Claude McKay has one of the most interesting life stories of the Harlem Renaissance writers, starting with how he got away from Jamaica, where he was born in 1889. McKay’s first two published volumes were of dialect poems, work encouraged by Walter Jekyll, the British folklore collector of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. Jekyll’s sister was Gertrude Jekyll, the pioneer of the English cottage garden. Their grandfather was Joseph Jekyll, author of The Life of Ignatius Sancho, which served as the preface to The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, the correspondence of an eighteenth-century black musician in London whose friends included Laurence Sterne. Walter Jekyll was willing to pay for McKay’s education at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, expecting the dark, handsome young man to return to play a part in the agricultural life of the island.
But McKay never went back. From the racial terror of Alabama, he quickly made his way to the openness of Kansas. In 1914, McKay got to New York, where he was briefly married, survived by struggling with pots in kitchens, met black socialists and Communists uptown and white Communists and socialists downtown. By the end of World War I, his poetry in standard English, so called, had been published in Pearson’s Magazine by Frank Harris, friend of Oscar’s. However, McKay’s future lay with the radical journal The Liberator.
In 1919, race riots—whites attacking blacks—broke out in several American cities, the bloodiest one in Chicago. At the same time, the newly empowered FBI was deporting radicals such as Emma Goldman. In protest against the violence of the Red Summer and the Red Scare, McKay’s sonnet of defiance “If We Must Die” was published in The Liberator and widely reprinted in the black press. Suddenly, he was invited to London, where he spent a year working on the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst’s magazine, Workers’ Dreadnought. In 1922, he was off again, to the Soviet Union. He could not imagine his writing life subject to Comintern discipline and by 1923 he was once more on the move, from Moscow to Berlin, from Paris to Toulon, from Brest to Nice, from Marseilles to Rabat, from Barcelona to Tangier.
McKay was the vagabond poet, remembered back in the US for Harlem Shadows (1922), a collection provocative in racial content but conventional in its choices of poetic forms. He kept up his restless life even after the success of his first two novels, Home to Harlem (1928) and Banjo (1929). A collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932), and another novel, Banana Bottom (1933), followed. They didn’t sell. McKay had been living in Morocco when in 1934 economic and political uncertainty pushed him back to the US.
A number of the writers who had emerged during the Harlem Renaissance died, fell silent, or failed to interest publishers once the Jazz Age vogue for things Negro ended with the Great Depression. We tend to think of black literature as a category of the avant-garde, but pathfinders like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston were desperate for mainstream success, even as they looked for producers of their plays at the Federal Theater Project, begun in 1935.
McKay was no different. He resettled in Harlem and was employed by the Federal Writers’ Project until 1939, when noncitizens were barred from holding positions. He published two more books in his lifetime: an autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937), and Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940), an exhaustive survey of the ghetto. Neither did well and soon enough McKay was chronically ill and hanging on by teaching in a Catholic youth organization in Chicago, where he died in 1948.
McKay has been fortunate in the scholars who have been inspired over the years to explore his complex career. Selected Poems of Claude McKay appeared in 1953; Trial by Lynching, a pamphlet of three stories published in Russia in 1925, was translated back into English in 1977; a prettified memoir of his rural childhood, written in 1946, was published in 1979 as My Green Hills of Jamaica and Five Jamaican Short Stories. A British university press published Romance in Marseille (2001). Written in 1930, it is a sequel to Banjo, McKay’s novel about the quayside life in Marseilles of black immigrants from everywhere.
Wayne Cooper edited The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1912–1948 (1973) when the Harlem Renaissance was being discovered by a new generation. In 1979 he found in the Slavic section of the New York Public Library McKay’s survey of the black condition, Negroes in America, published in Russia in 1922, a work not among his papers anywhere else. In his biography, Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance (1987), Cooper discussed McKay’s fluid sexual orientation, at a time when Langston Hughes’s biographer, Arnold Rampersad, concluded that Hughes was “a sexual blank.”
One third of the three hundred poems in McKay’s Complete Poems (2004), edited by William J. Maxwell, had not been published before. McKay hadn’t been able to interest anyone in the last two collections he put together toward the end of his life in New York. The chronological order of this volume gives the poetry biographical coherence; the sheer amount of it tells us the place McKay’s unhappy poetry had in his emotional life, though he published only one book of verse after he left Jamaica (he published an abridged edition of Harlem Shadows in England). Maxwell also showed for the first time that McKay’s twelve years of wanderlust were not a romantic interlude, but political exile. His name was on an FBI list because of his long visit to Russia; he was tipped off that he might be arrested should he try to reenter the US. The British authorities also were watching for him in home and colonial ports.
It’s hard to have anything new to say about the Harlem Renaissance; its major and minor figures have been under so much scrutiny already. However, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (2003) by Brent Hayes Edwards widened the Harlem Renaissance’s scope by examining in detail black publications in New York and black periodicals in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, finding connections among black writers that reached across language.
