The Struggle for Identity of the “New Negro”

Categories: Langston Hughes

The word “Renaissance” is often associated with rebirth. We know it to ben a cultural movement whose inhabitants go through a period of growth. Unfortunately , for Black Americans during the early 20th century, this so called “Renaissance” was not one of ease or simplicity, but rather a constant, uphill struggle. This was a period of struggle was commonly called the “New Negro Movement,” through which black men and women establish an identity for themselves and their fellow peers while coping with a constantly expanding yet prejudiced race.

This New Negro Movement was supported by many black intellectuals, and it had come to be interpreted through two different ideals. “On the one hand, the group of older literary figures like W.E.B. Dubois and Jessie Fauset still allowed the literary approaches to be guided by the traditional preoccupation with racial advancement. On the other hand younger Black writers like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen demanded full artistic freedom without the obligation to present Blacks in a prescribed and politically interested manner” (Lueth 43).

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Authors like Wallace Thurman and Claude Mckay took on the perspective of the latter group, preferring to tell the story of younger black individuals, preferring the importance of individuality and self-expression over all else. The advancement of the black race in general was not of immediate concern to them. Although their styles of writing are considered controversial by some, these two authors managed to leave a lasting impact on the Black community through their writing of such “New Negro” individuals, and their trek through Black America.

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Claude Mckay’s Home to Harlem was seen as one of the more influential Black novels of the time period, but also an infamous and degrading depiction of the Black community by other critics. It has received mixed reviews among influential figures of the era, being appraised by even Langston Hughes himself, while at the same time condemned by others including DuBois, who went as far as to calling the novel “nauseating” (Lueth 43). This can be accredited Mckay’s depiction of the common man in Black society, often using words such as “savage” and “primitive” along with animalistic qualities to describe his nature. For this reason Mckay was accused of attempting to appeal to a white audience, through portraying Black people in a seemingly insulting and counterproductive manner. Looking past this notion, Home to Harlem is best known as a renown novel depicting the realism and cold brutality of lower-class Harlem. The night clubs, shady streets and alleys are a crude contrast to our previously read novels, in which the characters are accustomed to a lavish lifestyle emulating that of White society. For this purpose Mckay chooses to hardly include the presence of any White characters in the novel, as it may derail the contrast. “Home to Harlem is full of repugnant realism. It exposes the seeming underside of black community life where pimps, whores, gamblers, and slicksters congregate and where real, true-to-life bedbugs bite” (Barksdale 338). Through descriptions such as these, it can be understood why advocates for black advancement have no choice but to be appalled by any description of the black community that is not positive or empowering. They believed “The novelist merely confirmed that the black man was the kind of slothful, sexual animal who could not be easily assimilated into the fabric of american society” (Barksdale 339). Mckay introduces us to the character Jake Brown, a young black man who has grown tired of the prejudice he had experienced in the military, and wishes to return to Harlem, seeking pleasure and happiness. Here, we can see that Jake feels that his identity is threatened by staying in the military, fighting a war that he has no connection to, forced to follow orders.

Jake is tested multiple times in Harlem, constantly being enticed into conformity. Jake spends time with his friend Zeddy, a young black man who has taken a liking to the common “sweet life” of harlem. This sweet life involves young black men being “kept” by black women, in exchange for a sturdy relationship. The woman would assume control over the relationship, being responsible for cooking, working, and caring for the man. This lifestyle often brought masculinity into question, with the role-reversal leaving the man feeling powerless. Zeddy is mocked by his friends for taking up such a demeaning lifestyle, and suffers quite a blow to his confidence. “Zeddy must assert a hypersexual masculinity in the face of his perceived dependence on Susy, a dependence that threatens to undo or unmake the social perception of his masculinity[…]the absence of any economic power creates such a fragile sense of masculinity that it can easily be publicly exposed as an empty performance.(Maiwald)” In our ever-expanding capitalist nation, power and respect are gained through responsibility, control and economic position. These are the very things that had defined what a man was for so long. As we can see from this part of the story, the common Black male had begun to lose his sense of self and identity. “McKay focuses on how poor black men are offered a limited set of possibilities for modeling their masculine identities, many of which are self-destructive or otherwise problematic denials of their material lives” (Maiwald 834). This offers us insight into the struggles Black men of lower-class must go through. We see almost no representation of the “sweet life” in previous novels, such as Passing and Quicksand. The men here are secure in their positions, being wealthy and supportive of their families. These are the men of higher class, feeling security by emulating white society. The strong and unruly Black man was a danger to prejudice, and thus he was become passive, typically through conformity or loss of his masculinity.

Like Zeddy, Jake also meets a partner favoring the sweet life, a woman named Congo Rose, a wealthy figure and owner of multiple clubs and bars in the community. She offers him security, and he agrees to live with her. Unfortunate for her, their relationship move any further than that. He is fully aware of this sweet life, and chooses to continue working through a job of his own while with her to retain his masculinity. He differentiates himself between Zeddy, telling him that ‘I do as I wanta. But I’m one independent cuss, buddy. We ain’t sitchuate the same. I works’ (Mckay 81). Rose is dismayed by Jake’s passive nature, thinking that he may be soft. She was frequently beaten in her past relationship, and had strangely taken pride in this. She wished for him to be the aggressive and violent Black man that society views him as. She instigates this by scratching him in this face, and he reacts by hitting her. He curses his hands for this, claiming that this is not what he had come back to Harlem for. Mckay clearly wanted the reader to understand that even with his ‘savage” nature, Jake is respectable, and able to maintain a sense of individuality throughout the novel. “Jake becomes a wise primitive who has been blessed with an intuitive sense of order. […] he has it ‘ together.’ Apparently, he is rarely, if ever, troubled or insecure or overwhelmed or incapacitated by doubt, fear or uncertainty. In this sense he is different from Zeddy, Congo Rose, Billy Biasse, and Ray who either become disconcerted by the disorder surrounding them or deeply involved in that disorder” (Barksdale 340).

