Harlem shadows

“I wish the Times [Literary] Supplement or Athenaeum would give me a review”, Claude McKay said in 1920 after the publication of his third volume of poetry, Spring in New Hampshire. In a letter to a friend, the philosopher Charles Kay Ogden, McKay complained that British literary magazines “give much space to all kinds of American poetry but ignore me altogether!”. The previous year he had made a name for himself in radical transatlantic circles with the publication of “If We Must Die”, still his best-known poem. Penned during the “Red Summer” of 1919, the poem ends with the lines: “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”. It became, in the words of the historian JA Rogers, the “Marseillaise of the American Negro”. Born in Jamaica in 1889, McKay moved to the United States in 1912. “Gripped by the lust to wander and wonder”, he spent just over a year in London between 1919 and 1921, later traveling to Soviet Russia, continental Europe and North Africa before returning to the US, where he lived until his death in 1948.

As the Harlem Renaissance gained momentum during the 1920s, McKay became a central figure, albeit in absentia. His fourth collection, Harlem Shadows (1922), received glowing notices, while his first – and most successful – novel, Home to Harlem (1928), a celebration of Black working-class culture, famously scandalized W.E.B. Du Bois, the leading man of African American letters. (Du Bois claimed the experience of reading the book made him feel “like taking a bath.”) Banjo (1929), a picaresque tale of Black dockworkers in Marseille, and a sequel of sorts, influenced writers and intellectuals far beyond McKay’s native Jamaica or his adoptive United States. For the French-Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, one of the founders of the Négritude movement, McKay’s was “one of the first novel works in which an author spoke of the Negro and gave him a certain literary dignity”.

Notwithstanding his influence on coteries of the Black intelligentsia in the 1930s, scholarship on McKay – with the exception of Gary Edward Holcomb’s fine study, Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha (2007) – has been mostly unwilling to engage with McKay as a black, queer and transnational writer. He is usually glossed as a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance – as mischievous as Zora Neale Hurston, more politicized than Du Bois. In the last few years, however, McKay studies have flowered, prompted by editions of two previously unpublished novels, Amiable with Big Teeth (2017) Romance in Marseille (2020). Another biography is due in the next two years, along with a selection of McKay’s poems and the first significant collection of the author’s letters. The reasons for his hitherto uncertain place in history – his queerness, radical politics and Black internationalism – now make him a rich contemporary subject.

Winston James’s earlier bookA Fierce Hatred of Injustice: Claude McKay’s Jamaica and his poetry of rebellion (2001) explored the ways in which the poet’s early publications, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, penned in Jamaican creole, were formative Caribbean texts. Now, in Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik, James tackles the first thirty years of his subject’s life, from his upbringing in rural Jamaica to his migration to the US and trip to Britain. McKay called the Russian Revolution “the greatest event in the history of humanity”, but so far, James contends, there has been no appraisal of his “political philosophy … his world view”. To remedy this, the early chapters trace the roots of McKay’s family, peasants who became prosperous, and the poet’s emerging awareness of colonial and economic farmers – of, in James’s words, “the peculiar salience of color and its imbrication with class [that] persisted in the post-slavery period.” In contrast to scholarship that stresses the importance of the British author Walter Jekyll in McKay’s political and intellectual development, James makes a strong case for considering Uriah Theo, the poet’s older brother, as a key influence in his political and cultural evolution. (McKay was tutored by his brother, whom the Jamaican press deemed to be “one of the most radical of his generation.”) After a short spell working in a match factory, McKay joined the Jamaica Constabulary, a job that he despised, but which furnished him with material for Constab Ballads.

To understand McKay, James says, we need to appreciate the political economy of Jamaica, the struggles of its peasants and the rapid urbanization that took place on the island during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To that end he provides a detailed account of banana cultivation and taxation. There are many passages in this vein, all meticulously researched, but they displace the human subject at their supposed centre. “Our interest is not in the poems as such,” James explains, “but in what they reveal about McKay’s political thought and feelings.” Such an approach flattens the craft and is at odds with the poet’s views on culture and politics, which chimed with those of Leon Trotsky in Literature and Revolution (1923): “Every peasant is a peasant, but not everyone can express himself.” In his 1937 autobiography, A Long Way from HomeMcKay said: “I cannot be convinced of a proletarian, or a bourgeois, or any special literature or art … whenever literature and art are good and great they leap over narrow group barriers and periods to make a universal appeal.”

McKay left Jamaica a freethinker, atheist and socialist, with a lifelong commitment to the committed advancement of women’s rights – but none of this prepared him for the “manifest, implacable hate of my race” that greeted him in Alabama. McKay’s experience at Tuskegee and Kansas State Agricultural College had a profound effect on his doctrine. As James explains, “exposure to this virulent and pervasive strain of racism heightened his political consciousness and quickened his radicalization”. Fabian socialism, which fed his early politics, was sloughed off in favor of “an internationalist revolutionary socialism”. McKay skipped graduation and moved to New York City in 1914; Harlem was “like entering entering a paradise of my own people”. After the First World War he became more radical; his manifested in the “openness, and the uninhibited rage and sorrow” of his poetry. When the Nation condemned Du Bois for urging African Americans – including returning Black veterans – to fight for their rights, McKay’s reply was unequivocal: “I am deeply interested in knowing what reasonable course it would advocate for the American Negro in helping to destroy the national pastime of lynching “. McKay was not the only person of color to embrace the radical left, but he “had the added ability and distinction to give his ideas on Bolshevism poetic expression”.

McKay’s stay in London began with, as he put it, “the greatest difficulty” in securing lodgings; it was marked by repeated discrimination, and he was “badly mauled” on one occasion. Within weeks of his arrival in 1919, McKay was at work on Sylvia Pankhurst’s newspaper, the Workers’ Dreadnought, where he wrote articles on racism among the British working class, also publishing poems and book reviews. Recalling his time in this “nest of extreme radicalism”, he described the Internationalist Socialist Club as a hotbed of “Socialists, Communists, anarchists, syndicalists … scribblers [and] editors of little radical sheets”. London was the crucible in which McKay’s “Pan-African and anti-imperialist identification” took shape. His time in England destroyed any sense of his Britishness and he formed a profound interest in African history and culture. The book ends with the poet sailing back to New York from Southampton in 1921. McKay’s most productive years of engagement lay ahead of him, and may warrant a second volume by Winston James. (Such an undertaking may well succeed in replacing Wayne Cooper’s excellent biography, Claude McKay: Rebel sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance1987, as the standard biography.) What is needed now, besides research, is a portrait of McKay in his full maturity that captures his iconoclastic style, his political fervour and his considerable wit.

Douglas Field teaches at the University of Manchester. He is the co-editor of Harold Norse: Poet maverick, gay laureate2022

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