Similarly, James Davis in his wonderful biography Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean (2015), views his subject, a fascinating writer from Barbados, as a deliberate contributor to a literature of diaspora. Walrond, remembered now for the collection of experimental fictions Tropic Death (1923), lived, like McKay, on both sides of the Atlantic. He and McKay had a very bitter falling out that was never repaired. There was a reason the poet Sterling Brown preferred to call the Harlem Renaissance the New Negro Movement. As a writer whose experience is transatlantic, McKay is important to Edwards’s study of black internationalism and he is especially interesting on the influence McKay’s novel Banjo had on the Négritude movement in France in the 1930s.
Now Edwards has joined with Jean-Christophe Cloutier, the translator into English of two novellas that Jack Kerouac wrote in French, to introduce a novel by Claude McKay that had been lost, Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem. McKay moved around so much even in his Harlem life that he lost things. Cloutier found the typescript of Amiable with Big Teeth in 2009, among the papers of a marginal leftist New York publisher. It’s not clear how it ended up in that particular office. McKay wrote the novel in 1941, in one great push, in a remote spot up in Maine. Max Eastman, his ally and editor from his Liberator days, cautioned him not to rush the writing. But McKay was in a hurry.
When he first got back to the US, McKay wound up in a camp for destitute men in upstate New York. Eastman rescued him and helped him to secure a book contract that he fulfilled with his autobiography. Then the Federal Writers’ Project hired him. That, together with work on his ambitious survey Harlem: Negro Metropolis, kept him going for a while. His survey’s critical and commercial failure was a blow. Cloutier and Edwards point out that Amiable with Big Teeth was one of a series of projects that McKay hoped would steady his career. They speculate that he is smiling in photographs taken by Carl Van Vechten in 1941 because he had just that day delivered his manuscript. But the publisher from whom he’d had an advance rejected it. After it was turned down, he apparently never mentioned it in a letter or talked about it again. Instead, his health broke.
Amiable with Big Teeth depicts the attempts of prominent Harlem citizens to organize aid for Ethiopia when Mussolini invaded the African kingdom in the autumn of 1935. This was the period of the Popular Front, when Soviet policy was to act in coalition with liberal organizations and democratic governments throughout the West to resist fascism. Cloutier and Edwards explain that the title Amiable with Big Teeth is meant in the same sense as the biblical expression about false prophets: wolves in sheep’s clothing. McKay’s title announces his novel’s mission as an exposé. The ironic tone is in the “love affair” of the subtitle.
It had long been McKay’s contention that the Communist Party sought to exploit the grievances of black people for whatever ends the Comintern decreed. Black people are seduced by being taken seriously, given a forum, he said. In his novel, it is clear that he is on the side of the black people who know that Moscow is selling oil and wheat to Mussolini. They recognize that the Soviet government doesn’t care about Ethiopia:
He said he was not a Fascist nor was he a Communist. He said the Fascists, Nazis and Communists all believed in and practised a ruthless dictatorship over the peoples…. He could not imagine how a nation which held down millions of people under an iron dictatorship could be the chief sponsor of a People’s Front to safeguard Democracy.
Even so, they can’t prevent the Party’s agents in Harlem from wrecking their efforts. What stops them is not the Party’s control, but rather Ethiopia’s defeat. Haile Selassie’s troops were armed with spears when they faced Italian tanks.
Part of the novel’s documentary interest is that it is set in a Harlem that had gone out of fashion. McKay understood Harlem as crowd and communal ritual: street rallies, meetings in halls, church services, tea parties, back room smokers, dinner parties, bars:
Of the variety of dens and dives that pullulated in Harlem during the glorious intoxicating era of Prohibition, the Airplane was the only one of highly stimulating interest that was carried over into the revolution of Repeal—the only one that maintained its allure amidst the bountiful blossoming of bars and grills beckoning with gaily glittering neon lights and luxurious interiors.
Harlem: Negro Metropolis gives a sense that a lot of what McKay is describing he witnessed, visiting every cultist in Harlem himself, for instance. Similarly, his novel has the feeling of being set in a Harlem that he knew, including an Italian-owned bar frequented by lads with elongated eyebrows and rouged cheeks:
The Merry-Go-Round was the largest and bawdiest bar in Lenox Avenue…. It was the haunt of the gutterbugs of Harlem and the place par excellence where its elite went slumming. And like flies attracted by sweet scum, its customers came from all parts of New York. Polite-speaking Harlemites nicknamed the place the Marys-Go-Round, but the gutterbugs called it the Fairy-Go-Round.
A group pickets the bar, demanding that the “open cesspool” be shut down. Cloutier and Edwards tell us that in the summer of 1936, during the time the novel is set, an Italian restaurant in that Harlem location catering to that sort of clientele was, indeed, the scene of a riot.
The novel’s anti-Italian demonstration is led by “The Sufi,” whom McKay characterizes as a labor leader and sidewalk agitator. He’d been on his stepladder across from the bar for months, inveighing against the “den of abomination.” The Sufi is clearly based on a black Harlem community organizer of the period who renamed himself Sufi Abdul Hamid after his conversion to Islam. Hamid was involved in the Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work boycott of 1935, which forced Harlem stores to hire black clerks. He is the subject of Harlem Glory: A Fragment of Aframerican Life (1990), McKay’s unfinished novel that he began in 1936. Harlem Glory is also about Father Divine, famous in the 1930s as the head of a religious cult in Harlem. His flock made him flamboyantly rich, but he is largely forgotten now.