It would be unwise to assume that the prejudice the Black community faces is only from outside forces. “Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry (1929) lifts the curtain on color bias – a self-serving, destructive prejudice operating within the African American community” (Dandridge 239). Wallace Thurman shows the reader that prejudice can stem from within a community, with its members struggling against one another for superiority. Thurman depicts this prejudice through the eyes of Emma Lou, a young Black woman. Although she of of mixed heritage, her skin is described to be much more dark than those around her. Her mother and relatives see her as a curse, a punishment for their sins. She grew up in Idaho, surrounded by a community that encouraged conformity, longing to be ‘whiter and whiter every generation’ (Thurman 29). A pattern can be seen throughout Thurman and Mckay’s works, in which the main character is often one of the only characters not affected by the conforming society that smothers them. Unlike Jake though, Emma Lou does not start out valuing her individuality. She is ashamed of herself for having dark skin, even trying to wash it off with bleach. She is under the impression “that a light complexion has more value than dark skin – a myth that the ‘Old Negro’ has perpetuated” (Dandridge 240). Through travelling, Emma attempts to find a place that allows for her happiness.

Emma enrolls at the University of Southern California, under the direction of her Uncle. She hopes that there will be an accepting group there for her, but is still rejected. Here, we meet another Black girl named Hazel Mason. Hazel is described to have a heavy Black dialect, and weary bright and unsightly clothing. Her personality and appearance represent the demeaning stereotype that black people are burdened with, which involves acting clowish at the amusement of others. Being seen with Hazel Mason, Emma is avoided by other students, worsening her situation. Emma quickly comes to realize that her situation at UCLA is not much better than at home, still facing rejection from her lighter skinned peers. Emma drops out and moves to Harlem. She seeks out men to attract, and particularly ‘has a preference for light-complexioned men to validate her worth as a dark-skinned woman.” (Dandrige 247). Emma eventually meets Alva and Jasper, two lighter skinned men that fit her tastes. She was aware of her own skin holding her back, so she attempts to attract Alva and Jasper through financial means. Jasper first recognizes the potential gain he could get from Emma and decides to date her. They are depicted sitting in a dark movie theater together, in which Jasper continually makes advances towards her, which Emma accepts because of his lighter skin and social status. Emma is completely willing to keep this sort of relationship. “Playing along with Jasper Crane in the darkness foreshadows Emma Lou’s participation in the deceptive sorting strategy – to pay for certain community goods to ensure their denial to others” (Dandridge 248). Jasper eventually leaves Emma, and she moves on to be with Alva, repeating the process. “Emma Lou’s monetary support of Alva comes without her knowing that he cloaks his deceit with pre- tended loyalty. Seeming to be ‘a good catch,’ Alva seeks out Emma Lou to finance his lifestyle” (Dandridge 249).

At this point in the story, Emma does not seem to show any signs of self acceptance. Once again, Harlem is depicted to be an uncompromising place, prejudice to everything considered foreign in nature. Emma continues to date Alva, who irresponsibly frequents bars and clubs, all at the expense of Emma. Here, we can see a slight replication of the “sweet life” depicted in Home to Harlem. This time, masculinity is not the main issue, but rather the woman’s perspective is focused on. Emma must assume a great deal of responsibility, having to pick up after her partner. Despite this, she allows it all to continue for the sake of security. She ultimately fails to marry him, as her money is not enough to convince Alva. Eventually, Alva impregnates another woman, Geraldine, leaving Emma out of the picture. Years pass, and Emma discovers that Geraldine has left Alva and the child, and takes her role as their caretaker. Emma eventually finds some resolution within herself through her unhappiness, realizing that it comes from her lack of self acceptance.

Both Emma and Jake long for happiness throughout their stories, and travel from place to place, usually to find more disappointment. We can see now that while Harlem embodies the savageness and prejudice of the Black american, it is not the only place in which one can encounter such prejudice. As America grew, so did its shortcomings. The Black community had always struggled to create an identity for itself, since it had one imposed on it for so long. Their struggle for independence was met with constant barriers such as conformism and lack of self-acceptance. Thurman and Mckay had realized this, and advocated for the “New Negro” to avoid these hazards through constant movement and learning, and then finally the gain of individuality.

Works Cited

LUETH, ELMER. “The Scope of Black Life in Claude McKay’s ‘Home to Harlem.’” Obsidian II, vol. 5, no. 3, 1990, pp. 43–52. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Barksdale, Richard K. “SYMBOLISM AND IRONY IN McKAY’S ‘HOME TO HARLEM.’” CLA Journal, vol. 15, no. 3, 1972, pp. 338–344. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Maiwald, Michael. ‘Race, Capitalism, and the Third-Sex Ideal: Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem and the Legacy of Edward Carpenter.’ MFS Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 48 no. 4, 2002, pp. 825-857. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mfs.2002.0077

McKay, Claude & Cooper, F.. Home To Harlem. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2012. Project MUSE,


Thurman, Wallace. The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life. New York: The Macaulay Company, 1929. Print.

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The Struggle for Identity of the “New Negro”. (2022, May 23). Retrieved from

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