Published in 1928, Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem, makes the iconic neighborhood itself come to life with beats and horns, sex and drugs, and a visceral dive into the uptown streets. McKay’s debut novel was by some accounts the first “best seller” by a black author; he managed to get it out before the stock-market crash, at which point, Harlem was no longer in vogue, and few could spare a dime for a rent party let alone a work of literature.
That same year, in Nella Larsen’s first novel Quicksand, Helga Crane, born to a West Indian father and Danish mother, travels from New York City, to the deep South, to Copenhagen, and back around again to try and find her place. Like many protagonists of Harlem Renaissance literature, she never truly finds her spiritual home, her people.
Flashforward to today, as many years have passed as there are keys on a piano, Joe Okonkwo pops the cork with a fresh look at this still nourishing and fattening slice of history. In his debut novel, the author best known for his short fiction, brings the place, the era, the voice to life with glorious authenticity.
Like many aficionados of the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, I have for years wished there were more books, more poems, more calls to action in the form of precise and devastating essays than what exists today. I am greedy for the prose and poems of that rich era. And to be honest, I was shocked to discover someone like Okonkwo, who can write as if he was writing during the Renaissance, like his predecessors—and writing as an openly gay man.
Langston Hughes stayed in the closet but for oblique references slipped in to his works here and there. James Baldwin wouldn’t come on the scene till the ’50s. Respected African-American critics within the Harlem Renaissance movement including W.E.B. DuBois, Benjamin Brawley, and even the openly gay Alain Locke spoke of writings they deemed distasteful or simply frivolous with the term “decadent”—code for homosexual. Fire!!, a journal dedicated to the writings of “young negro artists,” did publish the homo-erotic story “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade” by Richard Bruce Nugent, but Brawley soon dismissed it for its “flesh values.”
Now, almost a century later, gay marriage is the law of the land, and along comes Jazz Moon, which opens with aspiring young poet Ben Charles strutting the streets of Harlem after long hours of waiting tables, with his equally young and hardworking wife Angeline. They are looking for a place to go that’s not too trendy, where they won’t be on display as “new primitives” for the slumming whites. They end up at Reggie’s where the hot jazz and illegal booze fuel the erotic fires of Angeline, but poor Ben has to use every ounce of concentration to work himself into a state of desire. And even his best efforts fail.
The fire is only lit under Ben when he meets the audaciously aggressive, handsome and talented trumpet player Baby Back Johnson that very night. It’s not just his licks on the horn that make Baby Back so appealing, it’s the way his eyes stare so directly into Ben’s, and the way his thigh presses into him under the table. Angeline seems to pick up on the musician’s intent a lot more quickly than one might expect from such a young wife.
But soon masterful author Okonkwo guides us back into Ben’s past and we learn Angeline knows that Baby Back is not the first man to have stolen the poet’s heart. It was one Willful Hutchinson, whom Ben read poetry to as a boy during his lonely childhood in Dogwood, Georgia.
Spinning in a whirlpool of I’ll die if I don’t see him soon, Ben didn’t comprehend what consumed him. But Willful got lost in the beauty of words and faraway places—so immersed that a look of peace illuminated him—he wasn’t just the handsomest boy in Dogwood or a thief, or a lazy good-for-nothing son and brother. Willful was the love of Ben’s life. The whirlpool spun and spun. Out of the dizziness he wrote his first poem:
Underneath the dogwood trees us lie
Sweet delights get took on borrowed time.
You is sunnier than day.
I got your love, you got mine.
As the novel progresses we swing back and forth between Ben’s past and present. All his life he has struggled with what he calls “this thing.” We learn that when he met Angeline on a Northbound hobo train she, like him, was fleeing her country family for an anonymous city life. On that smoky ride in “the negro car” she confided her troubles. She was pregnant and unmarried. Finding a friend and a fellow lonely soul following a terrible ending with Willful, he confides in her about “this thing.” Ben sees his own redemption and asks her to marry him. He promises her he will never mess with boys again. She miscarries on the train, but he keeps his promise to make her his wife, as well as his promise to keep “this thing” at bay. Until the night be meets Baby Back.
The romance that develops between the two artists takes them from Harlem to a ship bound for Paris. It is in Paris that ambitious Baby Back finds the fame he desires more than anything, more than Ben. Ben, who no longer writes, loses himself, wondering why he loves so recklessly.
It is in Paris though, that Ben comes to know himself, but only after suffering through many dark nights and struggles with his own soul. Okonkwo renders Jazz Age Paris with just as much verve as he does New York City and Dogwood. Throughout the text more freestyle poetry carries us through Ben’s troubled but passionate trajectory.
One of the highlights in Ben’s journey is his friendship with fellow expatriate, Gloria, known as “Glo,” a big, bawdy nightclub singer who prefers the French to the Americans because they don’t hate blacks the way the whites back home do. The two room together briefly and Ben finds a temporary family, a home.
He was inhaling a helping of reefer when she blurted out, ‘Hey Benjy. Why? Why the urinals and Mon Club and all that? I mean do whatever the fuck you want, sugar—Glo ain’t judging. But wouldn’t you rather be in love?’
But love has become too dangerous for Ben. Eventually, he is able to focus on poetry again, and it leads him back home. Not to a home that is a geographic place, but something even realer, something in himself. And the note the book leaves us on feels like the opening note to the B-side of this record. It may not be as tumultuous but it may be more satisfying.