man, mah man," as a result of which "the
pansies stared and tightened their grips on the dandies [and] the dandies tightened their grips on
themselves" (32). Pansy and dandy, as Suzette Spencer points out, are slang terms for,
respectively, effeminate and manly homosexual men. Here McKay explicitly inscribes the pansy-
dandy dynamic in terms of excess sexuality-an asymmetrical flow of erotic energy, which leaves
the more masculine partner oversexualized. Interestingly, when the text abandons the pansies
and dandies, Jake, whom the novel for the most part represents as entirely comfortable with his
masculinity and sexuality, becomes the main locus for uneasy and excessive sexuality in this
scene. Listening to the "moaning" saxophone and watching the dancing in the club, "Jake was
going crazy. A hot fever was burning him up" (32-3).

What is Jake's relationship to dandies and pansies? Is his masculinity compromised here, and if
so, how so? How would Ray feel in this kind of atmosphere? Compare this scene to Jake and
Ray's "One Night in Philly," particularly the party scene beginning with "Ray suddenly felt a violent
dislike for the atmosphere" (192) and Jake and Ray's conversation the following morning. Is the
relationship between hetero and queer sexuality reversed in the latter scene or is it the same as
in the former scene? How does the night in Philly differ from the multiple nights in Harlem
depicted in the novel? What kind of variation in the urban folk does McKay present us with and
why?


The Folk in the City

While maintaining a faithfulness to the African American folk tradition-where the folk is typically
represented as rural, agricultural and spiritual-may seem antithetical to representing alternative
sexualities, cultural historian Eric Garber suggests otherwise: "The social and sexual attitudes of







Reading Migration, Sexuality, and the Urban Folk: Discussion Questions for Claude McKay's
Home to Harlem

Harlem's new immigrants were best reflected in the blues, a distinctly Afro-American folk music
that was open to countless subtleties" (320). Here Garber is describing a distinctly urban "folk"
atmosphere, one which McKay addresses in his defense of Home to Harlem. In the urban black
working class McKay finds "physical and sensuous delights, the loose freedom in contrast to the
definite peasant patterns by which I had been raised-all [of which] served to feed the riotous
sentiments smoldering in me" (135), a statement that clearly aligns McKay's attitudes with those
of his character Ray.

What does this division between urban and rural cultural landscapes suggest about the definition
of "folk"? Does blues music represent a combination of a folk and urban aesthetic or is it simply
folk music? In other words, are the folk and urbanity opposed? Is urban folk "authentic" folk?

Camouflage at Home and Abroad

During Jake and Ray's "One Night in Philly," Jake expresses his distaste for French courtesans,
who are "all straight raw business and no camoflage" (201). Jake has set ideas about women at
home and abroad, preferring the former for being less mercenary and dealing more subtly with
sexual matters. Evoking military occupation, the word camouflage is an interesting choice for war
deserter Jake. The trope of camouflage appears in a number of contexts in the novel: Jake's
philandering, Ray's marriage to Agatha, and the operations of Harlem speakeasies during
Prohibition are just a few examples. Furthermore, travel and migration function as ways of living
"under the radar" for characters such as Jake, Felice, Ray, and Maunie Whitewing, "a traveled
woman of the world [who] had been abroad several times with and without her husband" (324),
and whom we meet at Billy Biasse's party in the final chapter.

With these examples in mind, how does the trope of travel and migration relate to McKay's
depiction of a spectrum of sexualities? Does travel broaden or narrow this realm of possibilities?
In light of Ray's cosmopolitanism, what do we make of his comment that all women are the same
to him, regardless of race? (202)


McKay, Claude. Home to Harlem. 1928. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1987.




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