Cloutier and Edwards identify the models for a number of McKay’s characters, once household names in black life in the East. Casper Holstein was a black king of the Harlem numbers rackets from the Prohibition era who was known for his philanthropy. In McKay’s novel, his gangster from the 1920s has transformed himself into a respectable businessman who devotes himself to black freedom. McKay’s omniscient narrator approves of him more than he does of any other character in Amiable with Big Teeth.
McKay had destroyed the manuscript of his very first novel because he decided it was probably too risqué for the American market. Even after he toned things down he still wrote about lumpen characters and their low life. But he was determined early on to reject the notion that he wrote what was then called proletarian fiction. Both Home to Harlem and Banjo are picaresque novels that look at black life through the eyes of a young, displaced black intellectual. The episodic structure goes with his impressionistic evocation of Harlem or Marseilles, leaving McKay free to concentrate on his main character’s observational overflow. He could go on and on having his proxy look and wonder. McKay can only keep up the scenes of black life in his fiction for so long. Sooner or later he resorts to some sort of frank mediator or interpreter.
In Amiable with Big Teeth, so much was at stake for McKay in getting across how untrustworthy the Communists were that his portrait of a Harlem leadership class has little satire. His judgments against various characters seem to come from an underlying sadness. He offers revenge fantasy: members of a black fraternal organization ritualistically put to death the chief Soviet secret agent, even though it is too late to save Ethiopia. Cloutier and Edwards note that Harlem: Negro Metropolis contains similar material on Ethiopia, and that both it and McKay’s novel draw on Federal Writers’ Project research archives.
Joseph Harris’s African-American Reactions to War in Ethiopia, 1936–1941 (1994) stresses what a critical event the invasion of Ethiopia was for black America. Ethiopia had first been invaded by Italy in 1896, and that touched black American thinkers of the time. Then W.E.B. Du Bois’s Pan-African Congresses of the World War I era and Garveyism spread among black Americans the wish to have some kind of kinship with Africa through Ethiopia, the old black civilization on a continent not supposed to have any. White American writers lost faith in the Soviet Union because of its conduct during the Spanish civil war. McKay had been through the betrayal of Ethiopia already:
Principles had become meaningless in the universal social ferment, yet leaders of the people still talked as if principles were the same principles. It was no longer merely unscrupulous politicians who were changing principles quicker than a chameleon its color. But everybody was doing it.
John Dos Passos published his novel of disillusionment with communism, Adventures of a Young Man, in 1939. But unlike Dos Passos, McKay did not become ever more right-wing, even after converting to Catholicism just before he left New York in 1944. Richard Wright was adamant that he would not be like Harlem Renaissance writers. Histories of the Federal Writers’ Project show us that the two generations of black writers overlapped more than we tend to imagine. But it would appear that McKay could no more get along with the younger writers than he could with his peers, difficult soul that he was.
Then, too, it’s as though McKay had got to that particular theme of anticommunism too early, or too rhetorically, too topically. He was writing his novel after the Hitler–Stalin pact had been made and broken. Yet his handling of politics differs so much in tone from that of the generation of black writers who found advancement with the Party when other doors to publication were closed to them because of racism. He remembered the tragic factional disputes in the early days of the Russian Revolution.
Wright’s brilliant autobiography, Black Boy, had its original ending of his fallout with the Communist Party cut when it was first published in 1945. The edited chapters were published on their own as American Hunger (1977). Among Chester Himes’s early work is Lonely Crusade (1947), about Communist attempts to control a black union organizer at an airplane factory in California during the war. One of Wright’s failures, The Outsider (1953), is also about Party efforts to manipulate a black frontman. And in Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison transforms his experience with the Communist Party into allegory.
Perhaps the real difference is that McKay had never been one of the faithful, unlike Hughes and Paul Robeson. Cloutier and Edwards concur with Wayne Cooper that McKay’s political journalism in his last years represents his final achievement, but currently none of it is in print. Cooper writes in his bibliography to The Passion of Claude McKay:
Of all McKay’s unpublished material, his letters are by far the most important, from both a literary and historical point of view. He was an excellent letter writer, and necessity forced him to write many. A complete edition of his letters should someday reveal one of the great stories in Negro American literary history.
The intellectual was the only character missing in the American novel, Philip Rahv declared in “The Cult of Experience in American Writing” in Partisan Review in 1940, the year Wright’s best-selling novel, Native Son, was published. McKay was in Harlem, trying to hold on to his writing life, he who had had experience thrust upon him as a black man in a white world and responded by voicing opposition to totalitarianism in any guise and calling for black power. Justice for the oppressed was worth fighting for, all of his writing said. Everything was contained in the American novel except ideas, Rahv continued, on another planet, the one where black literature and its themes were ignored.