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Self Identity During the Harlem Renaissance

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In Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem, mainly set in Harlem the story of Jake Brown is told as he returns from France, after deserting the US Military to come back to America. In Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry… we follow Emma Lou Morgan as she faces colorism within her own community and her discovery of her self-identity. In their novels, McKay and Thurman both argue that the different experiences that you go through in life affect your self-identity and your individuality. The experiences that their characters go through are what will change how they think of themselves. This teaches readers that they must discover their selves and when they can finally say that they know who exactly they are, others that they will encounter will be able to know who they are just from looking at them. Jake and Emma Lou learn to develop their own identity to help them finally be happy with themselves, and who they are. Jake struggles to develop his individuality in his gender and with that sexuality, while Emma Lou struggles with her race and the colorism that is placed onto her that she must learn to adapt to. They both struggle with finding their own self-identity, but the development of the characters own self and their individuality is what will stand out in Harlem. However their sense of self is divided. Does Jake settle down or does he keep living his life the way that many other black men did at the time in Harlem. Should Emma Lou listen to what others are saying to her or should she conform to the expectations that the lighter skinned people around her have for her? These are the questions that are answered near the end of each novels. Jake is on the journey to self-discovery, but what sets him apart from others in this journey, is the evolution of his own sexuality which is very apparent to the reader in the beginning. The readers know what he is like, but at the same time they also don’t know what he is completely like because there are some things about him that have just not been explored yet. Jake is very comfortable with his own sexuality and his sexual freedom, as well as his own masculinity. He is defined by his sexual desires. He goes to clubs in Harlem and the other big cities that he has traveled to. Despite this Jake is not as sexually deviant as most people and his friends portray him to be. Deep down he just wants to be with someone. Because he can’t show this side to those around him goes around with the women that he meets. We know that we are dealing with more than his sexual matters. The speakeasy’s that he goes to around town all of the time allow him to further discover his sexual being, despite the reader already knowing that he already has. Throughout the beginning book, he gets into sexual relationships with multiple women, even leaving one who wished he would hit her when they got into a fight. Jake needs to work on being himself and not relying on the women around him to get by. He can still find a nice woman to finally settle down with, but he wants one who will be fine with letting him be able to do work of his own. Jake wanted to settle down with someone, which he does for a period of times. For that time period he settles with Rose, until she was with another man when he was out when he was away and when she asked him to hit her and he refused, she left, never to be seen again, however Jake only does this because of his desire to have someone in a steady relationship with him at the time. “Jake did not care. He did not love her, he had never felt any deep desire for her. He had gone to live with her simply because she had asked him when he was in a fever mood for a steady mate.” (McKay 114). Jake has a set idea of women and thinks he knows how to deal with their sexual matters and how they live. He thinks he can be with any women he so pleases because of his good looks and he thinks he knows exactly what he wants, but the reader knows that he does not truly know what he wants, or else he would have settles down with a woman. Also knowing that Jake is always with a different woman the reader can infer that he really does not know what exactly he wants. However, over that starts to slow down along with his sexual affairs in general during his time aboard the Pennsylvania Railway, once he meets Ray. After that he doesn’t seem to be involved with women as much as he used to, that is until he saw Felice again. “Love should be joy lifting man out of the humdrum ways of life. He had always managed to delight in love and yet steer clear of the hate and violence that govern it in his world. His love nature was generous and warm without any vestige of the diabolical and sadistic.” (McKay 328). Jake wants to find love, but he has trouble with dealing with the hurt that it may bring onto him, just in case it goes bad on him. He shows that he can fall in love, as he does with Felice the first moment that he encountered her. “They walked along Leno Avenue. He held her arm. His flesh tingled. He felt as if his whole body was a flaming wave. […] She was beautiful. He loved the curious color on her cheek.” (McKay 12) “[…] while Jake is offered free sex from Miss Curdy, in Harlem he gives Felice ‘all’ the money he ‘has left in the world.’”