Discovered Claude McKay Novel Explores 1930s Harlem

February 7, 2017

When a young Claude McKay spent eight months in Moscow during the early 1920s, he joined the many artists of his generation who fell hard for communism.

And why not? At a time when black men like McKay were being routinely lynched back home in the United States and the KKK was making significant inroads in the North, the Soviet Union promised a future of racial equality, in which all peoples would be brothers.

McKay had lost his youthful illusions by the time he wrote his last, just-discovered novel: “Amiable With Big Teeth.” Completed in July 1941, it was rejected by McKay’s publisher and then lost, until being discovered by graduate student Jean-Christophe Cloutier in a box of Columbia University papers in Harlem, 2009.

In their informative introduction to McKay’s novel, in which they trace the parallels between the novel’s characters and actual historical figures, Cloutier and Columbia professor Brent Hayes Edwards describe its publication as “cause for celebration as well as a monumental literary event.” Given McKay’s status as a major Harlem Renaissance artist, they’re absolutely right.

That doesn’t mean “Amiable” is a good novel; it’s not. Set in Harlem during the aftermath of Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, it’s primarily interesting for sociological rather than aesthetic reasons.

McKay uses Harlem’s response to Mussolini’s invasion as his backdrop for various profiles of Harlem’s elite, underscoring again what comes through in the first two of his three preceding novels, “Home to Harlem” (1928) and “Banjo” (1929): the black intelligentsia’s disconnect from the everyday lives of people on whose behalf they claimed to speak.

One sees this tension from the first chapter, in which “animated crowds” attending a Harlem rally for Ethiopia go wild for a resplendently dressed Harlem native – decked out in an Ethiopian soldier’s traditional uniform – while giving Ethiopia’s conservatively dressed envoy a comparatively tepid welcome.

The elite organizing the rally condemn the self-styled Professor Koazhy’s performance as “jungle burlesque” – never mind that his entertaining spectacle helps raise more money for the cause.

The Harlem masses – seen but rarely heard in this novel – are castigated by one member of the elite as “ignorant, provincial and superstitious.” Another, more sympathetic character refers to his fellow black Americans as “a weak and vulnerable people.” His wife views the Ethiopians themselves as “barbaric.”

Such views, shared by many characters in McKay’s novel, helps explain why some of them are attracted to Maxim Tasan, a white organizer for the Communist Party who is reminiscent of the satanic Brother Jack in Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” Maxim is the hungry, sharp-toothed wolf in sheep’s clothing suggested by McKay’s title.

In a book with many clunky and protracted political discussions, Maxim is prone to abstract theorizing like this:

For these are times when people must be converted or compelled to mass thinking so that engineers of the new world order can obtain the maximum of mass action.

Even Maxim’s abstractions go down easier than the novel’s purple prose. Here’s an illustrative example from a melodramatic love subplot:

Seraphine’s impulsive action had struck like a gravedigger’s shovel into an old coffin and pitched her mother back into the Gethsemane of her maidenhood, overwhelming her with agony.

Seraphine is among the many characters in “Amiable” drawn into Maxim’s orbit; McKay is at his best in capturing the appeal of his Popular Front ideology, for reasons having little to do with Maxim himself.

In a context where Stalin’s murderous policies were still largely unknown or disbelieved, and in which thugs like Mussolini could blithely destroy a black nation like Ethiopia while the white world looked away, Moscow seemed to offer a genuine, populist alternative.

McKay ultimately rejected this Soviet path for much the same reason this novel’s two most appealing characters do: As Maxim’s dicta makes clear, the Stalinist brand of communism offered little room for individual expression – or for variations of the same such as race pride. McKay consistently championed both.

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