Everything New is Old Again

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I was not aware of Claude McKay, a founder of the Harlem Renaissance, until The New York Times announced recently that an unpublished manuscript of his had been found in 2009 and was about to be published.

I thought that Amiable with Big Lips sounded like a satirical romp and immediately read it. While satire is among McKay’s writing tools, it was anything but a romp. It was a deadly serious look at 1930s Harlem, which McKay described basically as a colony in a nation even back then (I was listening to Chris Hayes’ book at the same time).

The plot involves an Africamerican (McKay’s term) organization created to raise money for Ethiopia after Mussolini’s invasion. A Communist-led group of white people also create an organization, ostensibly to help Ethiopia, but also with the aim of luring Africamericans into the Popular Front because it is believed that they will be easy to manipulate.

There were so many points in the book at which I was amazed by how the story mirrored our world today, especially in light of the Trump regime, that I lost track of counting them.

I am now flinging myself into McKay’s oeuvre; Banana Bottom is the second novel I have read. It takes place in his homeland, Jamaica, at the turn of the century. A young peasant girl, Bita Plant, is taken in by English missionaries. It is Mrs. Craig’s experiment to show that she can take the “wild” out of the peasant by raising her as a young Englishwoman.

When Bita returns to Jamaica after seven years being “finished” in England, she exerts her own mind and upsets all of Mrs. Craig’s plans. Mrs. Craig thinks she’s reverting to type, when in fact, Bita decides that she is her own person and will choose how she will live.

There is a lot more beside, including the racism with which slavery and colonialism infect non-white populations. McKay’s description of every character includes skin tone. Peasants are dark; the emerging middle class is light-skinned. Enough said.

An in-depth look at the politics of Amiable with Big Teeth and more scholarly discussion can be found in The Atlantic magazine’s article by Jennifer Wilson: Forgotten Harlem The article also includes a bibliography of McKay’s work.