(Lewis 371) Jake does this because he finds her beautiful enough to pay her to have sex with him, despite being prostitution and that being all of the money that he has left. Jake is set apart from all of the other men that he knows, most of the other men don’t settle down. Even Jake’s closest friend, Zeddy, will find any girl and try to live off of them, he does this with Susy when he moves in with her, telling Jake his motive…That she is not attractive but that she makes great food. Jake somewhat does this with Rose, but he does it because he wants comfort with another woman, one that does not have to end up being just a sexual encounter where they never happen to see that person ever again, but still, he does not love her. By the end Jake does not really seem to care what the other men think of him, especially his best friend Zeddy, who turns on him, due to jealousy. By the end, it seems that he wants to be able to provide for the woman that he will end up with, which is why he takes Felice with him for a new, fresh start, to Chicago, after Jake gets into the fight with Zeddy. He still doesn’t exactly know what he wants but he does know that if he wants to settle down, possibly with Felice, he needs to move away from all of the surrounding problems, for a fresh start, so that he can finally get an idea of what kind of relationship he actually wants with her. In The Blacker the Berry… Emma Lou is on the discovery to finding her own racial identity among her own race. Due to growing up in a mixed family, where everyone is “blue-veined” and her own family discriminates against her, Emma Lou has trouble accepting herself. She feels left out of her family and her town, with her being the only dark-skinned person in Boise. “Emma Lou had been born in a semi-white world, totally surrounded by an all-white one, and those few dark elements that had forced their way in had either been shooed away or else greeted with derisive laughter.”(Thurman 5) Being in that white world and with her family fitting in with that white world due to the lightness of the skin, combined with her family looking down on her makes her very self-conscious. Despite this, this is something that the narrator conceals from the reader. Instead she externalizes her problems onto those around her. When Emma Lou meets Hazel, another dark-skinned woman, at the University of Southern California, she turns her away by making fun of her, along with her peers. Emma Lou does this because Hazel is being herself and not really caring about what the others think of her by dressing a certain, which Emma describes her appearance as circus-like, she can be vulgar, and she was performing for the students because she thought that it was fun. Hazel juxtaposes against Emma Lou, with Hazel being the one closest to her true self with Emma Lou being the opposite. Hazel doesn’t really care what the others think of her so when Emma Lou is making fun of those who racially identify closest to her own skin tone, she immediately shuts them out, instead of making friends with them. Emma Lou always felt like she was an outsider. Her own family shamed her for something that she could not help, her dark skin, her own mother calling her evil later on in the novel. Emma Lou even tried many different ways to lighten her skin, so that she could feel like less of an outsider to her family, but nothing ever worked for her. To make up for that Emma Lou starts to date men with light skin, something that makes her feel better if she can be dark and get a light skinned man, then she will end up with a good life. However there was one exception, a man named John, with whom she dated for a little while before she decided that he was “too dark” for her, she then, stroking her ego, by saying how poor he must be feeling to be broken up with her. When Emma Lou thinks this it makes her feel like she was above him, despite having a similar skin tone. When Emma Lou starts seeing Alva, she falls in love with him because she believes that he loves her. She still feels overshadowed by Geraldine, another woman that Alva is seeing at the same time, with the knowledge of Emma Lou, because Geraldine is light-skinned, and she gets to go to all of the parties. That shows Emma Lou that Alva likes a light-skinned woman because she is easier to show off to people, whereas Emma Lou cannot be shown off for the risk of driven away from those in the community. But Alva unknowingly helps Emma Lou realize that she doesn’t need Alva to make her feel good about herself, when she realizes that he is not as great as she thought he was due to him not taking care of the child that he has with Geraldine, that Emma Lou takes care of because Geraldine ran off. This becomes the turning point for Emma Lou when she realizes she needs to stop running away from her problems. Emma Lou searches for self-identity within a community defined by all different types of classifications, whether it be race, gender, or sexuality. But wherever she goes she never seems to escape colorism. When she moves to Los Angeles to go to college where she believed that she would be able to be treated better by people in general, due to it being a big city, but she gets it even worse. When she wanted to join a sorority, because she was not light-skinned, she was turned away. She finds colorism and prejudice in New York and in Harlem. She had left Boise to get away from all of the prejudice that she was feeling, only to be met by even more. Emma finally realizes that she had spent almost her entire life resenting herself for something that she could not change, and she decides to never run away again, while at the same time running away from Alva, but as a point to have a fresh start, where she can work on herself. In Pyrrhic Victory, it seems as if Thurman is trying to resolve Emma Lou’s struggle with self-identity through sacrifice within her own community, however Emma Lou decides to stop running away from her problems in order to search for her inner self (Cook 141-142). Emma knows that there are other people like her out there that have to deal with the exact same things, and that she needs to learn how to accept herself. She may not know exactly how to get there but she knows that she needs to start with the first step—getting away from what she has now to start anew. By the end of the novels, they each learn how to adapt to their own expectations of themselves. Their own identity is not fully developed but they know how to build off of their own sense of self and they know that they have to work on their own identity and not what other people see them as. The somewhat abrupt endings of the novels and not knowing what will happen to the characters afterwards, helps articulate that there are still some things out there that they have not yet discovered about themselves, but in the moment, they know that they are going in the direction they should be.

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